Just moved to Timor-Leste? Welcome! Here’s a short post with a few thoughts on what you should do right now to make your next couple of weeks easier.
Read more here: A Dili survival guide
1. Get a SIM card
Even if you think you can live for a few days without checking Facebook; even if you’re staying in a hotel that says it has wifi. Get one anyway. Public wifi in Timor-Leste is near non-existent and very few restaurants and cafes have it (if you’re looking, all the Gloria Jeans and Burger Kings have achingly slow but free internet, and Katuas Hotel in Lecidere has unreliable but free wifi) – and you’ll need it to get yourself around in an unfamiliar city where directions are given in relation to landmarks that you likely won’t know yet, not to map coordinates. You’ll need orientation and you’ll want to talk to people back home, and a working phone will help.
Timor-Leste has three phone providers — Timor Telecom, Telemor and Telkomcel — and all three have shops at Timor Plaza, the large mall near the airport. If you have an unlocked phone buy a pre-paid SIM and get the shop staff to help you set it up, change the instruction messages to English, and load your first round of pre-paid credit.
2. Learn your landmark
While most of the streets in Dili have names, and some houses are even numbered, the overwhelming majority of directions are given like, “I live in Farol, near the church,” or “I live in Bidau, past the second river,” rather than “I live on Travessa de Mota-ain”. Learn your closest landmark — ask someone what you live near, or go for a walk and see if you can spot a church or chapel, river, embassy or large government-like building, busy restaurant or other large building. Useful for getting home if you’re lost, for orienting yourself in a strange new city, and for making you feel a little more established; a little more at home here.
3. Learn some basic, basic Tetun
I’m adding this to your first-weekend list even though it’s a daunting and truthfully life-long undertaking because Tetun’s relative simplicity and phonetic pronunciation makes it easy and so gratifying to order a coffee or to say thank you in one of the languages of this strange country on your first day here. Ten minutes of practise and you’ll be ready.
You’ll hear a lot of people saying bondia, botarde and bonoite to you; good morning, good afternoon and good evening; and kids on the street will shout out to you malae!, foreigner! and baa ne’ebe?, going where, or, “where are you going?”
The malae comment is neutral; an observation not a criticism, and the reply to baa ne’ebe can be lao deit, just walking, or baa Timor Plaza, going to Timor Plaza, baa loos, going straight ahead; or if you’re feeling clever, lao-lao, which is a Tetun-isation of the Bahasa Indonesian phrase “jalan-jalan”, meaning taking a walk. You can use this baa to tell a taxi driver to “baa Farol,” then use the word besik, near, to describe the landmark you’re close to. “Hira?” asks how much something is, like the price, and most people will tell you numbers in Bahasa.
If you want a coffee, kafe, you can say, “fo kafe ida lai“; give / coffee / one / please; “give me a coffee please”, or a Bintang beer, fo Bintang ida lai. Tetun la hatene, or literally “Tetun don’t know”, will help you out if you accidentally wade into a conversation too complex. Obrigada or obrigado mean thank you for female and male speakers, respectively, and nada is the “no problem” reply.
4. Figure out which microlet goes near your house
The colourful public buses, microlets, cost 25c per ride and are really helpful for newcomers trying to get around who want to avoid creepy, clunky taxis and who don’t yet have transport. There are 12 numbered, colour-coded routes — each number follows the same loop — and a journey of any distance costs 25c. Get on and off wherever you like (announce to the driver that you’d like to stop by ding-dinging your coin against the metal bar in the ceiling of the busy), and pay the driver or the person sitting next to them after you’ve disembarked.
I catch a lot of microlets and when I first arrived I found it really useful to stand on the main street close to my house and watch which microlets came by — which ones could get me home. Read more about Dili Microlets in my Dili survival guide here.
5. Drink a coconut
(Or a freshly made fruit juice, if you don’t like them). You’ve just uprooted yourself from your beautiful life back home, from everything you know, to come to this clunky dry dusty city where the buses make you sweat and people on the street holler hello at you. A fresh coconut — smacked open before you at the waterfront at Lecidere, or delivered to you luxuriating with your feet in the sand at Beachside or Caz Bar — will make you feel very, very good about your decision to come here — this beautiful, tropical, colourful, zesty fresh half-island country.
(Also, it’s extremely bloody hot and you’ve probably lost five litres of fluid from sweat. Rehydrate! Hau hamrook, I’m thirsty; fo nuu been ida lai, give me one coconut water please. Bimvendo, welcome, to living in Timor-Leste.)