Every now and then, I meet backpackers that always turn their misfortune into adventurous stories. They often end their stories with, “it was an amazing adventure nonetheless” or “I would totally do it again”. I know this because it reminded me of myself as I was one of those backpackers.
I used to believe that a true backpacker must go all in, do things on a whim with no plans, and as cheap as possible. I was always on a lookout for the most off-the-beaten paths, in the most remote locations, while doing things the “local-way” and call it as part of an adventure that comes with traveling.
In reality though, those remote locations I considered off-the-beaten paths were not really off-the-beaten paths and those adventures like hiking alone in the north of Peru or visiting countries like Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were not really true adventures in a sense that my trip was still supported by some kind of tourism infrastructure, little it may be.
I Found Real Adventure in Timor-Leste
On July 2018, I set off for my 63rd country to Timor-Leste (East Timor), the newest member to the South East Asian bloc which found its independence in 2002 and is one of the least visited countries in Asia. I was attracted to the country because of all the stories I heard about how remote and difficult it is to travel around Timor-Leste where infrastructure is non-existent.
I wanted to spend a good amount of time traveling around the country and so I decided to book a roundtrip flight from Bali and started my 10 days journey in the capital city of Dili.
My first impression of Dili was that of any capital city of a small country or an autonomous region such as Nagorno Karabakh, a small city with one “posh” area where all the government buildings, embassies, and tourists are. The further I went outside the “tourist” area, the more poverty I saw. The sight was not surprising to me as I was raised myself in a similar place in the suburbs of Surat Thani, a southern province of Thailand.
I spent the first day in Dili, visiting museums and learning about the independence movement that got themselves free from the grasp of Portugal colonization and Indonesia annexation. On my third day, I had done everything I could do in Dili and was ready to move on. As I was looking for a way to get myself out of Dili, I started to understand what it is like to travel around a country that lacks infrastructure.
One thing to note is that Timor-Leste is not a cheap country to travel to. A dorm bed in a hostel in Dili cost me 10 - 15 USD per night whereas a hotel will set me back upward of 40 - 60 USD per night. Things become even more expensive when looking at a way to travel around the country. You see, when people said Timor-Leste lacks infrastructure, they really meant common infrastructure like paved roads and electricity that we often take them for granted. As I was planning my trip to the second biggest city in the country, Baucau, I was left with few options. One is to use a 4 USD public buses, and another, to rent a motorbike or a 4WD jeep which will cost me 35 - 160 USD per day excluding insurance.
In all my adventurous spirit and trying to prove to myself that I am a REAL backpacker, I chose to go with the public bus. The route connects the 2 biggest cities in the country, and it is the cheapest way to do it, and so I thought to myself, how bad could it be.
It was one of the worst bus rides I have ever experienced and I have been on many sketchy bus rides before. I have ridden a bus on mountainous roads of Nepal, went on a road trip through the unpaved roads of the Wakhan Valley bordering Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and hitchhiked my way through Nagorno-Karabakh but nothing compared to the bus ride in Timor-Leste. I went to Timor-Leste seeking for a real authentic adventure and I found it.
So This is What Real Adventure Is Like
Traveling on a road that connects 2 biggest cities in the country and with the distance only 140 km, you would think that the bus ride would be 2 - 3 hours trip max and yet it took us over 5 long hours along the coastline of Timor-Leste. You are probably thinking that at least the view was stunning and I’m sure it was but I was seated at the back of the bus and their buses are always covered in posters and paints that block the entire window so I didn’t get to enjoy any of that.
There were less than 10% of paved roads along this route that connects these 2 “big” cities and the majority of the roads are under construction so we had to go through countless potholes while avoiding construction obstacles the entire 5 hours trip. Being at the back also didn’t help, as I was launched out of my seat countless times, hitting my head on more things than I cared to remember. Even the conductor boys on the bus had that nervous look in their eyes when I asked them if they were ok.
I can tolerate such road conditions but the one thing I can not tolerate was the fact that people were smoking like a chimney inside the bus. Combining that with the dust coming in from the windows, I am pretty sure my life expectancy decreased by a year from that bus ride. After the 5 hours bus ride, I came out of the bus, coughing and covered in dust from top to bottom.
That said, I was rewarded with the city of Baucau, a beautiful quiet city of around 50,000 people located on an elevated area near the coast. I went around taking photos of people, Portuguese architectures, the last few remnants of the Portuguese colonization, trying some of the best Mie Ayam (chicken noodle) I have ever tried and relaxing blissfully on a balcony overlooking the Timor-Leste coastline, away from civilization.
Adventure Has Its Rewards But At What Cost?
On my walk around the city, I also saw people living in poverty, garbages everywhere, and kids running up to me asking for one dollar and possibly insulting me when I rejected. I was also asked to pay 8 times the price for a Mikrolet (small van) ride of what the local would pay (25 cents). I told them frankly that I would only pay 25 cents like everybody else and they seems pretty stunned but I had my way anyway.
That night as I was preparing for another horrendous bus trip the next morning, it had me pondering the question, “Was it worth it?”.
Not All Adventures are Worth Experiencing.
In my 6 years of traveling around the world, seeking the most adventurous experience, never have I been taken aback by my own adventure this much before. Maybe I have been romanticizing the word “adventure” and “off-the-beaten-path” a little too much and when I actually am experiencing the real adventure, fully unsupported by tourism infrastructure, I could not handle it, maybe it is because I have been traveling for so long experiencing so many amazing adventures with less effort, I no longer appreciate real adventures, or maybe it is the simple fact that I am approaching my 30s in November 2018, and the prospect of putting myself through such torture no longer benefit me like it did when I was 24.
All in all, I believe traveling in Timor-Leste is the real deal and if you are looking for a real adventure beyond what most backpackers refer to as “adventure”, Timor-Leste (outside of Dili) is a place you have to experience for yourself.
Looking for more inspirational articles? Check out The Solo Traveler’s Inspiration section where we will discuss topics related to the nomadic and traveling lifestyle and shower-thoughts that will invoke wanderlust in all of us.
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