We’ve been to more than a few parties here, otherwise today’s events might have been surprising. Firstly, things don’t run to a schedule that is recognised elsewhere. A start time of 10am means ‘between midday and sundown’, something that the guys who waited patiently in the tropical heat for 2 ½ hours today will attest to. We found them at 12.20pm; two sweaty, non-believers (that they had the right day). We ordered our food, sunk our chair legs into the cool sand, and waited for the ‘festa’ to begin. It didn’t. An hour later the crowd sent a pair of eager messengers to tell us that the party had started, 100m further down the beach. With much anticipation we made a move to the several giggling Timorese 20-somethings, in Santa hats, all engineers, all ready to celebrate. Our only regret was asking beforehand where they were all spending the morning, around cook stoves, preparing what was now laid out on the tables under the sprawling trees. The prep would have been a memorable cultural event, and we missed it.
Not to worry, there was the Kris-Kringle to partake in. In Timorese style, each person’s name was called out, a raucous applause followed, the “loke!” (“open!”) was shouted so we could all share in the joy that he/she received. Each face lit up as they revealed coffee sets, copy watches and sparkling decorations for their tree, until it was Brian’s turn. He tore open his golden cellophane to the most gorgeous Timorese woven “tais”. 50 enthusiastic voices called “uza” (wear it) and it was as if he had just been given the yellow jersey. They love Maun Brian (bother Brian) and appreciate all that he has been though with them. I couldn’t have felt prouder and as his face beamed with gratitude, it hit me with a thud: we are so privileged to have had this unique Timorese experience and it’s undoubtedly been the best 2 years of our lives. It’s the old cliché; the more you give, the more you receive. We almost feel guilty for the amount we have received in this magnificent place and we look forward to returning soon.
As for the hopeful, effervescent young engineers, they will carry on with their very important work of providing clean water and adequate sanitation to some of the world’s nicest & most deserving people. They only touch the tip of the iceberg but it’s a very good start. They’ll eventually tip it on its head and we’ll be there to watch it.
Cruising yachties don’t say goodbye, just see you later. The world is small and chances are you’ll meet again. Until then you wish each other fair winds, safe passage.
Tonight we parted with a delightful and inspiring bunch of medical professionals at Maluk Timor with whom I’ve shared 12 months of joy and hard work, all the time in an environment which I found challenging in ways I couldn’t have imagined. We gathered to wish each other ‘goodbye’, a teary exchange of well-wishing and thanks. I truly believe that by leaving this place I am leaving a piece of me, albeit in steady hands, and with me comes a piece of them.
I’ve written about these guys before blog post: Great People. I struggle to express how delightful they are. I have, through them, come to know some of the intricacies of Timorese modern life; post conflict. I have also come to know people who have endured immense pain during the years of Indonesian occupation. Some days here I have thrown my hands in the air, defeated, at the agonisingly slow progress of matters relating to business. I have felt crushed by the difficulties that people face here in just getting through the day. Other times I have never felt so elated; marvelling at how relatively minor accomplishments are celebrated, as the warmth of hope washes over us all. At all times I have felt connected. Rooted. Welcome. Valued. Add to that the relationships we’ve had with malae (foreigners) here, and we pinch ourselves. These generous volunteers are at the top of their game back home and they give consistently, guiding and mentoring as this place gets back on its feet. They are Doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, administrators, nurses, orthodontists… you get the picture. They are bound by their shared passion for this work. It’s quite magnificent what humans can achieve together.
Old friends, and some family, question why on earth we left home for this experience but if we could bottle these joyous moments, the world would be queuing up for a taste.
Is this ridiculously romantic? Yes. Am I coming unhinged? No, it’s just been THAT good. The Indonesian islands are waiting. We don’t know what’s down the road for us, but the Timorese have delivered us safely out of our stressed out, previous life, into one which is, like theirs full of hope and excitement. That can’t be a bad thing.
This Timorese song, Mai fali E, is a precious gift. It’s supposed to make you feel loved and not wanting to leave. It works.
Mai Fali e (come home)
Mai fali e, fila fali e, (do come home)
Mama bolu ita fali e (Our Mum is calling us home)
Loron atu tun ona, (the sun is setting)
fulan atu sae ona: (the moon is shining)
Mama bolu ita fali e
Mai fali e, fila fali e,
Mama bolu ita fali e
I left my faithful blue bike for Mana Lidia, the head of a promising and much needed Malnutrition program. It’s not only bikes that make this champion smile; she looks like this all the time!
We went into this with eyes wide open; we’re in a developing country where it is not the norm for babies to survive*. Nevertheless, there was a flickering ray of hope. This could be the statistic that didn’t bring despair, tragedy and unspeakable loss. In the Timor way, we held back from buying baby paraphernalia and we spent no time contemplating baby names, but we did care for and nurture the young Mum, someone who’s become a part of our family. She happily developed habits previously foreign to her; drinking countless cups of water, enjoying a balanced diet, getting rest and seeing the Doctor. The odds were good, or so we thought.
A few days ago, this baby came into the world earlier than expected, at 30 weeks. He was adorable, with perfect features and a room full of family waiting desperately to love and care for him. Tragically he passed away before the day was over. With no neonatal services able to meet his needs, he didn’t stand a chance.
As I sit here consumed by a dark, deep grief, I am wondering how, on this small island just over an hour’s flight from Australia, this is happening. As a teary young Mother in that hospital said to me that afternoon, “how can they let girls just lie here, and not help us?”. She felt neglected and acutely aware that she was in a truly hopeless situation. The expecting woman next to her in the curtained cubical could have been the woman I saw on the World Vision donation boxes in the 80’s: so thin that it’s hard to believe she walks, yet sporting a bump that would pass for 12 weeks, back home. She was full-term. I glanced at her arms as I stood next to her. Two of my thumbs were as wide as her upper arm. She knew hungry. She knew heartache and she knew pain. She also had a smile that lit up the dismal, almost dormant, delivery room.
It’s difficult to explain how it feels to stand with your loved one, in a maternity ward of that standard, with nothing but a prayer and a stroke of good luck to help you. I glanced around the room: all but two staff wore dear little white nurse’s hats (only student nurses wear these). The remaining two were service staff. Not a Dr in sight. Maybe a midwife would appear soon? No, none did. We were on our own.
I have just spent a year working in a medical training organisation that is making inroads into changing the health system in Timor. I know the statistics. I appreciate that the capacity is low, but at that moment, standing in that room, looking through watery eyes at baby Gabriel, I saw it differently. It was a defining moment which altered how I see the world.
I know that his soul rests in peace, and that gives me comfort. He just deserved a chance. His Mother deserved to expect a chance at welcoming a healthy baby. After nearly two decades* it seems that that chance is a long way off and we must work so very much smarter and harder.
For decades Australia has been accused of benefiting from foreign aid that it has an enviable reputation for dispersing. “Boomerang Aid”, they call it, and Timor-Leste bears the brunt of it. I wouldn’t wish our past few days’ pain on anyone yet I wonder what would be the new strategic direction of major foreign aid players if they too stood in that room and felt what was happening. I truly believe that aid would start to reach the real need; the people with hearts and souls who desperately need it, not the bureaucratic pile of paper that demands it.
* UNICEF figures released for 2015: 45 in every 100 newborns here die. More alarmingly, 53 in every 100 die before they reach the age of 5. The word on the street here is that these are conservative figures and that reality is higher. These are more than numbers, it’s abysmal.
** Timor-Leste is one of the world’s newest and poorest nations, becoming an independent country less than 20 years ago.
We left Australia with the hope of experiencing days like this. After years of travel we knew that our souls are fed by adventure and making friendships with people from different worlds. We sold up 2 years ago and bought one way tickets.
We simply could not have anticipated the excitement and warmth of driving, today, into a remote & traditional village, taking home two members of a special Timorese family. We have had the rare privilege of developing a closeness and a mutual understanding with them, based on coincidence and then shared experiences. These people have invited us into their lives and allowed us feel their vulnerability, and their tremendous strength. Without means, they bear the brunt of the worst that life can throw at them, and still they smile through what would reduce many of us Westerners to a blithering mess.
We learned recently of a concept here called moris disiplina. Like as in our culture, it’s fairly easy to tell when someone’s been raised to value self respect, discipline and direction. Tia Philomena, the head of this family, has our highest respect for how she has raised her brood. They are special people.
As we all sat in their living room drinking delicious local coffee, chatting, laughing, and watching their small children entertain us as small kids do, I felt overwhelmingly lucky to be here. As my sister reminds me often, “you just have to change your direction. The rest follows”. And so it does, and it’s been magnificent.
Obviously our sons don’t see Timor-Leste in quite the same way as we do, so we asked them for a short list of their favourite things about living here, things that may help the next kid get excited about coming to try this place for themselves.
It’s a tropical island, with crocodiles
This is simply Indiana-Jones type of exciting, and for real: it’s a remote island, covered by mountains, fringed by beaches dotted with palm trees, and it’s warm and humid (in the wet season. In the dry it’s just plain warm). Crocs are revered here and there are legendary tales of the “lafaek (pron. Luf-eye-ek)” which stirs any young person’s imagination. Even the mountain closest to Dili is shaped like a croc’s snout and the Dili police keep a really big one in a pond in their compound. I mean, what urban police headquarters doesn’t have its own crocodile?
Really funny things happen in the traffic, all the time
Just driving to the shops can be hilarious and after nearly 2 years, not a day goes by when we don’t find something to chuckle about or drop our jaws to. We regularly see people operating one-handed, taking selfies and smiling at everyone, while riding a scooter through what is chaotic traffic. Often the passenger behind them will be carrying live pigs, several roosters, a double door frame, or 36 baby baths, piled high. Two days ago, on a roundabout, we followed a guy holding onto the back of a motor bike as he sat in his wheelbarrow, going 15 km/hour. Yes, he was smiling. After all, he didn’t have to walk.
There’s a cinema, 3 Burger Kings, cheap movie stores and anyone can afford the lollies.
Yes, South East Asia’s poorest nation has these incredible perks for the foreign visitor, as they’re mainly who can afford them. The cinema is cheap and there’s hardly ever anyone in there, and the movie store only sells Indonesian copies which are illegal elsewhere. Lollies? They’re cheap and sold absolutely everywhere. Our kids value this highly, in quality of life.
Timor is really beautiful and interesting
Both boys love drives into the mountains, where the air is cool, the trees are gargantuan and the vibe is Jurassic. Just an hour away from our home in Dili is compared to a scene from Jumanji. Eating their morning tea on a log, breathing in actual damp cloud, is something these little boat/beach kids have never experienced ‘til Timor. They love the roaming goats, the hellos and waves from almost everyone they see on the way, and they’re amazed by the shear scale of these mountain ranges, complete with interesting wildlife and trickling, and sometimes flowing, water. It’s nothing like home.
We don’t have to go to school!
Being travelling kids means that they are homeschooled. It provides the flexibility to take excursions and trips back home at times when their friends are otherwise engaged at school. They feel a freedom and a sense of rebellion at the very thought of never going back to their old school. The youngest tried a term at a local International school and he absolutely loved it, but as we are coming to the end of our time here, it couldn’t last. He made wonderful friends there & made memories for life.
As with anything, there are negatives, and it wouldn’t be fair for me to omit them.
They miss their friends.
Yes, they pine for their old friends in Australia although we always knew that they were sensational little people who were the best type of friends our kids could wish for. Leaving was always going to be hard, and we all have our days…
Home schooling in Dili has been lonely at times, as there are not many kids home schooled and even less who are older than 8 years of age. As quickly as our two have made a new mate, they leave, and that’s the life of an expat kid. We expect that when sailing we’ll meet more kids also on the move, who we can catch up with down the track. This is how it’s described to us by other cruisers so it’s something we look forward to.
They can’t walk or cycle around town, like they could at home.
We came from a small country town in which everyone knew everyone and the footpaths and bush tracks were for all, of any age. Our two weren’t aware of how rare & idyllic this freedom was, and still don’t, so they pine for this license to hop on their bike and stretch their legs, without a care in the world.
It’s hard not to spruik clichés of adventure travel, when describing Timor-Leste. It’s a remote wilderness, remains largely untouched, has a pristine ecosystem, natural and original beauty, although one word seems most appropriate: simplicity. Timor’s countryside screams simplicity. The capital and larger centres have been altered by Western influences that have brought the Timorese many delights such as smooth roads, retaining walls, shops, medicine and centres for education.
As the crow flies, Same (pron. Sah-may) is 46km South of Dili, although we tourists choose the more amenable and continually-improving roads that chase through the mountains for 3.5 hours. This beautiful city and subdistrict are what you discover once over the range – very few tourists make the trek past this point. The treeless and grassy slopes are dotted with tiny traditional villages where ponies are still used in daily life. The ground here is carpeted in tiny, white flowers, apparently thriving in the cooler temperatures and gentler climate. The scene is almost Alpine, then as you wind down through the immense valley you are gradually nestled in eucalypts, casuarinas and palm trees. The air temperature continues to drop and the lovely city of Same appears. At first glance we wondered how such an old place could look so new, orderly and financial when there seemed to be no industry or agriculture for miles. It was then we learned that the town was almost decimated by the pro-Indonesian militia and that the Aussie and New Zealand armed forces were involved in a battle here in the 2006 Crisis. Same has seen its share of pain and trouble and has had to completely rebuild. It gives the ‘new and shiny’ look a more complex twist.
It is still impossible to ignore the simplicity. Walking seems to be the most common way
for folks to move about, so there is barely any traffic. There are people tending neat vegetable plots outside their homes, many of which are of traditional design; bamboo walls topped by a pointed, thatched roof. Children play on the grass, teenagers chat in the shade, Mothers wander to and from the water to do the washing, buckets balanced on heads and their babies propped on hip.
To our delight we were welcomed at Hotel Uma Liurai by Brian, a fellow Aussie who has lived there for many years and continues to build his piece of paradise. It sounds like Brian doesn’t take days off, preferring instead to potter about with landscaping his hotel and tending to his guests. You feel like you’re staying in his home, not at his hotel. The meals were superb, the rooms massive and the swimming pool lived up to being ‘the best in Timor-Leste’.
If you too enjoy having your soul soothed by quiet simplicity, make the trek to magnificent Same.
To call a Timorese shy is usually an understatement. It’s one of their endearing features and even if full of self-confidence, they are often reluctant to chat to foreigners. This young lady is one of those people.
When Mira came into our lives there was little for her to feel too excited about, as life had never been a breeze, far from it. Her Father was killed when she was newborn and as fate would have it she was fostered by a loving family with 10(!) children. Never going without, she remembers it all being happy until, when she was 12, the Mother of this family passed away.
More good fortune did follow in her being taken in by a loving school teacher in another village although the separation from her family was traumatic. After leaving school she made a similar move to tens of thousands of young Timorese; to the city searching for opportunity. An amazing Canadian woman operated a growing business that put employers and employees together, mainly for domestic work, however she ensured that these young people received English lessons, technical instruction and moral support to further themselves. She has been a shining light for so many young people here who would have otherwise ended up in tragically poor circumstances.
Mira has been entrepreneurial since 8 years old and remembers her little peers making fun of her tending her vegetable stall at the front of her home, instead of playing in the street with the others. She recalls how, later, she spent hours after school, in the market selling the same wares on a larger scale, content to be making her contribution. Poverty has the knack of knocking the stuffing out of you but she just kept her head down as she studied hard and hoped for a life without too much more pain.
Today, at 24, she is watching a team of voluntary Timorese builders attach the roof to her first home. Some Catholic nuns have bought the land, in recognition of her strong spirit and fine character.
Having already started a small shop for her family in their mountain village, she is confident now to start one in her new city house. She plans to take in her nephew and niece from the mountains, so that they can receive an education, and she will love them as her own. I asked how their Mum will cope without them and the reply is simply that “education is the important thing”.
Her face simply beams as she describes her plans for the future. Two years ago when I asked her what she would do for a living, if she had the choice, her despondent reply was “we do not hope for the future, Sister”.
Timorese people put up with a lot. We just completed a trip to Bacau, visiting places en-route, on some of the worst roads we’ve ever encountered. The thing is, every Timorese we came across was smiling broadly, not only tolerant of the bone-rattling road conditions but appreciative that they were travelling from one incredible place to another.
It would be easy, as a foreigner, to become annoyed at the ‘powers-that-be’ for allowing the road gangs to tear up several kilometres of passable asphalt at once, leaving nothing but road deconstruction & general chaos. The road from Manatuto to Baucau is a long series of potholes, of varying depths & dangers, joined intermittently by short stretches of bumps and boulders. We had to stop for a break and check that our boys still had all their teeth.
There is more to the story, though. Rumour has it that the asphalt purchased from overseas is unsuitable for Timorese roads, hence the project forges on ahead in anticipation of the right top arriving before the rainy season strikes. It sounds like the little guy has been taken advantage of, yet again.
In the meantime, the drive is challenging (think Dakar Rally), as you shower roadside kiosks and stalls with unfathomable amounts of dust, destined to line the lungs of the kids playing in the street, the adults going about their daily business, the vegetables, livestock and interiors of the rustic homes that have no option but to accept this unwanted guest. Did that stop people waving hello as we drove past? No, not even close.
The destination, Baucau, is Timor-Leste’s second largest centre, and it exceeded our expectations. It’s more than a few degrees cooler than Dili, is greener, has impressive Portuguese architecture and an incredible ocean aspect. Our rooms at the Pousada de Baucau http://pousadadebaucau.com/ENG/main_eng.htm were an escape into the world of hot showers, working plumbing, comfortable beds, good food and mini bars. We had not been aware how we’d missed such decadent delights and even the kids used superlatives, continuously. We sobered up in learning that the hotel was used as the Indonesian Secret Service headquarters during the Occupation, and even housed prisoners.
We are reminded to take nothing for granted. Everything is precious, even a dusty 4.5 hour, 120km, drive back to Dili. All four of us agree that we are better for the experience and we’re already planning our next adventure, Balibo, in a few weeks.
This is one of those tourist posts.After a recent spate of unfruitful web searches, it became glaringly obvious that Timor-Leste needs more internet presence.Anyone who comes to Timor with none of the local languages in their repertoire soon realises that they’re in for a challenge.Road signs? There has been a flurry of installations recently, although they’re in Tetum, and either they were installed facing the wrong way or it’s been entertaining for someone to run around Timor and turn a bunch of them 90 degrees.Like everything here, you should take signs with a grain of salt.
Roads? They range from shiny new asphalt to rough, dusty goat tracks, and all certainly perilous.Other drivers? Now, there’s your biggest challenge.You share the road with trucks loaded with 55 people, mikrolets loaded with quite a few, most squeezed inside but some hanging externally, the odd car, several thousand motor bikes, each with between one and 5 passengers, and the pedestrians who include people, cows, goats, pigs and chickens.
It’s also faster out in the Districts than in Dili city limits; you often reach up to 40km/hr whereas in the city you start squealing with excitement if you reach 20.All of this District traffic is either dawdling up the steep mountains or hurtling down them as if today is their last day.If you put the obvious danger aside, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable, interesting and slightly exhausting way to see Timor.
What will you see? People, and the further into the mountains you venture, the more traditional attire is the norm. Anyone with a voice will call out “Malae, malae!” (foreigner) and wave or flash you an enthusiastic smile.
If you’re in a car, keep your windows down or you miss most of this experience.In Ermera Villa today I received low-fives from kids too, while I was seated in the car.They are seriously friendly, and absolutely delightful.
While touring in the dry season, many of the magnificent mountains are sheeted in crispy brown although tucked among them are plenty of surprises: brightly coloured blooms which attract similarly exquisite butterflies, waterfalls, bubbling river beds and countless birds including eagles.
The clusters of deep green speak volumes of the cool temperatures, high annual rainfall and productive soil. Some of the world’s best coffee is grown here. From Dili you will drive through altitudes of 800m in the Gleno food bowl, 1200m not far up the road, and Mount Ramalao sits majestically at nearly 3000m.
Take spare change on any trip to the Districts as you won’t be able to drive past the many fruit & vegetable stalls that offer jackfruit, oranges, passionfruit, persimmon, more than 3 varieties of banana, avocado, peanuts and leafy greens.
So, grab your spare camera battery & memory card as you’ll need them both.Just don’t ride or drive too fast or you’ll miss something really special.
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.
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.
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.
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 https://maluktimor.org/ 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.
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.