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Published: November 2nd 2016
Boat and Cristo Rei
Over the years I got pretty much used to traveling. In fact, when I landed in Kuala Lumpur last week and the flight attendant mistakenly said "welcome to Indonesia" it did not seem strange to me. I could as well have been there. "The world is just a town", we say in Italy.
Nonetheless, there are moments in my life when a little existential anxiety and feelings of displacement still come up. Dili, the capital of the youngest nation in Asia, has succeeded in giving me that special little feeling. More precisely, it was a little tiny app called "Google maps", which is handy for sending your location to your friends - and it shows the distance you and them are apart in km or miles. Once I realized that I was squeezed in between the Indonesian archipelago, Papua New Guinea and Australia, I had that little moment of displacement panic and I thought that I really was lost.
That is however not Dili's fault. The tiny capital of Timor Leste could literally be anywhere in Southeast Asia. It did not help that I had to take 3 separate flights to reach the tiny island nation from Hong Kong
too, so let's not blame it on the city. There is typical Southeast Asian dusty main road where trucks honk you out of the way, there are the little street side stalls and two storey houses with shopfronts, and there is the beautiful - but empty seaside boulevard. Being a tiny place in a tiny country however, Dili has the pleasant advantage of not being insanely crowded and also fellow tourists are a rare sight. In fact, the only souvenir I buy on my trips are fridge magnets, and I managed to get one even in North Korea. Dili, on the contrary, has the charm of a place that has never heard of the word "tourism". The good news for me are that finally I found a magnet in the airport when leaving the country: Small things to make a big trip more meaningful but this time I had to fight for it.
This is not all there is to the city of Dili though. Although not being dangerous in a traditional sense, one evening out with got literally attacked by a Timorese guy, banging on our taxi and shouting "Malai" (just another commonly accepted Asian racial slur for
Surreal lunar landscape
white people), while the taxi driver and nearby security guard just watched passively. When I asked people who had been living in Timor whether aggression towards foreigners was freuqent, I was told that we were just unlucky. However, I was told that there are "martial arts gangs" in Dili (I am not kidding) and the police seems to have trouble controlling them. Let me call the Karate Kid then.
Unfortunately, there is more that might hinder tourism development in Dili. While not being the highlight of Timor Leste, Dili is surely on the expensive side of Southeast Asian towns. 20 US dollars per night for a hostel where I was forcet to hunt cockroaches and 40US for the guesthouse I moved in after the first night of torture. Unfortunately, also getting out of Dili is hard. Ataùro Island, one of the best diving sites in the world, lies just 25km out off the coast but it is very hard to reach. A daytrip is as good as impossible and boats seem to depart only a couple of times a week. The mountainous inland of the country is equally far off but I managed to organize some trips for the
next days. All of this, needless to say, is backbreakingly expensive. I will talk about my trip to the mountain inland of Timor Leste in my upcoming entry, so if you are interested feel free to read it.
All in all, Timor seems to be in the earliest stages of tourism development only (and that's why I came here for a conference on emerging places). Only one hour flight from Darwin in Australia, the country seems to have good prospects for the close and wealthy Australian market. On the other hand, it will have to compete with thousands of Indonesian islands, Bali being the reigning champion for decades. It will also be hard to find a truly unique feature to attract tourists to the country, in addition to all the issues just mentioned. As for now, as one of my colleagues mentioned here, I am enjoying to see Timor Leste just "the way they are". No baggy pants, no shisha bars, no full moon parties. In this case, the advantage of Timor Leste in 2016 is not what it is: but what it is not. Come and see them as they are for long as you can, even if
that means that you will have to postpone your Pub Crawls and Beer Pongs. As mentioned, in the next days I will be back with my experience from other places in this tiny and young country. Obrigado peeps and keep on moving.
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