Driving 101

I am not sure if Timorese have drivers licences, but I know as a foreigner, any old licence is good enough. The traffic in Dili is really quite mild and one should give thanks to the fact that they have not picked up the Asian habit of driving with hand on the car horn.

In general, it is pretty difficult to wind up to more than 40kph around town. I think the speed limit is 45kph everywhere. The main limiting factors are potholes, stray animals and other unpredictable pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and cars. With no car insurance, it is best to accept it and just putter around.

As I have occasional access to a LandRover Defender, it is pretty hard to wind up too fast and it can get pretty uncomfortable thumping over potholes. After a while, you even start to remember the locations of bigger potholes.

Yes, on-coming traffic does cross the centre-line, but this has not been a big issue yet. In general, driving is significantly more sedate than China, for instance, where aggression and staking one’s claim on asphalt territory is very important.

I don’t believe that Timor Leste has any traffic lights anywhere. But it does have traffic police and unlike many other traffic police in Asia, they actually look less imposing and treat cars and drivers quite reasonably. They give everybody a chance and do it well.

There is no doubt the quality of the roads is deteriorating. New and larger potholes have appeared even in the 2.5 weeks since arrival. I understand that money for road maintenance is almost zero and I have never seen any sign of road maintenance gangs and some of the roads sure need it.

Your typical 4 cylinder sedan cops a pounding on some of the rough bits, but if you live in Dili or surrounds, you are within 15 minutes drive of everything. And if you don’t have a car, a taxi will cost USD1 for almost any trip up to that 15 minutes. Taxis are everywhere.

Give me drugs !

After 9 days, I have finally seen a doctor and I have the drugs. I guess you are thinking, “typical male … leaves it way too late before seeing the doctor” etc. etc.

Well, in my defence, it is not quite as easy as that. We knew that there was a doctor at the Australian Embassy who primarily looked after embassy staff, Australian Defence personnel and a number of other expats from English-speaking countries (including the Brits). However, we understood the doctor was on holidays and that meant no doctor. We also didn’t know the telephone number.

So finally, I hunted down the phone number and found that fortunately, there was a locum doctor operating over the Christmas/New Year period. The locum was the wife of an Australian expat who was leaving the country next week.

She confirmed that I had acquired the same gut infection that was sweeping through the entire community and no, it probably was not due to the restaurant I ate at the night before. Without treatment, she passed on the heartening news that it took from 6 to 8 weeks to run its course, but was still proving to be difficult to treat.

So I started the drug-related assault this afternoon, which with luck, will have me back in form for New Year. Alas, I am not meant to consume alcohol for 48 hours. Now, when was the last time that happened ?

Seeking New Accommodation re-visited

After boldly deciding that the Hotel Timor was not the place to be during the next quake, we did a quick reccy of 2 more alternatives. One should keep in mind that we are only looking at 6 to 8 weeks accommodation.

The first place (Casa Minha) wasn’t too bad but the most suitable room wasn’t going to be available for another 2 weeks. So we put our names down.

Following recommendations, we had a look at the Timor Lodge Hotel. Its a little further out than a lot of the others being quite near the airport round-about in Comorro. We had arranged to meet up with the wife of an English couple who live in a villa there. But before seeing their place, we allowed the staff to show us what was on offer.

Well, 25 years ago, if I had the arse falling out of my trousers, I might have considered some of the rooms put on display. I suspect prisons in most western countries are in better nick than this lot. Finally, we met up with the English acquaintance who showed us her place. Yes, she agreed they were quite spartan and that they had spent a lot of money fixing it up, painting it and furnishing it.

For 6 to 8 weeks, not really an option for us. So back to the drawing board and back to the Hotel Timor, hoping that the next quake is far into the future.

Hotel Timor Re-visited

Previously, I had commented on the eager fleet of room service people here at the Hotel Timor. After 2 weeks, time for a rethink.

The rooms have tiled floors with a couple of woven mats on the floor in the main traffic areas. And yes, they do come in with a mop and swab the entire visible tiled surface, but the mats have remained untouched and are slowly becoming quiet unclean. They don’t always wipe the tables and don’t always clean the 2 coffee cups in the room.

Two weeks of hotel breakfasts has now revealed a pattern. The morning offering is exactly the same every day, only varied by the absence of yogurt over the last week. It seems that food is brought out at around 7am and we have seen the job finished at 7:30am. Breakfast seems be available until 11am. So thats 3.5 hours of food sitting out on a buffet table. The hot food in trays sitting over small heating flames.

Its only now that I realise that in some cases, these trays are recycled for use next day. And it has now dawned on me that after 8 days of daily gut trouble, skipping breakfast yesterday led to a quite quick recovery. It now makes sense.

There can not be many people in the hotel. On arrival, we might see 4 or 5 other people at breakfast, but as Christmas approached, this has dropped to 1 other and sometimes only us. Evening meals appear little different. This suggests a throughput issue.

We have eaten evening meals about 3 times in the hotel and on each occasion, I have been very unimpressed. I noted that it would have been impossible to create the chosen meal in the time given, without some components being pre-prepared.

So yes, it really was the Sri Lankan restaurant food that started all this but I suspect the hotel food has been fuelling whatever nasties are in my system.

I have noticed quite a number of expats comment to us about the structural integrity of the hotel. I have tended to ignore it until today when I was told that a structural engineering report (done by the US govt. I believe) has deemed the structure to be fundamentally unsafe and as a result, the US Embassy (and the Australian embassy) do not permit visiting staff to stay there. Apparently, the building was a burnt-out shell 3 years ago and re-built in quick time without any additional structural strengthening and a mild earthquake (not uncommon here) of the right frequency and direction, will more than likely lead to structural failure.

So we are on the hunt for alternative accommodation again.

But after a week of gut problems and these structural issues, they still pale into insignificance against the pain I experienced last night on HBO. I watched the movie of the Thunderbirds. They butchered it … lifelong memories trashed … Ben Kingsley, how could you ?

The Run-up to Christmas

Over a week in the hotel now and have already been found wanting when asked to “bring food” to social events. It has now been 3.5 months of living out of the backpack.

But we have been invited to a Christmas picnic down on the beach. In deference to our kitchen-less state, we have the task of doing the beer. I can do that.

As TL has no functioning postal delivery to street addresses (ie there are no street addresses) this option is severely limited. Most of our mail actually arrives in a DHL bag and we do not expect the next one until next week, so we have the grand total of zero Christmas cards. Nor have we sent a single card – partly as we would have had to send them before we even got here if we wanted them to arrive in foreign parts for Christmas.

Most of the local population are Catholics and the church provides a key focus. I had thought there might be a bit more of the commercial version of Christmas (as practiced in the modern western countries) but there is almost no sign of that commercialism (which I happen to find distasteful anyway). One thing you do see is “nativity scenes”. Dotted around all over the place are small constructions put together by family units. These nativity scenes will typically include a bit of the usual glitter, but mostly they are home-made efforts made with local materials. Given that the makers of many of these scenes live in little more than bamboo huts, these are significant efforts.

Of course, the OZ embassy (a quite large edifice) has tactfully created one of the bigger ones, but in true OZ “taking the piss” style, has a dash of humour, with a kangaroo carrying baby Jesus in his pouch. And a shepherd kneeling down perilously close to the hindquarters of a sheep.

Approaching Nirvana

Well, week 2 has not been one of my better health weeks. After getting off to a flier with severe gut problems and head-butting the bathroom floor, my guts have been particularly dodgy. The middle of the night visits to the conveniences certainly eventually knocks you around.

But things were looking up when the Dili Club had free drinks for 3 hours on Friday night. Now you have to go with me here. If you are from Melbourne, then no explanation is necessary. But for the others, many people have certain things that remind them of their past … places they went, things they ate, things they drank, people on TV etc.

On arrival at the Dili Club, I saw them … unmistakable … I pinched myself … no, still here. I went up to the bar and asked Phil (the owner) “Are you doing dim sims ? are they really Marathon dimmers ?”. His answer, “yep, sure are Marathins … absolutely love them … I’ll cook you up some”.

So out they come, with the prescribed soy sauce and I was on my way. Free beer (Melbourne Bitter at that) and free dim sims – highly salubrious.

Whenever I hit Melbourne, I am well known for seeking out the genuine Marathon article and re-living old times, even the time Shane and I had 18 each in one sitting. Aah, those were the days.

And Phil has assured me that he can supply bulk frozen Marathons no problems. Now this is approaching nirvana.

Food Safety

I have travelled fairly widely and have a dubious distinction of having vomited in around 10 countries, thanks to dodgy food.

I thought I had a handle on the usual warnings about food safety and have often ignored what I saw as overly cautious advice, in order to experience the local scene.


I was severely ill after a crook fish in Turkey, severely ill after crook fish in Indonesia and severely ill after crook cui (ie guinea pig) in Peru. Don’t know what did it in Egypt. I think China escaped my regurgitative excesses.

I noted that local advice here seemed stronger than expected on the subject of restaurant selection. Not that I ignored the advice, but I think I have discovered why.

On Saturday night, I went to the UN Barracks XMas party where there were 4 local restaurants supplying the food. I made my choice with numerous others. The result was that I had mild diarrhoea for the next 2 days.

Perhaps I treated this affliction too lightly, as I opted to eat a fancy fish dinner last night. About 3 hours later, the stomach pains started. I retired to the bathroom where violent diarrhoea ensued. Then the vomiting, then it seems I passed out and was found 10 minutes later, lying on the floor in the bathroom in a pool of vomit and diarrhoea with blood dripping from my head.

Maybe I passed out and hit my head on the hard tiled floor. I don’t really know. But for the next 2 hours, I lay in the bath while nature took its course, until there was not an ounce of anything left in my body. It was not pretty. I could hardly scratch myself. For the cynics amongst you: NO, beer was not involved.

The Feel

Before you arrive somewhere for the first time, no matter how much reading up you do or how much people tell you, the “feel” is always different.

I think overall, the feel is within my range of expectations, but there are some things that are better than anticipated and some things which are not. There are also things that you had never even thought about.

I admit the general state of the streets is lower than I had expected. This is partly as I had seen a number of photos which were probably 2 or 3 years old. Combine that with the total absence of any road maintenance and the result is the roads must be worse for wear. And the almost daily rain now, really makes a mess of things. Even the bitumen roads seem to get covered in mud.

Although warned about the vagaries of Dili’s electricity supply, the reality makes it even more essential never to drop your guard in this area. The Hotel Timor has its own generator, so one is shielded from the worst of the electricity problems. The reality is that black-outs occur on a daily basis and variable voltage, power spikes and other electrical nasties are frequent. I am nor studying up on the theory of electrical nasties so I can purchase the appropriate gear in the knowledge that I know what I am getting and what to expect.

Mosquitos, malaria and dengue fever are a severe problem here. I have seen the expected swarms of mosquitos but people who know better, tell me not to be lulled into a false sense of security. A Chinese diplomat recently died from cerebral malaria. A fast medical evacuation to Darwin failed to save him. Earlier in the year, there was a severe outbreak of dengue fever, and dengue fever (although not usually fatal) has no cure.

Depending on where you look, Dili has a population of around 200,000. From a westerners stand-point, it feels like a city of 30 to 50,000. That’s based on traffic, the size of central Dili and the number of shops etc. Again from a westerners stand-point, it seems clear that the western influenced components of town are decreasing. With the reductions in UN people leading up to the final UN withdrawal in May 2006, a lot of foreign spending money is disappearing.

This leaves foreign aid workers, foreign volunteers (there are a surprising number of these) and foreign diplomats. But even then, the British Embassy is closing down in July 2006. I suspect aid workers and volunteers have nowhere near the spare cash that UN workers do.


After Brisbane, the temperatures seem lower but the humidity regularly higher. It always strikes me as strange that weather reports concentrate on temperature. As far as I can tell, temperatures are always over 20 degrees and usually over 25 degrees. To me, it seems that little information is provided if only a temperature reading is given. Humidity seems to be just as relevant.

So in Brisbane, I bought a hygrometer. I never read more than 75% in Brisbane, but here in Dili, I have not obtained a reading less than 90% and the hygrometer does not produce readings when it is over 90%.

It appears that the wet season rain pattern started only about 2 days after we arrived. It seems that the pattern is daily rain which starts at some time between 3pm and 5pm. Over the last 2 days, this rain has gone on for many hours. But at least, it is relatively cool and is very refreshing.

Unfortunately, the downside of the heavy rain is seen on the streets. Apparently, prior to the Indonesian departure in 1999, many of the city’s drains were filled with concrete, along with the trashing of many buildings in the city. The result is that the streets outside our hotel look like a swimming pool with water up to 15 cms deep. Makes for a confused footwear selection decision.

Hotel Timor

For reasons out of our control, our house will not be ready for a couple of months, so we are booked into the Hotel Timor.

The Hotel Timor is (I believe) the only hotel that one could call a hotel in the modern western sense. It is fairly spartan but is functional and operates reasonably well. I am no genius in this area. but I guess it might be a 3.5 stars on a good day. It has air-con, satellite TV (BBC, CNN, ABC Australia, Portuguese & Indonesian channels and HBO), showers that work, toilets that work, even tea and coffee making facilities.

There is also a shop (mostly closed as far as I can tell), a business centre which is really just an internet bar (256kbps connection with 6 pcs USD8 per hour), a coffee shop/bar (with Portuguese pastries) and a restaurant, which does a full western breakfast (USD7-50 each) and Portuguese menu (typical main USD10) in the evening.

One feature that is noticably missing is paper. There are no newspapers or magazines to be found. No hotel service directory in the room, no writing paper, no maps of Dili, no advertising of any local services and no tourist information to be found in the building.

There are alternatives to the Hotel Timor. If one wants some ability to prepare food in your room, there are very few options. Vasco Da Gamas has a kitchen area but very limited utensils. The usual alternative has small rooms in motel style, with direct access to outside and a pool. We had the choice of moving to Vascos or to the Esplanade Hotel, but after more than 3 months of living in close quarters and facing another couple of months in even closer quarters, we decided to opt for the big room option and forgo the cooking facilities. Yes, we will get sick of it, but 2 months in a shoe box with barely enough room to store our luggage was our non-preferred option. It is clear that most accommodation is geared for solo guests.

The most annoying part is the room service people. They are keen as mustard to get their work done and one is left no opportunity to sleep-in as they are waiting outside the door at 8:30am, ready to pounce. Then a fleet of about half a dozen come in and change and clean everything. Floors are swabbed, surfaces dusted and stuff moved so we can move it back to where we want it (again).