Travel Throwback: My First Overseas Trip

One of the few photos of me in East Timor that survive to this day.

Prior to 2010 I had never been overseas. As someone who had grown up in a family where money was sometimes (actually, kinda often) tight, overseas travel was not something that I’d experienced. Because of this, I didn’t even have any real dreams or desires for overseas travel. It didn’t really exist to me.

When I was 17, my Catholic high school was offering a small group of students an opportunity to go to East Timor on an ‘immersion’ trip. If you were lucky enough to be selected, the experience would involve 3 months of fundraising prior to take off, and visiting various Marist Brothers locations in East Timor to make donations. Some of the locations on the itinerary included a leprosy clinic, an English school for adults and high school students, and an orphanage.  The trip would last a week.

A cross dedicated to a possible local saint in East Timor

The selection process involved being interviewed by a panel of teachers and writing a 1000 word essay about the historic relationship between East Timor and Australia. I worked my butt off in order to be selected to participate in this trip. 

After waking up at 5am to ensure we made it to Darwin airport in time for our 7 am flight, we arrived in Dili early in the morning. We spent the morning in Dili and visited the Cristo Rei of Dili, one of the top tourist attracts in East Timor. The statue of Jesus standing atop a world globe is 27 metres tall, and to get to the base you have to climb 579 steps. I remember feeling a bit conflicted as I stood at the base of the statue. On one hand, this was the tallest statue I had ever seen in person, but knowing the history of this statue, my feelings of awe conflicted with my discomfort. The statue had been gifted to East Timor to celebrate the country becoming the 27th province of Indonesia. In case you aren’t aware, East Timor has a long history of colonisation. It was first colonised by Portugal in the 16th century until November 28th 1975 when the country declared independence. This independence lasted 9 days upon which it was violently invaded by Indonesia. Indonesian occupation was characterised by brutality, poverty, massacres and political assassinations. East Timor finally gained independence in 1999.

An abandoned Portuguese market place in Baucau East Timor
This is an abandoned Portuguese market place. According to the locals we spoke to, this used to be where everyone would sell their goods prior to a massacre carried out by the Indonesia military. Now it stands abandoned while the locals hold their markets on the sides of the roads that surround the structure.

We left Dili the same afternoon we arrived and headed to Baucau, located 4 hours away. Baucau was the location of the Marist Brother’s school whom we were to donate the majority of our funds to. We spend the better part of a week sleeping in the nuns quarters (which they open to guests), showering using a large bucket and a kitchen pot, visiting various locations to make donations, and playing with the kids at the local schools.

A lot of people say that their first overseas trip opens their eyes to other ways of life and fuels their desire to travel even more. This is not my personal narrative. While I was, for the first time, exposed to extreme poverty and my eyes were certainty opened, the travel seed, while planted, didn’t sow.  And it wouldn’t for about 2 more years. 

One of the few photos of me in East Timor that survive to this day.
One of the few photos of me in East Timor that remain

While we were in Baucau we visited a local English teaching school a handful of a times, and each time we visited we partook in an English lesson with the other local students. It was this experience that made me realise that teaching was the thing for me. The idea became cemented in my mind quickly and hasn’t left almost 10 years later.

My first overseas experience was certainly profound. It lead me to pursue a career that I absolutely love. I would really like to revisit East Timor at some stage in the future, possible as a TESOL qualified teacher just to give back a little of what it gave to me.

Where have you traveled to that had a significant impact on you?

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