This tiny country with the land size of Hawaii and with a population of just 1.2 million lies on the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago a little over an hour’s flight from Northern Australia.
The main island consists of a rugged core of hills and mountains surrounded by stretches of narrow tropical lowlands in the north and wider plains in the south. Although many of the beaches are stunning, the prevalence of crocodiles makes swimming in most of them dangerous. The Timorese creation myth has it that the island was gifted to a boy by a crocodile whose life the boy saved. Timorese trace their ancestry to crocodiles.
The diversity of landscapes from any one point in Timor-Leste to another is reflected in the fact that 32 languages or dialects are spoken in the country by people often living only miles apart but separated by deep ravines and fast flowing rivers.
The eastern half of the island of Timor was colonized by the Portuguese from 1515 (the Dutch claimed the western half which is now part of Indonesia). The Japanese occupied Timor for several years during World War II and Indonesia invaded it in 1975. Through these waves of often brutal foreign rule, the Timorese never lost sight of their own particular culture or gave up on their dream of independence which was finally achieved in 2002.
Today almost 70 percent of Timorese still rely on subsistence farming for their livelihood. Maize, beans, sweet potato, cassava and peanuts are staple crops. Diets are often supplemented by foraging for food in the forests. Timor-Leste remains one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. It is also one of the youngest with about 60 per cent of the population under 30 years of age. In my own travels through 30 different countries I have never met a more optimistic, enthusiastic or friendly people as those who call Timor-Leste home.