City of mountains and beaches

 “Sorry I’m a little early. Don’t rush.”

A little early? We’ve organized to meet at 10am and our scuba diving instructor is waiting outside our guest house at 8:30.

“Didn’t we say 10?”

“Timor Time,” he nonchalantly smiles.

Ah well, what’s breakfast anyway? We’re in a forgiving mood and this guy comes highly recommended. Malo Oliviera runs Dili Dive Centre, “the only locally owned dive centre in East Timor.” Jacob, the 12-year-old Australian boy staying at Dili Guest House a few days earlier couldn’t stop raving about him—he’s hard to get a hold of, the boy warns—he’s not listed in the phone book and if he’s on a dive he won’t answer his mobile, so you just have to keep trying. But it’s worth it, he insists. Malo knows all the best places to dive. He’s cheap too. And he has a car.


Jacob is right. Malo operates his four-year-old business out of his house on the outskirts of Dili. It’s a dark concrete place that’s minus a shower (or its nearest equivalent), but that’s no problem. If you want to rinse off after a salty snorkel (in my case) Malo will direct you to his uncle’s house next door, where you can stand in a basin and dump buckets of water over your head. All the gear is imported from Australia, courtesy of friends Malo made when he lived in Adelaide a few years back (that explains his perfect English). For US $25 we get door to door transport, diving equipment, an improv lesson, an hour dive for my husband and a snorkel and flippers to entertain me.


I’m an admitted ocean-phobe, much happier traipsing around the rugged mountains that surround the capital, or chatting with locals at the bustling, if odorous, markets. But I’ve dragged my husband to yet another developing nation and I’ve got to concede something to him it seems. Scuba diving is it.


Fortunately for me, Malo offers one thing that his foreign competitors with their flash boats and renovated office buildings can’t: insider perspective, and a sense of humor to go with it.


He shouts at the “important” government vehicles surrounded by motorcycles who angrily honk their horns, expecting him, and other “ordinary” drivers, to get out of their way. “What do you have to hurry for here anyway?” he yells out the open window.


And it’s true—downtown Dili, with pigs, goats and chickens wandering leisurely across the main road, and friendly locals shouting Bondia (good morning) to passers by, has a laid back sort of feel. This is a city nestled in the mountains, lined with palms and ancient trees. A giant statue of Jesus—arms out-stretched— stands atop a steep hillside overlooking Areia Blanca, one of the city’s most popular beaches. Dili is missing much of the begging that characterises so many other developing nations, maybe because it’s not so overrun with tourists yet. It’s also missing traffic lights, which if it did not make driving so frightening or dangerous, would probably contribute to the easy-going atmosphere as well.  These days Timor-Leste is laissez faire land. 


“See that over there,” Malo gestures toward a jungle of worse-for-wear homes off the windy highway. “That used to be my house. Some guy built his home in front of my driveway while I was away, so I can’t get into the garage anymore.”


He points out the pink remains of the prime minister’s palace, burnt during riots a year earlier by frustrated citizens, angry over high rates of unemployment. “I missed the whole thing. I was diving down the coast in Com,” he laughs. “I had a hundred missed calls on my mobile, everyone trying to get me to come back. But why would I want to come back to that when I could be diving?”


By the end of the day even I can see his point.


Less than 15 kilometers out of town and just off shore—no boats required—Dili Rock swarms with countless species of psychedelic fish and coral, and best of all for beginners, there’s no current and rarely a poisonous fish in sight. Water temperature and air temperature are nearly the same. In Timorese terms Dili Rock is classified as a Tasi Feto, Tetum for “female beach”—so it’s perfectly calm. It doesn’t showcase the best of this country’s renowned dive sites, some of which are virtually untouched, and have been said to be better than the Great Barrier Reef (not that Malo’s biased)— but given its proximity to the centre of town it’s an ideal half-day getaway. Especially if you’ve got a guide who likes to talk.


If you go:

There are no travel information offices here, no outdoor public phones, no drinkable water running from taps and no reliable electricity but this is not to say a stay in Dili needs to be an uncomfortable one—the presence of western UN peacekeepers and employees of NGOs have provided a market for upscale hotels and restaurants equipped with diesel generators and air conditioning. Prices are high compared to that of other developing nations— posh hotels like the Esplanada with its wicker furniture and breezy ocean views and the exceptionally equipped Hotel Timor nearby will run you US $90 to $120 upwards, though prices are beginning to drop as the UN withdraws its forces. A more affordable—but hotter and itchier night— can be had in Dili Guest House or Villa Harmonia, both basic budget places that cost US $5-$7 per person. After a morning of diving stop by Lilivan—it’s a local favorite, and if Malo’s not booked for the afternoon he’ll happily take you for lunch (and conversation, of course). The counter is buried in bowls of meat and vegetables, curries and stir fries—walk along and take your pick. Three side dishes and too much rice for even the hungriest will run you about $2.50, including drinks.


The New Zealand Herald, 2004