Immersion experience

Jessica Ledieu - Timor-Leste 2016

Currently on a boat to Atauru Island watching dolphins flip out of the water that are riding alongside the boat.

Has it only been a week?! It has gone so quickly, yet so slowly. I feel like we have all been here for weeks.

It all started when I thought we were all falling to our death in our Darwin to Dili flight. It turns out we were just flying through a thunderstorm!

The landscape of Timor is incredible. Flying in, we got a bird’s-eye view of the mountains, which was breathtaking. We strolled off the plane right onto the tarmac and instantly the heat hit us!

I knew from this point it was going to be a sweaty couple of weeks. 😳

Monday we began our Tetun language classes where we would spend the next 4 mornings learning the local language.

Despite Portuguese being the 'official language' of Timor, tetun is used most often, which is puzzling for many people. Currently in Timor most children learn at least three languages, some learn up to five.

This is one area that has repeatedly been mentioned as a hindrance to the quality of education, highlighting the irrelevance of the curriculum.

We have been so fortunate this first week to have a fantastic local guide, Gido who is a friend of our incredible facilitator Cheree. Gido has been our driver and translator which are only two of his many skills (too many to mention)! We walked up to Kristu Rei (pictured) on our first afternoon and then got to swim in the ocean while watching the sunset - truly magic!

The whole Immersion Experience is putting a practical element to the theoretical learning we have done at Uni, discovering how the people of Timor are 'doing development' in their own country and context as well as learning about their way of life.

Development is not a definitive term and can/should be adapted and molded to fit individual country and community contexts, recognising all areas of social, cultural, environmental and economic needs.

Our visit to the Nazareth Foundation was wonderful. They are a group who employ local people with disabilities to make cement window and door frame structures for homes, and these incredible clay 'rocket stoves'. The rocket stoves use three times less wood and create less smoke, making them great for people with asthma. They are only $15, allowing them to be paid off quickly with the money they would normally spend on firewood for a regular stove.
We also visited Ahisaun which provides housing, outreach and training for young people with disabilities. They also support young people with disabilities who live in the community. Activities include learning music, IT, English and making goods to sell at market.

All of this week we have constantly been engaging and learning about the Timorese culture. We spent four of the last six nights with homestay families. We all separated into individual houses except myself and Molly, we stayed with two families who lived in the same house. This was an amazing cultural experience and we felt so thankful to be welcomed into these Timorese families.

Stay tuned for next week’s adventures from Atauro... That's if we're not too busy snorkeling on the Eco island.

Ate Logu (see you later)

Wow! Words cannot describe the beautiful untouched state of Atauro Island. We were fortunate enough to spend 6 days here. Barry and his wife Lina have built the Barry's Eco lodge into a world class treasure for Eco tourism.

The way everything is so carefully thought out to ensure no impact for the environment nor the community. As Barry would say 'care for the earth, care for the people'.

The lodge uses solar panels for electricity, bucket showers and composting toilets - when possible the building materials are made from resources on hand. It really was something to admire, especially considering the difference he is making to the small but important community of Atauro. He only employs local staff and he ensures women and men share job roles. He believes in capacity building and community mobilization for development, which resonates with me so much! As cliché as this sounds, the stories Barry has shared with us has changed my life.

We also had the joy of visiting Empreza Diak's (an NGO) new centre for Atauro where they are focusing on micro businesses for the island.

We also visited the Boneca dolls women's cooperative where they sew stuffed toys, bags, pillow cases and even Christmas decorations. The cooperative has been running sustainably for 10 years without funding purely from the income generated by selling their products! It started with 8 women and now there are 60 women working there. We asked the women what their main motivation was and they all said so their children can attend school.

All this aside we did have an incredible time getting to swim every day, experiencing the local culture, going to mass and getting to snorkel on one of the most pristine reefs in the world.

It's going to be hard going back to reality after such a wonderful learning experience and having the ocean on our doorstep.

Next stop: Maliana and rural villages!

Ate Logu

Last week was one of the hardest weeks of the trip. Last Sunday, two of the students from our group had to return to Dili from Maliana to get tested for dengue and one person ended up going home - huge hit as we were all getting so close.

After coming from the island where it was faultless in all its untouched beauty, we drove to the small town of Maliana. It had only one restaurant with edible options of rice or noodles with frozen vegetables which took minimum 40 minutes to cook - we got to know it well as we ate there 5 times! The bathrooms where we stayed were 30m from the rooms and they were questionable...

However we got through it all and got to meet some awesome people doing some incredible work. Maliana is very close to the Indonesian border and the resilience of the people is clear. Roughly 75% of infrastructure had been destroyed during Indonesian occupation and buildings today remain as they were as many people never returned to Timor.

We went to natural hot springs, which is currently in the process of being developed for tourism. The water was too hot for us to even dip toes in but we saw local kids doing backflips into the pools and just shaking it off like it was nothing. The scenery was stunning!

We visited two development initiatives while in Maliana;

- Foundation Haburas Moris (FHM) who work with the local communities in the Bobonaro district to provide economical, social and cultural self-sustainable programs ensuring justice and equity for all. Programs include agriculture, gender advocacy, health and nutrition education and income generation. The programs are designed to be sustainable so after a period of time they will no longer need assistance and funding so the community does not become dependent on the organisation.

- We also got to visit a program for girls who never finished school or are victims of domestic violence. The program is for 5 months. The girls all live together and learn life skills which they can use after they leave to earn money. Skills include sewing, cooking and agriculture.

Pictured is a woman weaving the traditional Tais. It is a day long process to make just one.

Capacity building and community mobilisation are so important to ensure the sustainability of development initiatives. These ideas are something I will be taking home with me!

On Wednesday we drove to Balibo, where we got to spend the night in luxury before going to our rural homestays. The Balibo fort was incredible and the landscape was simply stunning.

Just down the road is the Balibo 5 museum which is currently also used as a community learning centre. The history of Balibo (watch the movie! - it's on Netflix) is so tragic but the way the museum is being used as a community centre is indispensable. They have developed a kindergarten which we were fortunate enough to visit, and the centre teachers English and IT classes and soon a dental clinic will be opening.

Then came the rural homestays. After the last one I was excited for the challenge to be on my own with the family and man did I definitely find that challenging. Being in another country and part of a family where you don't speak the language or have the same cultural customs is very uncomfortable. I often found myself embarrassed because of the way they were treating me like I was special. It was an incredible experience though despite the cultural challenges.

The small village of Atabae is along the coastline of Timor and it is stunning! The sunsets were next level!

We went to one of the locals sacred homes to watch the blessing of a new motorbike for protection. Part of the blessing included an animal sacrifice which was something I had never experienced before. Some of the girls watched it and commentated but the squeals of the pig were enough. The rest of the blessing involved a process of spitting beetlenut on the front and back of the bike, then flicking half coconut water and half pigs blood on the bike.

It was a very eventful week filled with challenges and successes, all of which is contributing to our learning of development.

Ate Logu

Last week! I can't believe 4 weeks is done and dusted. It went so quickly. We have been talking about it for so long and now we are on our way home - ready to complete the assessments!

On Monday we visited the Alola foundation ( They are an organisation focused on economic empowerment, education and maternal childcare. Something that really stood out to me was the mobile library concept which allows children all over the country to access books. Very cool. They also work with women who make traditional Tais and turn them into bags, wallets, coasters and other goods to produce an income.

We visited three primary and senior high schools this week, and they were all very different. The first one was in the village of Eraulo where Des, a Palms volunteer was working to teach English classes to the children. This village was about three hours from Dili and it was actually cold there, something we hadn't felt since we arrived. There are many challenges within the education system. Kids don't turn up to school for many reasons including health, employment, or they live too far away. The teachers also have poor attendance yet get paid regardless. Rote learning is the standard teaching method which doesn't give kids the ability to think for themselves.

We visited the Canossian Sisters school back in Dili and were very impressed. It is privately run by the Sisters. It was great to see the potential of schooling in Timor. The school offers kindergarten all the way through to tertiary education courses. The main difference in the school is the Catholic philosophy that teachers are only paid if they turn up. This makes them more invested. The school is also working to improve the quality of teaching and the curriculum.

The other school we visited teaches both junior and senior high students. George, another volunteer, told us that one kid will spend the first hour of class writing the textbook on the board while everyone else copies and then the second hour the teacher will explain it. Rote learning is common practice in Timor.

We used the local transport to get around Dili, mini buses called mikrolets. There are many different routes - all you have to do is flag down the one you want and then when you want to get out tap your 25cents on the roof. It worked really well. What was amazing was how it was 25cents no matter how far you travelled. It also seemed like the loudest music and more trinkets you had in the dash the better it was - not sure on the safety though.

This week was full of meetings and activities we didn't get to do in our first week. We were able to visit Marie Stopes which is a fantastic international NGO working with sexual reproductive health and family planning, both complex issues in a majority catholic and patriarchal society.

We visited World Vision Timor-Leste and spoke with the country director and the strategy and advocacy manager. It was great to hear what a large NGO is doing and how they work with the community to ensure needs are being met.

On our last day we visited the Resistance Museum which was really interesting , helping us to better understand the recent history of Timor and to establish historical context.  It was very confronting reading stories about what happened during Indonesian occupation and their struggle for independence.

We also had a meeting with the Australian Embassy. They were interested in our trip as we were all recipients of the New Columbo Plan. It was very cool to go through a security check before entering the building. We got to speak with three Australian women working in the embassy. It was great to hear more about Australia's involvement in assisting with aid in Timor. Speaking with fellow women in the international development sector was awesome as it gave us hope for our future careers.

Now it's time to go back to the real world! We had a magnificent sunset to finish off our month in Dili!

So thankful to everyone in our group for being awesome! It was such an incredible experience and I think everyone could agree we learnt not only skills for our career but also life changing skills.

Reverse culture shock is ready to kick in!