“Three weeks in Dili? You’ll get bored there.” A friend warned me and suggested that I should spend the weekends outside the country because there’s nothing much to do in Timor-Leste. She’s probably right and also, most likely, not updated. She is right because going out at night is not advisable. First of all, taxis are unavailable but it’s not uncommon to find a few of them outside bars and restaurants (they would definitely charge at least $10). Another option is to ask your hotel to book a taxi beforehand or call Ayrton Taxi, a night taxi service which started operating in 2012. Nevertheless, unless you have your own vehicle, it’s better to go home before it gets dark. Second, the city gets dark as some streets, even major ones, are not well-lit and I was told that it’s not safe to roam around the city on foot or even on motorbike at night. These are the consequences of the 2006 crisis. Insecurity still halts and haunts the city.
But my friend may also not be updated. I asked Timorese friends and although they acknowledge that they remain cautious when they are out late at night (which is also true in other countries), they are not worried about robbery, verbal/physical assault, and the likes when they are on the streets. As a foreigner, I also felt safe walking around and taking taxi during daytime. Other than the men who are trying to seek attention, Dili is a walkable city. (Note: I’m an Asian visiting an Asian country so this opinion/experience may differ from other visitors.) Benefiting from its small size, walking from one place to another is a breeze but if you find the summer heat or sudden rain inconvenient, hailing a taxi is always an easy and cheap option.
So, three weeks in Dili and did I get bored? Not in the slightest. I dilly-dallied my way around Dili and I can do it again.
Here are the points of interest I checked out while in Dili and when I was not collecting my data. They are all listed in Lonely Planet’s Guide to East Timor and they are all worth paying a visit.
1. Cristo Rei and Cape Fatucama. This 27-meter statue of Jesus Christ is a gift from the Indonesian government to the Timorese during the Indonesian occupation. In 1988, then President Soeharto visited Dili and unveiled this gift representing Timor-Leste as Indonesia’s 27th province (Lonely Planet, 2008). Wikipedia says that it was an intended gift by Soeharto as proposed by the governor of Timor-Leste at that time. However, the construction required more funding and Timorese businessmen and civil servants were required to contribute almost half a million dollars. It was unveiled in 1996 during the 20th anniversary of Timor-Leste’s annexation by Indonesia.
I haven’t researched about the facts behind the statue but one thing I’m sure to recommend, brave the climb all the way up, as 14 Stations of the Cross guide you, where the statue is fixed on a steel globe and be rewarded with a view like no other. I have photos but I don’t have words for it.
2. Government Buildings. Going around the city is like traveling back in time as early colonial style buildings decorate the streets. Even newer buildings have arches, pillars, and wide verandas thus exuding a classic architectural taste. (I wasn’t able to take photos of most of the buildings including my favorites, Palacio de Presidente and Liceu Dr. Francisco Machado.)
3. Motael Church. Built in 1955, Motael Church or Igreja Motel is Timor Leste’s oldest Catholic church. Other than the years it has surpassed, Motael Church is significant to the history of Timor-Leste’s fight for independence, as we will see in the next entry.
4. Santa Cruz Cemetery and Santa Cruz Massacre Monument. In 1991, Timorese gathered at Motael Church to mourn the death of Sebastião Gomez, a pro-independence activist. After the memorial mass, mourners marched to Santa Cruz cemetery while proclaiming their pro-independence stance amidst Indonesian soldiers lined up along streets of the procession. When the crowd reached the gravesite, the soldiers blocked the road going back to town and started their assault without warning. Civilians, women and children were shot. “The soldiers jumped over fallen bodies and fired at people still upright,” said eyewitness Allan Nairn, a journalist who was covering the event for New Yorker at that time. The horror did not end there. Indonesian soldiers followed the wounded at a hospital and killed them by crushing their skulls with rocks, stabbing and poisoning, even in the presence of doctors. The Santa Cruz massacre claimed an estimate of more than 250 lives and injured hundreds more. (Jardine, East Timor: Genocide in Paradise, 1995). Max Stahl, a British journalist, filmed the horror, hid the tapes under the dirt at the cemetery away from Indonesian officers, and recovered them hours after for the world to see. Parts of the film may be viewed at the Resistance Museum and in other archives. (Youtube video here)
5. Resistance Museum. Visit this heartbreaking but enlightening museum and learn how the resistance movement endured the Indonesian occupation for 24 years. This is not for the weak of heart as powerful words and imagery may be haunting especially for those who are not familiar with the history of Timor-Leste but I hope this will not discourage you from revisiting the challenges and victories of its past.
6. Indonesian Cemetery (photos below) and Chinese Cemetery. It is worth visiting these other two cemeteries and observe the cultural differences of these groups sharing this small island. But what struck me the most is the similarity among them, for example, the cross on one of the graves at the Chinese cemetery. This shows distinct groups can influence or borrow from one another aspects of culture and eventually harmonize them.
7. Xanana Gusmao Reading Room. This is a small museum dedicated to Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao initiated by his wife, Kirsty Sword. It also has a small library of books, audio-visual materials, and desktops with internet, free of use. They sell books, t-shirts, and postcards at very reasonable prices. Various memorabilia related to PM Xanana including replica of his paintings are also displayed. I recommend this place for conducting research about the history of Timor-Leste
8. Arte Moris. An old, dilapidated museum built during the Indonesian occupation, now houses artists of all ages using various media for their creation. There’s a gallery of paintings and performances are regularly scheduled. I was lucky to attend the 11th anniversary of Arte Moris where I enjoyed stage plays, music, and other visual art treats. Arte Moris is fun, quirky, and interesting.
9. And so much more…
There are many more interesting sights that I failed to visit or photograph. Dili is small but it is definitely not boring. It has more to offer than what I expected–clean beaches, magical sunsets, historical buildings and monuments, and most importantly, the stories that give life and meaning to them.