Postcard 4 from Timor Leste – Natarbora. By Tim Holt

Lunch -delicious small redfish with a chili basting, rice ice in banana leaves and a thermos of black coffee. Photo: Tim Holt
Lunch -delicious small redfish with a chili basting, rice ice in banana leaves and a thermos of black coffee. Photo: Tim Holt

Wednesday dawns, I’ve woken early to the deep throated chanting from the nearby mosque that melds into early morning prayer and song from the Catholic Sisters at Fatuhada.

Ahead lies the 150 kilometres to Natarbora, it doesn’t sound far, but from Dave’s experience, it will be a long and painful trip. This morning though we are feeling somewhat reassured that conditions have improved.

Last evenings conversation with Ego had intimated that the road was now “really good” and our journey would take far less time than in the past.

I have visions of smooth tar and an easy run to Natarbora.

First task of the day though is to collect two sewing/overlocker machines that Augus and I will share company with in the back of the Toyota. The machines are for the sewing group at Uma Boco and had been requested by Nikolas Klau, the Bega Valley Advocates for Timor Leste coordinator in Natarbora.

With the machines, our bags, guitar and other instrument cases, it’s a tight squeeze for Augus and me in the Land Cruiser troop wagon, but hey, the road ahead will be smoother than a …!

With Jose at the helm we head out of Dili east along the coast towards Manatuto, the road is mostly good, but well before our lunch break, it deteriorates.

As we climb over the coastal hills the road can only be described as appalling.

We stop for lunch at one of the seaside food stalls, delicious small redfish with a chili basting, rice ice in banana leaves and a thermos of black coffee. I could get very used to this!

The Manatuto School Garden - a 'blooming success'. Photo: Tim Holt
The Manatuto School Garden – a ‘blooming success’. Photo: Tim Holt

Ego Lemos had invited us to check out the Permaculture school garden at Manatuto primary, so we take a minor detour to have a look at their progress and to take some photos. And it is impressive, despite being winter and the dry season.

From Manatuto we head over the mountain and the interior to the south coast, the vegetation changes along the way.

It is the dry season and everywhere on the north side of the island, it is dry, very, very dry. Vegetation is sparse, the steep hills brown, the rocky soil exposed by the predation of goats and the never-ending cycle of firewood collection, only to be further eroded by the torrential downpours of the wet season.

The bare dry hills of the north. Photo: Tim Holt
The bare dry hills of the north. Photo: Tim Holt

The transformation southwards through the mountains is dramatic, increasingly lush and tropical.

The air is moist and cooler, the humidity bearable. The sheer beauty of the mountains as they rise and fall into beautiful valleys is simply breathtaking.

Since we arrived in Timor it has been overcast, thick and humid and always a smoky haze – everywhere the acrid smell of wood fired cooking.

Here through in the interior, it feels like a different world.

The tropical lushness of the south makes of a nice change. Photo: Tim Holt
The tropical lushness of the south makes for a nice change. Photo: Tim Holt

One thing that can be said about the roads in Timor Leste is that they will one day be very good.

But not now. Across the country, all the major roads are being rebuilt, and not just a kilometre at a time.

All the way along the coast, thru the interior to Natarbora on the south side of the island, construction workers are doing major drainage works – massive drains with concrete and stone retaining walls the entire length of the road.

I lose count of the new bridges, there must be thousands of metres of concrete being poured.

It is labour intensive, backbreaking work. The Chinese have the contacts for the road reconstruction program in Timor Leste, some hundreds of millions of dollars.

There are Timorese amongst the road gangs but it seems there are mostly Chinese workers and I have little doubt that this is a cause of tension for the unemployed here.

I’m told the Timorese working as concrete labourers are paid five dollars a day!

Chinese road crews are a common site. Photo: Tim Holt
Chinese road crews are a common site. Photo: Tim Holt

While this work continues, the road surfaces have yet to be prepared. In the Toyota it’s like traveling on bumpy, corrugated, vibrating roller coaster. My body and the two sewing machine/overlockers will be requiring some restorative adjustment when we reach Natarbora.

About twenty kilometres or so out of Natarbora as we pass yet another construction crew we get a heart warming surprise.

Several of the young construction workers are Timorese, and as we pass they recognise Jose and the white Toyota.

“Hey…Bega Valley…Bega Valley,” they yell, waving and smiling.

After almost nine hours traveling on what must come close to being one of the worst roads in the world, nothing could have raised my spirits more.

It speaks volumes to the vision and dedication of Jim and Moira Collins and the Bega Valley Advocates. It’s a humbling moment for me to appreciate just what that ongoing commitment and friendship means for the people here in Natarbora.

Jose Da Costa, his partner Lucy and their eldest daughter Moira, named after Moira Collins, pictured here with husband Jim. Both founding members of the Bega Valley Advocates for Timor Leste. This photo hangs on Jose and Lucy's wall.
Jose de Costa, his partner Lucy and their eldest daughter Moira, named after Moira Collins, pictured here with husband Jim. Both founding members of the Bega Valley Advocates for Timor Leste. This photo hangs on Jose and Lucy’s wall. Photo: Tim Holt

Late afternoon and the storm clouds are gathering if it’s at all possible the road deteriorates even further.

The several kilometres before the Uma Boco intersection was fantastic, but the road into Uma Boca is still the worst bit of the worst road in the world!

When we arrive at the Franciscan Convent, Nikolas Klau and his son Brian are there to meet us.

Brian had spent a year in the Bega Valley, attending the Sapphire Coast Anglican College and he was keen to catch up and reminisce with Dave.

Dave Crowden with Brian Klau who spent time at Sapphire Coast Anglican Collage in Bega. Photo: Tim Holt
Dave Crowden with Brian Klau who spent time at Sapphire Coast Anglican College in Bega. Photo: Tim Holt

We’re not the only guests at the convent and over another typically delicious Timorese dinner prepared for us by the Sisters, we meet several health workers – Basilio Martens and Jose de Costa, who are visiting several of the communities in and around Natarbora.

After dinner, Jose and Augus head off to spend the night with friends in Uma Boco, Dave and I retire to our rooms. I fall to sleep to the sound of rain.

Thursday and it’s wet, and it’s a fuller load in the Toyota this morning, Nikolas has joined us for the school visits, so there are five of us in the wagon plus the two overlockers. The first task of the day is to unload the machines at the resource centre for the sewing group.

Today we visit three schools, Uma Boco Kindergarten, Junior High School and Ametalaren Primary. The musical experience with the children at all the schools we visit over the two days is an absolute delight, so enthusiastic and joyful.

Experiencing the conditions, the paucity of resources and the challenges the teachers face is sobering. There are no computer rooms, or libraries, the classrooms are basic and in need of repair. The teachers share one staff room. The only books in the “library” we saw are textbooks for the students and teachers.

Despite this, the teachers and students are just so enthusiastic. As Jose says, “Education is number one for the future of the Timorese,” and this is where the Advocates have put all their emphasis.

Several years ago the Advocates set up a resource and training centre for the professional development of teachers and the community.

The advocates also support trainee teachers thru scholarships that enable them to study a Bachelor of Education at the Baucau Institute, East Timor’s main teacher education facility.

So far 43 teachers have graduated from the professional development program, another five are doing their teacher training now and a further four graduated at the beginning of this year (2017), they are now completing internships in Natarbora.

The significance of the support the Advocates are giving in this area cannot be understated. It is a huge contribution and deserving of far more support, both financially and on the ground.

Dave Crowden, Tim Holt and the kids and teachers of Uma Boco Kindergarten
Dave Crowden, Tim Holt and the kids and teachers of Uma Boco Kindergarten

Mid-afternoon we pay a visit to Carlos to see if he can be persuaded to play a leadership role in the choir project I mentioned in postcard three.

Carlos was a member of Koro Loriko, the Timorese choir formed by Ego Lemos that came to Australia in 2012 to perform at the Melbourne Millennium Chorus and Boite Schools’ Chorus concerts.

Carlos is now married with a small family and making a living as a builder.

We while away an hour or so with Carlos singing and playing a few tunes.

Music does not pay the bills for his family in Timor, despite Carlos being a prodigious talent. It seems a great shame that his tunes are unlikely to ever reach a wider audience.

It’s around four in the afternoon now as we make our way back to the Uma Boco Resource Centre, where the sewing group is in action.

There are patterns from the Advocates and quite some excitement with the delivery of the overlockers.

Dave and I are warmly welcomed by the group and presented with some beautiful examples of their work to bring back to Bega.

It’s also an opportunity the setup and test the PA, mixer, and amp that were donated by the Advocates for concerts and performances.

It doesn’t take long before one of the lads pulls out a guitar. We turn on the mics, while Dave fiddles with settings on the amp and mixer and before you know it there’s plenty of voices singing a few of Ego’s songs and a Bob Marley tune or two.

You can never have too much fun here with a guitar and some willing voices, but it’s time to let the sewing group do their thing, so we pack up the gear and head back to the convent for the evening.

Our evening meal is shared with Basilio and Jose from the health team.

After dinner, I fall into a long conversation with Basilio about the health teams work.

Basilio is the team leader and their focus is on a disease that he describes as the “forgotten disease.” Lymphatic Filariasis, also known as Elephantiasis.

It is a parasitic infection caused by worms transmitted to humans through the bite of infected mosquitoes.

Basilio is confident the disease will be eradicated in Timor Leste by 2020.

In ASEAN countries only Indonesia and Timor Leste are reporting cases, but it is here in the south and around Natarbora that the disease remains prevalent.

Ironically it is the wet and lush conditions that favour the district’s agriculture that also provides ideal conditions for both the nematode worms and mosquitos.

The eradication program is being funded thru an aid program being sponsored by the government of South Korea.

Dave with Health Team Leader Basilio Martins (black shirt) and Jose de Costa. Photo: Tim Holt
Dave with Health Team Leader Basilio Martins (black shirt) and Jose de Costa. Photo: Tim Holt

Friday morning and there’s early rain, but it clears before breakfast to reveal bright blue skies as the heat builds.

Today, Nikolas will visit Abet Oen Primary and Junior Secondary School. The school gardens are impressive.

Our final school visit is to St Francis School, also with a fabulous school garden.

The beauty of these gardens is that they are adjacent to the classrooms, so they become very much part of everyday activities.

The music session with senior students was particularly enjoyable with Brian Klau, a student here, playing Dave’s guitar and leading the students in song.

St Francis School Garden. Photo: Tim Holt
St Francis School Garden. Photo: Tim Holt

The music continued into the night with an invitation to dinner with Nikolas and his family. Sitting around with Jose, Angus, Nikolas and his sons – listening to them laugh, play and sing together you just know that this country has an enormous future.

Saturday dawns and it’s time to say farewell to this wonderful community and the Franciscan Sisters. Each morning I have watched as several of the Sisters head out for their early morning errands on their Honda motor scooters, in full habit with helmet and thongs. Wish I had a photo for you!

Dave and I bid farewell to the wonderful Sisters who have fed us so well, we say our goodbyes to Nikolas, Brian with the promise of a return next year, our luggage stowed aboard the Land Cruiser, along with bags of local produce that Jose is taking back to stock the family larder for the months ahead.

Three bags of the local specialty – Natarbora popping corn and a surprise passenger that I don’t discover until we are halfway to Dili – more about that next time.

Today we will take a different route from the way we came, heading along the coast to Betano, then travel thru the interior via Same and Maubisse.

We will stop at Betano. A significant site in the history between both our nations – more in postcard 5.

Words and pictures by Tim Holt

Catch up on Postcard 1, Postcard 2, and Postcard 3 in Tim’s postcard series from Timor Leste.

 

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 2 from Timor Leste, touch down in Dili. By Tim Holt

Dili Harbour, beauty lined with plastic water bottles.
Dili Harbour, beauty lined with plastic water bottles.

The Air North flight from Darwin to Dili can take 76 passengers and it’s a full house. Two Australian school groups and their teachers, all bubbling with excitement for the adventure that lies ahead.

One group is bearing gifts of ukuleles, fourteen in all. I imagine a Timorese ukulele orchestra in the making.

We land in Dili a little after 7am, having flown over the south coast and Natabora but overcast skies have shrouded our view until we descend below the clouds.

The passage through check in and customs is slow but neither the grey skies or the form filling-in can dull the anticipation.

The morning in this city of 265,000 people is warm and sticky but not as warm as the welcome Dave and I receive from Jose Da Costa, his partner Lucy and two beautiful daughters, two and six years old, and Augus – he is to be our traveling companion for the week ahead. The eldest girl, Moira steps forward and presents us with personalised Timor Leste Tais.

It is a beautiful and touching little ceremony for both of us and Jose is unable to shield us from the warmth, respect, and love he displays. Dave and Jose go back to 2008 when Jose was employed by the Bega Valley Advocates for Timor Leste, their friendship is warm and they fall into easy conversation about family and life in the five years since Dave was last here.

Our transport is Jose’s Toyota Land Cruiser wagon. Dave made all these arrangements with Jose several months ago. Over the next eight days, we will spend many hours over some fairly challenging roads, the white Toyota proving a worthy beast.

From the airport, we drive thru Dili to Jose’s home in the Comoro Suco overlooking Tasitolu. It is my first glimpse of Dili, and I am absorbed by the sights, sounds, and smells.

The traffic is chaotic; motor scooters are the main transport – there’s a dad with a small child on his lap, mum holding a bub to her breast as they weave thru the morning traffic of buses, cars, SUV’s, 4WD’s, numerous state vehicles known as ‘Kareta Estadio’, trucks, water tankers, and the ubiquitous yellow Dili taxi.

Jose De Costa
Jose Da Costa

The atmosphere is humid and thick, the acrid smell of wood smoke from roadside stalls and homes is all pervasive.

The grandeur of embassies, government buildings, and modern shopping malls is mixed with Portuguese architecture, humble abodes, roadside stalls and markets made of rusting tin.

Dili, as is the case in much of the country, is a city in transformation. Construction everywhere. Businesses, many of which are Chinese, selling everything from hardware to electronics and all that plastic crap that is endemic around the world.

The roadside litter takes me by surprise, plastic water bottles, and bags everywhere. Not just by the road but around shops and market stalls, along the beachfront, in drains and waterways.

As I am to discover Dili has little or no reticulated drinking water, or sewerage system for that matter. Grey water runs in roadside drains. Shops and market stalls sell water all over the island. From city to village – plastic water bottles are endemic.

On the way to Jose’s home, we stop at a bakery for fresh bread rolls. Tasitolu is about 8 kms from the centre of Dili.

Tasitolu is the site of three saline lakes. It is described as a protected area – a designated Wetland of National Significance for its ecological, historic and cultural significance. (See video above)

However, this is the dry season on the north side of the island. And Dili is dry. Very, very dry.

We cross a vast dry flat mud, salt pan beside a shallow lake, the edges littered with plastic and garbage.

There are homes built around the edges, I wonder what happens in the wet season. The homes are of concrete block construction. On a raised footing of stone and cement and mostly tin roofs. The disparity of wealth is starkly obvious.

Jose and his family live on the rising land overlooking Tasitolu. The home is still under construction with an upper level yet to be completed.

His is a household of at least 16 people – his family plus perhaps ten or more young men and women he is supporting with accommodation, food, and fees while they study. They come from his home village of Oecusse, a Timorese enclave in Indonesian West Timor and elsewhere.

One of his enterprises is making stone and cement pots which provide income and work for his extended family.

Our first meal in Dili – breakfast including bread roll, egg, sliced cheese, and coffee.

These cement and pebble pots support Jose and his extended family. Pebbles a plenty in Timor Leste.
These cement and pebble pots support Jose and his extended family. Pebbles a plenty in Timor Leste.

The coffee is from roasted Timorese beans. The ground coffee is simply put in a jug, pot, or thermos with hot water and sugar. Much sugar! Cloyingly sweet to my taste. But the coffee is good. I make a mental note to avoid the sugar wherever possible.

The hospitality in these few short hours has been almost overwhelming. It is to become the enduring and endearing feature of our stay here.

Our home during our time in Dili is Fatuhada, the Carmelite Convent near the centre of the city.

We arrive to a welcome from several of the sisters and another breakfast. Tea, bread rolls, sliced cheese, and jam, with bottled water. My plan for losing a kilo or two while here is looking doubtful. Lunch and dinner with the sisters that day is further confirmation.

It is now after 10 am Dili time and both Dave and myself are in need of rest. It’s been more than 24 hours since either of us have had real sleep, there’s some time for a nap and wash before lunch with the sisters at 12.30.

Lunch is more substantial than breakfast, rice, steamed greens, salad, noodles with chicken, bananas, and apples. The bananas are small, from the palms within the convent’s garden – sweet and delicious, fresh and still on the bunch. They are a feature of most meals at Fatuhada.

There are about 19 sisters and acolytes gathered for lunch. They are warm and friendly, and I feel very welcomed. Several have been to the Bega Valley as guests of the Bega Valley Advocates for Timor Leste and they are excited to see us and talk face to face of the wonderful contribution the advocates have made and the enduring friendship formed with the Bega Valley.

Jose and Augus return at 2 and we head off a trip to along the coast of Dili Harbour. First to Cape Fatucama at the eastern end of the Harbour, where in 1988 Indonesia’s former president Suharto built a statue of Christ. But because it was built by the dictator it was not popular with the Timorese. The Cristo Rei (Christ the King), was a failed attempt by Indonesia to dissuade East Timor from demanding independence.

On the western point of the harbour there stands a giant statue of the late Pontiff, Pope John Paul ll.

When dozens of East Timorese students defied Indonesian security forces and rioted in front of Pope John Paul II in October 1989, Indonesia’s brutal rule was highlighted to the world for the first time in years.

Jose Da Costa, his partner Lucy and their eldest daughter Moira, named after Moira Collins, pictured here with husband Jim. Both founding members of the Bega Valley Advocates for Timor Leste. This photo hangs on Jose and Lucy's wall.
Jose Da Costa, his partner Lucy and their eldest daughter Moira, named after Moira Collins, pictured here with husband Jim. Both founding members of the Bega Valley Advocates for Timor Leste. This photo hangs on Jose and Lucy’s wall.

Twenty years on the statue of the late Pontiff was erected as a symbol of renewed hope for the people of Timor Leste. The Pope’s face looks towards Dili’s western outskirts where the riot took place.

There is some confusion in articles I have read from that time.

One refers to the statue as being a six-metre high bronze statue, another describes it as a ten-metre concrete construction. Either way, it is massively impressive.

There is also some contradiction around the 1989 riot during the mass held by Pope John Paul II, as to whether rioters were angry at the Pope for calling for an end to the violence and reconciliation with Indonesia or whether they were inspired by the Pope’s message. Whatever the true motivation for the riot, the Pope’s visit focused world attention on the Indonesians and East Timor and is seen by many Timorese as galvanising a determination for independence.

Our afternoon is spent in Comoro with Lorenzo and his family, friends of Jose and Augus. Timorese coffee, strong and black, conversation shared about family, life in Dili, study, work and survival.

I’m learning that everyone has a mobile phone, they are as common as the plastic water bottles. The fixed line and telecommunications network was destroyed by the Indonesians in 1999. Though somewhat reinstated since, mainly in Dili, mobiles have taken over. By 2015 94% of the population could access mobile and internet services. And they do. Coverage seems to be 4G with at least three providers, Timor Telecom, Telstra, and Vietnamese provider Viettel.

Dave Crowden with Jose at his home, Dave wearing a traditional Tais.
Dave Crowden with Jose at his home, Dave wearing a traditional Tais.

Timor Leste’s young population is perhaps also driving the mobile take-up. This is a country of 1.2 million people, where 50% of the population is under 25 and 40% under 15.

Over coffee, we talk of Chinese business and investment in roads and power. It is a contentious issue for many Timorese.

We take our leave with a warm farewell, bundle into the Toyota for the drive back to Fatuhada for the evening meal with the sisters – rice, chicken, spicy steamed greens, spinach, a side dish of deliciously hot salty chili, a cup of tea and of course bottled water.

What a day it has been. Nearly forty hours with just snatches of shut-eye on the three flights that brought us here, and a nap this morning before lunch. Sleep beckons with visions of generosity, joyous smiles, and the contradiction of poverty and wealth, but above all those faces that break into gorgeous smiles.

More to come…

Click HERE to catch up on Postcard 1.

Words and pictures by Tim Holt.

*Tim Holt retired as Mornings Presenter at ABC South East NSW in December 2015 after a three-decade radio career.

Thanks to About Regional Member Robyn Amair and her contribution to local story telling.

 

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.