At the beginning of this year I set myself an ambitious reading goal progress towards which I’ve been documenting on my Instagram. I posted yesterday a review of the book I’d just finished, and had a question in reply: “Where do you get your books in Dili?”
Tetun-speaking Timor-Leste, of course, doesn’t have many books in English, the only language I can comfortably read in. There are a handful of book stores here in Dili and some shops and supermarkets sell new books, but the majority of them are in Portuguese, Tetun, or written for children. I typed back in reply that I find my books all over the place: secondhand in take-one-leave-one book-swap corners in cafes, borrowed from friends, purchased new in Australia and carried back to Dili, or downloaded on my Kindle.
It made me wonder whether there were other people curious about the small activities and items that make up my daily life here in Dili. I’m curious about the tiny everydays of other people’s lives, so I thought I’d crowd-source some questions and share small fragments here.
What are supermarkets in Dili like?
I feel sheepish to say that the supermarket I frequent most in Dili is the extremely posh Centro Supermercado in the bougie beachside suburb of Pantai Kelapa (it’s the closest supermarket to the Australian ambassador’s house, if you need an idea of the neighbourhood). I like it because it’s close to my house, it’s well-lit and has spacious aisles, and the fridge section is always well-stocked with apples, strawberries, 70% dark chocolate, New Zealand butter and Australian white wine.
Felix, shopping at Centro with his traditional woven bote basket
In short, it’s essentially an Australian supermarket. They even sell Shapes, Iced VoVos and Red Rock Deli-brand chips. That’s a little unusual.
Dili has a heap of supermarkets. Most are cramped, chaotic Indonesian-style stores with lockers for your handbags, no trolleys, everything in a separate plastic bag, big banks of plastic-wrapped slabs of soft drink and deep freezers full of usual shrink-wrapped meat cuts. Most are well-stocked and you can find an Indonesian equivalent for every brand you love back home; just be prepared for Dili-wide shortages of certain products sending you on a desperate loop around the city (Centro, when will you have your slabs of soda water back in stock?). Certain supermarkets are known for certain things; if you want cheap cheese and Masterfoods mustard go to Kmanek; if you want nice ham or hydro-grown lettuce visit Lita. The Portuguese supermarket, Pateo, is renowned for its $8 tinto range and quality fresh-baked bread.
I buy most of my fruit and vegetables at the market, cleaning supplies and drinking water at the tiny streetside kiosks near my house, and everything else from the supermarket.
Where to read in Dili?
Beachside long black + book
“Where’s the best coffee shop to read in?” someone asked me on Instagram. I replied immediately with a photo of my new Letefoho Coffee Shop-branded tote bag and a helpful hand-drawn arrow.
Readers of this list will know Letefoho is my favourite coffee shop in Dili, but specifically for reading I may have to change my mind (I do most of my reading on the front porch at my house, though, so please take these recommendations with a grain of salt).
I’d suggest Beachside and Caz Bar, for reading slumped back in a shore-side chair with sand between your toes; the garden at Da Terra guest house in Farol (they might let you into one of their hammocks); the quiet corner couch at Agora Food Studio; in the upstairs cafe at Timor Plaza Hotel, or perhaps on one of the upstairs couches at Castaway by the beach in the early afternoon.
What’s nightlife in Dili like?
This is about the latest I stay out in Dili
This one wasn’t even a joke; unfortunately, I am an extremely lame millennial utterly wasting my easygoing mid-20s and I have very little clue where to go out in Dili.
But! In general. Dili’s population is very young and many foreigners are very wealthy, so there’s a healthy little bar and restaurant scene. I don’t like going out to bars or nightclubs because I love to dance and I hate being watched by 40 staring silent men standing shoulder-to-shoulder around the Casa Musica dancefloor; I’m too po-faced to be a real fan of the tacky-but-fun Skybar happy hour; I can’t stay up late enough for the midnight start time of the famed De Sama parties; and I prefer to go to Black Box for a coffee in the morning or a quiet drink with Felix than I do rolling in drunk at 2am and finishing the night with their $3 spirits. But I know a lot of people who have good wholesome fun out late in Dili, and for any new arrivals fearing being shut into a Catholic country’s conservative social life needn’t worry.
My favourite night-life activity is a house party, especially one that starts at 7pm with porch beers and pizza from Mario’s and ends early in the morning with dining-room dancing, and I will also put my hand up enthusiastically for any kind of sunset beer.
“What’s local food like in Dili?”
Water apples, jambu air!
This one’s specifically about the crops that grow well in Timor-Leste and the supplies you can find at the markets, but I also want to point out the odd paradox that in a predominately farming country with 100-plus endemic crops, the majority of what you can eat in Dili is actually imported food.
Felix joked to me once that Timor-Leste’s greatest export is empty shipping containers, such is the volume that comes in from places like Indonesian, Australia, China and Vietnam. The cassava chips and Pop Mie-brand cup noodles you buy in kiosks come from Indonesia, the sacks of rice that feed families all over the country are Vietnamese or Cambodian, and posh restaurants in Dili boast that their steak is from New Zealand and their chicken from Brazil while sprinkling canned Australian pineapple on a very non-local Hawaiian pizza.
There are a handful of places serving great local food — I love Agora, Dilicious and Haburas — but to really make the most of the array of crops that grow well here you have to cook for yourself. And you can buy just about anything.
Avocados, bananas, beans, breadfruit, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cassava, cauliflower, chilli, coffee, coconuts, corn, cucumbers, custard apples, eggplant, ginger, garlic, grapefruit, jackfruit, kale, limes, lettuce, mandarins, mango, onion, oranges, papaya, passionfruit, pineapple, pumpkin, red beans, rice, soursop, soybeans, spinach, strawberries, sweet potato, tamarind, taro, tomatoes, water apples, watercress, watermelon… that’s what I know grows here locally off the top of my head, and I know there’s much more.
Timor-Leste has a diverse climate and geography — from chilly mountain highlands where families grow coffee and cassava, to hot sandy flats with flooded rice plains, family chickens and fruit trees. Even in urban Dili my house has papaya and mango trees in the garden.
Coconuts, banana blossom, grapefruit (taken before I knew the word for ‘straw’ and could ask to not get one!)
I think the reliance on imported food is a combination of a large foreigner population with particular tastes and preferences, and a lack of appreciation for traditional Timorese foods and flavours. But it’s not necessarily intended as disrespect; it’s just a lack of knowledge. Agora Food Studio does an outstanding job quietly demonstrating to cashed-up lunching foreigners the myriad delicious ways local ingredients can be eaten and prepared, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I returned to Timor-Leste in ten years and couldn’t see a single Hawaiian pizza on any menu in town.
Oh, I love Timor-Leste. Even cheesier than Kmanek’s well-stocked dairy aisle but it’s true.