When I first moved to Dili I decided I wasn’t going to buy a car. No need, I thought, dismissively — I’d newly mastered my microlet-catching, felt confident enough with my Tetun that I could direct a yellow taxi, and also, sheepishly, felt too scared of Dili’s wayward haphazard traffic to actually contemplate driving in it.
Three months on and I was happily behind the wheel of my silver-slick Nissan Tiida.
Dili is a hot, dusty, spread-out city where taxis are unreliable, buses stop at sundown and it’s not particularly safe to walk alone at night — and when I arrived in Timor-Leste as an AVID volunteer, we weren’t allowed to drive the scooters so many people here use over cars unless we had a full Australian motorbike license. I reluctantly bought my car and I’m now very glad for it, and after a year-and-a-half of driving in Dili I’ve realise a few things I wish I’d known when I first started.
Here are nine tips for driving a car in Dili, from my mistakes to you.
1. Give way to the left
Even thought Dili traffic drives on the left-hand side of the road, like they do in Indonesia (or we do in Australia), you give way to the left, not to the right — like they do in Portugal. Belatedly learning this from Felix after over a year of honking madly at stationary cars giving way at roundabouts was a revelation for me.
Update: Felix says actually, you yield to the biggest road — regardless of whether they’re to your left or right, whoever’s on the bigger road gets priority. My point remains for roundabouts.
2. Slow down
You’ll see the traffic here is slow and seemingly illogical, but it’s got its own rhythm — and one of those is the tendency to slow down or stop instead of swerving. If a microlet suddenly pulls out in front of you, or you see a pothole coming up, simply slow right down or even stop, instead of swerving out of the way.
3. Watch for scooters
Scooters and motorbikes can and will overtake you from both sides — which is another reason not to pull out suddenly. Trust that the drivers have seen you and know where you are, make your movements steady and consistent, and give a quick honk if you see someone drifting towards you.
4. Prioritise your wing mirrors over your blind spot
A few times when I’ve been driving with Felix I’ve jerked around to check my blind spot. “What are you doing?” he’s asked, and I’ve taken it upon myself to explain to this poor clueless guy about what a blind spot is and why I need to check it. Um, he definitely knows what it is. “Just check your mirror, because someone will stop in front of you by the time you’ve taken your eyes off the road,” he’s explained. The traffic moves slowly, but stops are sudden and frequent, so it’s more important to glue your eyes forward than it is to check your mirrors — particularly when you’re only looking backwards for a motorbike who already knows where you are.
5. Bigger is better
Part of the reason those motorbikes will always know where you are is the hierarchy of size on Dili roads: trucks take precedent over cars, which take precedent over motorbikes, which take precedent over bicycles (microlets do their own thing). Respect vehicles bigger than yours…
6. Respect state cars
… Particularly if it’s a kareta estadu, or government car. You’ll see these cars — usually Prados or Hiluxes — stamped with that tag, and you’ll usually see them roaring through traffic, manically overtaking and roaring around taxis and hanging dangerously in the right-hand lane. How else will they show you how important they are? Don’t mess with them, even if they cut you off, tailgate you or honk you out.
7. Honk honk honk…
Honking replaces indicating in Dili — some people do use their indicators, but honking is a more helpful way of showing where you are and where you’re going. If I’m overtaking a microlet I fear hasn’t seen me, I’ll give a little tap on my horn; similarly, if there’s a scooter at my elbow veering closer and closer I’ll honk to show them where I am. I honk when I want another car to slow down for me or if I’m worried someone hasn’t seen me, and in rural areas especially I honk hello and thank you as I pass.
8. …But not too much
Incessant honking in Dili is obnoxious and unnecessary, in my view — half the time you’re driving down a residential street, laced with houses; you don’t need to announce your arrival. I try to only honk when I’m scared someone will hit me or if I think they haven’t seen me, not to announce my every move.
9. Respect the traffic’s logic
Finally, like with everything in Dili, if you unfold your own expectations of what it should be like, the natural rhythm surfaces and it seems easy and uncomplicated. Where I’d like to stop at every single intersection on the main road, just in case, Dili traffic dictates I roll right through. Where I think it rude and dangerous for another car to sneak around me as I’m making a U-turn on Comoro Road, there’s the space to do it and they’re actually protecting me from the oncoming traffic, so why not. And where I sit cautiously at the intersection, waiting for a gap in traffic that’ll never come to make my right-hand turn, what’s the harm in gently rolling out in front of a stopped microlet to ease through to the middle of the road?
If you’re driving a car in Dili, beep beep hello. And if you’re thinking about it, give me a message! I’m trying to sell my car (see: imminent departure) and I’d love to give you a try on Dili’s roads, particularly if you want to buy it (sorry not sorry for the plug there).