Report by Olivia Hurley and Nikita Bone (Clonard College students)
When we exited the plane our bodies were over-whelmed by the blazing heat and never-ending humidity. The climate along the coastline and the inland villages varied throughout the day but was prominently hot. Dili’s heat was long-lasting, humid and consistent throughout the night, juxtaposing the cooler evenings, foggier mornings and wetter conditions in the rural villages, like Viqueque and Venilale. Our bodies quickly adapted to the clear skies and ever present sun. We saw many startling images as we walked along the streets of Dili, Bacau, Venilale and Viqueque. There were markets, dogs, chickens, microlets, monkeys, ruins and religious icons, and always children ready to say hello. The drive from Dili to Beloi was a beautiful, coastal drive along a treacherous, dirt road that we called “The Great Ocean Track”. This road is currently being upgraded by the Timor Leste government and will no doubt become a future tourist attraction. The views of open water, mountain ranges and small villages were unforgettable and unique. The extensive mountain ranges and plateau were covered by trees and beautiful forest. There was a diverse variety of fruit trees which prompted our desire to buy the tropical, organic fruits for sale in the small fruit markets throughout the cities and villages. Overall despite our undeniable shock and the overwhelming effects heat and the unfamiliarity of the environment, the girls all grew a definite connection to and appreciation for the diverse and unique physical environment that we will never forget.
We learnt that amidst prevalent poverty in the aftermath of wartime, culture stands out in Timor-Leste as something vibrant and precious. As the country is so extremely different to the Australian context that we were familiar with, it was easy for us as first time visitors to become overwhelmed by the aspects of Timorese life that we viewed as cultural. However, through our burgeoning knowledge of the history of Timor-Leste and our visits to community organisations such as Afalyca, we began to realise that the relationship between the Timorese people and their culture is complex, and that this relationship has been severed and reshaped at various points within the country’s tumultuous past. Timor-Leste has been colonised by the Portuguese and invaded by the Indonesians. The presence of these nations on the island led to new and diverse concepts being intoduced into Timorese culture. For example the Portuguese introduction of Catholicism that would eventually consume the religious preferences of almost the entire population. Prior to this Timor-Leste already had its own traditions. The surviving imprint of these traditions was evidenced by the sacred houses, or ‘Uma-Lulik,’ that our Timorese guide Joni led us to in the mountain community of Venilale. Also in Venilale, a visit to the secluded home of a local family allowed us to witness the traditional process of tais weaving, and how this skill that is central to Timorese culture is transferred from generation to generation of Timorese women. In many ways, the tais are symbolic of the culture of Timor-Leste. The intricate process of weaving the tais is a product of original Timorese tradition, and as it is taught to young women by their mothers and grandmothers, the culture is absorbed into a new generation. Then the distribution of these tais, woven with Timorese cotton in bright colours and decorated with representations of the sacred Uma-Lulik, to locals and visitors alike also disperses a bold cultural presence throughout the nation. The fact that preserving the connection between the people of Timor-Leste and their traditional culture is vital, particularly after a war that threatened to destroy it, was further demonstrated to us by our visit to the Afalyca Community Centre in Baucau. Afalyca is a community initiative that aims to revive and sustain an intimate relationship between people and tradition in Timor-Leste by educating children about their cultural roots. Watching, and accompanying, the children at Afalyca as they danced and sang, adorned with dresses fashioned from their cherished tais, exposed us to the sense of almost triumphant joy that is unearthed when culture is maintained in Timor-Leste.
We also learnt the Timorese take pride in learning, always wanting to further their education and knowledge. This thirst to learn is obvious everywhere we visited but particularly in the smaller districts such as Viqueque and Licecia. As obvious ‘malays’ we would be stopped in some of the most random places such as churches and restaurants by locals wanting to broaden their horizons through speaking English. The Timorese’s passion for school is very much apparent in the younger generations. Whilst visiting various schools across the country the students would always introduce themselves by their name, goal and hobby, to all of which most would answer either becoming a doctor or journalist in the future and their favourite hobby is to study. Their drive and determination regarding school was inspirational and somewhat shocked us. It made us realise the strength of their desire to better themselves, their family and their community through education and how important learning facilities are to them. The values the Timorese have embedded in their people regarding education and learning will forever impact the way we view school, and the opportunities we receive as a result of western privilege.
The many bonds between Australia and Timor Leste will continue to be strengthened as students such as ourselves have the wonderful opportunity to visit this amazing country.