Timor’s treasure: its children

It’s a strange world. Well it’s not the world’s fault.

So much of the joy of living in Timor-Leste has been our interaction with children: our two and the local kids.

our 2 on the right, often caught laughing, but especially with this awesome child on the left

They all delight us, keep us guessing, inspire us, entertain us and keep us from becoming old & stale.

The thing is, with our professional commitments here we are not allowed to make much fuss of them, or post gorgeous photos of them, as the world has gone a bit mad, and kids are off-limits.

I refuse to comply.  The kids here need talking about and showing off to the world. Their smiles bring light to our day and their giggles make us cackle.

proudly wearing tradition Atauro Island dress

Most days I walk through our big, blue metal gate, say a big ‘see you later’ to the security guys, and am greeted by a handful of tiny, effervescent little people. “Bondia, Malae!!!” (hello, foreigner) and they throw their miniature little hands into the air, aiming directly at mine, for a strong high-5.  I may as well be a rock star. They find that this big, weird malae to be a fun part of their day. A grown-up is making a heck of a fuss of them, and on her face is obvious joy at their presence.

This lot make my day. They brought me a 6 foot long, 2″ thick python once, for show & tell…

They walk the few hundred metres to my office and the all peel off to their next adventure; to pick flowers and berries, or hassle the grazing goats, or to take their place at school.  Most of these little ones, though, don’t go to school. They’re just not that lucky.

At work we throw ourselves into helping to improve the life of kids, and their families, as well as those who belong to the staff we work alongside.  As I sit at my desk I wonder about how my own children are going at that moment, only a few hundred metres away at home, and my chest often aches at the thought that a child living near us, today, is sick, struggling for the basics, or clinging on for dear life.

a wheelchair’s life is long here, even after its fallen apart

It’s a sobering thought.

I have a friend who periodically offers me the “lighten-up talk”. He reminds me of why we’re all here in Timor, how carefully we must tread yet how much love, smiles and other stuff there is to share, to keep us from getting too serious about it.  Perhaps today would be a good time for the talk.

A place like this could get you down, if it weren’t for those beautiful kids.  They’ll be there in the street when I knock off.

I’m not sure how I’ll leave Timor-Leste, but it’s going to hurt.

Pygmy blue whales take my words away

I may just be a different person tonight, from the girl who went sailing today.  We went whale-watching, more expecting it to be ‘unfruitful whale searching’, so we are gob-smacked.

what started as whale-watching ended as pirate-spotting, although Jack Sparrow was a no-show today…

We had hardly been out a few hours on a balmy, calm Sunday just off from Dili and hubby started to twitch rather excitedly, pointing towards a whole lot of big, dramatic splashing.  The sheer size of these magnificent mammals had us speechless as I tried, hopelessly, to film them casting an almost neon blue light on the ocean’s surface.  The colour shocked us, as we’re used to humpbacks, who are darker and usually breaching.  This was different: we could see their immense figures just below the water, yet there was very little splashing and definitely no thrashing or showing off.  They were serene and exquisite, disappearing after a few minutes until reappearing a mile away, again casting their bright blue ‘shadow’.

We are confident they were pygmy blue whales, who hang out in tropical waters and who make up a large proportion of the blue whale species.  They are said to grow to 24 metres and from the size of the dorsal fin on our friend a few hours ago, he or she was close to 20 metres.  Although there are quite a healthy sized population here around Timor-Leste, they cruise at around 20km/hour so we consider our brief interaction today a rare privilege.

If that experience doesn’t make us reject plastic straws, or never buy another plastic toothbrush, nothing will.  The thought of this truly magnificent creature having, in its stomach, the plastics that humans have discarded, is sickening.

Timor-Leste is bursting with staggering, rare beauty.  I’m almost speechless tonight and that’s really saying something, but the ocean and its wonder often takes my breath away, and my words. Today is no exception.

perfect conditions for a marine eco adventure

Soul food

This week was one worth forgetting. My mother warned me I’d have “days like this” but a week’s worth is nearly too much.  Then comes the weekend, thankfully.

The simplicity that we had craved in our crazy Western life hit us front-on this weekend as we strolled around a local art and craft fair, visited a weavers’ market and took a long, leisurely drive through the mountains and along the beach.

There was a lack of action, bright lights and noise.  There was, instead, the gentle hum of life in Dili and surrounds.  Saturday morning presented the sweet, local sounds of guitar, violin and ukulele, accompanied by labarik feto (the cutest young girls from nearby Atauro Island) wearing traditional dress and proudly holding hand-written names of their villages.

the guitars played & the boys sung in harmony and out came these shy little mascots of their Atauro Island

It’s where beauty pageants should have stopped in their tracks; a bunch of dear little girls displaying their culture and heritage through dance, dress and smiles.  Their beauty was immeasurable but the bursting pride and sheer happiness of their mothers, sisters, neighbours and aunties was most moving.  These women, who have much to complain about and wish for, were simply radiant in their love and pride for these small children, their own.

Next stop was to find the tourist-trap known as “Tais Market” which I have avoided to date due to that impression.  I had expected a contrived, sterile place where vendors would harangue me to buy things that I didn’t need or couldn’t justify buying.  Wrong.  My friend, who speaks the local language fluently, guided me through the most quaint, mesmerising burst of colour that I could have imagined.  Tais, the Timorese woven scarf-like cloths, some made in-situ into some of the most tantalising products, that I would argue would compliment any modern interior; table runners, bags, bedspreads and cushion covers.  After taking photos, chatting to vendors and having plenty of laughs, we walked past two fighting roosters and a bunch of small children squealing and giggling over flying a home-made kite, in the small car park.  Two dogs slept under a truck and washing lazily moved with the breeze as we made our way to the car.  There was nothing contrived about this place.

these sorts of constructions adorn the rural streets; one on each side, as a gateway to something special

Rising early today we packed a picnic and piled into the car, all eager to taste the fresh and cooler air of the mountains, far from the concrete and bustle of Dili.  I wouldn’t be happy until my camera’s memory card was full and I was not disappointed.  After bumping and thumping over tracks (gazetted although barely passable dirt roads) we flipped through the photos: walls of tropical green just outside the city, chest-high browned grasses in the valley, sporadic verdant green of vegetable patches, low hung and precariously placed power-lines, and finally the expanse of beach that falls into the vast depths of surrounding Timor-Leste waters.

the contrast of the chest high, dry grass and the lush food bowl around the corner….    (that’s Dili in the background)
nestled among thirsty, dry mountains are these fertile fields of veg, this one is eggplant/aubergine.

It’s an assault on the senses and a thrill to be part of, as you realise that you are sharing it with hardly anyone.  This is a relatively undiscovered part of the world and being able to take a Sunday drive through it is a real privilege.

Throw it all away, & gain more

What magic it is when you make new friends who share the same crazy dreams. In our case it was to “throw it all in and go sailing”.  Introducing the Captain & crew of Sailing Vessel Catalpa.  We’d seen them on YouTube and felt like we knew something of them. They knew nothing about us other than we’d too bolted from the treadmill of working too much and feeling underwhelmed with the rewards.  The poor guys have been stuck in Dili harbour for 6 weeks (so far) while errant parts arrived from across the sea and let’s just say that there are better places to parked.  Their days are mundane, hot & sticky as they dream of pulling anchor and again donning snorkels & fins.  In the mean-time we’ve been lucky enough to haul them around in the hope that they too would experience the sweet sting of Timor-Leste.  We led them up the mountains where they walked into waterfalls, Bella did cartwheels, Taj patiently posed for selfies with local boys, like a true film star.

We subjected them to drives through rural villages and among Portuguese ruins and they grinned through the whole experience. We shared stories, gin & tonics and a lot of laughs.  I’m positive that they didn’t leave Australia over year ago in this relaxed state but the people who they are now are chilled out and content.

when in Rome…. the kids riding in the back, excited, tasting freedom, & lots of Timorese dust

These guys think that they’re fairly unremarkable. They are, in fact, truly remarkable.  With a strong belief that their family would be better living an adventure-filled, unmaterialistic life on the water, they sold it all and sailed away, leaving the usual number of naysayers behind.  They truly don’t care what people think of them as they tread the path less-travelled.  The balance to that is the welcoming community of supporters that they have encountered as they started building an internet presence which they hoped would keep them sailing for as long as their dream pulled them along.

Sara exemplifies “living in the moment”

Sara openly describes the steep, and sometimes hurtful, learning curve that is being a social media ‘player’.  She warmly advises me how to build a thick skin, should we go down a similar path.  But generally, she says, people are incredible and generous, in spirit and with their spare cash.  Her softly spoken & reserved husband nods in agreement when she says that she wouldn’t change it for the world.

Their teenage kids are boat-schooled although it’s obvious that their lifestyle educates them in a deep way. They, like other boat kids, can confidently hold a conversation with adults and kids from different cultures. They are athletic, lively and interested in the world around them.  Our boys have loved hanging out with them and will be sad to wave them off (we refuse to say goodbye to yachties as we hope to share an anchorage down the track soon).  They strike you as a genuinely content & bonded family as we all sit in the cockpit today, proudly chuckling at each other’s stories of recent travels.

Lee was taking photos, not posing for them, so he missed the cut for this delightful shot. Sorry, Lee.

Life on board is certainly challenging them, they’re the first to admit it.  Funds run low when you least need them to, gear breaks when you’re not near a store and life throws everything at you when you’re at your weakest.  From what we gather, their first week in Dili harbour was a brutal stint in hell but they clenched their teeth, sought help, dug their heels in and stuck it out, with smiles on their tanned & healthy faces.  Many weeks later their boat parts have nearly all arrived, visas nearly ready and we’ll have to watch them sail away but we refuse to be sad; they have absolutely earned a departure, and a surf in the crystal-clear waters of Roti Island is waiting for them.

So, I find myself adding these remarkable humans to the growing list of those who we’ve been fortunate to meet.  It also leaves Brian and I deeply pondering our next move.  Sara openly describes the level of fun that $15,000 per year can afford you on a mid-sized yacht in Indonesia.  I quiz her on their YouTube channel, their Patreon account, and their other social media presence; the time they invest and the returns that are not only personally rewarding but which also fund their vagabond lifestyle.  Her & Lee generously share what they know and humbly quiz us back on things they’d like to know.

You won’t be seeing us on Youtube any time soon. We don’t even understand the algorithms, the views, the AdSenses or the uploads but it’s been fascinating hearing all about the life they have had the courage to create, from very little. Full-time escapees seem to vary the recipe but the base ingredients are courage, vision, a desire to see what’s around the corner and a healthy dose of delusion, that “it will all just work out”.  Oh, and you need a boat and a good sense of humour.  If the Crew of Catalpa’s story reinforces anything it’s that kind spirits dwell everywhere and it’s definitely worth taking the plunge.

this photo is from their Facebook page. Yes, they really are like this 🙂

Dili to Maubisse: a drive to the high country

A few challenging things about Timor-Leste: it’s mountainous, roads are under development, and beautiful places are difficult to reach. People are tucked away in remote villages and hardly meet those from the rest of Timor and the result is not only the protection of their homes, culture and beliefs but several other not-so-positive sentiments. These include feelings of helplessness as parents struggle to feed their children and lack of ability to seek medical help or for practical matters such as repairs to equipment.  Today we heard about many isolated people’s tremendous fear to send their children out into other towns, or the main centre of Dili, where they have no family or close friends who could care for them.  So, there are few opportunities for these isolated children to receive an education, chase a rewarding job or to increase their social circle. It’s not unusual to find isolated schools that only go to grade 3, just at the point when children around the world start to wrap their heads around the 3 R’s.

So yesterday we made the interesting but arduous drive up the mountain, mostly through muddy, bumpy roadworks and at times peering out the car

how would you like a workshop with a view? That’s a very large cliff out his back window…

window towards the bottom of valleys.  The 500 metre drops would really hurt if the soft, unfinished, road-edge gave way as it threatens to do. It’s heart-in-your-mouth stuff.

don’t fall off the edge…

Half way up in a beautiful town in a river valley at around 600m Brian asked me casually if I’d “like a coffee?” As he doesn’t waste words, I had a feeling it would be a bit special. This quaint town of Alieu is exquisite, sitting on a wide river which feeds acres of highly productive rice paddies and vegetable plots.

Alieu: productive & beautiful

We turned into an unmarked little dusty side-street, et voila: a quaint little art centre nestled in lush, tropical greenery, complete with café and gallery/shop.  A Brazilian couple have created something truly special for the locals who congregate to hone their artistic skills.  With classical music wafting through the garden we were transported to another world.

the perfect coffee, complete with cute flower created from traditional Timorese woven cloth

The coffee was better than any we’ve tasted in Timor, and in our home of Australia for that matter.  Add to that it’s 6 degrees cooler and we had everything to feel happy about.

A winding & otherwise uneventful hour’s drive then had us pulling into Maubisse.

The roadworks have, thankfully, reached asphalt stage between Alieu & Maubisse so you’re free to savour the exquisite views of increasingly high mountains, traditional houses, deep lush valleys and the stark realisation that you might be on another planet; one which was heavily influenced by the Portuguese and which sits majestically in the clouds.  The air temp had dropped a further 5 degrees and we reached for our winter layers, with big grins on all our faces as this is a rare treat for a family of four hot-climate-dwellers.

We knew that we had reached somewhere truly special when every second person looked into my window and shouted a big “botardi/good afternoon”.  All had warm smiles and I doubt that dignitaries receive fancier treatment. We certainly felt welcome.

Our warm bed that night was in a place we had known little about. What we discovered was a stunning Portuguese Public Administration building from over 200 years ago. It was used as a military base during the Indonesian Occupation and now is managed at a high standard, for the Government, by some obviously talented Timorese.

the previously-Portugese Pousada Maubisse, in the clouds
The youth employed at the Pousada are encouraged to grow flowers for the Dili market. So, not only do these thriving blooms beautify the Pousada but they give a better chance at life

You are on top of a mountain, with superb views of the surrounding world of agriculture and rural living, of other Portuguese buildings like convents and churches, although to the East you are reminded of your insignificance by a bigger mountain which disappears into the clouds.

the Portuguese architecture is mesmerising

A voice inside told us we’re in Europe, then logic argued that these are Asian homes down below, Asian village sounds, hence we all decided that this was another planet.

what is this world we’ve just landed in?
Even the youngest member of the family wants to know…

The most memorable moments were to come, at breakfast today.  Our host, a warm man in his late 30’s, turned out to be moonlighting as a guesthouse manager for his friend who was on business in the Capital.  He happily does a day job in medical outreach in surrounding villages, a few of which are slightly visible perched on mountains that I know I would never have the ability to reach.  He tells us about the 6 ½ hour walk into one of the villages. Obviously, an ambulance couldn’t make it there, nor on a recent occasion could the woman, in labour, walk out in time to deliver in a hospital. Instead, our new friend, Dr A, met her half way and she delivered a healthy baby by the roadside. It sounds like it’s not a rare occurrence although he is equipped with a small medical kit which is probably best suited to minor complaints.

The lovely Dr A with Brian. A quick breakfast turned into a long brunch & a new friendship.

To keep the good Dr’s privacy, I won’t tell you more amazing things about him but suffice to say that it involves adventure, hardship and isolation. More importantly though, is that he proudly explained how contented he is and as we looked across the breakfast table at him, we believed without doubt.

Our Mothers, our heroes

On March 3rd in Timor-Leste it is Veterans’ Day, to celebrate those who played even a small part in releasing this incredible country from the clutches of its oppressors.  The city streets are unusually quiet and traffic is a fraction of what you’d usually have to push through on an average day. Instead of the usual street vendors offering everything from cigarettes, newspapers, bottles of wild-caught honey and piglets (yes, piglets), the last two commonly carried on a yoke (over-the-shoulder-pole), and in the absence of the many Dili children playing in the streets, we see decorated War Veterans. These living treasures proudly and solemnly walk the streets to and from services and parties, their jackets festooned with highly polished medals and ribbons.  It is a very different Dili on this day.

Above: inside of Balide Church.   Right: nestled in the Dili foothills (Stock photos)

This year on March 3rd, at a gorgeous Catholic church at the foot of the mountains surrounding Dili, we attended Mass. It was a final farewell to a great veteran, a survivor of the incredibly difficult war-torn years of Indonesian occupation. This veteran also endured the previous Japanese occupation in WWII.  Her fortitude, humility and immense capacity to care can be clearly seen in her children and their children.  We’ve had the great fortune of getting to know some of them and although we didn’t know this Veteran, we could see that she was made of truly great stuff.

During the Indonesian occupation she endured what none of our Mothers should ever face. She lost three precious children, had to hide in the mountains for a few years and faced tremendous fear on a daily basis.  Her story is one worth telling and I am gathering the details to attempt do it justice, in a separate post.  Her name is Natalina Ramos Filipe Horta.

Similar incredible experiences were shared by mothers across this nation who had the same simple wish: their children’s safety and a free country.  I thought that I understood a little of the pain of war. We grew up taking ANZAC Day very seriously. We honour those who fought for us. We thank God that it isn’t all happening in our generation, in our home. We know that many of us wouldn’t have the steel to fight like our predecessors did, or face war on our doorstep.  We say prayers of heartfelt thanks to those ANZACS, and our Forces, and Allies and we tell our children stories of war heroes in the hope that they will never be forgotten.  I have realised though, that by spending the last year-and-a half among strong, but scarred, people in Dili I have developed a deeper understanding of human endurance, suffering, and their inexplicable ability to recover. That’s not to say that the pain abates, as long as they tread this earth.

So, on this year’s March 3rd I was overwhelmed: by sadness for my friend and her siblings as well as their children who will all miss her and who thank her.  I was overwhelmed for her Timorese comrades who also endured unspeakable hardship inflicted on them.  The church slowly filled to the brim with a blend of nationalities, all wearing black.  The exceptions were those women dressed in the traditional brightly-coloured and fitted blouse with ankle-length sarong, hair elegantly tied up in a bun. On guard were armed soldiers whose presence declared that this was a service to farewell a person of great importance.

As the temperature inside this tropical church grew to an uncomfortable level, there was silence, there was great respect….. then the skin-tingling sounds of a highly practised choir floated from the loft behind us. It literally took our breath away.  You have these indescribable moments when you travel. This was one of those rare moments, one which changes you somehow, for the better.  It was a true privilege.

May God continue to bless all Mothers, everywhere.  If I haven’t lost you let take a look at the lyrics of “Mama”, a contemporary addition to this hero’s traditional Catholic funeral service.  It was sung in English although the remainder of proceedings were in the native tongue, so it had dramatic impact, on every level.

Lyrics can be found here: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/ildivo/mama.html

and if you can handle Il Divo (I most certainly can) here’s them singing it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Utm4T6lT7pE

Water is Life

In the West we buy water that’s more expensive than gold, while the runny stuff coming out of our taps is free from bacteria.  OK, so I believe that we should filter all those nasties out that the Govt is so happy to put in, but we don’t need to buy a plastic bottle of water. We all just do – it’s habit.

There’s no shortage of exquisite waterfalls here but not many are not safe for drinking

Here, in Timor-Leste, just as in many other developing countries, people drink whatever they can lay their hands on.  Stomach problems are part of everyday life and therefore so too is dehydration.  It takes a very short time for someone to die of dehydration and it’s a familiar sight, tragically.

The progress in clean water delivery is worth celebrating, though.  On a daily basis we hear of someone working on fixing this problem, for the long term. It’s sometimes as simple as fixing a well or a bore, other times it’s the laying of pipe. More complex solutions such as those in WASH (Water Sanitation & Hygiene) programs out there are making a big change too, as they also try to prevent the contamination of the water source in the first place.  Brian’s employer, Engineers Without Borders https://www.ewb.org.au/, is involved there and achieving great things, as are many others.

This water thing is close to our hearts as Brian is happily involved in the ‘clean drinking water’ project called Bee Lafaek (translates to Crocodile water, crocs being revered here, nothing to do with the water having crocodiliac properties 😉   You can see more here https://www.facebook.com/beelafaek/ but it’s a beautiful thing to be involved in and the extra bonus is that it’s an Australian product being used, and it’s good – it works.

Rain here is a double-edged sword: water needs to fall from the sky to sustain life yet when it does, illness often follows. I often ask “are you sick?” and they simply reply “Udan, Mana”, meaning “it rained, Sister”.  Rain brings soggy yards, contaminated water and a range of illnesses.  While we malae (foreigners) celebrate the relief it brings, many Timorese see it differently.

Also, imagine when the rain refuses to stay ‘in the great outdoors’: you are dripped on while sleeping and when you wake, your bed is in mud. Then the sometimes-deadly mosquitoes arrive…

Yesterday a Timorese friend took my two sons and I to the Nazareth Foundation as we’d heard that they produce filter systems for household drinking water.  Her family, who lives in a remote mountain village, collects water daily.  That’s an understatement as the collection is quite a mission that can take many hours in extreme terrain.  Of course, the water has to be available (seasonal) and the end result is sometimes a jerry-can full of tummy-bug.  We can’t have that, as these people are our friends.  What we found at this run-down-looking industrial site nestled close to a bridge in Dili was a group of young men sporting huge smiles and an array of obvious physical disabilities.  Being deaf, I was sporting my own, and therefore entered the yard with a soft spot for these men who have obviously been given opportunity by the Nazareth Foundation to lead a healthy, productive life.  The yard is small and full of articles in various stages of production, eventually for sale; water filters being one of them.

such a thrill to meet these guys who are producing such a simple & affordable piece of life-saving equipment

My friend provided much needed language support as I stumbled through a Tetun conversation about filters, water and hope, generally.  The leader of this group tried so hard to talk in English which was where my Tetun was 6 months ago: now that is a real disability, not being able to communicate holds a person back more than any physical ‘difference’.  Saying that, our home country doesn’t look after the disabled anywhere near well enough but over there you’ll live an easier life with a disability, I believe.  Medical services here are a mix of basic and non-existent and add to that the lack of smooth footpaths and a fair degree of social stigma and you’re better off here not having something wrong with you (another understatement).  I feel privileged to be the customer in this yard, not the worker.  I can pop in my expensive & high-tech hearing aids and go about my day while the amputee or polio victim navigates slippery mud, rocks and uneven ground.  He will be wearing a big Timorese smile and a positive attitude; that’s an absolute given. It reminds me to wear mine.

Youth Smiles Without Any Reason

Youth smiles without any reason. It is one of its chiefest charms
Thomas Gray 1716-1771

This strikes a chord with Brian and I, and at the moment more than ever, as we both work with young people in Timor-Leste, a nation emerging from oppression and war.

Our oldest being befriended by 3 delightful high-school students who are out and about at Malae (foreigner) hangouts hoping to engage in conversation & therefore improve their English.

The majority of Timorese are under the age of 30, and it shows; just stand in the street as thousands file out of schools across Dili, resplendent in their squeaky-clean, distinctive uniforms.  They hold hands, laugh, unwittingly cause major

The flag: they proudly wave it, wear it, paint walls to resemble it.

traffic disturbance and simply shine with their energy, hope and well, youth.  They have the odds stacked against them for a successful career and financial stability but odds don’t come into it; they have heart.  There are simply too many of them for their paths to be an easy one.  There are also few employment opportunities, today.  The lucky few may get a chance to study in Indonesia, Europe or Australia although the majority will be competing with the tens of thousands of peers with similar education.  If statistics are to be believed, things are improving steadily for these young, soon-to-be-leaders of Timor-Leste.

The young guys Brian works with are wonderful young men, in their early 20’s, recently completing their studies in electrical, welding & plumbing trades.  My Dad once told me that young, innocent people have a glow that is simply joy for an older person to witness.  Brian and I must have slipped into the older demographic, as we truly find it a joy to witness.

The Kids & their mentor about to board their first flight to Australia, as part of their ongoing education. A truly special moment for all of us.

Brian refers to his students as “the kids”, with great affection, and they refer to him as “the big boss”.  At 6’4.5” his presence is felt in any room but it’s his gentle, unassuming nature that they like.

He has the patience of Job and the wisdom that getting involved and making mistakes gives a person.  Add to that a big heart and yes, I think that these young boys have a great Mentor.

I say, Mana you are ALWAYS smiling”. She grins broadly and says “Of course, Mana” (Tetun word for Sister, used to address a woman/peer).

The young people I am lucky to work with are also delightful. I bring the average age up by 20 years by being in the building.  I sound like a Nanna when I say that it’s difficult to not feel young around them, yet on some challenging days I feel old, out of touch and clueless, but they’re also feelings that keep me on my toes.

It’s election time in Timor. This is what a few hundred hopeful youth look like on the campaign trail. It’s the picture of happy chaos, provided no one gets upset with anyone else… but that’s fodder for a separate blog post.

As I type this I can hear the usual sounds from over the fence; Latin tunes like Duele el Corazon and Despacito.  These embody the spirit of the young people in Timor-Leste today and you won’t go into the street without hearing them.  Passionate, Portugese blood definitely flows through many veins here and throw in the affinity they have with Reggae and you have a pretty good feel for the tone of the place.

The Timorese can move and groove and despite their shyness they’re quick to respond to a beat or a strum of a guitar.  In the corridors at work I constantly hear them sing as they walk towards the coffee pot or return from a meeting. If the power goes out, which it does often, out comes the guitar and they all adjourn to the verandah for a singalong.  Their bodies begin to move and their faces light up with smiles, as my skin tingles.  I hope they never sacrifice this joy for a serious workplace like we endure in “developed” countries.

This is the fresh face that I met one day in a village, as he was walking home from school with his mates. I wish my Tetun language stretched beyond 5 words at the time….

Great people

They tell you to surround yourself with great people.  It struck me yesterday that we have.  Sitting at my flimsy little office desk I am as comfortable, inspired and energetic as I’ve felt for years.  There’s no big salary and no high-tech resources at my disposal.  There is, however, an abundance of amazing, talented and keen people. Our CEO is a volunteering Doctor from Australia and is a visionary with boundless energy. His wife is equally talented and generous beyond words. They’re also great fun, and great friends. We are all supported by some brilliant experts in their field of medicine, law, accounting and business, back in Australia.  Mostly though, having a common goal, they are all really nice people.  In our office there’s Mana (Tetun for sister) Lauren, a young Australian missionary Nurse who I am pleased as punch to call my friend. They threw out the mould when she was made. 

Mana Lauren (the crazy one in centre), training the trainers

To my left is a competent and kind (nice qualities I’m sure you’ll agree) Timorese accounts guru and to my right, a proud and strong Timorese Ops Manager who has not been caught yet without a big genuine smile on his face.  Most days there is one or two volunteer Doctors, from Australia & the UK lately, floating around and sharing what they know.  The rest of the 30-something staff are Timorese nurses, midwives, social workers & other health care workers who are share a passion for improving the health of Timorese people.  As young professionals they bring an energy that, if bottled, would be priceless.

A nurse, a Midwife/Trainer and our wonderful cook. We all eat lunch together each day.

They don’t have the preconceived ideas or crustiness that comes with middle-age but they have very little management experience. That’s where I come in: I’m mentoring them, sharing my experience and prehistoric business skills, but secretly I’m having stimulating cultural exchanges and a lot of fun that operating our own business couldn’t provide.

This lovely Dr (centre) and social worker (R) run a group on a remote island, educating & supporting Timorese women.

It’s the old cliché; from adversity grows great resilience and beauty.  My colleagues have endured hardship: it’s hard here to obtain a good education, even harder to secure employment and it’s generally challenging to stay healthy.  You might say we’re lucky to have them all as they are all made of great stuff.

Humour is a big part of our Timorese day. Some days we feel surrounded by giant, warm smiles and riotous giggles even when the odds of having a successful day are stacked against us e.g. the traffic is worse than usual, the rain is bucketing down, our expensive internet service has shot off to another continent, we have another dose of Dili belly and maybe missing someone ‘back home’.  Still, there’s someone laughing, and there’s no choice but to join in. 

The effervescent & kind Dr G getting the kids’ help in opening his Christmas present.

The Timorese have this wonderful affection for human interaction: a conversation is a treasured thing and should be as long as possible whenever possible!  When walking the whole 100m to work I am constantly meeting groups of school kids, all holding hands, giggling, chatting and passing the time happily.  They most likely have few material possessions and have probably felt their fair share of pain but they appear oblivious to that side of life. They are in the moment and they remind us to be in it too.

So here we are, surrounded by greatness.  We are supposed to be cruisers, yachties, gypsies, but we are here, happily by choice still in one of our first ports, enjoying this rare privilege.  The sea will wait.

another 20 people have joined us since this Xmas 2017 photo was taken

Please check out the Facebook page https://web.facebook.com/maluktimor/      or the website http://www.maluktimor.org

Plastic Fantastic

I should get off Facebook.  My body temp rises every time I read posts from peeps who declare, like one person today, that people living in polluted places should pay for what they’ve done.  How can someone pay more than by having to live among pollution and sewerage?

The island that we’re on is small and does not, for valid reasons, produce  anything much other than Oil & Gas and very nice coffee. Most things are imported.  It is also the poorest country in South East Asia in which most people are living below the poverty line.  So, when someone needs a bowl in which to rinse their vegetables, they need something cheap. Introducing the lightweight, flexible, 100% plastic (most likely containing BPA) sieve, price 40 cents.

The 40 cent plastic sieve
With no alternative offered, this $1 plastic is a no-brainer (wine for scale, and for numbing the pain of buying another piece of plastic)

Next to it on the shop shelves is a pink plastic storage container, plastic plates, plastic tablecloth and some plastic utensils.  We also use one of these sieves as there is simply nothing else available.

When the several hundred thousand of these sieves wear out (soon, due to their cheap & flimsy nature) they will become part of the world’s refuse except that they will remain that way for up to 1000 years. Let not even start on the barrels of oil it takes to produce this plastic in the first place….

Today I purchased the same strong, plastic package of laundry detergent that most people in South East Asia would buy.  I’ve done a diagram of where this plastic goes. It’s not pretty.

Obviously that’s not the end of the packet’s adventure. We only hope that it doesn’t make it into the stomach of some harmless & beautiful creature.

We read the other day that 88-95% of the world’s ocean plastic comes from 10 rivers; 8 of which are in Asia.  Timor’s neighbour was one of the biggest contributors but the Yangtze, alone, spews more than 330,000 tonnes each year, into that ocean we sail on, swim in, and love.

“Recycle”, you might say. After all, Timor-Leste is an eco-paradise, so there’s a good incentive.  The sad reality is that at the present going rate per tonne for plastic scrap it will take a miracle for a recycling centre to be established here anytime soon. There simply isn’t the population to make the figures add up.

It’s too easy to stand high and mighty on our biodegradable soap boxes and berate people living in  rubbish-strewn communities (the styrofoam box could easily have come across from a neighbouring country in the current).  We can continue filling Facebook with unhelpful and unconsidered statements like the person’s I mentioned earlier.  This plastics problem, I agree, is massive. It’s systemic. It’s economic.  It’s disastrous. As long as there is poverty and too little education, it will be a worsening problem.  I don’t know the answer, I am no expert, but I do know what it’s NOT 100% from people behaving irresponsibly and treating their earth with neglect or the creatures in it with disrespect.  It’s the ill-informed and sometimes greedy Big-Decision-Makers who I’d start talking to first. They can install the systems and educate the people, gradually.  The average household here can’t buy a wheelie bin nor can it contribute to an expensive rubbish removal system.  The occupants are more likely to be worrying about the next meal or how they’ll afford to buy the next bag of soap powder.

The next time I gasp at the sight of rubbish on a gorgeous Asian beach I will spare an extra thought for the locals; those who wish they didn’t live among pollution and overflowing rubbish piles.  People usually don’t deserve what they get…

Bakery goods all come in plastic….
Donut, anyone? They’re in plastic too although it’s too fragile to use more than once.
so does fruit, with plastic ties on the plastic bags
The egg production guy might use an alternative package if there was one…
ditto for the Peanuts selling guy…..
Most homes, big or small, have more than one of these inexpensive Chinese chairs.  While they’re only a few bucks, that trend will continue.
This material is particularly nasty as it leaches unpleasant chemical into the apples if left on there too long.
Timor-Leste’s staggering beauty is worth protecting