Monthly Archives: February 2008

First Impressions of Timor Leste

Posted by on February 8, 2008

East Timor. Image from Wikipedia

East Timor. Image from Wikipedia

To begin to explain Timor Leste (East Timor) it is probably necessary to start at the beginning and give some background to the country. It is a place that most people are probably not familiar with and as countries go, it is relatively new.

If you look at a map of this part of the world, what is geographically known as the Malay Archepelego, it is divided up between several countries: The Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Timor Leste, and Papua New Guinea. All of those countries which exist today have borders as a result of some decision made by European governments hundreds of years ago. What is today the Philippines is the territory which was a former Spanish Colony. Malayisa was several former British Colonies (Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo), Brunei was a British “protectorate”, Indonesia was the Dutch East Indies, Papua New Guinea was the British half of the island of New Guinea and Timor Leste was Portugals hunk of the area.

The process of independence for these countries all followed different paths. In the case of East Timor, the Portugese left in 1975. They were scheduled to become an independent country, but were invaded by Indonesia, who (under Suharto) believed that all the territory in this area should be Indonesian. They Indonesians did something similar in 1965 when it invaded Dutch New Guinea and annexed it to Indonesia as the province of Irian Jaya.

The United States and Australia supported the Indonesian government at the time to prevent a Chinese supported communist government from taking hold in East Timor.

The invasion didn’t sit well with the East Timorese. The certainly had no say in the matter, and moreover, had very little in common with the rest of Indonesia. Unlike the former Dutch colony, they were primarily Catholic, not Muslim. This set off an independence struggle which lasted until the UN held a referendum. In 2002, East Timor became an independent country and got a seat in the UN.

It is interesting to note what the name of the country means. The island of Timor is a bastardization of Timur which means “east” in both Malay and Indonesian. The province of East Java for example is “Jawa Timur” in Indonesian. The name Timor was given to the island because it is the eastern most of the Sunda Island chain. The name East Timor really means “East East”. Timor Leste is “East Timor” in Portugese.

Of all the places I’ve been on my trip, East Timor has the most recent history of violence. In 2006 violence erupted between factions and the UN was called in again.

On paper, East Timor has one of the lowest per capita GDPs in the world at around $800 per person, per year. The moment you leave the airport, across the street you see a refugee camp run by the UN High Commission on Refugees. It is packed with flimsy tents. I didn’t expect to see or have heard of any refugees in East Timor prior to arriving here.

As you drive into Dili, you also can’t help but notice that 10-20% of all the vehicles are white with UN written on the side. There are also helicopters flying around everywhere. Everyone at the place I’m staying either works for the UN or an NGO.

Of the places I’ve been, East Timor reminds me most of the Solomon Islands. Very poor with peace keepers. In the case of the Solomons, they had RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands) which is mostly Australian and New Zealand troops with some cops from other island nations.

I’m not sure how liked and wanted the UN is here. I haven’t been here a day yet. On one hand, they spend a ton of money and probably do keep violence from springing up. On the other hand, I’m sure a lot of the locals resent a bunch of foreigners running around in nice cars, flying helicopters everywhere and living in gated communities like kings.

Many of the houses you see on the road in from the airport were just cement shells with no roofs. It looked like photos you’d see of a bombed out city after WWII.

The currency in East Timor is the US Dollar, which is surprising, but a good move. Picking a stable currency is a smart move for a small country and avoids the problems with rampant inflation you see in other countries (Indonesia has 10,000 rupiah to the dollar approximately). They might have been better off with the Australian Dollar or the Euro, but even with the recent slide of the dollar, it was probably a smart move.

Going from Bali to East Timor really shows the difference between the cost of living and the difference in currency values. By all measures, Java and Bali are more developed than East Timor, yet things are often cheaper there. I think much of that is explained by the currency (although, prices might be radically different once you get away from Dili. I’m sure foreigners get a charged a premium for somethings.)

I’m only here for three days, so I don’t know how much of the area beyond Dili I’ll be exploring. I think the capital and talking to locals and UN officials will easily fill up my time.

Getting the Hell out of Bali

Posted by on February 7, 2008

I am sick of Bali.

To be more precise, I’m sick of every single person I encounter while walking down the street harassing me to buy their shit. I literally can’t go 10 seconds without someone trying to get me to take a taxi, get a massage, buy their cheap crap, eat in their restaurant or rent their motorbike.

I’ve experienced this sort of thing before in Manila and Hong Kong, but never anything close to the degree which I’ve experienced it in Bali. In Java, at worst, someone would come up to me and want to practice English. They’d talk, ask about the Presidential elections and just chat. Here, you are a walking dollar sign. It has made my experience in Bali less and less enjoyable the longer I’ve had to stay.

I’m staying in Kuta which is sort of the tourist area, but the thing is, it is actually worse as you go into the island. When I took my day tour, I actually had about six women pushing and rushing up to my car door to sell me crap when our car pulled in to park.

it isn’t just that they try to sell you stuff. I actually understand that and get it. It is part of the territory when you visit a place like Bali. However, when they stick t-shirts and postcards in your face, they literally stick it in your face and will not back away when you say “no”, as if they were trying to find new ways to make sure you didn’t buy anything from them.

If you should make the mistake of buying something when you are on the beach, you will be mobbed by people who saw you buy something. They must think that anyone who will buy one thing will buy an infinite number of things. Again, it is as if they they want to make sure you never by anything by making the experience as unpleasant as possible.

I have also been highly annoyed because it has been so difficult to get a ticket to Dili, East Timor.

I first stopped at local places that had “Airline Tickets” on a sign out front. The first three places didn’t do international tickets. I eventually found one that only took cash and didn’t have a computer. Their “reservation system” consisted of calling some guy. When they called their “guy”, he kept quoting me different prices for a one way ticket to Dili based on how long I was staying. It made no sense.

There is one and only one airline which flies from Bali to Dili and their website doesn’t do online reservations.

I eventually just asked the front desk at the place I was staying where a real travel agency was. They made a call to their “guy” and worked it out, but to pay with a credit card, they had to send a courier over to get a photocopy of my credit card. There is no way in hell I’m going to make a photocopy of my credit card and give it to some “guy”. I eventually had to get a ride to the travel agency to take care of it in person.

East Timor has to be one of the hardest to reach countries in the world, which is especially odd considering it is just north of Australia and connected to a large country like Indonesia. There is also one and only one airline which flies to Australia and that flies into Darwin. The flights from Bali and Darwin are the only flights which service the entire country of East Timor.

My flight to Darwin was easy to book as was my flight from Darwin to Melbourne. The Darwin to Melbourne leg is by far the longest, but also the cheapest. Competition will do that.

I have to kill 12 hours in Darwin because my flight to Melbourne leaves at 12:30am Tuesday morning. I hope they have lockers at the Darwin airport.

I think I’m also becoming frustrated because I’ve been sort of mentally looking forward to taking time off in Melbourne and taking care of business. It is odd that when you take a vacation from vacation, you end up working and doing stuff. It really is an anti-vacation. Everything which is delaying that is making me frustrated and pissing me off.

Yesterday I did something I’ve never done before. I visited a spa. The area around my hotel has a lot of spas which are really cheap. You can get a massage, facial, body scrub, and a pedicure for $15. That’s about 2 hours of time. There is really very little overhead and labor is cheap, so you see a lot of spas around Bali. It was quite nice, especially considering I didn’t have to pay much for it.

I’ve heard spotty things about the Internet in East Timor, so I have no idea how often I’ll be able to log on. I’m sure I’ll manage at least one post, but don’t expect too much the next few days.

Don’t Say I Never Did Anything For You

Posted by on February 5, 2008

Thanks to everyone who sent me emails. I was surprised at how lengthy most of them were. Postcards have been sent to the following people:

  • Scott, Minneapolis, MN
  • Wendy, Springboro, OH
  • Cheyanne, Durham, NC
  • Annie, Murrieta, CA
  • Ben, Bloomington, IL
  • Matthew, Appleton, WI
  • Gunter, Belgium
  • Saumel, Switerland
  • Denise, NSW, Australia
  • Sherry, New York, NY
  • Wayne, Long Beach, CA
  • Susie, Crystal Lake, IL
  • Sean, Irving, CA
  • Mike, Indianapolis, IN
  • Jay, Minneapolis, MN
  • Aibek, Czech Republic
  • Kevin, San Rafael, CA
  • Claire, Eagan, MN
  • Robert & Courtney, Antigo, WI
  • Rolf, Germany

I have some knick-knacks which will be sent out a bit later.

I don’t think the Komodo Dragons are going to be in the cards for me. I could do it, but it is going to cost way too much for what would amount to 3-4 hours on the actual island. I’m just going to head to Melbourne via East Timor tomorrow.

Over the last several days I’ve seen cops shake people down for bribes three times. There only difference between the police here and the mafia seems to be the uniforms. I’ll have a lot more to say once I can sit still for a few days.

Bali Ho!

Posted by on February 3, 2008

Today was a pretty interesting experience. I hired a driver for the day and explored Bali. I got to see some traditional Bali houses, a Bali ceremonial dance, had wild monkeys sit on my head, ate lunch overlooking a volcano and a lake, and got dressed up in traditional Bali garb to visit the Mother Temple.

My guide was great. When he isn’t doing tours he works for Australian news outlets reporting on Indonesian stories.

I was prepared to write about how my trip to Komodo wasn’t going to happen. I’ve had no luck finding a reasonable priced tour out of Bali. However, as I sat down to write this, I got an email from a company in Flores (the populated island near Komodo) which gave me hope for just flying out to Flores and doing something directly from there. My travel instincts were correct. Tomorrow is devoted to figuring that out and booking my ticket. Either to Flores or to East Timor/Melbourne. I also need to send a package of crap back to the US.

My other goal for tomorrow is to find a place where I can watch the Super Bowl over breakfast.

I have an enormous glut of photos that will be dumped on everyone once I get out of Indonesia. I still have photos from Sabah and even a few from Brunei to put up. I probably took close to 200 today (but I hardly took any prior to today in Bali).

With that, I’m going to go watch one of my 29 DVDs I purchased for $20 and take a bath in my giant, stone bath tub in my room which is so big, I can literally float in it and not touch the sides.

Slaying the Dragon

Posted by on February 2, 2008

I’m having a hard time finding a reasonable tour to Komodo National Park. Everything out of Bali requires at least two people and if you go alone you have to pay an arm and a leg. I’m seriously considering just flying to Flores and doing some sort of tour from there. It should be much cheaper if I take care of the flight myself and use a local tour group near Komodo than trying to do it out of Bali.

The more I research going to Komodo, the more interesting stuff I discover to do in the rest of Indonesia.

Tomorrow I’m off to explore the rest of Bali. I have a guide who will be driving me around the island for the day and the price is very reasonable. I can see why the culture of Bali is so interesting to people. It is very different than what I saw in Java. I’ll have a lot to say about it once I’ve left Bali.

The area where I’m staying in Bali is very touristy. There is a Hard Rock Cafe here which I think sums the area up nicely.

I just had dinner with Dave from We were both in Bali at the same time. He just came from Australia and I’m on my way there after Bali. It was nice to be able to talk to someone who is both American and doing a similar long term trip (and blogging).

Also, I will probably only be in Indonesia for another 5 days or so. If you want a post card, please remember to send me an email (gary (at) Right now, if you email me, your odds of getting a postcard are looking very good.