The enigmatic aura of Dili, East Timor – photoblog

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Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport in Dili, East Timor © Arno Maierbrugger

Dili, the capital of the fifth-youngest nation on earth, East Timor, is an odd place within Southeast Asia for people used to the hustle and bustle of regional metropolises.

It actually isn’t that small and lies sandwiched between the coast and the mountains of the beginning hinterland on a roughly 15-kilometer stretch from the airport in the west to the statue Cristo Rei in the east, housing more than 200,000 inhabitants, or over one-sixth of East Timor’s population.

But the city somehow feels subdued. On many corners are still signs of the long and partly extremely bloody fight for independence which turned the country into a sovereign nation only in 2002.

Dili was settled at around 1520 by the Portuguese, who made it an administrative center. Spanish, Dutch and British forces also vied for control of the colony. During World War II it was occupied by the Japanese. East Timor achieved independence from Portugal in 1975, but Indonesian forces invaded and, in 1976, designated Dili the capital of East Timor, or Timor Timur in Bahasa Indonesia, and made it a new Indonesian province. However, a brutal guerrilla war ensued between Indonesian and pro-independence forces, during which thousands of civilians were killed.

This came to broader international attention only in 1991 after footage was published on global TV channels of a brutal shooting by the Indonesian army of unarmed protesters gathered at the Santa Cruz Cemetery in Dili to commemorate the killing of an independence activist, the so-called Dili Massacre.

In 1999, when the territory gained technical independence under UN supervision, Dili was designated the administrative center. It became the capital when East Timor achieved full sovereignty in 2002.

Staying among Dili dwellers and talking to one and another, the feeling is there of some sort of mix of pride and desperation at the same time. People are seemingly extremely poor, but there are no beggars, no conmen that prey on tourists – since there literally are no tourists – and no petty crime to speak of.

But what is missing is some vibe. The few restaurants and bars are mostly empty, and prices at places frequented mainly by members of international organisations and NGOs are sky-high for a country where more than 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, according to the Asian Development Bank.

At the popular, foreign-owned Moby’s Hotel and Restaurant at Dili’s seaside promenade, for example, a pint of beer costs a whopping six US dollars, and a dinner plate is around double that. Local restaurants serve mostly standard Indonesian food at more moderate prices starting from around two US dollars, but local dishes are rather uninspiring as is the atmosphere in the eateries – nobody comes to Dili for the food.

Why do people come to Dili, or East Timor, for that matter? Most visitors arrive there because it has the country’s sole international airport and are then head for the amazing, unspoilt diving places around the few islands off the northern East Timor coastline. Others come out of sheer curiosity, or because they’ve heard that East Timor is great for trekking, biking, hiking, its great scenery, stunning mountains and beautiful white-sand beaches. All those things exist, but what’s lacking is touristic infrastructure of almost any sort.

What East Timor has in abundance is coffee which is probably not the best in the world, but makes for an industry for East Timor standards. The country also sits on sizeable oil and gas reserves, but it is not entirely clear where the supposedly $7 billion of petro dollars earned by the government in recent years actually went – at least not in visible public investment, apart from some occasional road and building construction.

Taxis are possibly three- to four-times more expensive than in neighbouring Indonesia, and groceries also don’t come cheap because almost everything has to be imported. The country uses US dollar banknotes, but its own centavo coins which come as the change.

Nights are silent in Dili, since almost all activity ends at around 10pm. Days are absolute un-hectic as if there was a different way of living in time.

Dili possibly takes just a few days to explore and to tick the few must-sees such as the Museum of Resistance and the Cristo Rei statue which is in fact less impressive that it seems – but it sure takes longer to apprehend and internalise the enigmatic of aura this place.

All pictures © Arno Maierbrugger

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport in Dili, East Timor © Arno Maierbrugger

Dili, the capital of the fifth-youngest nation on earth, East Timor, is an odd place within Southeast Asia for people used to the hustle and bustle of regional metropolises.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport in Dili, East Timor © Arno Maierbrugger

Dili, the capital of the fifth-youngest nation on earth, East Timor, is an odd place within Southeast Asia for people used to the hustle and bustle of regional metropolises.

It actually isn’t that small and lies sandwiched between the coast and the mountains of the beginning hinterland on a roughly 15-kilometer stretch from the airport in the west to the statue Cristo Rei in the east, housing more than 200,000 inhabitants, or over one-sixth of East Timor’s population.

But the city somehow feels subdued. On many corners are still signs of the long and partly extremely bloody fight for independence which turned the country into a sovereign nation only in 2002.

Dili was settled at around 1520 by the Portuguese, who made it an administrative center. Spanish, Dutch and British forces also vied for control of the colony. During World War II it was occupied by the Japanese. East Timor achieved independence from Portugal in 1975, but Indonesian forces invaded and, in 1976, designated Dili the capital of East Timor, or Timor Timur in Bahasa Indonesia, and made it a new Indonesian province. However, a brutal guerrilla war ensued between Indonesian and pro-independence forces, during which thousands of civilians were killed.

This came to broader international attention only in 1991 after footage was published on global TV channels of a brutal shooting by the Indonesian army of unarmed protesters gathered at the Santa Cruz Cemetery in Dili to commemorate the killing of an independence activist, the so-called Dili Massacre.

In 1999, when the territory gained technical independence under UN supervision, Dili was designated the administrative center. It became the capital when East Timor achieved full sovereignty in 2002.

Staying among Dili dwellers and talking to one and another, the feeling is there of some sort of mix of pride and desperation at the same time. People are seemingly extremely poor, but there are no beggars, no conmen that prey on tourists – since there literally are no tourists – and no petty crime to speak of.

But what is missing is some vibe. The few restaurants and bars are mostly empty, and prices at places frequented mainly by members of international organisations and NGOs are sky-high for a country where more than 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, according to the Asian Development Bank.

At the popular, foreign-owned Moby’s Hotel and Restaurant at Dili’s seaside promenade, for example, a pint of beer costs a whopping six US dollars, and a dinner plate is around double that. Local restaurants serve mostly standard Indonesian food at more moderate prices starting from around two US dollars, but local dishes are rather uninspiring as is the atmosphere in the eateries – nobody comes to Dili for the food.

Why do people come to Dili, or East Timor, for that matter? Most visitors arrive there because it has the country’s sole international airport and are then head for the amazing, unspoilt diving places around the few islands off the northern East Timor coastline. Others come out of sheer curiosity, or because they’ve heard that East Timor is great for trekking, biking, hiking, its great scenery, stunning mountains and beautiful white-sand beaches. All those things exist, but what’s lacking is touristic infrastructure of almost any sort.

What East Timor has in abundance is coffee which is probably not the best in the world, but makes for an industry for East Timor standards. The country also sits on sizeable oil and gas reserves, but it is not entirely clear where the supposedly $7 billion of petro dollars earned by the government in recent years actually went – at least not in visible public investment, apart from some occasional road and building construction.

Taxis are possibly three- to four-times more expensive than in neighbouring Indonesia, and groceries also don’t come cheap because almost everything has to be imported. The country uses US dollar banknotes, but its own centavo coins which come as the change.

Nights are silent in Dili, since almost all activity ends at around 10pm. Days are absolute un-hectic as if there was a different way of living in time.

Dili possibly takes just a few days to explore and to tick the few must-sees such as the Museum of Resistance and the Cristo Rei statue which is in fact less impressive that it seems – but it sure takes longer to apprehend and internalise the enigmatic of aura this place.

All pictures © Arno Maierbrugger

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