May 1st 2015 and seven more sleeps until I arrive in East Timor. How quickly has time gone since my initial contemplation, more than 3 years ago, of commencing a Bachelor of International Development Studies at ACU. I remember looking at the course outline and thinking about the 3rd year Immersion Experience.
Where would I go? What would I be doing? Who would I be going with?
3 years on and the BIDS degree has been an amazing experience so far. Covering subjects as diverse as Human Right Law, Economics, Environmental Sustainability and Globalisation, I have loved every minute. With support from many excellent lecturers, the friendship of fellow students and the opportunity to Intern with Palms Australia, a development and volunteer sending agency, I feel well prepared and excited for my upcoming 1 month encounter to East Timor.
"What will you be doing there"? Is what everyone asks. "Will you be building something to help the poor people"? a common theme. "No" I answer. Palms Encounters are not about helping or teaching the less fortunate. They are a way of learning, sharing and experiencing another culture and its customs, beliefs and values. An immersion should be a mutual experience of enhanced understanding and appreciation for both ourselves and our host communities. It is about building solidarity with other human beings.
East Timor has had a long and complicated history. After hundreds of years of Portuguese colonialisation, followed by a brief but bloody period of Indonesian occupation, East Timor finally achieved independence on the 20 May 2002. At this time it was the poorest country in Asia and although approximately 35% of the population are still living on less than $1.25 a day, the people of East Timor are proud, adaptable and hospitable.
So what will I be doing there? I'll be travelling with a group of 8 students, 6 from the Strathfield campus and 2 from Melbourne, as well as our Palms guide June Norman. First stop Dili, the capital city, and a week of language lessons, cultural and historical sites and our first homestay in the village of Bedois. I admit to feeling a tad nervous about my ability to communicate with my host family but also really curious and excited to meet them. I imagine they probably feel the same about me. Week two is spent on Atauro Island at Barry's Eco-lodge where we will learn about permaculture, visit local NGO's and hopefully have some free time to enjoy the beautiful water and reef. Once back on the mainland we travel around East Timor meeting with Palms development volunteers who are working with local communities in areas such as education, health and community development. I hope these visits provide not only a greater understanding of the challenges facing East Timor and its people but positive examples of how people working together can achieve a just, sustainable and peaceful world free of poverty.
Stay tuned and Atemanha …
During the Trip
Botardi from Maliana, a beautiful and mountainess rural area in South Western Timor Leste. Hard to believe we are in our 3rd week already, time flies even when you are on 'Timor time'.
Our group have bonded well and I feel lifelong friendships have begun. Our first week was spent in Dili the capital of Timor Leste. Here we attended the Dili Institute of Technology learning a little Tetun, their national language. We explored some important historical and cultural sites, met with various NGO's and had the privilege of living with a Timorese family in the village area of Bedois. Although most of us felt quite nervous about this, this experience proved to be unforgettable and very, very special.
Next stop was Atuaro Island and Barry's Eco Lodge where we stayed in thatched roof bungalows meters from the ocean. Mornings were spent exploring the local area and listening to Barry's insightful and knowledgeable stories about community development that is sustainable and built on respect and solidarity. We had plenty of time to absorb island life and swim and snorkel the amazing reef, as well as visit some excellent examples of grass roots programs providing livelihoods and opportunities for women and their families. 20th May is Independence Day and this year Timor Leste celebrated 13 years of Independence. It is a young country with a big future.
Sadly it was time to head back to Dili for our troupy road trip to Maliana. Our few days here have included visiting a local NGO and seeing some of their community programs, the smelly but wonderful hot springs, attending the local church for a beautiful Sunday mass and eating at either of the only two places here to eat. The water may be off more than it's on, toilet paper is hard to find, and communication is often confusing but these little things are far outweighed by the constant greetings and smiles from everyone we meet.