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Timor Leste: From the Ashes

It’s got miles of sandy beaches and pristine coral reefs. It’s got a rugged mountain landscape and wide open plains. It’s got friendly people and great coffee. Yet, Timor Leste is perhaps most famous for being invaded.


A Timorese horseman

Ever since the first invasion in the 16th century, this ex-Portuguese colony-turned Indonesian province-turned independent nation doesn’t seem to bear any grudges. Where guns were used just under a decade ago, today’s choice of shooting is done with a camera. Everywhere you go, folks would wave, smile and do just about anything to get photographed.

Friendly locals

In the succession of takeovers, their spoken language started with Portuguese, and then Indonesian. Today, Tetun is the official language – a melting pot of their ancestral lingo peppered with Portuguese and Indonesian words. While their language seems a melting pot of cultures, sadly, their culinary heritage extends to mere instant packet noodles and cans of baked beans. Hand-me-down recipes, it seems, were lost in the fight for freedom.

One of the peculiarities of this new nation is their love of livestock. The men have an affinity for their cocks – huge, feathered fighting cockerels that are carried around with them wherever they go. Some birds are actually placed in custom-made ‘holsters’ worn on the owners’ belts like feathered guns, giving new meaning to the word ‘uncocked’.

Man with 2 cocks

Around Timor
The capital, Dili, seems to be where the world comes together – there are people of virtually every other nationality. And it’s not like a city where laptop-toting businessmen go about the central business district like you’d expect. Most folks here are from the UN or an aid organisation, and huge white 4WDs with ‘UN’ emblazoned on them cruise around town to advertise that fact.

Boy with coffee beans

A drive along the northern coast of Timor reveals a vista of endless paddy fields and miles of sandy beaches with coral reefs offshore. Go during wet season, and you’ll be swamped with fields of green (and if you’re unlucky, lots of water, as the area gets seriously flooded when the rivers overflow). The dry season is the total opposite: the once-green fields would be bone-dry and brown – even the water buffaloes look forlorn.

The island’s interior is one of deep valleys and tall mountains, and it’s the heart of Timor’s coffee region. Everywhere you look, folks are plucking, weighing or drying coffee beans. Contrary to common notion, fresh coffee beans do not smell the way they do when you open a fresh pack of Nescafe; in fact, they smell nothing like anything you’d want to drink. To smell coffee as you know it, you need to head to a central processing plant where they roast the stuff. A bevvy of activity happens here, as coffee traders from around the world huddle in nondescript concrete bunkers to decide the next big brew.

A spirit house

Around the mountainous central region, the small villages have distinctively rounded wooden walls and pointed thatched roofs, and are oftentimes shrouded in cool mist. The landscape alternates from rice paddies to coffee forests, providing you with a range of sensory delights.

The climate in the highlands is brisk, and locals tend to bundle up here in the equator the way you’d prepare for a Swiss mountain hike. Those who enjoy cooler weather and a challenging hike can trek up to Mt. Ramelau (the country’s tallest at 2,986m) for a chillier experience, and cap it off with a visit to the Virgin Mary’s statue at the top. From this vantage point, you can survey one of the world’s youngest nations below as you dine on the local specialty of instant noodles and a can of baked beans.

View from Mt. Ramelau

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