A working holiday running workshops as volunteers for Caritas in East Timor, hoping to help improve the quality and availability of various fruit species.
After several successful missions working with fruit tree development with farmers in Samoa. Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, we felt it might be time for some volunteer work in the same field. Initial discussions with members of a Melbourne based East Timor Women’s Co-operative had told us that fruit was a minor part of the normal diet for East Timorese, largely due to the typically poor quality and seasonal availability of desired fruits. We thought that we could visit the country for a holiday as well as make an assessment of potential directions for a fruit industry and maybe improve fruit consumption with resultant health benefits. Improving village food security was also the buzz word of the time.
We sent offers to various institutions in East Timor and received back a very positive response from Caritas Oecussi. They had already seen a need for grafting workshops and wanted facilitators willing to work with their local staff and village gardeners. We had email discussions with the local field co-ordinators in both Dili and Oecussi which encouraged us to set aside two weeks in early May 2005 which would allow us to run several grafting workshops in Oecussi and possibly help on other ongoing projects in the Dili area. Oecussi is a separate enclave of East Timor only accessible by sea or by travelling through West Timor.
With our program laid out, we arrived in Dili international airport on Sunday 1st May with a box of grafting knives, sharpening stones and secateurs to use on the workshops intending to leave them with the Caritas staff when we left. This proved to be a problem at the customs desk, because the knives were possible weapons and all had to be removed for inspection, only to generate much laughter when the size of the knives was revealed. This was in an airport where the departure door had a sign asking that all weapons be unloaded before boarding.
Fernando approached Alison while Digby was with customs, and showed her an email to ask it this was her. YES! He then greeted us with a lovely big smile and off we go in his twincab through town with huge numbers emerging from church and the road clogged with hundreds of demonstrators protesting the secularisation of the schools and demanding to speak to the PM Alkitari.
Fernando drove us around the town on a sightseeing tour, eventually delivering us to our accommodation, basic losman style at the Villa Harmonica. Alison discovers that he and his wife Anita, have 6 children from 9 to 1 year old, but they also have another 7 children, from Anita’s village in the mountains near Bacau, staying with them so they can go to school. Fernando also pointed out the expat restaurants where we could eat safely. We walked the 4 km back into town for dinner at the Garden Restaurant, an excellent meal of fish, rice and veges with many people, mostly Portuguese, coming and going from the hotel upstairs. There are 4 markets along the road, so Digby started work and took notes on what fruit is for sale. Lots of lemons, mandarins, pommelo and custard apples as well as a small jakruit but all were very small and the ones we ate were very seedy
In the morning we walked back into town to the Caritas office and met Antoinetta, who drove us around to buy our ferry tickets for the overnight trip to Oecussi, a phone card and some nibble food. Alison was very worried about the sea journey as the forecast was for gale force winds and rough seas, and she was very prone to seasickness. Antoinetta sorted her out at the farmacie with something called “Antimu”, which proved to be worth its weight in gold. We still have no idea what was in it, as all the labelling was in Portuguese, but it worked. She then took us out to the statue of Christ on the point, but she was very worried about leaving us to wander as there are too many strangers in town because of the demonstrations. She pointed out the unprotected home of Ramos Horta and talked about his shooting the previous year, telling us that there had never been any need for security before that. She left us back in Dili and we wandered anyway, lunching at the Hawaiian Bakehouse then a drink in luxury at the Hotel Tourisme. The room cost there was $50 while ours at Villa Harmonica was $10, so we’re happier where we are.
Fernando drove us down to the wharf, where there is a crowd of people gathered around the gate. We bypassed the queue and drove in the gate where an official checked our ticket and asked us to wait in a large empty terminal. Fernando had to leave us and go back to the office to sort out a computer problem, so we just sat and waited for something to happen. After half an hour or so, a trickle of people start to come through the gate to join us in the terminal. Then a signal was given and everyone moved en masse to the ferry about 200m away. We were in no doubt as to what to do, as the arrangement was just like the ferry operation in Samoa. To stay in the hold was $5, upstairs on hard chairs was $7, while the soft chairs were $15. Naturally we had soft chairs and we found a spot behind a Portuguese couple, there were no other westerners on the boat.
We were only ten minutes out to sea when Alison discovered that she was able to relax and enjoy the late afternoon light on the mountains as we chugged along the coast. Thank you Antimu. The wind was behind us, and the boat only rocked gently, almost helping us to nod off until the TV and music comes on. Initially this is American country and western karaoke, then Indonesian karaoke, while the young men on board drink beer and sing along. Gently rocking to sleep had become a distant memory. Sometime late at night the tv shut down and there are bodies stretched out on the floor everywhere, including ours.
At 4 am the music starts up again, at full volume, to wake everyone up for the arrival. It was pitch dark, but there were two small red lights on the shore where the bow was aimed. Alison was on the stairs looking down on the crowd waiting at the exit when she took a photo. FLASH! 100 faces turned to look at her. Dawn was only just breaking on the mountains as we staggered down onto the beach to wait for Caritas.
Cornelio found us and took us about 2 km out to the Caritas house so we could drop our packs before he took us back into town where we visited the market to buy some basic food for dinner and checked out the local availability of fruit. There was not much there apart from the usual lemons, a few oranges and bananas. After a bite for lunch we got ready for the first basic grafting workshop for all the Caritas staff in Oecussi. There were about 15 people, including the office staff as well as drivers and field advisors. Digby drew and talked, then Cornelio took over and translated. It worked well, and questions follow before the tools were handed out and everyone had a go at doing a wedge graft. It’s been a long day.
Our house for the stay has as our water supply a bath full of water, two beds with mosquito nets from dome tent inners and no electricity. Our rice, greens and bread are eaten by candlelight.
The plan for day two was to drive out to two villages to check out existing projects and get an idea of what happens out there. Cornelio also spread the word about the workshop to be conducted on Thursday at Nefomtasa. The track out to the villages was very rough and remote out along the Indonesian border, so the two Caritas high clearance twincab Hiluxes are essential for the drive, slowly jolting over boulders and along river beds.
Every farm had a new galvanised iron roof and pine post supports courtesy of Caritas. The Indonesian invaders had removed all the original material. The hillsides were barren, but there was a white picket fence on a knoll visible across the valley. When Alison remarked on it she was told that it is the graveyard for 100 villagers killed there by the Indonesian militia during the crisis. Cornelio adds that he and his family hid in the mountains during this time, and that they were all “very trauma”.
At the first village, there were fruit trees everywhere; jakfruit, mango, citrus, banana and pineapple while there were also gardens created with swales dug by hand running across the slope, which have glyricidea planted along the walls. Corn and mung bean were the dominant crops, with small avocado and soursop scattered through as well. Teak and mahogany trees are also present in the mix. These are gardens straight out of a Permaculture textbook, built by people who have never heard of permaculture. On we go to Melalae, a very small village with only young and very old people around, but the gardens are once more very well cared for. Cornelio asked to be shown the 1000 citrus that had been provided earlier by Caritas, and we all head off into the surrounding forest. The citrus are all there, some well cared for and some not, but Digby did a demonstration prune of one of the unkempt trees, removing the diseased wood, opening the centre and trimming the tips. The questions kept coming, mostly about getting better mangos, so he also did a demonstration side veneer graft on a small seedling mango with about 50 people watching.
It took 3 hours of rough jolting back to Oecussi, stopping to check out an apple tree with red and sweet fruit grown from cuttings the owner had brought in from Indonesia. Cornelio collected some cuttings to take back to the Caritas nursery. We arrived home exhausted , but this time we are given the generator key, so we can cook in the light. Cornelio came back after dinner and we talked about bee keeping with him as Caritas are considering developing this industry as well. Then the night watchman arrived to sleep in the hammock on our verandah, so Cornelio decided we are now safe for the night and headed off home. Meanwhile a rat has taken up residence in our rooms and it spends the night scrabbling at the louvres trying to escape.
We were collected at 8 am on Thursday to drive out to Nefomtasa, stopping at several shops along the way to pick up the staples for the lunch we were expected to provide for the participants; rice and greens which the village women will cook up. We arrived at the village at 11 after another bone jarring drive and there were about 50 people sitting and waiting for us in a large shelter shed. Cornelio and Digby take centre stage and the 8 Caritas staff disperse through the crowd to help translate. There were 5 language groups present, English, Portuguese, Tetum, Burkino and Indonesian, so things were complicated and slow to ensure everyone was coming along with us. Alison sat down the back with a bunch of older women and companionably chewed betel nut with them, and learning some Burkino in the process.
The tag team duo up the front do their thing and all rolled on well until Digby sneezes and blood comes streaming down from his nose. The heat and stress had finally got to him, but the Caritas girls are there with tissues to mop up and the show rolled on. Everyone passed the grafting knives around and do a wedge graft with green sticks, then it’s off into the fields to do some real grafts with the Caritas staff demonstrating their new skills. Lunch was brought out and there were 6 different dishes prepared with beef and pork supplied by the village.
There were enough tables and chairs for everyone to sit and eat, and we later discovered that every table and chair had been brought out from a home for this event. Thank-you speeches followed, with heartfelt apologies for the two grafting knives that disappeared during the day. We hope that they went to a home where they would be used, we think by an old man who left early on assuming that they were a gift as is normally the case with this sort of workshop. Then it’s back to Oecussi, again arriving exhausted.
Friday is the day for the return trip to Dili, but we apparently have time for a trip up into the mountains in a different direction to the village of Cutete, another town devastated by the Indonesians. The middle of the area has a children’s centre with an orphanage complete with the latest of children’s playgrounds in brightly coloured plastic. This seems so western and out of place but so many children had their parents killed that major help was needed. There is a small group of adults waiting for us, so we go into training mode again with demonstrations before handing off to the Caritas staff to carry on with individuals in the field. We have to head down by 1:30 as the ferry is meant to depart at 3:30, but no-one is sure of the actual time of departure. It seems to be at the whim of the captain or possibly the tide.
It’s a mad rush down with formal thank-yous and good-byes, and we donate some cash to all the staff to pay for lunches etc, after which we are just able to walk across on the drawbridge from the jetty. Another 10 minutes and we would have had to wade out, waist deep, as the people who arrived after us had to do. The ship siren blasts and the engine revs up, to no effect, the stern is stuck on the sand. Passengers were asked to move to the bow area while the engines continue to pulse, making the ship rock enough to shift her tail slowly, they’ve obviously done this before and we’re off and away chugging back down the coast.
The ferry is nearly empty and we had a chat with a Portuguese couple who suggested we take a couple of nights and a walk on Atauro, a small island across a deep channel from Dili. Digby sent his first ever text message, fighting the predictive text all the way, and booked us a room at the beach resort. The ferry stopped at Dili before going on over to the island once a week, but we were assured that there are small water taxis that also do the run and can bring us back in a few days. Despite the lounge being empty apart from the four of us, the tv and noise started up again, so Digby sidled over and whipped a wire out of its connection to the speakers. Ahhh, a peaceful night. The tension rose when a couple of crewmen came over to fix the fault, but the solution was above their paygrade so they left it alone. We arrived in Dili at 4:30 am and are able to catch another few more hours sleep, before the departure to Atauro at 9. We were escorted across the channel by a school of dolphins playing at the bow.
We had a couple of kilometres to walk down to the ecotourist resort, but everyone around there knew where we were supposed to be and pointed out where we are to go, so we roll in and are actually expected. Our cabin is completely locally made from bamboo including the bed and all the furniture, has muslin mosquito nets on the bed and no glass in the windows. It is just beautiful and fits the environment perfectly. The villagers apparently built the huts as a group project and all profits from the resort go back to the village. No wonder everyone knew where we were to go. The resort food is fantastic and a massage after lunch by a little old lady using coconut oil identified a few sore spots. We arranged for a guide for the next morning to climb Mt Manucoco as there are tracks in all directions and there are no maps.
We met Thomas, our guide, and head off at 7:15 next morning, initially walking along an old Portuguese road built by forced labour in the 1800’s but eventually we left the contouring road and started to climb seriously into wet and muddy rainforest, just like home. It was very slippery climbing for the last few hundred metres to a saddle, then 10 minutes scramble to the top of a knoll and a magical view out across the island, taking 4 hours for the climb. Thomas offered to take us around the mountain and down a different way, taking in his village along the route. We descended through scrublands and as the land flattens out we entered a garden zone with scattered houses, timber fences lined the path and pigeon pea (the seeds are normally called brown lentils) everywhere. We passed the church and health clinic in Thomas’ village before reaching his house and meeting his wife Linda and their 4 week baby. They evacuate when he has us sit in the front room. He wanted to give us lunch, we declined as we knew it would mean a delay of some hours, but we did accept a green coconut to drink before heading on down the “road”. We walked through another village where every house had its own water tank attached, apparently these were from an Australian aid project. We staggered back into our cabin at 5:30, absolutely wrung out and learn that our boat across to Dili departs at 3 am from the beach outside our cabin.
In pitch black we waited on the beach, reassured by several other people waiting in the same area. At 3 am on the dot a torch flashed out to sea and people started wading out. We followed and found our long boat in knee deep water 50m offshore. There were 6 passengers, 3 on each side with legs interlaced and braced on the opposite side. There were no life jackets in evidence but Alison was blissed up on Antimu and actually enjoyed the ride. The first hour was in calm water, protected from the swell by the island, but then we’re out in the open channel for the second hour and the boat rolls violently. The driver minimizes the roll as much as he can but we were still looking down at our feet one second, then up at them the next. It was with great relief that we entered the protected water on the other side for the last hour before coming into Dili harbour at 6am.
We had two more days in Dili, staying in luxury at the Hotel Tourisme as the Villa Harmonica was booked out. We had a car and driver to take us out to Bacau, checking out the fruit market in the old part of town. The drive was made a bit more exciting as there was some military training going on. They had a firing range set up with live ammunition being fired at targets across the road. Cars had to stop and wait to be waved through.
Our last day in East Timor and we were picked up by a Caritas vehicle and driven west out to Maubau and more gardens with women’s co-operative projects. We had two vehicles traveling in convoy, and children started yelling and running to keep up as we went through one of the villages. The staff were rolling with laughter, but we had to demand an explanation when we went past an old man actually saluting us as we went by. It turned out that the kids all thought we had Xanana Gusmao, not just Digby, in the front seat and that word had spread. All grey haired whitish men in white shirts look alike, right? We worried about snipers for the remainder of the drive. All went well and we came down from the mountains into Liquica for lunch and the sad stories associated with the church there.
The last part of the trip was more meetings with the senior Caritas staff, talking about our perceptions of possibilities for the fruit scene there and what they could do to encourage it. Digby wrote all his observations up as a formal report once we were home and sent it off. He identified cashew production as a most likely to succeed venture, with nursery development and grafted varieties of cashew as well as mango, avocado and citrus made available to farmers for low cost.
Overall we had a great trip, and East Timor could very easily become an alternative to Bali for Australians. Despite the abuses made to East Timor by the Australian Government, the people we met were without exception friendly and welcoming. Tourist infrastructure is likely to be a growth area for years to come, with hiking and surfing being major possible activities.