Timor Leste Drinking Story: Even in the most relaxing place on earth, I needed alcohol to chill out

When I started writing my drinking story as part of my own sober journey, I did not only focus on the terrible behaviour. I also wanted to drill deep into the madness of it all. How desperate I felt, the lengths I would go to to get hold of some alcohol. How hard I had to work to convince myself my drinking was normal.


I always loved to travel, and here is a story about a family trip to Timor Leste, with a bit of a backstory. You might need to grab a cup of tea or a yummy alcohol free drink as this is a longish one.

Finally we got to Dili, on the second attempt!

I always thought I would be an adventurous mother, and indeed, things started out that way. Our oldest son was born in Scotland, then we left when he was only three months old to live for a year in Karachi, Pakistan. I remember going to a travel agent there and reading a brochure about yak treks in the Himalayas. I was sure I’d be able to strap my baby son to my chest and march along beside a trusty yak.

So wrong!

It turned out that Christian was a terrible traveller. He would not sleep in a new bed. A wild child, even as a baby, our eldest galloped around on his hands and feet like a crab, trying to escape from us whenever he could. We had a disastrous, sleepless trip to Lahore and finally came undone on a trip to a hotel in the hills near Islamabad. On the way up into the hills, we passed riots and fires and arrived to find tanks surrounding the hotel and soldiers patrolling the perimeter. And again, our baby would not sleep. 

All thoughts of backpacking through Africa, living for a few years in Asia, pulling our kids out of school to volunteer in Western Samoa, all of those notions went west. We moved to Sydney and Number 2 son was born soon afterwards, followed almost immediately by his big brother’s diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.

That certainly stopped us in our tracks. Then the twins came along six years later.

Over the years we took all the kids to Scotland twice. We went on holidays to Fiji and to Bali. Paul worked away a lot in China, West Africa, Yemen and Kurdistan. 

As a family, we tried proper resort holidays, finding out that for parents these can be a blessing. All my travel snobbery disappeared in a flash when I could sit and read a book by the pool—with the kids running wild with local Fijians. Sitting down, reading a book. With a glass of wine. Or two or three, and possibly a cocktail. It had been so many years. 

When the children were young, we had a beach house for ten years at Jervis Bay; the kids ran wild there and holidays were easy. But there was no adrenaline for Paul and me, except when we joined them in jumping off the bridge into Moona Moon Creek. 

The trip to East Timor was Paul and my first proper adventure in decades, really the first with children, with half of our children, the youngest 50%. Here’s that story, telling of even in paradise, I needed my alcohol hit.

On the 2st July 2019 we four fly from Darwin to Dili, but then back to Darwin again, as there is so much wind and rain that it is too dangerous to land at Dili airport. So we fly out of Darwin again on the 2nd, and touch down safely into bright sunshine in Dili. An adventure at last.

On our first afternoon, our local guide takes us all around Dili, to markets, museums and then to the Santa Cruz cemetery.

‘At last, Paul! I’ve been keen to come here since 1991 when I was working at BBC Scotland and heard the story of how that British cameraman—Max Stahl—smuggled video of the massacre out of the country.’

Santa Cruz cemetery

‘I remember that too,’ he replies and we wander amongst the white tombstones of this cemetery and weep for the 250 young people murdered here by Indonesian authorities. 

Next day, we take a boat over to the island called Atauro, the sea around which has the most diverse and prolific sea life in the world. We stay at Barry’s Place Eco-Resort, snorkel daily, eat communally with the other guests and feel as if we might not quite be at the end of the world, but for sure if we stand on a chair we might see it from there. 

In a hammock at Barry’s Place

On our second day, I walk into a riot of colour as I leave Barry’s Place and wend my way through the dusty streets of Beloi village. The golden light of late afternoon deepens the tones of the pink and blue houses, and turns the thatched roofs of the market stalls amber.

I take the path to the rear of the village, where a set of steep steps leads up to the Beloi Beach Hotel. The deep reds and yellows of three large East Timorese flags stand out against the darkening blue of the sky as I puff my way up. My Birkenstocks pick up lots of grit. The stairs are steep and my heart is dinging in my chest in an alarming fashion. But I am on a mission. Barry’s Place serves beer on an honour system, but beer is not my drink.

I need wine.

Flags and views at the Beloi Beach Hotel

Fearing a cardiac explosion, I stop on the steps and my mind chatter thumps as hard as my heart does.

‘I’m on holiday, I just want to a drink to relax.’

‘This is a bloody steep hill to climb to get one, literally.’

‘Come on, a wine would be nice as I look over the views to the mainland, over this wine-dark sea.’

‘There is literally no more relaxed place on earth than Barry’s. You’ve been snorkelling, you’ve laid in a hammock and you’ve read your book. If you need anything more to relax, there’s something deeply wrong.’

‘Look, ok. I just miss the taste, just a glass or two.’

Who am I trying to kid?

I resume my trudge up the steps, fearful of a coronary but more concerned about the mental itch and the discomfort in my guts. I cannot truly relax until I scatch this scab.

Up at the hotel, there are only two other guests and plenty of space to sit on the balcony looking down over the palm trees of the village to the beach and sea, the hills of the mainland beyond. 

I order a Rioja, down it fast and then order another. Relief. Now I can relax. But not for long, as dinner is coming imminently at Barry’s Place. One for the road, or rather for the steps and the dusty paths, and I have to drink that last glass swiftly before darkness makes those steps became more lethal on the way down than they were on the way up.

Beach and boats by Barry’s Place

Next day we set off for a morning snorkel, the twins excited and Paul and I delighted to have a chatty Aussie with us who is on holidays from his job as a teacher in the Tiwi Islands. We are loving the sense of being backpackers again and of meeting interesting people like our teacher friend and the young American Peace Corps worker who lives in the highlands of East Timor, not to mention the capable Melbourne mum who leads school groups around East Timor. 

We hop onto the bright green longboat and Barry chats to the boatman, telling him to take us out to the reefs on the right. We motor out, looking up at Manukoka Peak, the highest mountain on the island, then we drop over the side into warm clear water with coral gardens blooming out below all around. The twins laugh and point as they float and fin around, dazzled by all the life below us, entranced.

The gorgeous sea at Atauro

The highlight for us all is watching a black and blue sea snake slithering through the coral in sinuous waves of movement as we hover above. The sea snake then swims up and free, looping its way effortlessly through the water and then ducking back to find its way through heads of grey-green brain coral and wide tables of branching acropora, table coral. 

Coral gardens at Atauro

After fish and rice for lunch, we read in the hammocks, and then I suggest to Paul that we walk up to the Beloi Beach Hotel to see the views and have a drink. The walk up is equally hard today, but I am going before the physical cravings for wine starts, which makes it feel even steeper. This time, I buy a bottle of wine and bring it back to our traditional thatched hut at Barry’s Place. That should last me the next couple of nights. I hope.

At the end of our stay, Barry finds us seats on a missionary plane which is heading back to Dili after bringing over some priests. Our son sits beside the pilot and we taxi along and take off from the dirt runway then swoop over the reefs and deep waters of the Ombai Strait spread out like a peacock tail below, landing in Dili airport electrified by the views and the thrill of the flight in a tiny plane. 

A taxi takes us to our Dili base, the Beachside Hotel at Areia Branca, the white beach tucked in before the headland when the magnificent Christo Rei statue lifts his hands to the sky. We flop down at a table on the beach and the lovely Australian woman who manages the hotel asks us what we’d like.

Dili sunset at the beach bar

Paul orders a beer.

‘Could I have a glass of rosé, please? And could we buy you a drink?’

‘Not for me,’ she says. ‘I don’t drink, but thank you.’

And I don’t know which thought pings around my brain fastest:

‘How boring not to drink, what’s wrong with her?’


‘I wish that was me.’

The massive Christo Rei statue

The days when I believed I could not properly relax without a glass of wine are behind me now. Thank goodness. Alcohol does do a quick job of numbing the brain, slowing it down, but the after effects are anything but relaxing. Making the change from drinking to not drinking was an effort, but so worthwhile.

Travel and holidays were a huge part of my drinking story. No longer! And sober holidays really are relaxing these days.

How mad to be in such an idyllic place and still need something poisonous. So glad those days are gone and I can soar and swoop in nature, full of natural highs and joy.

The most peacefl place on earth, Areia Branca in Dili
Christo Rei from the beach

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