Dili, East Timor Report of what it's like to live there - 09/30/16

Personal Experiences from Dili, East Timor

Dili, East Timor 09/30/16


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Many from Asia to Latin America to Europe.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Home is difficult to define. Traveling to and from Timor-Leste is very difficult. The only readily accessible locations are Bali, Indonesia and Darwin, Australia, which are each within 2 hours. Three times a week there is a flight to Singapore, but most people transit via Bail given the regular flights and lower costs.

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3. How long have you lived here?

A little over a year.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Diplomatic assignment.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

I live in an eclectic house about 2 minute walk to the U.S. Embassy, a cafe/restaurant and the beach (although not the nicest one). Most expats live in houses, some on residential compounds, while some are stand alone. Almost all are gated. There are not very many apartments available, although some new buildings are being built. Dili is for the most part, a low-lying city.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

There are a number of supermarkets spread around town, with the best being Kmanek, Lita and Leader, offering a range of mainly imported goods (from all over), some fresh fruit and vegetables and some local products. Timor Plaza, the largest shopping center in the country, has just about everything you need. Sometimes you will be surprised by what you can find, sometimes you will be surprised by the price on offer (much more than you would expect) and sometimes you need to be careful with expiration dates, but overall most things are available.

There is at least one supermarket which will get you whatever you want from Singapore for a price. There are also several bakeries around town offering fresh bread, some specialty supermarkets that stock just about everything, like Pateo which imports almost all their goods from Portugal or a new store Qilina (spelling?) that offers organic products as well, at a price. Some more specialty items you can sometimes find at certain cafes or restaurants that sell them on the side, such as granola, fresh yogurt, hummus, etc.

There are also some OK butchers in town, but you will mostly find beef and pork there -- most of the chicken, mutton, lamb, goat and fish on offer in supermarkets is frozen, even though you will find chicken, fish and goat all over the country!

While there are scores of small fruit and vegetable markets around town, I shop at the big one, Taibesse, which is an adventure in itself, but offers lots of smiling faces, curious Timorese and great quality seasonal fruits and vegetables at cheap prices. The adventurous with a bit of Tetum can even find things like pomegranates and local almonds.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

I actually planned ahead, but here were things I'm glad I did because of higher prices here: granola, nuts (besides peanuts), specialty ingredients, and organic cleaning & laundry products. As noted, you can find just about everything here (except a lot of variety in cosmetics, household goods & cleaning products), but it all comes at a higher price.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There are Chinese, Indian, Turkish, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Thai, Japanese, Italian, Korean, Australian, Brazilian, and Portuguese restaurants throughout town, as well as Burger King, Gloria Jeans and a lot of small cafes and one taco bar. Finding a Timorese restaurant is a lot more difficult! Several places offer takeaway, with two of the most popular takeout options being Curry Box (Indian) and Osteria (Italian).

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Ants. You will not be able to stop them, so just keep the house clean, keep the food stored away and live with them. Try to keep mosquitos under control through best practices. Some people use mosquito nets. Timor-Leste has been very good about reducing malaria, although dengue fever still exists as problem, particularly during rainy season.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Receiving is difficult as until recently there were no postal addresses (houses, buildings were not numbered), but that is changing. I have sent one letter to two different countries and they were received. Word is mail only takes a bit over a week to get to Portugal, but haven't tested that yet. Most people receive mail in country via DHL.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Available. I pay $20 a week for someone to come 1x week to clean house, wash my clothes and iron. Daily household help is available. You can hire someone to do just about anything. I also have a driver and gardener. Driver costs $3 hour, gardener just over a $1 hour. Some people use employment services such as Entrega Ba, which is quite reliable and handles work contracts.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

The beach, the sea and the hills are my gym, like it is for many Timorese, but if you prefer going to a gym there are several well-stocked gyms around town, some of which are in hotels and include pools. I'm not aware of the prices though.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

You can credit cards in some places, but there is usually fee to use. Forget using one outside of Dili. In about a month you will know where almost all the ATMs are. Outside of Dili, access to ATMs is usually only available in district capitals, if that. Best is to have both a Visa and a Mastercard, as few ATMs accept both.

Local currency is U.S. dollar and cash is for the most part used for most transactions.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Knowing Tetum, which is relatively easy to learn helps a huge amount. If you can't speak Tetum, but know Indonesian, you can get by in most parts of the country. Portuguese is often understood by older Timorese, given the country's history and they will eagerly practice with you. One can get by in Portuguese, if you speak very slowly. English is hit or miss, with the greatest concentration of English speakers in Dili, but don't be surprised if you hear kids or youth calling out to you as Mister (regardless of your gender).

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

For the most part, yes, most facilities are not built for those with disabilities.

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1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Local taxis come in two varieties, the yellow taxis, where fares have to be negotiated every time and the drivers are hit or miss. Newer on-demand taxis are a bit more expensive and harder to find, but safer, offer better customer service and have a/c. Getting taxis after dark becomes very difficult unless you are in a well-trafficked tourist area. No trains. Bus service is offered between main cities at a reasonable fare, but given Timorese roads, the quality of bus drivers and the number of passengers would not be the option I take. Inside Dili, microlets, or minibuses run set routes, cost under a $1 and while crowded and not always safe, are an easy way to get around. Once again, after dark, hard to find.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

If you want to get out of Dili, would recommend a 4WD or at least front wheel. Most people have Toyotas, given ease of repairs, spare parts, etc.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Nothing is high-speed in Timor. I use pre-paid service, which charges you per gigabyte, with an expiration date.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

There are three major providers -- Timor Telecom (Timorese/Multinational-owned), Telekomsel (Indonesian) and Telemor (Vietnamese). While there is competition among them, prices are fairly similar -- high. While Timor Telecom has the best network across the country, there are many places where the two competitors networks are better and more reliable. A lot of people own more than one sim cards, or change from one provider to another and don't keep the same number ...

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1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

Don't know about qualified, but there are at least two veterinarian clinics in town. Getting pets into and out of the country is difficult, given Australia's stringent quarantine controls and the lack of direct flights into the country.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

For those seeking enumerated employment, there are several international schools in town, as well as employment with foreign missions and NGOs, as well as aid organizations and their local partners. Some expats also work at one of the local English language schools, LELI.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Volunteer opportunities abound. Given Timor-Leste's history, it's transition to independence under UN rule and its openness to NGOs, there are plentiful opportunities.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Business casual, sometimes even more casual. Timorese get dressed up for weddings, for formal government meetings, diplomatic receptions and every Sunday for church.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Given Timor's brutal history of occupation, conflict and divide & conquer, particularly in the last century, there is a lot of unresolved PTSD in society, leading to high levels of gender-based violence, domestic violence and youth conflict. Of particular concern are martial arts groups (which were set up by the Indonesians), which though illegal, continue to wage turf battles that sometimes result in deaths. A couple of months ago, there was a series of attacks using a traditional weapon during the night that left several youth dead.

In Timor, conflict can easily erupt into violence, so expats are recommended caution whenever a confrontation is taking place. The wounds of 1999 and 2006 are still fresh in the minds of many. Violence rarely targets 'malai' (foreigners). My recommendation would be to avoid walking around after dark, especially in areas you are not familiar with, especially if you are a woman.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

While there are several private clinics, access to quality health care and all kinds of medicine is limited. Most expats go to Australia or Singapore for medical treatment. Locals often go to Bali themselves. Some of the Embassies medically evacuate for almost any condition.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Good, very good. Expect gorgeous blue skies on most days. Rarely, it is just good (because of dust during dry season), but get a little outside Dili by the sea or up in the mountains and it's gorgeous again. There is almost no local industry to speak of.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Some people get sick from food, including at some of the restaurants. I guess it depends on your immunities. Not sure about allergies.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

Not really. We have sunshine year round. During dry season, the locals welcome the rain by running around during the rain showers in a good mood. Some expats feel very isolated given the distance, but my cure is just to get out of Dili into the hills -- the locals are welcoming and delightful.

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6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

This is a sub-tropical country with a very defined rainy and dry season. Given its geography however, apart from the rainy season, it's a lot more arid than other countries in the region and given the proximity to the sea, the breezes offer respite during the dry season (which can actually be a little cool at night). Weather changes dramatically as you go into the highlands.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There are several international schools. The largest is the Portuguese school, which is a Portuguese-medium school with nearly 800 students, most of them Timorese, but also with Portuguese-speaking expats. There are three English-medium international schools, one based on a Filipino curriculum, one based on Australian curriculum (DIS) and one based on an American curriculum (QSI). Among the English-medium international schools, the biggest is the DIS, which runs from primary to secondary.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Some are on offer, within the schools themselves, sometimes organized in the expat community. Dili Sport Benfica has some sports camps for kids at certain times of year.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

In Dili, large. Particularly Portuguese, Indonesians, Chinese and Australians. Morale is generally good.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Some bars and restaurants in Dili have a definitive expat feel. Some are more frequented by particular groups of expats, while some have a more mixed crowd, including Timorese. There is a hash house harriers group in town, as well as other sporting clubs, particularly diving. Given the excellent Timorese coffee on order, cafes are also local hangouts, as is the main shopping center in town, Timor Plaza.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

In my opinion, it's a good city for just about everybody.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

There is a small LGBT community and Timor has surprised me in its acceptance of the community. I imagine there is still some discrimination and violence that targets the community, but the situation is much, much, much better than in Indonesia.

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5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

The Timorese themselves, the sea, the countryside, the mountains, Timorese coffee

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6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Timor is in the coral triangle. One of the world's most biodiverse reef areas is just off the coast of Dili, about an hour long boat ride away, the island of Atauro, which is delightful for a weekend getaway. Further away, there is also another diving hotspot, near the island of Jaco.

You can dive, free dive or snorkel within the vicinity of Dili, or find great spots about an hour away in each direction. Walks along the beach, hiking in the hills and mountains, exploring the countryside, whale watching near the end of dry season, visiting weekend markets, taking in a cockfight or football match on the weekend.

If you don't mind a more rustic holiday, Timor is for you. If you are looking for high-thrills, urban life or nightlife, this is not the place.

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7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Local handicrafts include basket work and other items made from palm fronds, rustic bamboo furniture, local jewelry and traditional textiles 'Tais' which have an important role in local culture.

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8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Easy commute, warm weather year round, delightful people, fascinating history, great coffee.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

How good the diving is.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Of course.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Winter clothing, apart from a few pieces to venture into the highlands or up Mt. Ramelau, you won't need much of this.

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4. But don't forget your:

Diving gear, good books, suits & ties (you won't need to many of them).

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

There are a lot, both in English & Portuguese. onely Planet guide is woefully outdated, although they publish a good Tetum phrasebook.

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