Postcard 3 from Timor Leste – Balibo and Ego Lemos. By Tim Holt

I wake before 6am to the sounds of the Sisters and the congregation singing during early morning prayers. The beauty of their voices and harmonies is mesmerising, an absolute joy to experience…

 

The day dawns overcast, hot & sticky. The temperature hovers around 34 degrees during the day dipping to just 24 overnight. So I have no complaint about the cold shower on offer, it provides much-needed relief.

Breakfast is just after seven (corn flakes, egg, bread rolls, sliced cheese, jam and those delicious sweet little local bananas) and as we gather with the Sisters and the young acolytes something special is brewing.

Could be the Bega Valley, the hills of Timor Leste
Could be the Bega Valley, the hills of Timor Leste

One of the Sisters has a guitar and they launch into a joyful song. It is the birthday of one of the young trainees and she is moved to tears by the singing, a gift of flowers and a small present. The realisation that this young woman has grown up in poverty, that this little birthday celebration is one that she has probably never experienced before, is very moving. As she stands we all file by to greet and hug her, the tears are rolling down my cheeks.

Tonight Dave has arranged for us to meet up with Ego Lemos, permaculturist, singer, songwriter of renown in Timor Leste. If you’ve seen the 2009 film Balibo you’ve heard his haunting song of the same name, or perhaps you were in the audience in the Candelo Town Hall in 2012 when Ego performed there.

This morning though, Balibo itself beckons.

There are four of us in the Toyota for the journey – Jose, Dave, Augus, and me.

The 130 kilometres is about a four-hour drive from Dili mostly along the coast towards the border with Indonesian West Timor.

We take to the chaotic early morning Dili traffic fueling up at one of the local service stations. Diesel is around 79 cents a litre. That I think equates to about $1 Aus. There’s a steady stream of motor scooters lined up at the petrol bowsers, out on the roads it often seems there are more motor scooters than people in Dili.

Young people and scooters, a familiar site in Timor Leste
Young people and scooters, a familiar sight in Timor Leste

What is so striking here in Dili and across Timor is the youth. Everywhere you see the vibrancy of young people, children, young families. Imagine a country where 42% of the population is under 15 years, 62% under 25, more than 90% under 55! You ask, why so young? Where are the older people?

You ask, why so young? Where are the older people?

Well there’s the life expectancy of 65 years for men, 69 for women. Then there’s the Indonesian occupation from 1975-1999, during which time the lives of up to a quarter or more of the population were lost.

Timor Leste is one humongous lump of rock, and there is no shortage of the stuff. Rocks are used in just about every construction, for house footings, roadside drainage, and retaining walls, even the pots that Jose makes.

On this the northern coast of the island the steep hills rise rapidly to the mountainous interior. Those steep hillsides are much denuded and eroded, the soils seemingly very poor. No doubt firewood collection for cooking has decimated much of that vegetation. Along the roadsides are bundles of crisscrosses dried sticks of firewood waiting for collection and sale in Dili or other towns.

We pass several salt farms along the coast, small household farms that produce salt using traditional methods. A series of ponds allows the seawater to evaporate, the salt brine is collected and dried using firewood and boilers. The salt is then bagged and sold by the roadside.

We stop at a roadside stall at Tibar for water, then Loes for coffee. Rich black coffee from one of the roadside kiosks.

Next stop is Balibo.

Just out of Loes, Jose stops to pick up one of the students he has been encouraging, so now we are five.

It’s early afternoon when we arrive at Balibo, just ten kilometres from the border with Indonesian West Timor, we pull up on the road leading up to the Fort.

I have mixed emotions as we walk up the driveway towards the entrance. The Fort is some four hundred years old, and it is the site the Balibo Five were filming from when the Indonesian forces landed in Balibo.

The Fort and surrounds have been transformed into a restaurant and tourist destination with accommodation.

We order lunch – pumpkin soup at five dollars U.S a bowl for Dave and myself, Nasi Goreng for Jose, Augus and Nicolaij at ten U.S dollars per serve. Jose is not impressed. And with good reason. These are not prices the average Timorese can afford. Wages here typically three to five dollars a day. Certainly there are higher wages for government and corporate workers but that is not the norm.

Jose sees the Fort as part of Timor Leste’s history, a place for all Timorese and not a place exclusively for tourists and wealthy locals.

The 400 year old Fort, steeped in history but beware of the bill at lunch.
The 400-year-old Fort, steeped in history but beware of the bill at lunch.

From the Fort, we wander down the hill to Balibo House and Museum where we meet Michele Rankin.

I’m humbled by the commitment of people like Michele and those from the Balibo House Trust. They are truly inspiring people. Michele has her two daughters visiting from Brisbane during the school holidays.

Balibo House was the last refuge of the five Australian-based journalists, Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters who were murdered by Indonesian troops in 1975. Fellow newsman Roger East was murdered seven weeks later as he investigated the deaths of his five colleagues.

Balibo House Trust was established by the Victorian Government in October 2002, it has since been handed back to to the people of the Balibo district for use as a community learning centre.

As we prepare to leave Balibo there is one site I don’t have the stomach to visit.

Amongst the Timorese it is known as the ‘Kissing House’.

Heather from the Balibo House Trust explains to us that it was the place where the bodies of the Balibo Five were dragged to and burnt after they were shot.

Heather says she has heard two explanations about the origins of the name ‘Kissing House’ – both equally brutal and point to the depraved actions of the Indonesian forces over many years.

The souls who have been murdered here still move in this space and perhaps guide the good work that now takes place in their memory.

The mission of the Balibo House Trust includes:

  • Promoting early childhood education through the Balibo Five Kindergarten.
  • Developing skills through the Balibo Community Learning Centre.
  • Creating employment and income through tourism at the historic Balibo Fort and Balibo Fort Hotel.
  • Fostering awareness of the relationships between Australia, Timor-Leste, and Indonesia.
  • Maintaining a permanent memorial to the five journalists murdered at Balibo in 1975 and to the Balibo people murdered during the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste.

From Balibo back to the border town of Batugade is about a 40-minute drive and we decide to take a closer look at the border crossing into Indonesian controlled West Timor.

The border crossing at Batugade is busy with trucks, buses, SUV’s, motorbikes and even the TNI – Indonesian Special Forces, who are taking advantage of the shops selling drinks and food on the Timor side.

The Australian Embassy in Dili
The Australian Embassy in Dili

After a short break at the border, it’s time for the long drive back to Dili for our much-anticipated meeting with Ego Lemos.

Apart from a few sections, the roads back to Dili are pretty good.

The late afternoon is hot and despite this being the dry season, storm clouds have been building. As we near Liquica the storm breaks, a fierce torrential downpour makes the winding sections of road more treacherous.

Back in Dili, Dave and I have time for a quick change of clothes and another application of DEET. The Mosquitos here carry malaria and dengue fever, so the daily ritual of the DEET spray is an essential precaution.

For us, long shirts, pants, and footwear, particularly in the evening guarantees the nasties have little-exposed flesh to attack. But they’re sneaky little buggers. Back home in Bega, I’m used to a tiger moth buzzing sound as a warning, but not here, these critters attack in silence. Thankfully the spray seems to work.

It is now after 7.30pm but it’s a fairly short drive to Ego’s home in the Comoro district of Dili, where we have been invited to share a meal with his family.

What an evening it is – food, wine, conversation, and song. The evening meal of traditional dishes is delicious. A soup of local corn and meat, rice, steamed greens and spicy dried small fish as an entree. And don’t forget the chili!

The evening meal of traditional dishes is delicious. A soup of local corn and meat, rice, steamed greens and spicy dried small fish as an entree. And don’t forget the chili!

With food, wine, and song, the conversation turns to the possibility of pulling together a Timorese choir to come to the Bega Valley and beyond in 2020.

Bringing a choir from Timor Leste to Australia is not new for Ego Lemos.

2012 saw the debut of Koro Loriko, a Timor-Leste choir formed by Ego Lemos and Victorian based arts advocate group – The Boite.

Singers from all over Timor-Leste worked with the Melbourne Millennium Chorus, a ten week rehearsal period culminated with a grand performance, in the Melbourne Town Hall.

Ego also tells us about a school permaculture camp he’s leading in Maubisse towards the end of next year.

It is to be five days of workshops for around two thousand local students. The conversation suggests that perhaps there could be a choir workshop as well, with the choir that’s formed coming together with community singers from Melbourne and the Bega Valley for a tour of Australia. Perhaps in 2020!

Dave and Ego also get talking about Ego’s appearance at the Cobargo Folk Festival next year.

Ego Lemos is an inspirational singer, song writer, and performer, perhaps best described as the Paul Kelly of Timor Leste. He talks of plans to spend two months in Australia around the time of the 2018 Cobargo Folk Festival – exciting plans indeed.

It’s getting late, Jose takes a call from the Sisters at Fatuhada who are wondering when he will return us to the convent!

Time though for a few more songs with Egos’ 72-year-old mum on the harmonica, and some conversation about permaculture.

A dedicated permaculturist, Ego founded the country’s first permaculture centre, Permatil.

He also founded a highly successful sustainable agriculture network, HASATIL, both of which still flourish today.

At the beginning of this year, Permatil signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government to take over the schools garden program.

Inspired by Australian’s Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, permaculture is now part of the school curriculum and a compulsory subject in all schools nationwide! A remarkable achievement and another bond to Australia.

With plans for next year and the formation of a choir still bubbling, it’s time to head for home.

For now, it’s back to Fatuhada, my head swimming with Timorese songs and the friendships formed with these wonderful people.

Words and photos by Tim Holt

Catch up on Postcard 1 and Postcard 2, thanks to About Regional Members – Kelly Murray, Shane O’Leary, Olwen Morris, and Oh’Allmhurain Films for supporting local story telling.

About Regional Memberships are open now to individuals and families, community groups, and businesses.

Postcard 1 from Timor Leste, by Tim Holt 

Timor Leste. Source Bega Valley Advocates for Timor Leste.
Timor Leste. Source Bega Valley Advocates for Timor Leste.

Tim Holt has been a passionate advocate for the people of Timor Leste (East Timor) since before I knew him.

Tim and I share a love and skill for radio and worked together at ABC South East for nine years until Tim’s ‘retirement’ at Christmas in 2015.

Between 8:30 and 11:00am five days a week, Tim served up a dynamic mix of local news, comment, and culture, sprinkled with national and international stories and conversation.

Tim’s worldview is bigger than most and he is always keen to broaden the horizons of those he talks to. Never condescending or smart-arsey, Tim has a genuine ability as a teacher and communicator that springs from his authentic interest in the world and its people.

This 65 year-old radio man has just touched down in Timor Leste, a struggling country on Australia’s northern doorstep that he has dedicated many hours of radio to over the years.

Tim Holt and a very young Miles. Source: ABC South East NSW Facebook
Tim Holt and a very young Miles. Source: ABC South East NSW Facebook

Leaving behind his beautiful young black labrador ‘Miles’ and traveling with musical mate Dave Crowden, this is perhaps Tim’s big retirement adventure.

A worker all his life, Tim is a family man and had to carefully plan for his retirement before letting go of full-time work. Every dollar counts and is counted.

I think it says something about Tim that he isn’t spending his hard earned money on a Pacific cruise and cocktails but on a trip to Timor Leste – one of the poorest nations in the world.

Dave’s connection with this country is just a long if not longer through the work of the Bega Valley Advocates for Timor Leste, both men have helped build a relationship between the Bega Valley and Natabora that will be strengthened again by their travels.

Tim is writing regular ‘Postcards from Timor Leste’ for About Regional and the first one arrived this morning.

Cheers

Ian

Postcard 1 from Timor Leste, by Tim Holt 

Dave and I are at Darwin Airport. The flight to Dili leaves at 5.45am with little or no chance of a snooze before then.

Miles had it figured I was heading off a couple of weeks back.

Flying the flag in Timor Leste. Source: BVATL
Flying the flag in Timor Leste. Source: BVATL

Packing the blue travel bag was all the cue he needed. The bag was only half packed and Miles would extract a sock or two, a pair of undies or a handkerchief and lie on the bed with his little stash looking at me with those big brown eyes.

Come Saturday with the blue bag zipped and tagged, he just lay on the bed watching every move.

When Dave pulls in that afternoon that blue travel bag is on the front porch, Miles forlorn behind the wire screen door as we head off for the drive up to Canberra Airport.

From Cooma, there’s a stream of snow traffic in both directions.

Even before Cooma, there are several “no eye deers” on the road with us. One overtakes going up the Brown, over the double lines and no vision.

What can you say?!

The Qantas flight from Canberra is uneventful, though the X-ray baggage checker is somewhat alarmed when the recorders look to him like implements of destruction!

Reassured that they are musical instruments he waves us through.

Tim Holt on the job interviewing the then Member for Eden-Monaro Peter Hendy. Source: ABC South East NSW Facebook
Tim Holt on the job interviewing the then Member for Eden-Monaro Peter Hendy. Source: ABC South East NSW Facebook

Sydney at 6.35pm

The flight to Darwin doesn’t depart till 8.30. Plenty of time you say. That is until you discover the Qantas self-check in screen hasn’t got us listed on any flight.

Customer service resolves the dilemma, “your flight to Darwin is with Jetstar, not Qantas, just take the pedestrian bridges, thru the car park and into the domestic terminal. Sorted 20 minutes before boarding.

Sorted 20 minutes before boarding.

So that’s the Qantas slight of hand, when you think you’ve booked Qantas, well no you haven’t.

So we’re in the air to Darwin. In-flight refreshments ie: food? Ah yes, here’s the menu, hmmm..well not exactly anything you could really describe as food and it’s not complimentary.

Dave settles for Pringles and a Vodka. Me – cheese and olives with a bottle, that is a one glass bottle of Shiraz. We won’t talk about the price.

We’re at Darwin International Airport, now 3.28am and a bit over 2 hours till the flight to Dili.

We’ll be in Dili around 6.30am, weary and red-eyed and looking for breakfast.

This is my first time to Timor Leste, but the fourth for Dave. He started the Instruments for Timor project 6 years ago, with around 150 donated and purchased musical instruments for the young people of Natabora.

In 2011 and 2012 Dave organised several talent quests. 2012 also saw a choir and the “Paul Kelly” of Timor Leste, Ego Lemos come to Australia. In that year Ego performed at Candelo.

As I travel I am reminded of an interview I did in late 1990 with the delightful Australian blues, roots, rock outfit, “Wild Pumpkins at a Midnight”.

Several of their songs still echo with me to this day.

One track titled “East Timor” is an instrumental with just helicopters, gunfire and mortar.

“Hooray, Hooray” is as poignant now as it was in 1990… “there’s a war going on over here…” they sing.

The physical war may be over but the “war” to overcome poverty and to rebuild Timor Leste is an ongoing battle.

It is one which the Australian Government is complicit for its failure to negotiate a fair maritime boundary.

Dave Crowden teaching and learning in Timor Leste. Source BVATL
Dave Crowden teaching and learning in Timor Leste. Source BVATL

Hopefully, that will be resolved later this year and Timor Leste will receive the wealth it deserves from the rich gas and oil fields that Australia has unfairly exploited.

I really don’t know what to expect when we land in Dili in a few hours’ time. I’m excited, nervous, and somewhat emotional as I write this.

Dave and I are planning a day trip to Balibo, catching up with Ego Lemos with plans for a trip to the Bega Valley and to encourage the formation of a Timorese choir to visit in 2020.

Exciting plans but it’s early days yet and will require much support and fundraising.

Most of the time we’ll spend around Natobora, visiting schools, Dave with his traveling guitar and me with a recorder to share some songs with kids.

Words by Tim Holt, more postcards from Tim as time and the internet allow.