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East Timor opens a door to the world

The Times (UK) - June 4, 2005

Simone Lee Egger – Accommodation was once so scarce in East Timor that a bed in a converted shipping container cost nearly £60 a night.

That was "post-99", when tens of thousands of international workers descended on the tiny half-island to establish peace and distribute aid after Indonesian militia trashed its infrastructure: destroying roads, bridges and the supply of power, water and phone services.

Now there's more choice of accommodation as the world's newest nation rapidly rebuilds itself, rediscovering its culture and fast emerging as a unique travel destination.

East Timor is celebrating its third birthday, having made its debut as an independent country on May 20, 2002 after three years of UN administration.

Travelling in East Timor to update Lonely Planet's guidebook Southeast Asia on a Shoestring was oddly akin to what I imagine travel in the region was like when the first edition was published in the 1970s.

There's no tourist office in East Timor, so I had to rely heavily on hearsay to research where to go, how to get there and where to sleep. Fortunately, people who've experienced the country's staggering natural beauty are bursting to talk about it.

The lack of a travel industry as such requires a degree of industriousness from the traveller. To hire a bicycle or boat, for example, you'll need to find a local who'll rent you his or hers. It's usually as simple as asking someone (an exchange that will likely lead to an invitation to dinner). There are no such things as itineraries or timetables; time dissolves in unexpected experiences.

One excursion I made outside the capital Dili was to a sacred waterfall. The "keeper of the water", who is also the village chief, escorted me (and about 30 intrigued children who'd hardly ever seen a white-faced foreigner before) through the jungle.

He "baptised" me out of respect for the animist spirits who dwell there, allaying any disappointment I felt upon finally seeing the modestly sized waterfall after a six-hour drive on hell's roads. The iridescent turquoise pool into which the waterfall emptied was flecked with silver flashes as the shiny fish caught the sun. From the reverent hush of excitable children and the pride of the chief, it was clear that this was a magical place.

On the return journey, a downpour diluted the oppressive heat and turned the trickling river that we crossed earlier into an impassable torrent. I spent that night with a family whose woven-walled hut with a thatched roof was at the river's edge.

The children played with a huntsman spider while we ate pumpkin flowers with rice, and drank palm wine (distilled palm-fruit juice, it's more like a punch, and, yes, it has one), and exchanged smiles until late. By the morning, the water level had subsided. I crossed, convinced that most challenges are blessings in disguise.

When the majority of UN personnel and military departed in around 2002, it left a hole in East Timor that's screaming to be filled by tourism. In Dili, there's a range of accommodation, costing between £3 and £60, and a slew of cafis and restaurants representing all the world's cuisines.

The dive operators who chaperoned workers on weekends to the island's world-class sites are now providing gear and transport to travellers.

And word is out about the eco-lodge located on the beautiful island of Atauro. If you visit midweek, however, there's still a chance that you'll have the place to yourself.

The lodge consists of eight huts built on a beautiful beach with a coral garden just offshore. Profits from the venture fund community programmes such as a mobile library, kindergartens and sustainable-farming techniques.

East Timor was closed to the world for more than 20 years during the Indonesian occupation, but now a trickle of backpackers is crossing the border, and Australians of all ages are making the short hop from Darwin in the Northern Territory. Independent East Timor is fresh turf for independent travellers on the well-worn South-East Asia trail.