In The News

Pedaling for Peace in Timor

September 15, 2010

For the past few months, the capital of Timor-Leste, Dili, and indeed many parts of the rest of the tiny island nation, have experienced an increase in a particular kind of traffic. For the second-time, avid mountain bikers took to the streets in preparation for the 500-kilometer “Tour de Timor” mountain biking event from September 13-17.

Timor-Leste coastline

That the first new independent nation of the 21st century, more known for its brutal independence struggle against Indonesia at the turn of the century, should host such an event might seem obscure, but in fact, this event forms part of a concerted effort by President Jose Ramos Horta and others to promote Timor-Leste as an adventure tourist destination.

Known in Tetun as Korida ba Paz (Ride for Peace), the race includes over 350 entrants battling the heat and mountains in varying stages of fitness and technical capacity. While the Tour includes a number of professional riders – complete with support vehicles and nutritionists – who have flown in from Australia, the UK, and elsewhere, and a share of enthusiastic “weekend warriors” – mostly expats living and working in Timor-Leste for the United Nations, NGOs, and other organizations, who have managed to ship or smuggle bikes into the country despite the 20-kilogram weight restriction on most flights into Timor, and practice mostly on weekends – those are not the true stars.

The ones to really watch are Timorese riders who have taken to a sport more readily associated with California (think Mt. Tam, the birthplace of modern mountain biking), or South Africa’s Cape Town (the grueling “Cape Epic” is regarded as the toughest mountain bike race in the world). These riders have entered despite a clear disadvantage in so far as modern equipment and other resources used by so many of their foreign co-competitors. Many of the riders seen around town were using old, heavy bicycles and often did not use basic equipment such as cycling shoes. Yet, this did not deter an unprecedented number of Timorese cyclists from entering this year’s competition. The UN reports that 70 Timorese riders are taking part in this year’s race, up significantly from the 20 who participated in last year’s inaugural event. Notably, many of the Timorese riders are members of the Policia Nacional de Timor Leste (PNTL), The Asia Foundation’s institutional partner in our ongoing project aimed at strengthening trust and understanding between communities and the police through community-police partnerships. The tour route takes riders up and over some of the highest peaks in Timor-Leste, into some of the most remote parts of the country where the Foundation has worked on strengthening local legal aid organizations to improve rural Timorese’ access to justice and other critical services. By traveling through these remote areas, the Tour should hopefully highlight to the riders and the larger audience, the difficult road that lies ahead for the development of Timor-Leste, as it struggles to provide basic services to the majority of its population.

That the first new independent nation of the 21st century, more known for its brutal independence struggle against Indonesia at the turn of the century, should host such an event might seem obscure, but in fact, this event forms part of a concerted effort by President Jose Ramos Horta and others to promote Timor-Leste as an adventure tourist destination. For those of us who live here, it is not difficult to see the potential in a country that harbors some of the most pristine coral reefs, natural beaches, and rugged mountains, all situated within easy reach of Australia and Bali, and benefits from warmth and hospitality. Fortunately, the ball is rolling: this year alone has seen a rapid increase in events aimed at drawing foreign visitors to Timor’s shores. In June, the president hosted the inaugural Dili Marathon, won by a Kenyan marathoner. In July, the Ministry of Tourism hosted the Darwin to Dili yacht race in which nearly 50 sailors on eight yachts participated, the first after a 35-year hiatus. In October, the country will host an underwater photography competition aimed at drawing published underwater photographers to its shores.

In a country known as one of the poorest in the Asia-Pacific region, with some of the lowest key development indicators for literacy, life expectancy, and GDP per capita, it is easy to wonder what all the fanfare of events such as the “Tour de Timor” will afford the regular Timorese. With significant long-term development challenges overshadowed by a dependency on oil revenues, and an ongoing lack in institutional capacity and good governance, it might be easy to turn cynical. However, ongoing initiatives aimed at working with Timorese institutions that focus on local leadership are helping to promote the nation as a safe investment for business and foreign visitors. Despite the significant shortfall in even the most basic infrastructure in some areas, and keeping in mind the ongoing challenges of educating and employing its population, for the adventure-seeking traveler Timor-Leste might just become the next ecotourism destination.

For the time being, Timor-Leste is reveling in the attention, and the cyclists can be sure to expect the warmest of welcomes they have ever received on a course anywhere, as Timorese welcome each and every rider – from Timor to Nicaragua – to its shores, and into their hearts.

Susan Marx is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Timor-Leste. She can be reached at smarx@asiafound.org.

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