Fish on a stick

Last Sunday, Pat and I went snorkelling at Back Beach behind the Jesus statue, as we’ve done on many a Sunday morning in the last two years. Later, we wandered around to the next bay. A high stone wall has appeared on the cliff edge. It won’t be long before the view of Atauro Island is commandeered by whichever ema boot (big-wig) is building a house on that beautiful spot.

The beaches and hills of Dili have soothed our souls during our two-year stint.

The beaches and hills of Dili have sustained us during our two-year stint. You can see the Jesus statue (Cristo Rei) at the end of the point, and Atauro Island in the distance.

Behind us work had begun on a five-star tourist resort; across the water, new dirt roads zigzagged over the hills, heralding more exclusive development. We agreed that we’ve been lucky to be in Timor at this time. A time of optimism, in spite of all its problems. A peaceful time, sandwiched between the turmoil of the past and the creeping inequality that casts a shadow over the future. Continue reading

Down among the women

‘How old are you?’ asked the hairdresser. She was Indonesian, like nearly all hairdressers in Dili. I was the only customer. The power had gone out which meant a cold wash and no blow dry. Never mind. A young Timorese assistant hovered nearby with an older Chinese woman, perhaps the owner.

Still working: our landlord's mother sweeps our yard with a traditional broom.

Still working: our landlord’s mother sweeps the yard with a traditional broom.

‘Fifty-nine,’ I said, although the $10 haircut had made me look much younger – like about six. There were small gasps. ‘You are very healthy,’ the young Timorese woman said, as if it was a miracle that I was still out and about. And to her it may have been. Older women are rarely seen on the streets of Dili. They age before their time; by their late sixties, most are dead.

I hope these women – who wear sarongs, chew betel nuts that stain their mouths red, and have survived two and sometimes three occupations of their country – are treated well. I know I am. As an older malae woman, I’ve received nothing but respect in Timor. It starts with hello, which is big in these parts. ’Mana’ – the usual female greeting – is often upgraded to ‘Senora’ or ‘Avo’ (grandmother) in my case. The white hair probably helps.

It’s harder for young malae women, who get pestered and groped, even on their motorbikes. Their freedom seems to bedazzle local boys who are used to girls staying home and doing as they’re told. Continue reading

Write for Timor

I never expected to end up teaching creative writing in Timor, least of all in the national language, Tetun. But every Wednesday morning for the last six months, I’ve sat in a windowless room in the former Balide prison in Dili doing exactly that with a team of social researchers.

My four male and two female students have interviewed 800 Timorese women about their roles in the 25-year resistance movement. An academic book is in the pipeline. Now their boss, Nuno, a journalist, wants to share the women’s personal stories. When he discovered my oral history and writing background, he asked me to give them a hand.

Members of my creative writing class. From left, clockwise: Nuno, Justin, Alito, Este and Polan.

Members of my creative writing class. From left, clockwise: Nuno, Justin, Alito, Este and Polan.

Enlisting my help was a big leap of faith on Nuno’s part. I have no teaching experience, and running a class in a language I couldn’t speak 20 months ago is, frankly, a challenge. So how does it work?

Continue reading

The tais that bind

I got a rare chance to observe the ancient art of weaving tais (pronounced ‘ties’) when 10 women from Oecussi – a small Timor Leste enclave surrounded by Indonesia  – brought their skills to Dili recently.

Grupa Feto Fitun Fronteira (The Women’s Star Frontier Group) spent two weeks at the Xanana Reading Room showing visitors how they spin, dye and weave home-grown cotton into beautiful cloths, using techniques and designs handed down by word of mouth from their mothers and grandmothers for up to 2000 years. It’s part of a bigger project supported by two local NGOs, Timor Aid and the Alola Foundation, to preserve and promote textile development throughout East and West Timor.

This 15-year-old girl has learnt the mapa'uf weaving technique from her grandmother. The back-strap on her loom maintains the cloth's tension but can cause painful pressure for the weaver.

This 15-year-old Oecussi girl has  learnt traditional tais weaving from her grand-mother. Scroll down for a full photo gallery.

I went back to the uma mahon (shady house) at the Reading Room several times, drawn by the women’s skill, patience and teamwork, not to mention their fortitude in sitting straight-backed on thin mats for long spells, legs stretched out under their looms.

The art of tais is performed only by women, often as a social activity that provides income, binds communities and underpins many cultural practices. The fine cloths are used for ceremonial occasions, everyday wear, decoration and as objects of exchange. These days, as weavers cater to modern demands, you can buy tais handbags and scarves, shoes, book marks, place mats, cushion covers – in fact, almost anything you can think of  –  in a bewildering array of designs, patterns and colours unique to each of TImor’s 13 districts. 

Many modern tais use synthetic dyes and cottons. However, the Oecussi group’s goal is to preserve the old ways, time-consuming and labour-intensive as they are. As with many indigenous communities  – including Maori in New Zealand  –  traditional weaving is in danger of dying out, a process hastened in Timor by the wholesale destruction of people, materials and cultural knowledge during the 24 years of Indonesian occupation.

The Oecussi enclave has the most diverse range of tais production techniques still left in the country. The women of Grupa Feto Fitun Fronteira, the guardians of this sacred heritage, are fighting for its survival. To see their craft for yourself, click on the first photo below and scroll through the photo gallery.

To’o tempu oin/Till next time

Pip

Gals’ weekend

Everyone says you have to get out of Dili to see the real Timor. That’s where three-quarters of the population live, far from the capital’s hot streets and hustle. What better reason to join a gals’ weekend to the highlands with Tracey and Liz – two other Kiwi women of a certain age – and Carol, a young American brave enough to hang out with us.

Not that women in the real Timor would take off in a car together for three days. When Pat told Lukas, a World Vision driver, we’d gone gallivanting without husbands, Lukas slapped his thigh and roared with laughter as if it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. Continue reading