Life after Timor

Three months after arriving home in New Zealand:

  • We’ve been surprised at how many people continue to read Dili dally: the number of views is around 30,000 and climbing. Thank you, whoever you are. Obrigada barak.
  • We’ve revived  our communications business, 2Write. Our door is open again for writing, editing and design work, oral histories, publications and workshops.
  • Pat’s building on his Timor experience in a part-time role with VSA, working with returned volunteers.
  • Pip talked at TEDx Wellington Women about the importance of both truth and compassion when we tell stories about real people.

Yes, as much as we miss it, there is life after Timor.


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

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


Follow the money

Soon after Pat and I arrived in Timor, we travelled to Aileu, about three hours out of Dili. After lunch at one of the town’s two restaurants, I handed the waitress a $20 note. She pointed to the year and gave it back. ‘La diak,’ she said. No good. Bewildered, I pulled out another $20. Same year, same response.

We rustled up enough change to pay for the meal but that took all our cash. To be honest, we hadn’t really thought about funds for the trip. Our accommodation and transport were covered and food was the only cost.

Then it dawned on me. There’s no way to get money in Aileu. No ATM machines. No banks. No cheque facilities. No postal service for that matter. Fortunately the local World Vision office swapped our suspect notes for ones we could use. If we’d been tourists, I don’t know what we’d have done.

Pulsa boys on a Dili street corner.

Pulsa boys on a Dili street corner.

Timor’s a strictly cash economy. The implications of this are hard to comprehend if you’re used to flashing the plastic. Here, you need real money for everything, from a 50 cent pile of garlic to an $80 doctor’s visit.

There’s no billing or internet banking. We buy cellphone top-up cards from the pulsa boys who occupy every street corner, purchase  pre-paid electricity vouchers and refill the gas bottle we use for cooking when it’s empty. All these transactions require cash. In a city of 200,000 people, only a handful of top retailers have EFTPOS or credit card facilities.

Our monthly volunteer allowance gets paid into an ANZ bank account. We have a card to withdraw money from one of the four ATM machines in Dili. It’s not unusual for three to be out of action, a poor show for a bank making record profits of A$500 million a month in the Asia-Pacific region.

Continue reading

A room of my own

I landed back in Dili last week with the blues. New Zealand is to blame. Our grandkids were too beautiful, our families and friends too hospitable, the food too good, the colours too vibrant. Even Wellington’s lousy summer didn’t really get me down. I’ve had lots of hot. It was a novelty to put on jackets and jeans and not douse myself in insect repellent. I loved the wild beaches, the wind on my face, clean streets, plumbing that works, the comfort of belonging.

Three reasons why it was so hard leaving NZ: our grandchildren (from left) Avah, Rome and Jet.

Three reasons why it was so hard to leave New Zealand again: our grandchildren (from left) Avah, Rome and Jet at the gun emplacements on Matiu/Somes Island on a rare glorious Wellington day.

In the month we were home, Timor faded away. Continue reading

Endangered dream

Tensions in Dili have risen lately. Around 9pm on 24 September two guys on a motorbike went mad with machetes. They slashed several people. One died. Police commander Longhuinos Monteiro put up a message on Facebook, warning everyone in Timor to stay home after dark. He signed it ‘Big hugs and good night’. Somehow this made me feel more vulnerable.

Timor Police Commander Longhuinos Monteiro dances with Prosecutor General Ana Pessoa.

Timor Police Commander Longhuinos Monteiro on the dance floor with Prosecutor General Ana Pessoa.

UN security warnings came out daily. Our landlord added a chain to the padlock on the gate of our family compound. Police set up checkpoints all over the city. They confiscated dodgy motorbikes on the spot and jailed their owners for up to 72 hours if they couldn’t produce the right documents. One VSA volunteer had his bike seized because its exhaust was too noisy. Continue reading

From rescued to rescuers

A chance to repay the kindness of the Timorese after our car broke down on our Mount Matebian trip three weeks ago came sooner than expected.

Tony, our guide Guido, Pat, Pip, Julia and Del at the entrance to the Loi Hunu caves.

Tony, our guide Guido, Pat, Pip, Julia and Del at the entrance to the Loi Hunu caves.

We spent last weekend at Loi Hunu, south of Baucau, with Julia, Del and Tony, three other Kiwi volunteers. It’s my favourite place in Timor with impressive limestone caves and a beautiful river hole (see my Gals’ Weekend blog).

On Sunday afternoon, as we were contemplating another swim, there was a loud crash. Everyone in the village went running through the trees, followed by Julia and me. To find out more, click on the photos below.