Have you ever felt what it’s like to be the only tourist in an entire country? I’ve always been drawn to remote places – the ones that cause people’s faces to turn into question marks when you say you’re going there. Perhaps it’s a pattern I picked up from my father, who relayed his love for obscure locations to my siblings and I through experiences such as staying in a hidden jungle village on the north coast of Bali, or eating tacos sitting on plastic chairs in the back alleys of a tiny town in Mexico.
Although I can appreciate the appeal of famous spots like Paris and Rome, given the choice I tend to find myself drifting towards lesser known corners of the world. Thus, as I began backpacking solo through Southeast Asia, a place called East Timor caught my attention. As it came onto my radar I began asking around in search of information from someone who had been there. Yet the more backpackers I asked, the more I came to expect the same reaction – a blank stare, an uncomfortable silence, the usual question of “where’s that?”
Naturally this intensified my desire to go there, so I finally took the plunge. As fate would have it, the night before I was set to leave the universe intervened with a sign of encouragement. I was standing at the front desk booking a shuttle to the airport when I overheard the woman next to me doing the same. Her flight was at the same time, and when the receptionist asked her where she was going, she mentioned “Dili.” I turned to her with a look of shock.
“Dili, as in the capital of East Timor?”
“Yes – I work there. I am returning from holiday.”
I was stunned. She was the first person I had met in my 8 months of travel through SE Asia who had been there before. We agreed to share a shuttle, and I went to bed comforted knowing I could gain some valuable information from her on that ride the following morning.
Our small plane bumped to a halt in an empty lot surrounded by barren, dusty hills with a faded sign stating some form of greeting in Portuguese (the official language of Timor Leste). I disembarked, walked through the airport the size of a house, and grabbed my backpack. Janine, the lady who worked there, offered to give me a ride. I was staying at ‘East Timor Backpackers,’ the only hostel in the country, and had figured I would meet fellow travelers there. Her expat friend picked us up in a dust-covered no-nonsense 4×4 vehicle and within ten minutes dropped me off. I waved goodbye and approached the concrete wall lined with shards of broken glass, a haphazard ‘East Timor Backpackers’ spray painted in black on it.