How I shop in Timor-Leste markets

A few small words that helped me last year: satu, dua, tiga, empat, lima.

Like Latin proverb they may look, they’re actually the numbers one to five in Bahasa Indonesia, and the key that unlocked the magic of Timor-Leste market shopping for me.

Any visitor to Dili will come across the fruit market at Lecidere, on the beachfront: brilliant piles of papaya, watermelon, tomatoes and pineapples spilling over the pavement, gentle betel-teethed ladies dozing supine behind their produce, and chatty tiu ai leben wandering around with tightly bound passionfruit, guava and hairy rambutan tied to the sticks hoisted over their sweat-pricked shoulders. It’s vibrant, busy, colourful, and Instagram-worthy – but if the vendors don’t like you, you’ll cop an angry swat to the air before you when you pull out your camera.

IMG_7186[1]Mangoes in the markets at Maubisse

One way to win trust: shop using Bahasa numbers.

“Why not Tetun?” you may ask, fairly.

You likely already know Timor-Leste spent nearly 500 years as a neglected Portuguese colony before a brief week-and-a-bit of post-colonial independence crumbled under an Indonesian invasion that would see the country annexed as an Indonesian province for 24 years.

Full independence was restored in 2002 and Tetun and Portuguese adopted as the country’s national languages (classified a creole, Tetun Dili apparently lacks the flourish and fancy required of an administrative, legal language). But most of the population – educated in Indonesian, raised watching Indonesian TV, growing up with the language all around – speaks it fluently; without thinking.


DSC_0165Tomatoes and corn at Taibessi Market

Ida ne’e hira?” I asked at the markets once, pointing to a pile of tomatoes. How much is this one.

“Satu dolar,” came the reply. Just weeks into my time in Timor, still shaky with the Tetun numbers, I stared back blankly. I didn’t know satu.

“Um,” I started, hesitantly. “Iha Tetun?”

It was the tomato lady’s turn to stare.

“One dollar,’ she replied in English. I handed over the coins and she curtly tossed the tomatoes into a tiny plastic bag and thrust it towards me. Finished.

Many people in Timor-Leste still use fragments of Portuguese and Bahasa in everyday conversation without even clocking they’re speaking a different language. So, in my efforts to learn the language of the country I’m living in, I too am bleeding Bahasa into my vocabulary.


DSC_0151Modo tahan, the generic term for leafy vegetables; dried corn, red beans

There are many more markets in Dili than the one down at Lecidere: the huge Taibessi market, of course; the local market at Comoro; the tiny tarpaulins laid out in front of shops in Audian and the wooden tables piled with greens in Fatuhada laneways. My favourite is the collection of stalls at the hospital intersection in Bidau, because it ticks all my boxes: tofu and tempeh and vegetables, fast sales and high turnover, predominately female sellers, and fair prices: you don’t barter at food markets in Timor, save for getting fifty cents knocked off if you clear out the potato piles, but I hear the prices charged to my neighbouring Timorese shoppers and know the ladies aren’t taking advantage of the bougie Bidau location to jack up prices or pop on a malae tax.

When I throw out the five numbers I know in Bahasa, smiles come easily, and conversation gets up.


DSC_0181Fresh arrowroot!

Satu, dua, tiga, empat, lima. The number first, then the word dollar. The opposite of Tetun. The rushed lima-pul-sen for fifty cents; lima-pulucent. The English quarter for twenty-five cents. Portuguese for quinzie annus and novente nove and any year that starts doize mille.

To me, a curious mash-up of languages that often confuses me and leaves me tongue-tied and frustrated. But also, another very visible glimpse of Timor-Leste’s history, shared in the fleeting exchange of tomatoes passing hands.


6 responses to “How I shop in Timor-Leste markets”

  1. […] Here we go on a blog post I’ve literally had sitting in my drafts folder for a year-and-a-half; I love secondhand shopping and I love it especially in Dili, where you can buy yourself a new dress from a dusty streetside shanty for a couple of coins and a game attempt at counting in Indonesian. […]


  2. […] OB shopping trips. I’d just tried to barter a $5 price down with what I thought was the Indonesian word for four, but I’d accidentally used six, and the tia had laughed at me as I realised, then […]


  3. Hi Sophie
    I’m a kiwi moving to Dili in January to work as a teacher at an international school for a year. I stumbled onto your blog and it’s interesting and helpful. Cheers!
    I don’t yet speak Tetun or Portugese (although I’ve started learning some basics) but I do speak Bahasa Indonesia which judging by reading your blog post, seems to be pretty useful there. Although I knew a lot of Timorese speak BI, I was a bit concerned that as the “language of the ex-occupier” it might have a negative vibe attached to it, but it doesn’t seem to be the case, am I right?

    I’m also a musician and DJ and would be keen to play some acoustic gigs and/or DJ sets now and then if there are any music venues? Tbh idk if my working visa will actually allow it or how strict it is there around work rules but still keen to know if there’s any potential opportunities there.

    So yeah, thanks for the blog. Are you still living there?



    1. Hey Brent, nice to hear from you, and thanks for reading the blog! I’m glad it could be useful — feel free to give me an email ( if you’ve got any specific questions it hasn’t answered and I’d be more than happy to help. I’m no longer there; I left 18 months ago, so my knowledge might be out of date, but some principles (don’t pack expensive delicate clothes, prepare for slower work days and a lot of bureaucracy, red bananas are the best, etc) will still stand! And if you haven’t found it, the WordPress blog Timor Seesaw, written by Dr Jeremy Beckett from the Australian NGO Maluk Timor, is an excellent and current blog about life in Timor-Leste.

      In answer to your specific questions here, yes definitely Bahasa Indonesian will be your friend. In two years I didn’t meet a Timorese person who couldn’t speak it, even little kids born after independence. And it’s a great point on the language of the ex-occupier. I can only speak to my own experience, but from my view, I didn’t see that, for either Indonesian or Portuguese. It seemed more fact-of-life than anything more charged than that, though Timorese people may tell you differently. Something I also saw, which I thought was cool and interesting, was a trend towards ‘Tetun-ising’ words that didn’t previously exist in the language — where before they may have substituted an Indonesian word for a thing Tetun vocabulary lacked (‘es krem’ for ice cream, for example), or used Portuguese or even English words, I now see people applying the structure of Tetun constructions to those words: eg ‘condom’ becomes ‘kondom’ in Tetun, which doesn’t really have a ‘c’.

      I’m disinclined to say anything super publicly about flouting work rules, but live music is EVERYWHERE and everyone loves a jam. You won’t have any troubles. 🙂 My boyfriend Felix, who is Timorese, goes back to Dili in late January; he loves a jam and I’d be happy to introduce you if you’d like. And Nuno, who runs the cafe/bar Black Box in Farol, regularly hosts live bands, is a great guy, and has spent time in New Zealand (six months in I *think* Wellington last year).

      Feel free to send me an email if you’d like to know more or want an introduction to anyone — happy to help if I can. And enjoy your time there!


      1. Awesome, thanks for your reply its really helpful! I’ll email you again should I have more questions and yes, happy to meet and jam with Felix. Obrigado !


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