Cows, bees and chickens in a bag

Mark’s got a bee in his bonnet. He’ll tell you it’s tinnitus, but I know it’s not. I know it’s that little bee buzzing around inside his head. Sit with him long enough, and trust me I do, and he’ll get onto his favourite hobby horse ummmm I mean subject.

You see since he’s been here, he’s become increasingly interested in nutrition, and in particular the reasons why a country with plenty of water, a reasonably temperate climate, decent growing conditions and a fairly fertile soil still doesn’t seem to be able to feed its inhabitants.

Now I know he’s not expecting Timor-Leste to turn into the breadbasket of South East Asia, or the next big dairy producer. There’s a story about the Aussies bringing in dairy cows…no real research, some hints of misspending, a bit of “she’ll be right mate ” with the resulting outcome, no milk and heaps of dead cows. Australia’s past failures withstanding, he has become mighty interested in who’s growing what, where and how.

For Mark I think it’s the maths and stats he loves. His background on the farm has given him a passionate dispassion about the growing of food. Like some giant complex excel spreadsheet the workings appear something like this: take this much land, prepare pasture thus, add this many beasts, send in this type of male, get these sorts of babies, grow them for this amount of time, add in this amount of additional food, water, nutrients, wait again for this amount of time and like sorting the formula in excel, click this button and get this back in the bank…and repeat. All things going to plan. Which obviously with farming isn’t often the case. 

Same goes for crops, vegetables, fruits and other plants. 

He’s become amazingly aware, thanks in part to some of the very small girls who have hung out at his office (eating a meagre 500 calories a day) but mainly from the huge amount of reading he’s done, that malnutrition is a HUGE deal when you want a population to thrive. It impacts on everything from education outcomes to maternal mortality. We were out in a village a couple of weeks ago, and the girls had a real gingery tinge to their hair. I thought, here’re some of “my people”. It turns out that hint of red is caused mainly by protein deficiency.

There’s been a lot of reading and thinking and poking around, a lot of conversations (a lot…I spend pretty much 16 hours a day, 7 days a week with him, so I know, sigh) but last weekend Mark got the chance to really see what was going on courtesy of a kind invitation from a Timorese colleague to join him at his family property.

It’s a 5 and a half hour motorbike ride East along the coast and then inland to the district of Manufahi and the area of Alas. Mark’s keen to have a conversation with the farmers about the opportunity to use Gallagher’s solar electric fencing to, at the very least, keep the stock in place. Once you know where they are you can manage supplemental feeding, and breeding programmes. 

It’s a matriachial village of around 200 people. Mark’s colleague is one of 9 siblings. Their mother passed away last year. Land is owned both collectively and individually with the village collective most concerned with growing enough rice and vegetables to feed everyone with individuals keeping cattle, pigs, chicken and goats.

There are about 300 wild horses up in the hills. 

There’s plenty of water, a main river runs through the village and lots of underground springs, the land is fertile and produces coconuts, bananas and coffee.

He visits Granddad who has left the family home and lives out in the fields so he can keep an eye on the cattle. Not just protecting them, but protecting the valuable plants that are being grown to feed the villagers…a hungry cow can do a lot of damage, and make for some pretty unhappy neighbours.

Grandads hut

Granddad sleeps on a platform on a grass mat. He reaches the platform, barefoot and up a ladder. The closest estimation is that he’s around about 95. 

Later in the night while they sit and talk someone mentions they’re thirsty and the nearest kid clambers up the tree and drops down coconuts to be briskly cut open and drunk. Mark asks for a glass (you’ve got to love him).

Several of the villagers gather to discuss the fencing, the opportunities to give it a try and see how it goes. Mark answers questions where he can.

They’re interested in making changes, there’s no sense of reluctance but rather a real desire and interest in giving things a crack. As dusk approaches he’s fascinated to see one of the women call the chickens in. They arrive, chicks in toe, eat a bit of scattered rice then all individually climb into baskets on the ground which are then hung up on hooks. Hens and chicks safely tucked up for the night, making that noise contented chooks make, like a sort of poulty purring. He goes to sleep on a mat, it’s surprising cold, about 17 degrees and he’s left all his clothes on. 

It’s 6am in the morning and breakfast is boiled bananas and a doughy bun. And very very sweet, very very strong coffee. Everything is still cooked on a wooden fire, although power to the main house also offers a rice cooker and a camp oven for the bread. Nourished, clean from a bucket shower and off for a walk across the land. He loves this kind of thing. Many of the cattle have recently calved so they’re hard to find, they’re red like the dust and disguised in the scrub. Completely organic, fed only salt as a supplement, the ones he does see are sleek, shiney, lush. They’re not used to being handled, you’d not be able to lead one into a pen for a vet inspection. Well you could, except there’re no real pens and no rural vets.

His colleague tells him he’s the first malae (white visitor) to have been in the village for 20 years. He should have quessed as much by the kids’ reactions. Big eyes, mostly staring. Loud whispers. A few giggles and the odd prod to the bravest one to approach him. He brought a block of Whittakers’ chocolate from my stash from my last trip to NZ and had to explain, twice, what it was. 

He comes home and says to me ‘I was almost completely wrong”. Every preconceived idea he had, all the maths and stats just won’t work here. The solar powered fence is still a go, but it’s just one small solution in a vastly bigger issue. Fix one thing and then see how to fix the 200 others.

But even more significant, perhaps there’s no need to “fix” that original list he thought he had. Well not straight away. Taking what’s essentially a free-range herd to a domesticated herd (think the NZ deer industry in the 70’s) while not losing the advantages of being truly organic, and sustainable and without adopting any of the negative BIG farming issues prevalent in a whole lot of factory farming worldwide. Keeping the ethos of collective land use, land rights, water safety, support for families and authentic honest discussions that benefit everyone while delivering a growth strategy will be a delicate balancing act. 

Finding a way to grow more “protein” on the same amount of land could vastly change the outcomes for those 60% of subsistence farmers living outside Dili, making less than 1 dollar a day.

Mark’s talking to Gallagher’s. There’s a chance for some funding to get some fencing kits to trial. He’ll be back out to Alas before we leave to see how it goes. There’s a lot to be said for having a bee in your bonnet.

Getting out of Dodge

Timor-Leste has a way of suckering you in to finally believing you know what’s what and how this place works. Just when you’re relaxing into a place where you can singsong your way along through the traffic (on a scooter, this means many stares) and where you know without doubt that that’s the “cheese” supermarket, something else happens that leaves you feeling out of place and out of sorts.

We’d naively said oh yeah 6 months in we’re acclimatised to the weather, oh no, we don’t need the aircon on at night, don’t worry about us we’re sleeping well, finding it all so so doable. Smug bastards.

That was right up until last week when Mother Nature decided to rachet up the temperatures and we are once again literally sweating in our jocks. I find myself leaving the cool of my office and walking into the sun, and no matter how often I steel myself, still saying under my breath, “jeez it’s hot”. And guess what, it’s only going to get worse.

It’s a steady climb now through to the beginning of the rainy season. Word has it, the next 6 weeks are the time you’re most likely to go troppo. I can’t wait!

Given this state of affairs, what better time to get out of Dodge than right now, before the rain and away from the heat, so that’s just what we did last week.

Carefully planned by our friend Adrian, and with his wife joining from New Zealand we upgraded from 2 wheels to 4 and rented a blessedly airconditioned Toyota Prada. Packed her up with snacks, water, snorkeling gear, multiple changes of clothes (including a jersey…more on that later), toilet paper, battery packs, torches, and a bit of a first aid kit, we headed out of dusty Dili on Monday.

When we first arrived, people were surprised to hear that on the first weekend we rode to Black Rock for a bit of a look see… a great example of a “when you don’t know what you don’t know” false sense of security. In our newbie state that road then was SHOCKING. Now, and after a fair amount of work from the Chinese road crews, it’s almost pristine and undeserving of mention. Except here I am mentioning it. There’s much being made of Chinese investment in the Pacific and further afield. It’s hard to argue against the impact of opening up roads within a country where access is one the biggest issues facing the 60 percent of people who live outside of Dili. When you’re 3.5 hours away from the nearest clinic is it any wonder that Timor-Leste has shocking rates of maternal mortality?

On the road we head West via Tibar, to our first official pin on the map, Maubisse. 70k’s south of Dili in the central highlands Maubisse is 1300 meters above sea level and the main coffee growing region of the district. It’s also positively chilly with temperatures at this time of year around 16 degrees (hence the jersey).

But first a couple of stops at a bamboo factory, funded by the Peace Corp and making some exceptionally lovely stuff. Employing locals in the factory and buying bamboo off local farmers this is a good news story and a great way to start our journey.

A quick hop up the road and we’ve got a bit of a tour planned at coffee producers Timor Global. Bet you didn’t know that 90 percent of the coffee drunk world- wide can be traced back to Timor-Leste coffee plants, in fact one of the three original trees is right over there and still producing.

We get to be part of a “cupping” event…very ritualistic, temperature of water just so, crust left on cup for this long, broken this way, slurped that way and swirled around on your tongue in this direction. I know we were hopeful we’d find words like mellow and fruity and hints of chocolate and nutty, herbal or intensely briny. What we said was “that Robusta’s a bit strong” and “oh I don’t think I like that one”. We are such a disappointment to the Timorese guy who has a world recognized certificate in being a “nose” or whatever they call it in the coffee biz. I’d stopped listening by then…all that caffeine.

Lunch on the road in Aileu at your pretty standard restaurante, chicken curry and a Bintang and back in the car for the final leg to Maubisse.

The scenery changes and the weather changes. There’s a light breeze and a welcome coolness in the air as we go for a quick look around the Posada (another piece of architecture we can thank the Portuguese for) and then dinner downstairs consisting of cooling cabinet food…fish, chicken or beef, rice and vegetables. $2,25 per person. Coffee is an extra buck each and brought upstairs to our balcony. The first of the prepacked snacks are unpacked and a welcome addition.

It feels like 10pm, its actually 7.30pm. Off to our rooms for some reading and relaxation and 30 minutes later the power’s out. A quiet lisensa, lisensa (excuse me, excuse me) from outside the door, and a lamp passed through sees us cope with the next hour or so.

Eggs and bread rolls for breakfast, oh and warm round doughnut thingies with strong coffee fortify us for the next leg to Suai. 

The roads average, nothing unexpected until like a mirage in the desert and looming out of the heat you come to a 4-lane expressway. Punctuated with signs… “4-wheel vehicles only”, “no external passengers”, “no motorbikes”, we race up along its tarmacked glory for about 10k until we notice the two vehicles in front slowing and turning. Seems this perfect feat of engineering ain’t that perfect and the road’s collapsed. I suggest out loud that one of the more useful signs could have been a “no access” one right at the beginning. We turn round and drive back 10k’s on the wrong side of the 2 lanes. Cos of course you can’t turn around when there’s a giant median barrier in the middle. Newly planted with trees as part of a beautification plan, the goats are making light work of the tender shoots as they make their way up it.

Best idea is to follow that truck with the aviation fuel on board, there’s only one place he’s going and that’s the airport in Suai.

We end up there too. It’s another location tagged for my dystopian movie I’m planning to shoot in Timor-Leste…an international airport, completely empty except for the guard and the cleaners. There’re no planes flying in or out of Suai. Inaugurated in 2017 and complete with a 1,500m runway, a terminal building, a control tower, a fire station, a meteorological station and a helipad the airport sits shiny, clean, looming large in the landscape, waiting. Waiting.

We try and blag our way through the doors, the guard shoos us away. I’m slightly worried about his gun and then notice he’s wearing socks and jandals. I’d outrun him.

There’s a broken bridge down towards the sea…word has it the crocodiles hang out there. We stop by. We find out later the trick is to tie a frozen chicken to a string and call Boy Boy and one will appear. Local knowledge is a great thing. I note there’s no “no swimming” signs.

Then it’s a visit  to the concrete kiwi marking the old site of the New Zealand Defence base. A monkey runs across the road and we try to lure it out with peanuts. No chance. We aren’t doing great with the wildlife.

A final trip to a fantastic market…a classic example of not judging a book by its cover. The corrugated tin shacks that sit around the outside hide a wealth of treasures from locally grown tobacco and betel nut, fruit, vegetables and nicnacs of all varieties. The boys hover around the buckets of nails and screws and engine parts and I find a tais (a cloth woven locally) to take home to NZ.

Dinner is served at another hidden treasure. The Chinese hardware store housed in a giant tin shed along a lonely road you’d never notice shares a space right next door with a non-descript restaurant. I don’t think there’s even a sign. The food is awesome although in typical Timor fashion you have to go through a few options first. “Don’t have”. “No, don’t have”.

We’re a little worried about the trip tomorrow…the road is unknown, so Adrian talks to the Timorese guys at our guesthouse. The carpark is full of trucks carrying NGO signage and we’ll hear the drivers talking through the night, quietly until about 11pm when they’ll go to bed, 4 per room, saving their per diems. They say the road is a bit difficult, they do the 100k’s in about 4.5-5 hours. I go to bed without doing the maths. I wake at 3am having done it. That’s 15ks an hour!

The road is awful.

We arrive in Maliana and it’s 37 degrees and blowing, stepping out of the car into a fan forced oven. We find a restaurant and eat with the locals. Fried chicken and rice. And ice-cold sweet tea. I have decided to watch and see what they order and just say…that, please? There are never any menus. 

Our last stop at the Balibo Fort Hotel is the climax we’ve been working towards. Luxury accommodation, perfect temperature, food and cocktails as the sun sets.  We’d originally planned the trip to go A to C, but we’ve done C to A and it’s worked out perfectly.

A stop off for a swim and lunch and we are back in Dili on Thursday at about 3pm.

The snack bag is empty of snacks and now full of other treasures. A blue, teal and purple tais, a giant clam shell rescued from the beach, bamboo placemats, bags of coffee, intricately made flax bird mobiles, a woven bag, a few trinkets to share when we get home. Animals seen: horses, monkeys, calves, goats, pigs, chickens, water buffalo…and unseen: crocodiles.  Accommodation $35 a night to $95. Villages hanging onto hills, buildings traditional and modern. Children walking to school, walking back from school, playing in the streets outside their homes, carrying water, bags of rice, unhappy chickens, waving, calling malae, malae. Simple meals with locals and lavish ones alone. And the roads…oh the roads, tarmacked state of the art to dirt tracks hyphenated by potholes.

We got out of Dodge, escaped the heat, found the peace, the chaos, the kids, the mountains, the roads. We’ll get to that crocodile next time.

Oh Grandma

It’s often purely by accident that you stumble upon a great café, or fantastic restaurant or even a supermarket that stocks ALL the dairy. There’s a network of chit chat that mutters some tips but if you’re not listening to the right conversation it’s often less hit and more miss.

But early on in our Timor-Leste adventures we found a great little Thai place, Timor Thai, tucked down by the New Zealand Embassy and with the promise of good, tasty, cheap as anything Thai favourites it has quickly become one of our “crap, I don’t want to cook tonight” places.

In the spirit of why only be one thing when you can be many, Timor Thai supplements its great wee restaurant with back room massage. Before you clutch your pearls and phone the authorities and the sex trafficking hotline, the only happy endings you’re likely to get here are the ones where you hand over 25 bucks for a job well done.

We’ve been several times. I’m lucky that when Mark comes with me I can push him on to the younger woman while I take Grandma all to myself.

She’s tiny. I know I say that a lot about the people here. I said to Mark she’d be half my size, he said, keep going…and while that may be a rude dig at my ampleness I don’t think he’s wrong. Literally her head comes up to just below my boobs.

But don’t let size fool you. She’s fierce. And more than a little terrifying. I’m both filled with excitement and dread at the thought of the next hour with her.

It’s got to the stage now where I help her get the table ready and whip my clothes off while she stands in the room. The table’s wide and low and she’s on it with me from the get go.

I guess there’s a slight easing into proceedings, washing my feet and giving my toes a wiggle but after that it’s all on.

Her thumbs are like steel and she’s got them into my calf muscles before my brain can even register the impending pain. I remain stoic. And silent.

Her English is as good as my Thai, so non-existent, although she can say “relax, relax” which just makes me giggle through the pain.

I want to tell her when she’s got my leg bent at all angles and she’s pushing my hip into the table, I’m sorry grandma, I’m sorry I’m just not bendy enough for you. I want to say us Celts aren’t renowned for our ability to stretch and squat and we’ve become stiff from not enough use. Has she seen us dancing? There’s no hope.

There’s also no music, no whale noise, no sounds of the forest volume 3, for which I am grateful. I can only imagine the distress to my psyche being tortured to the calls of whales would do for my future relationship with these gorgeous creatures.

And torture it is. There’s arms pulled to fit more snuggly into sockets and thighs kneaded like pudgy dough, there’s fingers snapped into popping and there’s a weird manipulation of joints that at some stage as I am hovering above my body I imagine now resembling a discarded wooden puppet. All angles and disjoined joints.

There’s a moment when she’s between my thighs with her foot wedged into my groin, pulling on my leg. The relief as she finishes this particular move is short lived as I remember I’ve got TWO LEGS. Dear God.

At one stage as I lie on my back, Grandma appears to be standing on my guts. I say appears to be because while I am ok imagining that’s what she’s doing, I really don’t want to see her doing it.

She pokes and prods me til I move to lie in her lap and she rubs my head like an overly affectionate pet owner. I am not sure whether I hate her or love her.

When finally she gets me into a sitting position and lies the full weight of her body up along my back, bending me in the middle like a rusted hinge  I can’t bare it any longer , she says relax, relax and I just collapse into hysterical laughter. Are they tears? She’s laughing with me and stroking my arm.

A final hot small brown hand on my shoulder and an admonishment to “drink water” and I’m floppy, drained, and goodness what is this feeling, supple.

She walks me to the door holding my hand. We smile like old trench mates, we’ve been in the wars eh Grandma, we’ve seen some things…well mainly you cos I’ve had my eyes closed the whole time.

After the vote, and after the party

There’s a certain rhythm to life in Dili 6 months on, and although most times we aren’t sure what’s going on, we can be sure that there’s something.

On a Sunday this mostly Catholic nation can be guaranteed to be either on their way to church, lots of traffic, at church, no traffic, or on their way home from church, more traffic. We avoid the roads if we can on weekdays about 12noon, and on the first Monday of the month when flag raising ceremonies stop all traffic dead we try and head in to work before 8am or after 9.

We wonder what the new banners being put up are about reveal and we know when the kids start practicing their drumming (for up to 6 hours a day) that there’s some festival coming up.

So, it’s not without precedent that today after brunch and before a massage that our trip to the pool (posh place, $180 a year membership) gave us something to ponder. And yes I know, the list of todays activity, so far so bourgeoise.

Walking through the glass doors (members enter from the rear) we found our usually abandoned spot resembling a watering hole in Darwin. Hearing them before we saw them, aren’t they really just like their native birds, all squawking and bright colours, the pool was crowded with Australians.

That in itself isn’t unusual. There’s plenty of Aussies here, volunteers and contractors, and you can usually tell the former by their lean and hungry look, they’re a little threadbare and the latter by their natural habitation of the only real sports bar in town. Today’s visitors lounging about had a more well healed appearance. Most were in-house guests.

It’s been a big few weeks in Timor-Leste with this unusual influx of visitors, with that familiar sense brought from home of putting out the good tablecloth and the family silver. Everyone on their best behavior and that slight tension bubbling under the surface (what will Uncle do?).

Streets were swept more frequently, flags hung, bits of road finished, a bridge opened. Everyone seemed to have at least one foreign dignitary on their welcome list and there were parties organised left, right and centre. We stood on the street for an hour watching the official bridge opening, shoulder to shoulder, snuggled up with the locals and caught bits of conversation about who was who. For even the most uninformed it became obvious who were the biggest of the bigwigs by their number plate and how close they got to the podium before they had to walk from their car. Nothing says look at me like a VVIP tag (Very Very Important Person).

You see it’s a big deal celebrating the birth of a nation. 20 years ago, the Timorese came out in droves to vote in a referendum that ended 24 years of Indonesian occupation. They were up before dawn in the villages, a turn out of nearly 98 percent at the makeshift voting polls and about 5 days later when the count came in, a massive 78.5% of the voter chose independence over autonomy within Indonesia.

Imagine the despair wrenched from joy when between August and September pro-Indonesian Timorese militias and the military commenced a scorched earth campaign of retribution. Killing approximately 2000 Timorese, they displaced over 2/3rds of the population and destroyed the bulk of the country’s infrastructure, homes, irrigation, water supplies, schools, government buildings and nearly 100% of the country’s electrical grid. This provides little comfort but at least a reason why the power is off a couple of hours 4 days a week. Formal institutions and government structures disappeared overnight.

In September the International Force East Timor (INTERFET) made up of 22 nations and led by the Australians arrived in Dili. Included were around 1200 New Zealand soldiers (NZ’s largest overseas military deployment since the Korean war), and the frigates Te Kaha and Canterbury and replenishment ship Endeavour. Their goal to restore order and independence was achieved when on May 20, 2002 the Timorese elected resistance leader Xanana Gusmao as president.

In Dili today, there’s a shadow of what was left behind when the UN left in 2012. Restaurants that once hosted staff now lie empty. Down by the waterfront towards Cristo Rei you’d not be surprised to find the odd tumbleweed rolling down the street as the doors flap open on their hinges.  2 or 3 staff sit around, waiting. High noon at the Not Ok Corral.

Apartments are closed.  The Australian hairdresser at the local spa still talks about the ‘boom’ times and there’re ghosts of drunken soldiers past lurking about in the corners of the Sky Bar at Timor Plaza. There’s even a massive concrete kiwi at the old New Zealand base in Suai.

Once buoyed by the presence of so many people with cash to burn, you can’t just suddenly take that away from such a fragile economy. Since 2012 Timor Leste’s gross domestic product has crashed by half to less than $3billion. The change in circumstances is ever present.

So that’ll be the Aussies at the pool. Friday will see a day programme including speeches and songs at the palace, a march and a football match between INTERFET forces and the local F-FDTL (Timor-Leste’s Defence Force).  New Zealand is sending Minister Ron Marks and others, there’ll be a matching set from Australia and there’s bound to be roadblocks, traffic issues and much flag waving.

Remembering the past is a critical part of Timorese culture, hoping for the future is mine.

A love song to Dili at Dusk

Sometimes you’re not kind

When the scrawny dog, skinny and scabby suckles her pups and nips at them to leave her alone. Then scatters, driven away by stones thrown by annoyed kids.

And sometimes you’re not gentle

When the traffic roars past and the dust fills your nose and eyes and the relentless heat finds every gap between the shade

And sometimes you’re not quiet

When the roosters crow from 5am and join the drummers and karaoke through the wall.

Discordant, too many songs with no conductor.

But tonight, I’ll slip into something less comfortable, abandoning the t-shirt and skirt

For a dress, with buttons and sleeves and shoes with a heel

And dab the perfume on my wrists and neck

Where it’ll last in the cool instead of sliding off with the sweat.

And I’ll ride my scooter through the quiet streets to watch the sunset

Wood smoke fragrant in the air. Bar-b-ques lining the street.

And a gentle breeze against my bare skin.

I’ll watch the boys in the retreating tide, picking through the sea washed coral

And as dark falls, be surprised by the man, walking along the road, wet footed, web footed, carrying his spear and fish, the sea still drying on his skin.

The traffic lights flashing orange, flashing orange, flashing orange,

Beating through the night til dawn

welcome me home.

Melo and Mark

Mark’s mother Maureen has asked why we don’t hear from him and so, because mothers are important this blog is completely dedicated to my two favourite males, in which I record and transcribe their chat.

Introducing Mark, the husband

And Melo the dog.

Melo: Mark, Mark, Mark, hey Mark, Mark, over here Mark, Mark

Mark: Grrrrr yes Melo, what is it?

Melo: Ruth says we can talk Mark, we never talk, can we, can we?

Mark: Spose


Melo: Every day you open the gate. In the morning. I don’t like the gate being opened, bad dogs are on the other side of the gate, where do you go? 

Mark: well Melo, unlike you, I have a job. My assignment is to work as a business skills trainer for IADE Instituto De Apoio ao Dezenvoliment Emprearial which is the Timor-Leste’s government owned and operated business training establishment.  IADE’s role is to provide training and support to people to start a business, develop an existing business and then to maintain the profitability of the business into the future…..Melo?  

Melo: Oh sorry, just chewing on this flea on my tail, you were saying….

Mark: My role is to support the IADE staff by providing mentoring and coaching to support IADE’s existing programmes and to seek out new opportunities to keep IADE at the fore front of business training in 2020 and beyond.

Melo: hmmm what? Flea. Is Ruth home yet? Is she? Is she? 

Mark: soon. I also…….. Melo, are you licking my leg?

Melo: Oops sorry.  

Mark: Basically Melo I’m there to support them to help others to help themselves.

Melo: Right. I have noticed you have changed colour. What has happened to your coat? It was white and now its brown. Like me.

Mark: What? Oh, that’ll be the the sun

Melo: and you’re skinnier? Do you have worms? I’ve had worms. Urgh worms. Itchy. Ruth fixed my worms, did she fix yours?

Mark: no Melo, no worms.

Melo: what do you love about Timor-Leste?

Mark: Oh Melo I love the heat and the sea and the people. And the chaos and colour.

Melo: me too. 

Mark: I don’t love the parties til 8am or that Rooster.

Melo: oh him, I don’t like him either.

Mark: or the traffic

Melo: Oh the scooters, the scooters, the scooters, I could chase them, I could, it’s too hot, I won’t chase them, but I could

Mark: what do you love about Timor-Leste Melo?

Melo: I love the freedom. There’re no chains, no kennels, no collars, no vets taking away my important boy parts. I can come and go as I please. I love my friends, except that evil one eyed dog down the road, I love the sun….sleeping on the gravel pile. I love the shade. 

And I love the food Ruth gives me and when she rubs my tummy, and scratches the bottom of my tail.

Mark: oh me too Melo, me too.

Small Island, Big Heart

Mark and I have been watching a Netflix series called Black Sails. Featuring all your favourite pirates, Black Beard, Long John Silver, Charles Vain and Anne Bonnie, it’s a swarthy mess of sex, violence, rum, palm trees, whores and dreadlocks. Every now and then the pirates leave the safety of the local brothel and head out in search of plunder, excitement and a punch up on the high seas. Once they’ve fought, flagellated and fornicated their way across the ocean, invariably they need to find shelter, fresh water and food that’s not infested by weevils.

I can almost guarantee that had the good ship Walrus captained by the very handsome but mostly BAD Charles Vain passed by Atauro Island they would have kept the sails hoisted and waited for somewhere a little more inviting to drop their anchor.

Our home for the weekend, Atauro Island sits 25k north of Dili. On a clear day you can see her tantalizingly close, on other days she remains shrouded in mist, a mystery off on the horizon.

25ks long, 9k wide, home to around 10,000 people Atauro clearly came into being through some violent forces of Mother Nature. Uplifted from the sea by submarine volcanoes the island features high peaks, a rugged landscape and areas of deforestation that leaves much of the hill side looking patchy and dry.

Currently you can get to Atauro by ferry, a steady plod of 2 hours or by fast boat, a bit more high spirited and salty in 1 hour. There’s an airstrip but like a lot of things In Timor-Leste its either reached and peaked its potential or hasn’t quite got there yet. 

We arrived in time for the Saturday market. I’d wondered why there were so many stalls and so much dried fish and lush vegetables, when clearly Mark and I and the other couple of malae could only be counted for very minor purchases, when the ferry from Dili arrived and like the classic clown car gag at the circus, opened her doors and spewed forth.

People. Lots and lots of people. And motorbikes. And carts loaded with plastic bowls and brushes. And mums and dads with their handful of kids, they kept coming out of the guts of the ferry. We saw people laden with stuff, 2 guys carrying a washing machine between them. And then just when you thought there could be nothing left, she squeezed out a couple of trucks and a few more motorbikes.

People come from Dili for a picnic, to see family, to come home after a working week. They come for the dried fish, squid and octopus, for the chickens, the tomatoes, and I suspect for the feeling of joy at being away from the city. There is perfect sense in leaving one island for another island.

We sat and watched people come and go and found ourselves chatting to a young guy who wanted to practice his English. Sit still long enough and it seems to happen everywhere we go.

We stayed at Beloi Beach Resort. It’s tucked up on the hill, has a pool, a tiki bar, a high staff to guest ratio, pleasant rooms, flushing toilets and food. I find myself searching for words. I guess a tourism brochure would say, natural, untouched, authentic. Bits are rumpty. Slightly faded. A bit uneven.  I guess it’s like loving your girlfriend’s crooked tooth or your baby’s big ears, the imperfections are the things that feel worthy of love.

The power goes out several times while we are there, but it makes little difference to the temperature of the pool or the beer. In fact, sitting in the dusk listening to the singing from the Church below is magical.

There are 3 other groups here. 2 very young American guys, here with the Navy building a school, a Portuguese couple, he’s a captain in the army about to leave Timor-Leste for good, he’s happy to be going back but sad too, and an American couple who have been out of the states for 10 years teaching in International schools, she’s American Korean, he’s all Iowa. We circle around each other, passing pleasantries at the pool, saying hi on our way to our rooms and then over dinner there’s a merging of our plates and cutlery to one large table and we sit and eat and talk. It’s wonderful. We touch on politics, compare our worlds, grow a little closer to each other over shared and different experiences. When Nate says you guys should come to Korea, we say yes, of course. And then laugh when we explain that it’s a New Zealand thing to actually turn up. With bags. And family. For weeks! 

When they all leave on Sunday morning Mark and I rattle around as the only quests and it feels a bit like the end of school camp.

I am cheered though by a visit to Boneca de Atauro, a women’s collective who make dolls. We get there in the back of a tuk-tuk, bouncing over the limestone roads, I think if I hadn’t been in Timor-Leste for 4 months and wasn’t an old hand at this, I’d be shocked by the time it takes to go 5 k and the rickety, bone jostling it takes to get there.

The factory is opened for us by a woman across the road and I fossick about in cupboards whispering…  “I’d take you all home if I could”, and settle on the lovers, and a revolutionary. We throw in a crocodile hand puppet for good measure.

We realise quickly that our life in Dili must be more out of the sun than in it when we notice each other’s red noses and cheeks and that little sting you get on your legs when you step into the sea. 

There’re things you should know about Atauro. Things like bring cash, there are no ATM’s or credit cards.  And bring coins for the markets and to pay your drivers. No one has change for that big tenner you’re waving around. Bring battery packs to charge devices and a torch. Bring sunblock and maybe some snacks if you’re the hungry type.

Bring your snorkel and dive gear. I read that Atauro has the highest diversity of reef fish and coral species of anywhere in the world.

Bring your few Tetum phrases and your tolerance for a slower pace.

Bring your appetite, there’s plenty of food but some of it won’t be familiar and some of it won’t be flash.  Breakfast could be omelets and those little chicken sausages I’ve mentioned before (like Sizzlers you get in NZ but with less meat). I’m sure they’re addictive. At 75cents for 8, they’re certainly cheap. There is also the high possibility of banana fritters (not quite as good as Grandma Philomena’s).

Bring your sore body, I had an AMAZING massage, 25 bucks for an hour, after which I went back to my room and promptly fell asleep.

Bring your sense of adventure and your curiosity and some extra room in your bags for at least a handful of dolls from Boneca de Atauro.

But mostly don’t bring the desire for a sanitized, easily consumed, mass produced experience. If you wanted constant hot water you could have stayed at your hotel in town.

In a world where travel can be a bit beige, where the biggest thing you can do is tick a box, Eiffel Tower Tick, Colosseum Tick, London Eye Tick, Atauro Island brings the colour, the experience that’s hard to describe, in a place that remains untouched enough to be considered actually authentic.