Dili, East Timor Report of what it's like to live there - 09/26/17
Personal Experiences from Dili, East Timor
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
I have lived at 5 other overseas posts throughout Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
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?
St. Louis, MO is home. It's frustratingly difficult to get to Dili. Our family's first time flying to post through Dallas, Seoul, and Bali took over 70 hours because of a missed connection in Seoul. If everything goes right while you're traveling, it can still take 30 hours or more to get home. You can only get into Dili through Singapore, Bali, and Darwin (Australia).
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Expat-quality housing in Dili is nice, although on the smaller side of what we have experienced living overseas. There are very few true apartment buildings, but single family homes don't necessarily come with a lot of green space. My family lives in a gated community within walking distance of the Australian Embassy and QSI international school and we're only about a 10 minute drive to the US Embassy in the "heaviest" traffic. Many of my colleagues either live close enough to walk to work or ride their bikes.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries are somewhat pricey since most products are imported from either Australia, Singapore, or China. The selections in the markets are improving all the time, which is good; but you can't always count on finding the items you were so excited to see on one trip to the grocery the next time you go there. You can finally find most of what you're looking for these days, although not in the huge variety that you may be used to in the States.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
We had a consumables shipment and used it to stock up on favorite soups, contact lens solutions, bargain sizes of shampoos, conditioners, deodorants, body wash, comfort foods, Dr. Pepper (seriously!), dishwasher tablets (very difficult to find here), and certain cleaning supplies that we like to have. Pet owners also have a hard time finding quality dog and cat foods and kitty litter.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Our only true fast food restaurant is Burger King, but there are plenty of quality restaurants around to eat at or that will deliver. Good Asian and Indian restaurants, seafood houses, Italian fare and even a really decent Mexican joint are all available.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
It's all about the dengue mosquitos in Dili. They are terrible here. Many landlords and housing compounds hire fogging services, but I kind of think all that does is make the mosquitos angrier because they so easily develop a resistance to the insecticides being used.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO or diplomatic pouch.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Easy to find or they will find you if they know you're new in the neighborhood. Cost for a full time nanny or housekeeper is probably $250 to $300 per month. There are labor laws that limit the amount of hours you can hire a non-Timorese worker for so you have to be careful hiring someone freelance. Most people I know have found Timorese helpers through a local agency.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The U.S. embassy has a decent gym and there's a really nice one at the housing compound we live on, but only one or two others in town that I know of.
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?
We rarely use a credit card here and stick to a cash-only policy while we're eating out or shopping. There are ATMs available and some of the grocery stores will take debit cards, but ones not tied to a local bank don't always work.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are an abundance of Catholic churches here, but I don't know about English services. For Protestant churches, there's the wonderful Victory Family Centre (the main international church) and another place called The Potter's House which is a local congregation that offers English translation. There is also a Mormon congregation here, but I don't know any details about them.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can easily get by on English alone but Portuguese is useful for reading grocery labels. Tetun is not a difficult language to learn and it's nice to get some basic phrases down for taxis and the outdoor markets.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Possibly. Sidewalks are not the best quality and there aren't many elevators; but there aren't many high-rise buildings either. The worst part for someone with disabilities would probably be the limited access to good medical care. If your disability would be a serious consideration in an emergency situation, I would think hard about that before coming here.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis are cheap, although there is only one reputable service provider (Blue Taxi). Plenty of yellow cars are on the roads, but they aren't metered and are known for taking advantage of expats. Microbuses are also available (about 25 cents to get all the way across town), but they are recommended for safety reasons.
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?
Cars are fine in Dili but you'll want an SUV or sturdy truck of some kind if you plan to drive out into the districts any because of deplorable road conditions throughout the country. In the rainy seasons, already-bad roads become impassable, and this is true from one end of East Timor to the other. Don't bring a sports car or any vehicle that you don't want getting banged up by passing motorcycles. You won't be able to drive fast enough in town to enjoy a high speed car and the roads out of town are too bad to drive them on. I know some people who try to get away with not bringing a car to post, but I really caution against this. Dili may be a small post, but it is not easy to get where you want to go from one side of town to the other on your own. None of the residential areas are really close enough to the good shops and restaurants to walk to, and you will need to be able to get out of town sometimes for a break from Dili's monotony.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
OK, so here's the thing - East Timor is not a good internet post. I had better speeds in Cameroon 7 years ago than we have here now and it can be seriously frustrating to deal with. You just can't let it get to you. Somehow we can still stream Netflix, but huge downloads can literally take a couple of days to finish. It also affects how you're able to use internet-based video game systems such as the XBOX ONE. If you're hoping to be able to kick back and play Call of Duty online with your friends back at home, you're going to have some days where it just isn't possible. Learn to close your laptop, put down the controllers, and grab a book when the internet lets you down. You'll enjoy the post a whole lot more that way.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Local cell service is readily available and inexpensive. Bring an unlocked phone with you if you have to have the latest editions, though. It takes a long time for the new iPhones to make it here.
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?
Our best vet recently closed her practice and moved back to Australia. I think there is one more in Dili, but this is one of those areas where you probably won't find what you are looking for. East Timor requires a quarantine period in Australia before any animal imports (ONLY Australia) and it can be prohibitively expensive to ship your dog or cat here. We chose to leave our Yorkie home in the US with my mom rather than go through this process.
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?
Education, NGO's, volunteer work. You can probably find something to keep yourself busy, but local pay scales are low. I think telecommuting would be rough given the internet situation.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
If you are a medical professional of any kind, please consider volunteering your time in the outlying districts. There are countless Timorese families who live hours away from any kind of quality medical or dental care.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Too hot for formal wear and not many opportunities to dress up anyway. Our embassy does not have a Marine Security Guard unit, so we don't even have a Marine Ball to attend here. I wear capri pants and sandals to work all the time, although business casual is the norm at the embassy.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Home break-ins are common, even on secure compounds. Also petty crime. I don't feel unsafe here, though.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
This is a forced medical evacuation post. For the U.S. embassy, Singapore is our medevac point, and you will most likely end up going there at least once or twice during your tour. There's a small medical center that can handle some needs, but anything that needs serious treatment or diagnosis will need to be treated out of the country. Eye doctors are scarce and there are very few reliable dentists are here, so even something like a broken tooth will require a medevac. My husband has had this happen twice already, and I was recently sent to the hospital in Singapore because of an issue with a racing heartbeat. The only way to properly diagnose me was to see an outside cardiologist.
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?
Air quality isn't bad here at all. There's not much industry, so pollution mainly comes from burning trash and the like.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Gluten-free foods and mixes are available but you may have difficulty explaining food allergies in restaurants.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
It can be difficult dealing with the isolation of East Timor and feeling cut off from communicating with family and friends when the internet is down. I don't think there are many mental health workers available locally, so if you feel like you need to talk to a professional, you will need to consider finding someone who can talk to you via Skype or Facetime. The U.S. embassy has a regional psychologist visit post a couple of times a year from Jakarta, and she offers videoconference consultations.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Warm, tropical, and summery all year long with rainy and dry seasons. In the rainy season, heavy showers are mostly confined to late afternoons and at night, leaving hot, humid days. It can be cooler up in the mountains, so do leave all your sweaters and jackets behind.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There's QSI Dili for those who want an American curriculum and schedule, or Dili International School for those who are looking for the IB curriculum and a southern hemisphere calendar. My two children attend QSI (grade 5 and grade 10 this year). It's a very small school (less than 100 students from pre-K to upper school) with basic facilities but a good heart. QSI schools use a subject masteries program, which has been fine for my son and daughter, but they just cannot compete with international schools at other posts when it comes to facilities and opportunities to compete in sports or academic programs. The high school has fewer than 10 students currently, so it's impossible to sustain sports teams of any kind.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
There's no true special needs program at QSI, but the classes are small enough to where the students get plenty of one-on-one attention and help when they need it.
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?
QSI, Dili International School, and Ba Futura offer preschool classes on a half-day basis. I don't know the costs but I think they are reasonable.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Very few organized classes. Snorkeling, paddle-boarding, and kayaking are fun activities that are easy to find, though.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The American community is pretty small, but you'll love the Aussies, Kiwis, and expats from all over Asia that you'll meet. There's also a good-sized Portuguese population. Morale is actually really good. This is laid-back island life at its best.
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?
Happy hours at the U.S. and Australian Embassies are very popular and happen several times per year. We like to hang out at some of the beachside restaurants where the tables are right on the sand and you can play in the water while you're there. Movies, spa days, game nights, and cook-outs with friends are fun. Rotary Club has a group here that is active and there's also a hash group.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
This is a good post for anyone who doesn't need to be constantly entertained to be happy. It is relaxing, for sure, but you have to find your own fun.
4. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There are some great places to hike or ride your bike here in Dili. At one end of town, there's a giant statue of Jesus overlooking the waters around Timor that you can climb the stairs to and the beaches behind the statue are gorgeous. Snorkeling and diving here are great, especially if you go out to Atauro Island. There are several places that offer diving certification classes. Trips to Bali are common since there's a short, direct flight. It's also easy to get anywhere in Australia through Darwin, which is also only an hour away by air.
East Timor is truly a beautiful, untouched country with gorgeous mountains and hundreds of miles of un-touristed beaches. If you're looking for 5-star resorts, go to Bali; but untouched Timor can be breathtaking. If you're into serious cycling, the annual Tour de Timor bike race runs in September. It is grueling but worth looking into. The Timor Plaza shopping center has a movie theater that usually shows 4 films per week on its two screens. New movies are almost always released here at the same time as in the US, so we get a lot of the biggest blockbusters.
5. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
No, definitely not a shopping post. There's one small shopping mall in Dili and a handicrafts market on weekends where you can buy local tapestries, jewelry and wooden carvings. Unfortunately, there are no places to buy any kind of good local art. The one artist shop I visited left me aching inside because I had been so spoiled at previous posts by the availability of quality street paintings and there was virtually nothing here. People looking for nice paintings for their homes buy the in Bali.
6. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
You learn how to disconnect and how to live with less while enjoying the raw natural beauty of East Timor. The people here are very friendly and full of joy.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I wish I had done more research on the history of East Timor. It's a very young country with a volatile past that is worth exploring.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, for sure. It's a definite hardship post, but very livable if you learn to embrace the positives. You will get to know your neighbors and enjoy quality time with your family and new friends.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
High-speed internet addictions and big city expectations.
4. But don't forget your:
Snorkeling gear, a paddle board, lots of sunscreen and bug spray, and a good umbrella. You also shouldn't leave behind at least some of your cold-weather clothing in case you happen to travel into Australia during the winter months (opposite to the US seasons) or need to travel back home in the cold.
5. Do you have any other comments?
I tried to be as realistic as possible about the reality of life in Dili, but I don't want you to think that this is a bad post. It's honestly not bad here at all but there are some definite hardships to life in East Timor. I love this beautiful country and will be sad to leave next year, but two years will probably have been enough.