Friday, January 23, 2015

[DILI] Jesus on the Cliff

Occupying the eastern side of the island of Timor, Timor-Leste was once a province of Indonesia when the latter invaded the former after the European decolonization of Southeast Asia. The Indonesians did not leave until 2002, when East Timor finally declared itself a free nation once again. As the youngest nation in the region, the country has not yet been fully opened to tourism and lacks good infrastructure. Suffice it to say that it wouldn’t be on your travel map unless you love collecting immigration stamps.

The biggest obstacle you'll be facing if you want to visit Dili is the plane fare. Since there isn't much competition among the airlines serving the route, expect to pay upwards USD 100 for a less than 2-hr flight. Your point of entry will be Dili. Depending where you are coming from you might have to transit somewhere. The nearest international flight flies to and from Darwin in Northern Australia, while Bali and Singapore are also on the route map of other airlines.

And so the question: Why come to Dili? For me, it is the culmination of a half a decade long quest to conquer East Asia. I thought the Northeast would be more of a challenge with Mongolia and North Korea in the way, but I ended up visiting those two countries before I ever landed in Timor. In the southeast, Myanmar used to be challenging, but is now more open than ever. All that was left for me to visit was Timor-Leste, and here I am! Finally, I could say that I’ve run out of countries to visit on this side of the continent.

Dili might be a bit isolated, but this doesn't mean that there's lack of information online. Wikitravel would suffice to plan a trip. I decided to fly in from Bali thanks to the promo fares I booked via Air Asia. Starting in Kota Kinabalu, I transited in Bali and stayed the night, then flew to Dili the next morning. Word of caution: You have to pay USD 20 worth of airport fees at Denpasar so don't forget to add that to the total plane fare if you are budget conscious.

For ASEAN passport holders, the visa on arrival procedure is straightforward. You get off the plane and walk towards immigration. The visa on arrival desk is right before the entrance. Pay them the USD 30 fee and they stamp the visa on your passport. You only need one free page for this because they also stamp the entry and exit stamps on the visa stamp itself, though that is done by immigration inside the terminal. Welcome to Dili!

Arriving late in the afternoon, there was only one place left to visit which would not require a lot of time. If you search for images of East Timor online, what would turn out to be a popular landmark and symbol of the nation would be the statue of Christ by the cliff. From the airport, taxi drivers will compete to scam you. A typical trip to the center of the town won't cost more than USD 5, but since I only had a USD 10 bill, the driver sort of begged to keep the change. Save yourself the trouble. Ride a Mikrolet.

Fine, I know we only agreed on USD 5, but these people are trying to make a living and he was not a jerk to me so fine. A Mikrolet, on the other hand, would only cost you USD 0.25 and would also allow you to experience the way locals do it. From the airport, go all the way out to the giant statue by the roundabout. Mikrolet #10 is the one you are looking for. In fact, for most of the attractions in Dili, this is the only one you'll probably ever need.

After checking in at East Timor Backpackers Hostel, I went straight ahead to Cristo Rei. Cristo Rei is one of Dili’s districts in the east going to Baucau. A taxi ride should cost USD 3 one-way. Depending on your driver's greed and your haggling skills, this could go all the way up to USD 10. I paid USD5 one-way. The driver was really amusing because he was trilingual, asking me where I wanted to go in Bahasa Indonesia, Tetum, and Portuguese when I got in. Cool!

Cristo Rei is also the name of the statue and is said to be a peace offering from Indonesia. Unfortunately, the taxi can't take you all the way to the cliff. After passing by Areia Branca, one of the city’s lackluster beaches, you'll see a parking lot where you leave your car or get off your taxi. There's no entrance fee to see the statue but it requires a hike of around 15 to 20 minutes depending on your pace. Stations of the Cross serve as attractions on the way up.

Climbing the hill makes you realize how Dili is not that popular as a tourist spot. Most of the people you see up there are locals themselves having a good time. You'll see some sort of a shrine with a cross halfway to the top. This is also where a viewing deck is situated if you want to enjoy the ocean view, but it doesn't end there, because hidden behind the cliffs on the other side is another beach that would probably pique your curiosity.

Yes, climb those stairs on the right side of the shrine and you'll arrive at a crossroads. Go up and end up with Jesus; head down and find yourself in a pristine beach. I chose Jesus. All this talk about being agnostic and loving the beach bum life and I end up with Jesus? Well, search for Dili online and you will find out how this seems to be THE landmark representative of the nation, which is why I chose to go there to snap the been-there-done-that photo.

Photo aside, the scenic view you are rewarded with is what makes the hike worthwhile. The small cliff not far from Jesus is a good place to take photos, chillax, or just ruminate about life in general. Suicide is optional, but given the abundance of rocks down there, I’d say it might hurt a bit before you graduate to the next life. The winds were so strong when I was there and it drizzled for a while. Luckily, it eventually stopped before my trip downhill.

Jesus was catatonic, with arms wide open as if asking for a hug. With the ascent over, I remembered how I also exerted that much of an effort in Macau to meet a Tao goddess I couldn’t even care less about. Ah yes, of the ex-territories of Portugal in the region, East Timor seems to be the most functional one in terms of Portuguese proficiency. Remember how omnipresent written Portuguese is in Macau yet you almost never hear it spoken? In Dili, a number of people can still actually converse in it.

Going down, I had the option to check out the beach, which was very attractive but not life changing. Come on, I’m from the Philippines, and I can name more than a dozen that could give this particular beach a run for its money. I was tired, so I just took a photo and continued downhill. Did I mention I didn't have lunch yet? In any case, that beach seemed really pristine and beaming with tranquility. If you have time to spare, you might as well kill it there.

As a taxi bringing some Korean tourists parked in front of me, I recalled how I was warned how difficult it would be to get a cab from there going back to the city. And so I grabbed the opportunity and darted in, agreeing on a USD 3 fare. I asked him to bring me all the way to Timor Plaza near the airport, which is probably why he had a change of heart and asked for USD 10. Now this cabbie was a bit of a jerk and very defensive, so fuck him. After this experience, I opted for the Mikrolet as my main mode of transportation.

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