Staying in Dili, Timor Leste working for the UN after the referendum was an eye opener for me. I discovered what a ravaged country by conflict looks like, I realised that each child I saw was an orphan. Beach shacks were not fanciful dwellings but real homes. I understood that the sea we take for granted gives the only food the local people could find apart from foraging. I became friends with childrens who practically spend all their time on the beach with some lucky dogs who wee alive, and some bold pigs who crossed roads with their cute tiny piglets.
Life came to a stall, we lived in a different bubble from the outside world.
In front of the hotel we stayed in, was the beach. My first cognition with a black sand one. It felt strange, unreal. Me, so used to my native island’s fine white sandy beaches.
However, we built our days over challenges and had our delightful time going to the white sandy stretches by Jesus, as everybody calls it. It became our Sunday R&R spot.
Now, where do you find white sandy beaches in Dili?
Heading east out of Dili you can either go over the hill and far away or you can continue on the Metiaut road until it falls into the ocean at the feet of Jesus.
Cristo Rei is a giant statue of Christ on top of the hill at Cape Fatucama (the furthest point north of Dili’s bay). He stands with open arms on top of a globe. It was given to Timor by the Indonesians during occupation. Not wanting to lose the chance to squeeze some symbolism in, the 27m of the statue’s height was supposed to represent the 27 provinces of Indonesia, including what was then East Timor and now Timor-Leste. Also noted symbolically is the fact that Christ holds his arms open towards Jakarta rather than Timor.
At the base of the hill there is a car park, amphitheatre and small shelters for picnics and gatherings. The initial path climbs past the 14 Stations of the Cross in long gradual steps. You reach the saddle of the hill where you can see west to the Cristo Rei beach and east to what most people call ‘back beach’. There is another wide set of stairs that takes you to a level area with an altar for public masses. The final climb is up a series of short steep steps that may require a pause in conversation to hide any shortness of breath.
At the top there is an observation area with 360 degree views and the copper height of Christ watching down on you. You’ll see tourists taking photos, joggers stretching, walkers wiping sweat from their brows and highly pregnant women hoping to get things started. At the right time of year you can see whales and every day you can watch the show-off sunset that doesn’t lose any of its beauty, no matter how many times you see it.
This strip has a coastal walkway, some sun shelters, trees, a few cafes and even accommodation. The water is warm and shallow for 10-15m before it drops off to become darker, cooler and occasionally corralled. The water is full of people swimming, splashing and paddling surf skis. The shore is lined with forts, sandcastles, younger siblings and watchful parents. Most people head home around 5pm but those who stay reposition their seats so that nothing comes between them and another perfect sunset.
On a clear night the changing reds, oranges and pinks glow on and on. Then for a moment you turn away and when you look back the show is over for another day.