Living next door to Aussie

Australian ‘bastardry’ is something we Kiwis are pretty familiar with on the sports field. But the phrase is used in a more damning context by Australian writer Paul Cleary in his book, The Men Who Came Out of the Ground.

Cleary tells the story of the 400-strong Australian force that waged a guerrilla war against the Japanese in the Portuguese colony of Timor throughout 1942. As the Japanese swept down through South-East Asia, the tiny Australian contingent tied up an estimated 20,000 Japanese troops.

The key to their success was local support. Lieutenant John Rose wrote to his parents in June 1942: ‘The people we are living with are natives and they have been wonderful to us. They are great friends to the Aussies… they are invaluable guides, philosophers and friends here.’

HMAS Voyager wreck, Betano

Pat beside all that remains of the destroyer HMAS Voyager, wrecked in September 1942 after landing Australian soldiers and supplies on Timor’s south coast beach of Betano.

It was a smart strategy for Australia. Continue reading


The trouble with travel

Every day in Dili is hotter than the last. The wind gets up in the afternoon and clouds gather over the burnt hills, only to disperse. It’s late in the dry season, no rain for months. My skirt sticks to my legs like gladwrap. Dust coats the trees, the furniture, my feet. Even the sky looks like it could do with a mop.

A shack perched on the burnt hills of Dili at the end of the dry season

A hut perched on a barren Dili hillside late in the dry season.

And yet, after four weeks in the United States visiting our son Liam and his fiancée Aurora, it’s good to be back. No high-rise buildings or the roar of six-lane freeways. No designer clothes stores. No neon lights. Just streets full of people, beat-up taxis, skinny dogs, kids galore. Good-natured chaos interspersed with pockets of progress and, sometimes, desperation. Continue reading

Grandfather Ramelau

Timor’s highest mountain, Ramelau, stands at an impressive 2963m, higher than New Zealand’s Mount Ruapehu. It’s revered by the Timorese as shown by its local name Tatamailau, which means ‘grandfather of all’. Fortunately, you can get most of the way up in a grunty 4WD if you have a stomach for bad corners. In mid-August, we climbed to the top to see the sunrise with fellow VSAers Del, Tony and Julia. Click on the first photo for a slide show of our trip, including a shopping expedition at the Maubisse market on the way home.

PS Dili Dally will be on hold for a few weeks while we’re in Boston visiting our son Liam and his fiancee Aurora. We’ll be back in October.

Until then, haree dalan/take care


Cousin Agapito and other stories

Agapito Martins leaned back in his blue plastic chair and proudly pointed to his shiny tin roof, a sign of his new prosperity. He and other villagers are doing well from a World Vision project which includes cultivating and selling mahogany, teak and citrus seedlings. Seventeen households have pitched in to set up a plant nursery outside Agapito’s home where the seedlings are planted out in black plastic bags full of rich earth.

Agapito with a small basket of orange seeds that will be transferred to the nursery behind him.

Agapito with a small basket of orange seeds that will be transferred to the nursery behind him.

Continue reading

A day dallying in Dili

6am: It’s dark when Pat and I leave home to walk up the hill behind our house. The roosters are already in full throttle and there’s a welcome coolness to the air. We scramble up a rocky path, past silent shacks, in time to see the sky turn orange above the hills of Cristo Rei. In the harbour below, container ships wait to unload almost everything Timor consumes, including rice from Vietnam, eggs from Singapore and clean water from Indonesia. Not much goes the other way.

Sunrise over Dili harbour

Sunrise over Dili harbour

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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


Terra Timor

When an Australian visitor to Dili asked me how big Timor-Leste is, it got me thinking. Armed with my BA in Geography from 1975, I decided to investigate. I knew the country was small but we were both surprised to discover that Timor’s 14,874 sq km could easily fit four times into Tasmania, a state so tiny that mainland Australians often forget it’s down there.

In Kiwi terms, Timor is slightly bigger than Hawkes Bay province (14,111 sq km) but less than half the size of Otago.

Map 2This size, however, is deceptive. The rugged terrain and poor roads mean that distance isn’t measured in kilometres but in hours. In two days we’ll travel to Jaco Island at Timor’s eastern tip. The 223km one-way journey generally takes 8-10 hours. In the rainy season, the roads might be impassable. But because June’s the start of the dry season, we’ll hopefully bump along in our rented four-wheel drive at a relatively rapid 28 km/hour. Continue reading