Last week Zach and I went on our first visa run. We flew from Bali to East Timor so we could come back to Indonesia and stay longer. We booked a one way ticket and thought we might do some exploring. If we liked East Timor, we would stay a week. If not, we’d come back. Spoiler alert: by the end of our first day, we had flights booked back to Indonesia.
The internet told us that there had been a war that ended around 2002 and that the country was a budding tourist destination or an “Adventure Travel New Frontier,” as Outside Magazine boasted, with “Edenic beaches, soaring mountains, and dense forest. It was cheap, gorgeous, authentic.” (March, 2013) East Timor is host to the Tour de Timor bike race and is a spectacular, secluded dive destination. We couldn’t find much information on the internet detailing restaurants and accommodation and assumed that there would be plenty to choose from once we got there, just like in Indonesia. “Maybe they’re just not on the internet,” we thought. It didn’t really occur to us that there wasn’t much on the internet because there isn’t much there.
The most important thing that we didn’t know is that Dili, the capital, is prohibitively expensive. The United Nations was present until last December and because many people staying and working there were on the company bill, the cost of living is high. Our hot, dingy room in a hotel surrounded by barbed wire cost us a gobsmacking $60 USD for one night. To put this in some context, we have been paying $20 per night in Indonesia for an airy room with an outdoor shower, surrounded by palms, breakfast included. We couldn’t afford to stay in Dili, nor could we afford to rent a car and get out of Dili, taking the chance that the next city, 120km away, would be cheaper. We were stuck. I was sick. It was hot, dilapidated and expensive. And it was the only place I’d ever been where my smile was only returned half of the time. Dili was weird and I didn’t like it.
We stayed in the center of the downtown area and walked for 30 minutes looking for a place to eat. “It doesn’t really matter where we eat, let’s just go to the first place we see,” Zach said as we walked over gaping holes in the sewer system and dodged waist high pieces of rebar protruding from the ground. The city is poor and recovering from years of war. Buildings and sidewalks are crumbling, but nothing is being rebuilt.
They need the tourist dollar, but I wasn’t about to spend my hard earned dollar on something that wasn’t worth it. I worked hard to save. I want to see the world, but I also want to enjoy it.
East Timor may be an “Adventure Travel New Frontier”, but new frontiers are a totally different kind of travel, a kind that we didn’t expect. If you get out of Dili and into the countryside, I’ve heard it is gorgeous, raw, and secluded. But we didn’t. I couldn’t muster the spirit to go on adventures with a fever and we decided it wasn’t worth the dent in our budget to stick around. So we came back to Bali, where we can live comfortably for a price that works for us and that supports the local economy.