This is a post I’ve wanted to publish for four years — the unspoken rules of catching Dili’s microlets.
If you’re looking for information on microlet routes and how to get to certain places, you must see Claudia Gee’s fantastic Dili Microlets maps. If you want a beautifully written and witty piece on what it’s like inside a microlet, you must read Pip Desmond’s post about the mysteries of microlets. And if you want to know the practicalities of what to do once you’re inside the microlet, read on.
Background on the buses
Microlets are public buses that anyone can jump on. They’re the Timorese equivalent of the Indonesian bemo. A ride of any length costs 25c, paid at the end of the trip. While there’s no timetable, they run frequently, with many microlets on the same route, every day during sunlight hours.
Dili has 12 distinct routes — each of which follows a continuous loop — and each route has a corresponding colour and number. (Confusingly, a couple of the routes have very similar coloured buses — the two and three are both green, and the four and nine are both navy blue, for example, and they’re easy to mix up.) This blog post from Dreamers Dive Academy has a good cheat sheet on how to get to destinations like Timor Plaza or Cristo Rei by microlet.
Hailing and stopping the microlet
Microlets have no specific stops — you can get on or off at any point on the route. Hail the microlet as you would a normal bus or taxi — I put on a firm face and raise my arm with my pointer finger extended in front of me. To signal that you want to get off, tap a coin against the metal bar above your head inside the bus (or if it doesn’t have one, the window frame behind you). I usually tap twice, chink-chink, just a few metres before the point where I want to get off (microlet drivers are very responsive and barely need any notice to stop).
Okay, now — the rules.
Where to sit
It’s customary to take a seat as deep inside the microlet as you can — you just got on, you won’t need to be near the door for a while (and as Pip says, you have to earn the right to more fresh air and less spare tyre). Move quickly through the bus and take your seat as soon as you can, because the driver won’t wait for you to settle, and you may stumble. As new passengers get on after you, you can shift slowly up the bench seat and towards the door.
Depending on how full the microlet is, you’ll likely be sitting extremely close to other people, and touching them. This is common and normal, if a bit uncomfortable. You’ll inevitably be sitting in the microlet, thinking it can’t possibly take another passenger, and then someone will get on and the passengers will part and somehow one more set of legs will squeeze in. Prepare to be cramped and close.
Standing in the door
I’ve noticed this a lot less this time around, but when I last lived in Dili, it was common for one or two men (always young men) to stand in the microlet’s doorway as it drove, for some fresh air. I never, in two years, saw a woman do this, either Timorese or foreigner. That’s not to say don’t do it; only to share my observation. I don’t think it wouldn’t be impolite or inappropriate for a foreigner of any gender to stand in the doorway — it’d be odd, and you’d get stared at, but it’d probably be worth it for the fresh air and to see where you’re going.
Music and windows
Some of the best music I’ve ever heard in my entire life has come from the worst speakers inside the loudest microlet. (I first moved to Dili when two Justin Bieber songs were huge — Cold Water, with Major Lazer, and his version of Despacito — and someone had added a reggae beat beneath each and they played on loops inside the microlets; it was terrible, but also, it was amazing.) I say this to warn you that it can get loud inside — not from conversation, which barely happens, but from the driver’s music. I’ve never bothered to request to have it turned down, but I know people who have, and the request is met politely and agreed to immediately.
Windows are another one — it’s no problem to open the window inside the microlet, and will help with the stuffiness that comes from being so close to so many people. In general, if you make changes in the microlet — like opening a window — you might get stared at, but it’s out of curiosity, not frustration.
Prepare for stares
It isn’t that common for foreigners in Dili to catch microlets — usually we use scooters or cars — so you’ll inevitably be looked at during your trip. As with every stare I receive in Timor-Leste, I perceive microlet stares as gentle and curious, not creepy or hostile, though they can be penetrating.
Occasionally, someone will try and talk to me on the microlet — where are you from, what’s your name, where are you going — but usually I just get a couple of stares and that’s it. In my experience, Timorese people don’t mind us foreigners catching microlets; we’re not unwelcome, just a strange sight.
Refusing passengers and requesting the wrong stop
Sometimes when a microlet is extremely full it’ll refuse to take new passengers. The driver indicates this by flashing their lights. If you’ve hailed a microlet that flashes its headlights at you and continues past, you haven’t done anything wrong — it’s either full, or not taking any passengers at all.
One related question I don’t know the answer to is: if I’ve tapped my coin to stop the bus, but belatedly realised it’s not where I wanted to stop, do I get off anyway, or sit still and tell the bus to continue? I am personally too shy to tell the microlet to keep going; every time I’d just get off anyway, but that might not be the only option — you could probably just stay on board.
A ride of any length costs 25c and is paid at the end, not the start, of your trip (I usually wait until I’ve hit the footpath to hand over my money to the guy sitting next to the driver, who then passes it on, but if the microlet isn’t busy and I have exact change I’ll sometimes hand it over the seat to the driver as I’m passing through the doorway). Try and have the exact fare, for ease, but drivers do give change (it’d be brave to try and pay for a microlet with a $5 note, though).
I usually pay the 25c, unless I’m going to Cristo Rei — then I pay 50c (it’s a longer drive and seemingly less popular route). If there aren’t many people on the microlet, or if I’ve travelled a fair way, I’ll also pay 50c. To indicate that I don’t need change I just thank the driver as I hand over my cash, and then leave immediately.
I’m a reasonably small woman, but I do feel large and cumbersome inside a microlet — and sometimes I feel guilty taking up the space of what could have been two people, were both passengers Timorese students. That’s another situation that sometimes compels me to pay double. But in my experience, Timorese people don’t mind foreigners on microlets, and no one will be frustrated with you for taking up as much space as your body needs. Enjoy your ride.