Timor Leste: Where legends and hearts converge for a cause

Timor Leste is less than a few hours away by plane from Australia, but miles away from our standard of living. The Cristo Rei of Dili statue looks over the country.

Julia Zaetta travelled to Timor Leste to volunteer with Father Chris Riley's Youth Off The Streets Overseas Relief Fund. The Island nation - and the kids - stole her heart. She shares her trip with Citro.

By Julia Zaetta

Fall in love with Dili - and volunteer your time

I became a lover of Dili, capital of Timor Leste, which means East Timor. I was there to assist with Father Chris Riley’s Youth Off The Streets Overseas Relief Fund, which helps kids who need life-changing education and support. And there are many.

Watch the video below to see the work Father Chris Riley does in Timor Leste

Timor’s population is just over 1.3 million. Its languages are primarily Portuguese and Tetum with English the working language. And the Timorese are fiercely independent as well as being one of the most gregarious and welcoming people you will meet.

Surprisingly around 40% of the population is below the age of 15 and all up 60% is under 25, most living below the poverty line.

These young people need to eat properly, be supported empathetically, learn English, be educated, and taught about personal safety. This all enables them to progress and become successful adults, to live a good strong life beyond the poverty cycle taking others with them. And for me to see their smiles of pleasure and pride in themselves while they are underway is beyond gratifying! Timor’s kids need all the help they can get.

Discover unbelievable Timor

So have you ever considered a trip to Timor? It’s so close to Australia, only about an hour and a half by plane from Darwin.

Julia (second from left) volunteers with Father Chris Riley, who has been working in East Timor since it gained independence from Indonesia in 2002.

But surprisingly when you land you are in a completely exotic Asian country which could be thousands of miles away - it is so excitingly different.

You can leave Darwin Saturday morning, stay overnight in Dili, and come home Sunday evening, if you only want a taste.  

Though it is worth more of your time if you’re an adventurer, a discoverer and want to help the world when you travel. And like me, you’ll love it and find it illuminating and stirring beyond your imagination. I stayed 5 days and did not want to leave - every day presented an exciting new discovery.

Perhaps consider a little volunteering

But here’s an extra. If you want to volunteer for a few days with Youth Off The Streets Overseas Relief Fund they would be thrilled and you’d love the kids and staff.

You can work within YOTS main building or partake of the outreach activities, which are fabulous.

You head to the outer areas and play soccer and ball games with the kids, feed them and laugh your head off with them even though you are not speaking the same language. My soccer improved out of sight! And they really have a whopping good time. You’ll find you’ll become deeply involved in a hurry.

Though you’d need to prepare yourself for a poor country. Timor Leste is third world. You will see such poverty it will confound you it is so close to Australia yet so dire.

Timor Leste is a young country, and the children will charm you.

But you will also experience extraordinary contrasts, as beautiful buildings stand alongside wretched houses; striking mountains and scenic seas are flanked by busy roads with flurries of motorcyles and cars; modern shopping malls are in sharp contrast to local markets. But it will lift your energy to unexpected levels.

You’ll be surprised how much you smile when you walk lively streets crowded with stall-type shops, businesses, street eateries, crazy wonderful bikes, cars and busy people – in fact everything!

Fabulous places for you to stay and things to do in Timor Leste

Julia stayed at Hotel Esplanada, near the beach.

The local hotels are colourful and sit amidst the culture. We stayed at Hotel Esplanada which was delightfully inviting right in character and directly across the road from the long tropical beachfront. A superb location for spectacular sunsets and endless walks. And there and everywhere, all manner of local and character-filled restaurants and cafes beckon. And I was smitten with the local foods. 

Then around the bay a must-see is the colossal Cristo Rei statue of Jesus Christ atop Cape Fatucama, arms outstretched protecting the city.

The beaches near Dili are beautiful.

Also the Archives and Museum of East Timorese Resistance and the cemetery of Santa Cruz.

Arte Moris is the cultural centre and artists' association for you to peruse local work. And Tais market will fill your shopping bag with traditional woven items, carvings, jewellery and more. Then out you drive through little spots of beauty on the coastline to small quaint villages such as Biguia where Father Riley helped build an orphanage, retreat and school around 20 years ago. The beauty continues to seduce.

Of course, you fall head over heels in love with the magnificent waters for scuba diving, snorkelling (my favourite), boating or just sightseeing.

The waters, located within the Coral Triangle, are some of the world’s most biodiverse, with around 600 reef-building corals. They also sustain six of the world’s seven marine turtle species and more than 2,000 species of reef fish.

Atauro Island has some of the best diving in the Southern Hemisphere.

Atauro Island, just 24km north of capital Dili, has more species of reef fish than any other place on the planet! And is awash with great fun water activities.

So can you hear the invitation. Timor Leste asks you to visit as does Youth Off The Streets for a little help for them. The organisation needs $50,000 to sustain it for the next 12 months so any donations are very welcome. But your presence is welcome just as much. I will go back and back to work with the kids – helping them is irresistible. You can read all about it online at Youth Off the Streets –Overseas Relief Fund, Timor Leste.

Local legend has it that the island of Timor was formed from the body of an ageing crocodile as compensation to a little boy who helped him while he was unwell, and residents of the island are thought to be descendants of the little boy! Time for us to be like the little boy for the kids. Timor Leste for all manner of reasons will invade your heart.

Citro travel tip

Intrepid Travel offer 9-day tours to Timor Leste.

Read the Smart Traveller advice from the Australian Government about TImor Leste.

Find out more about volunteering with the Overseas Relief Fund.

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