Have you ever felt what it’s like to be the only tourist in an entire country? I’ve always been drawn to remote places – the ones that cause people’s faces to turn into question marks when you say you’re going there. Perhaps it’s a pattern I picked up from my father, who relayed his love for obscure locations to my siblings and I through experiences such as staying in a hidden jungle village on the north coast of Bali, or eating tacos sitting on plastic chairs in the back alleys of a tiny town in Mexico.
Although I can appreciate the appeal of famous spots like Paris and Rome, given the choice I tend to find myself drifting towards lesser known corners of the world. Thus, as I began backpacking solo through Southeast Asia, a place called East Timor caught my attention. As it came onto my radar I began asking around in search of information from someone who had been there. Yet the more backpackers I asked, the more I came to expect the same reaction – a blank stare, an uncomfortable silence, the usual question of “where’s that?”
Naturally this intensified my desire to go there, so I finally took the plunge. As fate would have it, the night before I was set to leave the universe intervened with a sign of encouragement. I was standing at the front desk booking a shuttle to the airport when I overheard the woman next to me doing the same. Her flight was at the same time, and when the receptionist asked her where she was going, she mentioned “Dili.” I turned to her with a look of shock.
“Dili, as in the capital of East Timor?”
“Yes – I work there. I am returning from holiday.”
I was stunned. She was the first person I had met in my 8 months of travel through SE Asia who had been there before. We agreed to share a shuttle, and I went to bed comforted knowing I could gain some valuable information from her on that ride the following morning.
Our small plane bumped to a halt in an empty lot surrounded by barren, dusty hills with a faded sign stating some form of greeting in Portuguese (the official language of Timor Leste). I disembarked, walked through the airport the size of a house, and grabbed my backpack. Janine, the lady who worked there, offered to give me a ride. I was staying at ‘East Timor Backpackers,’ the only hostel in the country, and had figured I would meet fellow travelers there. Her expat friend picked us up in a dust-covered no-nonsense 4×4 vehicle and within ten minutes dropped me off. I waved goodbye and approached the concrete wall lined with shards of broken glass, a haphazard ‘East Timor Backpackers’ spray painted in black on it.
Inside the compound, a small lady was watching a grainy drama on a minuscule TV, and reluctantly looked up at me with tired eyes. She checked me in and directed me towards the dorm, saying to choose any bed.
“Choose any bed? Is there anyone else staying here?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Only you.”
My stomach dropped. I was the ONLY traveler in the only hostel in the entire country. My mind whirred into panic mode. What was I going to do for the next week and a half? I began questioning everything. Had I made the wrong decision to come here? I wondered if I had finally taken my quest for adventures a step too far.
As I sat on that paper-thin mattress in a room full of empty beds, caught in a vicious cycle of negativity and doubt, I realized what I had to do. I had to accept this as a challenge, and make the best of it. I had gotten myself into this situation, and the power to make or break my experience was in my own hands. I gathered up my courage, put my brave face on, swung my camera over my shoulder and ventured out into the scalding midday heat of Dili. The next few days I made it my purpose to experience everything I could, meet as many people as possible, and make the best of the situation. I soon met some expats who clued me in on some key information, such as the fact that tourists don’t come here (they were baffled when I told them I was a backpacker), there are saltwater crocodiles (so the beach is off-limits!), you need an off-roading jeep to go somewhere (the roads are destroyed) and getting anywhere or doing anything is virtually impossible.
But I refused to let that stop me. There I was, in a strange recently post-conflict remote country in Asia where they speak tetum and Portuguese, use the U.S. dollar, and have virtually no exposure to the world. I spent the days wandering the streets interacting with locals, timidly took on the transportation system of “microlets,” or hollowed out vans, took a day trip to a nearby village and beach, and spent my evenings making friends with the foreign development and aid workers. My most random experience was getting invited to an all-night beach rave at the second largest town in the country (population 124,000), a three hour drive away on post-apocalyptic cliffside roads along the coast, followed by an off-roading experience down some cliffs through the jungle to a secluded beach where I was warned not to venture too far from in case of crocodiles. It’s situations like those where reality hits you smack in the face and you wonder how exactly all of your teeny life decisions brought you to this exact moment in time and space. Needless to say, it was an unforgettable and once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The days flew by in a whirlwind of mountaintop sunrises, late night beers with my aid worker friends, snorkeling with the fear of crocodiles, trips to the market for BBQ’d fish on a stick, exploring on motorbikes, and the warm smiles and sign language-fueled conversations with locals. Before I knew it, my time was up. I packed my backpack, confidently hailed down a microlet, and squeezed myself in next to the locals as I headed for the airport.
The span of growth that took place within me in those ten days was one I had never experienced. Putting myself in such a challenging, raw, vulnerable position had forced me to realize several important things:
1. You are the master of your reality and whatever your mindset, whatever energy you are putting out, you will receive back.
2. We are all human no matter how different our situations, no matter how many barriers separate us, and with that comes a shared understanding of compassion, love, fear, courage, and faith. The world is a kind place if you open up your heart.
3. Finally, within each of us we have a strength so powerful, so profound, that we can get through anything. Yet most of us never realize this, because the only way to do so is to shatter your reality, expose yourself to utter vulnerability, and trust in yourself. Fear is the only barrier.
I won’t lie and say my time in Timor Leste was all rainbows and butterflies. Timor Leste is not the next up-and-coming paradise destination. It might never be. But I am so deeply grateful for that experience, and will never regret it. It was hard. It was gritty. I was scared, I had doubts. But I learned lessons so essential to living life as it’s meant to be lived. I came out a changed person, confident not only in my ability to get myself through any situation, but to make the best of it – to thrive. Solo travel is a beautiful, challenging, scary, wonderful thing that every individual should experience at least once. It pushes you to see a side of the world that you would never see, as well as a side of yourself that you never knew existed. Whether it’s a town three hours away, or a place as remote as Timor Leste, go. Get out there. Shatter that safety bubble and see this beautiful, vibrant world.
About the author: Haley Scheer is an avid world traveler with 32 countries under her belt at the age of 23. From a tiny island nestled in the Pacific Northwest, she got a taste of travel through family trips and grew up dreaming of adventures far and wide. She completed her bachlor’s degree at a 600-year-old university in Scotland, has hitchhiked across Europe multiple times, lived in Poland, volunteered in Peru, and dreams of taking the trans-siberian railway someday. Her most recent solo expedition involved a one-way ticket to Bangkok which turned into a year of backpacking around Southeast Asia, occasionally teaching yoga, hiking volcanoes, swimming with sharks and sea turtles, and eating delicious food. Read more of her work here: www.adventuresofrubyrainbow.wordpress.com