On the road in Dili

A car in Dili

A few weeks ago, I was riding along on my motorbike in Dili when an old man took a swipe at me with his walking stick. It was dark and he was crossing the road very slowly, so I could understand his frustration. A couple of metres closer and he probably would have whacked me on the head.

The most amusing and satisfying parts of my day are the rides to and from work, or else just around Dili. You never know what to expect. I always feel a great sadness when I arrive home, knowing full well that the day's road calamities are over.

Where to begin? Well, the roads themselves are problematic. Potholes make regular appearances throughout the city. Every couple of months some company will come and fill them in. Within a week or two the cracks start to reappear and then before you know it the potholes are back, bigger than ever.

It would be better if they just didn't try and fix the potholes at all. At least then you'd know where you stand. As it is, you sometimes get the impression that the roads are improving, only for those dreams to be scuppered a few days later. As soon as the potholes reappear, the locals pile rocks up as warnings to drivers.

Street lights are few and far between, although it doesn't make much difference when the power's out. Driving at night usually requires a lot of guesswork and pure luck. The traffic lights tend to work about half the time, but even then, they're loosely followed.

After a traffic light has turned red, there's a five-second window during which you're still allowed to pass. On the other side, five seconds before the lights go green, everyone has to start honking their horns in anticipation. It's rather exciting, almost like being in a rally.

Speaking of carhorns, Dili has the most diverse selection I have ever experienced. On any given day you'll hear lazer beams, fading carhorns, dog noises and cow noises where usually you'd just hear a regular beep.

There are generally two lanes of traffic around Dili, although in some places this becomes a hazy issue. In front of the new presidential palace, for example, they've made the road about five times wider than it should be, so at peak times there can be anything up to about 25 lanes of traffic all heading in different directions. The lack of road markings makes it particularly tricky to figure out where to go.

The number of vehicles on the roads in Dili increases exponentially every couple of weeks. The fastest vehicles are these ginormous trucks carrying huge trailers. They hurtle down the road along Pantai Kelapa as if they're lives depended on it.

At the other end of the spectrum are the taxis. I'm told that the taxi drivers have established some sort of union for which they all agreed to never travel above 30kmh. It's usually quicker to walk than take a taxi in Dili. There are no meters in the taxis and some of them are so old that the door handles have been replaced with bits of string.

There are a select few "super taxis" on the roads. These have a combination of flashing neon light, shiny wheel rims and air freshener. Every taxi driver blacks out all but a slither of his front window, which makes it feel like you're being transported inside a large postbox.

The drivers also stick dozens of small round mirrors on the windshield, either for looking up girls' skirts or else getting a close shave while on a break. The fares vary depending on how nice your driver is. The old dollar-a-journey fares can still be found, but if you travel a little farther than normal, you may have to pay $2-3.

Taxis from the airport charge up to $10 to go anywhere. A better option is to walk out of the airport and up to the roundabout, where you can find regular taxis. Always agree the fare before you travel so as not to end up in an argument.

The other form of public transport in the city is a real hoot. A microlet is a van about the size of a regular breadbin. They go all round the city transporting dozens of people at a time. The fares are no more than 25 cents. Travelling by microlet is a hot, sticky, cramped experience, but it's worth doing at least once.

Although it's never happened to me, there's a fair amount of groping that reportedly goes on during microlet journeys, so solo female travellers should be vigilant.

The microlets pull in anywhere and everywhere without warning. Most vehicles in Dili don't indicate, and if they do, it's usually because they've forgotten to turn their indicators off.

When it comes to overtaking, it's anything goes. This is where the 4×4 drivers come into their element. The more important the organization they work for, the more erratically they are allowed to overtake. If it's a government vehicle then, wow, you want to go get out of the way because those guys will take out anything in their path: goats, chickens, small houses — you name it.

To overtake in Dili, cars basically just swerve out into the other lane as soon as they come to any vehicle going slower than them. Any oncoming traffic is expected to slow down or else stop until the manoeuvre is complete. It's also common for 4×4 drivers to overtake 16 or 17 other vehicles at a time, effectively creating a dual carriageway.

If you hear sirens, don't panic. It's probably just the prime minister going to have his lunch. Everyone in the government has these ridiculous convoys of six or seven vehicles. They don't observe any of the common road practices and just plough through until they reach their destination. If you were a would-be assassin, you'd be best just following the sirens.

There are few traffic regulations. UN vehicles, for example, are exempt from all rules. If you're in a UN vehicle then lucky you, you have temporary invincibility and can drive as fast as you like on all sides of the road.

Apart from obvious rules, such as "don't kill anyone", the only other one I can think of is that bikers and their passengers are supposed to wear helmets. Other than that, motorbike riders have it pretty easy. If you want to be one of the cool kids, you need to ride a motorbike with no rearview mirrors. Having no lights or indicators will also get you plus points.

I have a very old motorbike. It cost about $300 and has no wing mirrors. To turn the headlight on I have to cross a couple of exposed wires and twist them together. The rear lights don't work and one time the ignition broke so for about two weeks I had no lights at all and I could start the bike without using the key, which I soon lost. The speedometer is upside down and a few weeks ago the throttle cable snapped while I was in top gear, meaning I couldn't slow down and had to turn the bike off with the keys.

My motorbike is at the lower end of the spectrum, really. Most people put at least some effort into have a visually satisfying mode of transport. A Timorese carwash is a place where kids hurl buckets of ditch water at your vehicle for a couple of dollars.

While driving around Dili there are a few hazards you need to watch out for on a daily basis: goats, pigs, packs of dogs, cows, buffalo, chickens, small children, people in those trike wheelchairs they pedal with their hands, trees, rocks, potholes and deceptive-looking puddles that are actually more like lakes.

During rainy season, the roads can flood something terrible, but the water tends to drain within a few hours in many parts of the city.

Hopefully everyone else has as much fun on the road as I do.

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2 thoughts on “On the road in Dili

  1. Can I make a special mention of UNPOL vehicle number UN 0655 that almost knocked me off my bike just 10 minutes ago?

    Maybe we should start a special page just for bikers to record UNPOL transgressions? It would be a sort of cry in the wilderness.

  2. I agree! UNPOL are Ridiculous. Their arrogance and snobbery to the Timorese people, especially when driving, Is something that I found quite disturbing and changed all my views on the UN.

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