Working without the internet in Timor

For the first twelve months of working with a local organisation in East Timor, I didn’t have access to the internet at work.

  • No email.
  • No quick google searches to solve a problem.
  • No youtube.
  • No facebook.
  • No hours lost through browsing the world wide web.

Yep, nothing. There was no internet because we couldn’t afford it.

Most days I would leave work and catch a cab straight to the $2 internet café in Audian to get my hit. It was painstakingly slow, don’t-even-think-about-uploading-photos-to-facebook-because-it’s-just-not-going-to-happen slow. I got used to being deliberate with my time. Emails had to be downloaded, read and written at home because it took too long to do this in the café. I read books while browsers were loading. I gave up looking at news sites and blogs. It was the internet in its most simplicity, exactly like back in the old ‘dial up’ days.

Working with the internet in Timor

Then one day, my workplace came across a lot of cash. And by ‘came across’ I mean we worked our butts off to get some funding. This cash purchased a generator, pens, a motorbike and a laptop computer. On the request of the donor, they gave us extra money to purchase a portable broadband internet pen because they wanted to make sure we could receive their emails.  Everyone was happy. I was even happy especially about the net. I couldn’t wait for the internet to revolutionize our workplace and open us up to the world.What was I thinking? Firstly, no one speaks English or Portuguese in our workplace which cuts out a lot of the web content. There are few sites in Tetum (the local language of East Timor) so we were left with Indonesian. Bahasa has got to be one of the best things to come out Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, for the internets sake anyway. Yep, Indonesian was going to open the gateway to the possibilities of being connected online.

But, in reality, having the internet didn’t do anything for us. Well it did certainly open up some peoples mind about porn and Facebook. Did you know Indonesia has the fourth largest number of facebook users? (40+ million)  And taking Indo’s lead, our office was spending hours and hours on Facebook and YouTube. To make matters worse, a once peaceful work environment became a battle field as fights would erupt each afternoon about who would get to take the internet dongle home with them.

I suppose the only good thing to come out of having the internet was it allowed my counterpart to research how he could build an antenna to pick up the free Wi-Fi from the Presidential Palace at his home. It was a contraption he made out of wire, a pole and a tin can; amazingly, it worked.  Now that’s innovation and it seems someone else was impressed too because it was stolen off his roof one night when he was sleeping.

So the best thing so far to come out of having the internet was more internet.

I thought long and hard about how we could get more out of the internet and then I realised, aren’t they using the internet as it’s intended? Isn’t accessing Facebook, email, YouTube and porn exactly why you or I use the internet?

Nup, I wasn’t going to hinder them, I was going to help them.

Example of real dialogue I used in a lesson about social media:

“Okay so if you take a sick day from work, when you are not sick, make sure you don’t go on Facebook and say you are, for example, on a holiday. Because you might be friends with your boss and they will see your status update and know that you are not actually sick.”

Ah working in international development, you never know what each new work day will bring. But on a more serious note,  if you find yourself in a similar situation, with a donor begging you to get the internet for “emails” well hold off for as long as you can. And if all else fails, do consider making your own free Wi-Fi can!

How important is the internet to you? Could you live without it for a day or even a year? Let us know on The Unofficial East Timor Facebook page.

The internet in Timor-Leste

  • There is currently only one internet provider in East Timor, Timor Telecom. But, that’s subject to change very soon as the government has just changed the law to allow other service providers to operate in the country. Here’s to smashing that monopoly!
  • It’s also recently been announced that there will no longer be free Wi-Fi at the Presidential Palace. So disappointing, I’m going to miss seeing the hundreds of East Timorese teens perched under the huts with their laptops.
  • There are a few internet cafes around Dili, it’s best to shop around because they vary in price dramatically.
  • Some hotels (Hotel Esplanada, Aru, Hotel Timor) have Wi-Fi which you can purchase and use on their grounds.