tipping and bartering in Timor-Leste

No real need to do either, is the short answer. The longer one’s a bit more complicated.

Do you barter in Timor-Leste?

No, not really.

When I last lived in Dili I wrote a couple of posts about shopping in the fruit and vegetable markets and shopping at the secondhand clothes markets. In both, I mentioned the custom not to barter with sellers too much, if at all (Dili markets are not like Bali markets). You may politely ask if the price could drop slightly if you’re buying multiple items from the same seller, I wrote, or perhaps if you’ve spent a while in their store and have struck up some conversation — but nine times out of 10 I would pay the exact piece quoted to me for either a plate of tomatoes or a t-shirt.

As a foreigner in Dili, I don’t mind being charged more than Timorese shoppers in the markets. But in that vegetable post, I wrote that I could overhead what Timorese customers were paying for the same produce, and I could hear we were being charged the same. Even if I was being charged more I still wouldn’t haggle, but it is a comfort to know that the foreigner tax in Dili is minimal, if anything at all (this might not be true for other places in Timor-Leste).

The only place I would be more on guard is when hailing a yellow taxi.

Fares have likely changed since the last time I lived here, but in 2019, the only time you’d ever pay more than $3 for a taxi trip is if you were going home from Timor Plaza, which was always $5, no matter where you lived. (In my packing list I suggest reserving $10 for the taxi ride home from the airport — that, and the long trip out to Cristo Rei, are the only other exceptions to my sub-$3 Dili taxi fare rule). I’ve never taken a taxi that was cheaper than $1, and even that time was just a 500m trip from the pub to my house, with a driver I knew.

I’ve taken two taxis this week — to and from my house in Bidau Santana to UN House, because I couldn’t remember which microlet would get me there, and then it was raining on the way back, and I didn’t want to walk. There, I was quoted $3 and suggested a fare of $2, which the driver accepted. On the way back, I was quoted $2, and agreed to it immediately (I would have agreed to $3 with the rain, and on reflection, I should have paid this anyway). When I do barter with taxi drivers I’m polite and deferential — I said, “perhaps $2, it’s not very far” when asking for the fare reduction, and the driver agreed immediately.

I always confirm the price before I get in the taxi, but the last time I lived in Dili I had a friend who wouldn’t ask — she’d just confidently hand over $2 or $2.50 at the end of her trip, without asking the fare. I find taxi drivers cheeky, but not exploitative — how much you pay above or below what they quote is up to you.

Do you tip in Timor-Leste?

No, not really.

In every post I’ve ever written about eating and drinking in Dili, I’ve only ever mentioned once, in passing, that tipping isn’t customary or expected here.

I’m an Australian, and tipping isn’t common where I’m from — hospitality workers are paid reasonably well, and it’s not rude not to tip (rather, it’s nice to tip when you’ve had great service). Because of that, it didn’t immediately occur to me to talk about tipping on this blog.

Timor-Leste uses the US dollar as its currency, yet doesn’t follow the US custom of tipping. I’m not too sure why this is, to be honest — in my limited understanding of tipping, it’s to supplement low hourly wages (and perhaps to incentivise good service?). Timor-Leste’s minimum wage is just $115 per month, and while certain living costs are low (the microlet costs 25c, you can buy a meal for $1.50, school is free, electricity is cheaper per unit when you buy it in smaller amounts), I doubt a waitress at a warung would be taking home a fat paycheck. It seems like this is a place where you might want to tip.

As I write this, I feel embarrassed by how little thought I’ve put to tipping in Timor-Leste in the past. Now, I’m considering a couple of things — first, that my assumption is wages are relatively low, the meals I buy are fairly cheap, and it might do me well to tip, and tip regularly. But then I wonder if tips would in fact flow to employees — I’d assume they would, but then, the only place I’ve ever worked that had a tip jar sent our tips straight back into the till, and I never saw any of it. Could that also happen here? Is it still worthwhile tipping anyway, even if employees don’t see the money, because it signals to their bosses that they’re doing a good job? But would tipping change the quality of service received by non-tipping tables, and give me an unfairly nice experience for adding $2 to the bill? Would it then place an expectation on other staff to hustle for tips?

Eating at Dilicious last week, I paid $8 for the best meal I’ve had in months. I saw a tip jar on the bench, paid $10 for my bill, then dropped the $2 change into the jar. I didn’t feel good or virtuous, I didn’t feel worried or second-guessing. That just felt normal. I think this might be the thread I follow for a little while: tip the change when I see a jar.

In short, it’s not rude not to tip in Timor-Leste. No one expects you to. But, of course, there’s a difference between what you do, and what the right thing to do might be. I do think I’ll spend more time thinking about this, and at the moment, I don’t know enough about it yet to confidently suggest tipping.

Years-end bonuses

Something unrelated to tipping and bartering, but tied to wages and Doing The Right Thing, is the custom (rule?) to pay a ‘thirteenth month’ salary here — doubling an employee’s wage for December as an end-of-year bonus. If you’ve come to Timor-Leste from a tipping country and are worried about what your server is taking home, they may at least be receiving a December bonus — and if you employ a cleaner or a nanny in your home, it’d be a good idea to pay them a year-end bonus. Double their December wage and say it’s the thirteenth month.

If you celebrate it, have a safe and happy Christmas — and enjoy the last few days of the year.

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