It seemed we had only just left Darwin before our little jet commenced its descent into Dili. Barely 600km from Australian soil, it was immediately clear that Timor-Leste was, in fact, a whole world away. Steep and striking mountains towered above us as we taxied along the Dili runway past multiple UN and ADF helicopters.
We lined up for immigration on a covered path surrounded by gardens (unlike any immigration I’ve encountered before!). And bam, there was my first collision with the language barrier.
“How long are you here for?” he asked from his little booth.
“OK, 7 days,” he said, scribbling 7 days on the stamped visa in my passport.
“No, no, sorry, I need a 30 day visa.”
“One week? Yes? 2 week?”
This confusing but friendly conversation last for quite some time involving a comprehensive discussion about weeks and days and a bit of counting on fingers until I got my passport back with some scribble that I hoped spelled out thirty days. I get so frustrated and feel so rude when I am unable to speak the language of a nation.
We then threw our luggage into the back of a small truck and clambered in on top of it, much to the horror and embarrassment of the driver who couldn’t believe we’d prefer to sit in the dirty back rather than in the dual cab with him (oops. we didn’t know this offended him until later!).
As we weaved and honked our way through the heavy traffic past banana trees and cinder block houses, I was acutely aware of the smells…a pungent aroma of sea air, fruit, petrol fumes, rubbish, the tropics and animals all combined. Strangely, it invoked strong memories of my time in Guatemala…similar climate perhaps.
It was good to be here. Awake since 3am, exhausted, sick with a bad cold and sinusitis, mentally tired from a very busy semester, I was feeling a little apprehensive about surviving the next couple of intense weeks learning about peace building, state building, security sector reform and development. But in the back of that truck in the glow of the morning sun with the tropical breeze on our faces and countless children waving from the side of the road, the fears began to melt away and yes, it was good to be in Timor-Leste.