I’ve written before about how much I love the dreamy, mountain town of Maubisse, which sits just 30 kilometres inland of Dili in Ainaro municipality. With Timor’s wind-ey, potholed roads, it can take up to four hours to reach Maubisse by car, and the town thus feels like a real holiday spot: where 30km is a commute in another city, here it’s a four-wheel-drive weekend adventure.
An update to this post! It’s consistently the only post of mine that every gets any noticeable traffic, or any traffic from search engines, and I’ve reached the conclusion that people find it by searching for information about Maubisse or the Leublora Green School. So, I’ve written a more tourist-friendly guide to Maubisse, Timor-Leste — find it here.
(And a second update — since I wrote this they’ve improved the road dramatically and now it takes just over two hours to get to Maubisse, if you take the new Comoro River road).
But, I remarked to a friend over lunch today, when you arrive in Maubisse you step lamely out of your car into the town’s dusty main street, try not to trip on a quiet market seller’s cabbages, and blink into the sunlight thinking: where’s the tourist stuff?
There’s no visitor’s centre.
No informative billboards.
No coloured maps with key sights marked with cartoon arrows and exaggerated circles.
Roadside stop before we hit Maubisse vila
Reading up on Maubisse on Timor-Leste’s new tourism site, timorleste.tl, you’d be forgiven for arriving in the town expecting waiting tour guides, coffee plantation visits, organic, local-grown coffee cupping sessions, guided hikes through the mountains, lookouts for snapping epic scenic photos, and other ways of unlocking the “delights” of the town the site deems a popular location.
This sounds cynical, but of course there’s none of this stuff there. Maubisse wasn’t built for tourists, of course wasn’t made for me, and a buoyant Ministry of Tourism riding high on new US AID dollars and a workshopped tourism hashtag doesn’t disguise the fact that the best thing about Maubisse is that there isn’t very much to do.
No tour companies, no trinket shops, no English-speaking guides or branded water bottles. No #undiscovered to #explore: it’s people’s home.
Views from the balcony
Felix and I took a weekend in Maubisse last weekend.
There were absolutely things we could have done in the town: if someone asked me what to do on a weekend in Maubisse, I’d tell them to find the waterfall and swimming hole I keep seeing all over Facebook; to bring some hiking boots and a sense of adventure for a self-guided trail through the mountains; to split big money into small change to spend at the town’s giant secondhand clothing market and vibrant twice-weekly fresh vegetable market. I’d tell them to read about the town’s colonial history and visit the newly-restored pousada Maubisse, perched high in the hills above the town centre, and to listen the the church bells clanging and drink organic coffee at the Cafe Maubisse on a Sunday morning. I’d ask my friend who works with local strawberry farmers to arrange a visit, and I’d ask the smiling Peace Corps volunteers who live in the town to suggest helpful, interesting activities that would benefit Maubisse’s residents.
But we didn’t do any of that.
Markets, cooking, reading
Felix and I left Dili at 2pm on Saturday (too late) and arrived in Maubisse just after 5pm. We could have driven to the top of the hill for the sunset, but instead we mooched around on the balcony of our beautiful room at the Leublora Green School, drinking hot tea, until dinnertime (“I don’t eat meat, can you please buy some vegetables?” I’d asked. “We’ll pick them,” came the reply, god bless the Green School). We slept early and woke late the next day. Breakfast, coffee, reading, talking, napping, markets, cooking, reading, napping, dinner, reading, talking, sleeping. Up earlier on Monday morning to visit the pousada and talk to Felix’s friend Bella, who has been charged by the government with managing its renovation. (The Timor-Leste tourism website incorrectly states that staying at the pousada is currently an option). Then some more chatting and coffee and sitting and a bumpy drive down the mountain to coast back into Dili late-afternoon.
An old shot, from the trip I took to Maubisse and Hautobulico with my friends last June. No photos allowed at the pousada anymore.
No waterfall. No church bells. No mountain hiking or scenic photos. We didn’t even make a fire at the firepit right next to our room.
Instead, we did exactly what I think you should do in Maubisse: be in the town, be in the mountains, be in the quiet, without having to turn it into something. Felix told me to invite friends over to dinner last night after we returned to Dili, so I could tell the story of our trip — but there’s no story to tell. We didn’t do anything; we didn’t go anywhere. We didn’t do anything we couldn’t have done in Dili.
Except we never do it in Dili. And that’s what makes Maubisse so special for me.
What made Maubisse special
I would unhesitatingly recommend Maubisse to anyone visiting Timor — but with the suggestion to avoid going into the trip thinking you’ll tick off the big three Timor tourist joints; instead, just take advantage of the quiet, the cool, the stillness, the serenity (just not outside the church on a Sunday morning), and be the kind of peaceful you can’t quite get to in your everyday life.