Digital photography has never been so exciting.

I look up from my book to find a young mother pushing her two children toward me and eagerly pointing at the camera beside me. The shy kids obediently pose as I click away, then cover their mouths, giggling, as I show them the images on the camera screen.

All of a sudden I am surrounded by 20 kids who appear to have emerged from the ocean, some naked, some clutching homemade boogie boards, and one with an old, coloured feather duster on his head as a makeshift Mohawk.

Unusual hair style

Loving his goggles…

Making friends at a Dili beach

They’re bouncing around in front of the camera, flexing non-existent muscles and pulling cheesy grins, all in an attempt to star in my travel snaps.

It’s not uncommon to find yourself in this position in East Timor. It seems that all Timorese people, while extremely shy, are verging on narcissism and love to see their face on a digital camera screen.

This openness and curiosity is present throughout East Timor, and perhaps jars with the perception one might have of a people who have faced persecution and the horrors of violent colonialism for over 200 years.

With hundreds of years of Portuguese rule already a stain on East Timor’s history, the Indonesian invasion in 1975 signalled the next chapter in the country’s bleak past. For the next several decades East Timor spiralled into decay, with an estimated 100,000 deaths. In 1991, when peace looked possible, East Timor once again hit the world’s headlines when more than 100 people were killed by Indonesian soldiers who opened fire on a crowd commemorating the recent death of an activist.

Santa Cruz Cemetery

It wasn’t until the late 90s that Indonesia finally agreed to relinquish control of East Timor, and preparations began for a referendum which would allow the Timorese people to vote for either autonomy or independence. The pro-autonomy militia commenced a bloody intimidation campaign, backed by the Indonesian army. Despite the violence, the courage of the East Timorese saw voters turn out in force in August 1999, and almost 80% agreed in favour of independence.

But expected celebrations turned sour as the militias ran riot through the country, killing and maiming, as the Indonesian army stood idly by. The UN, Australia and several other countries entered East Timor to restore peace, and the country has been recovering ever since.

I ended up in East Timor for only two weeks at the end of 2008 when I visited a friend who lives there. Working for a research organisation and also writing her thesis on gender development in emerging countries, she has lived in the country on and off for around three years. Over that time she’s developed both a sense of frustrated resignation for the way the country operates, and a love for its people and culture. Staying with her gave me the opportunity to experience the country almost as an insider, taking advantage of her fluency in the language and friendships with many people throughout the small nation.

We spent most of our time in Dili, but also got the chance to take the hair-raising drive up into the mountains to stay in a village.

In its dusty simplicity, Dili imbibes in the traveller a sense of going forth where few have gone before. While NGO workers, international police and foreign advisers abound, rarely will you meet a ‘tourist’. Tourism in Timor is still a nascent industry, but no doubt the seeds have been planted following the huge interest in the country after the release of the film Balibo in 2009.

Dili still bears the marks of war. Houses that were burnt during riots in 2006 remain half-crumbling, some riddled with the pocks of bullet holes.

Streets of Dili

Destroyed house in Dili

Walking through Dili is certainly an experience. The potholed streets are shared by vehicles of all types and rambling pigs and goats. Before I came, I’d read about the alarming pace of the NGO vehicles and foreign police, and I found it to be true – as they speed past, their tyres kick up dust and small rocks, and it’s always wise to move as close to the kerb (well, at least to where the kerb should be) as possible.

Like many countries with high rates of unemployment, there are constant lines of people standing by the road, endlessly waiting…  for what? Mikrolets (small public transport vans) cruise past, picking up people, dropping them off, but always there are men and women standing around.

Going a little further out from the city centre, though, we discovered pockets of paradise in the pristine beaches that stretch along Dili. Here we were alone but for some Portuguese soldiers taking advantage of their time off to soak up the sun.

To get to the beaches we passed several small seafood restaurants, and it was easy to stop the car and pull in for an hour or two of drinking, snacking, and gazing out to sea. We became slightly obsessed with pineapple shakes – fresh chunks of pineapple blended with ice – as a way to refresh ourselves in the hot, humid climate.

Despite the heat, we did drive to one of Dili’s more conspicuous attractions, and made our way up the seemingly endless steps to gasp at the view from the massive statue of Christ, a strange gift from the Indonesians, that occupies the hilltop of Cape Fatucama. The walk up to the top of the hill is lined with the 14 Stations of the Cross, and, once at the top, it offers an amazing view over Dili and across to Atauro Island.

Statue of Christ

Indonesia’s gift to East Timor

Atauro Island was another highlight of the trip. We joined the masses at the port (where Australian journalist Roger East was killed when the Indonesians invaded in 1975) to catch the ferry across. I’d heard amazing things from my friend about the island, but, alighting from the ferry, I wasn’t overly impressed. Much like Dili, it was hot, dry and dusty. Small herds of goats chewed at small shrubs in the dirt and small, dirty children ran around the roads.

Atauro Island

Not knowing where we were going, we chose a direction – to the right – and walked to see what we could find. We entered the first house we came to, to see whether they could offer any advice on how to fill the next six hours until the ferry returned.

Huts on Atauro Island

Inside the house – which we discovered was actually a guesthouse – we stumbled upon a fellow Australian, Barry, who, for US$5, fed us the most amazing fresh seafood, chicken dishes and unidentifiable (but delicious!) vegetables, all cooked by his Timorese wife. In between mouthfuls we spoke with Barry and a variety of his guests, most of them doctors and agricultural specialists here to assist with the country’s development. Barry had found himself in the country several years ago, when he helped to build a sustainable hotel on the island. He married a local girl, but sadly she died the following year. He’s now married to another Timorese woman and father to beautiful twin boys.

After second and third helpings of food, Barry offered us the use of one of his attractive huts so we could change and swim. We walked across the white sand – small, perfect grains – to bathe in bath-temperature-water which was seriously blue and clear.

Running along the beach to catch the ferry, we mused that it was an unexpectedly wonderful day, and a reminder that not everything can be taken on face value.

East Timor is not for the unadventurous – it has little tourist infrastructure, the language barrier can be a challenge, the US dollar means that it’s expensive, it’s hot and dirty.

But to experience truly rustic places like Atauro Island, and to see the joy on faces of kids when you show them something as simple as a photo of themselves, it’s definitely worth it.