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Renewal, ceremony and abundance in Timor-Leste

Every day in Timor-Leste has been a feast of cultural riches, fine company, chaotic traffic, makeshift enterprises, beautiful beaches, unhappy pollutions and nourishing food, including this equisite dish of boiled banana flower hearts, lime, garlic, salt, and pepper.

After only a few hours of arriving in Timor-Leste, we were taken in by Ego Lemos and Yanti Wondeng and their three children Harmony, Thaddeus and Takamori (the littlest child pictured is cousin Misha).

Ego invited us to stay in his mother’s garden home in Dili (can you spot the breadfruit?),

and not only did Yanti and Ego cook many delicious meals, they taught us how to make some of them from scratch.

They took us to food markets,

where affordable organic produce for Timorese people is the rule, not the exception. Ego described the diversity of microclimates in the country, which in turn enables a diversity of crops and varieties.

Food scarcity in Timor-Leste is a fabrication, Ego told us. It’s fear stirred up by the expat “expert” class to promote the consumption of monocultural corporate foods that are not part of Timorese food custom.

Ego told us about 70% of Timorese food is grown in Timor-Leste, of which about 70% is organic. Wow!

Alongside food-to-market, other artisanal practices are maintained throughout Timor-Leste,

and cooking on the street is common, converting weedy eucalyptus into cooking fire energy.

Yanti showed us her favourite coconut stand in the neighbourhood, which we visited daily,

and how to buy from the many mobile vegetable discotheques that sell door-to-door, alerting potential customers of their proximity by playing loud Timorese pop music as they travel. You get to dance while buying the veggies!

Music is played in Dili night and day, and on one of the nights we got to dance and sing along to Ego and his band,

and learn more about his past performance life, such as playing with his friend Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu at various festivals. Ego’s song “Balibo” received a 2009 APRA award for best song in a film.

Ego lost his father and three siblings during the brutal occupation of Timor-Leste by the Indonesian army. He suggested we go to the Resistance Museum to teach Woody about the Timorese struggle, and Yanti asked Bella, a family friend and fellow permaculturist, to accompany us. We listened carefully to this big grief story of the Timorese people

From their family, only Ego and his mother, Madalena, survived the invasion. Here is Madalena putting her chickens away, as she does each night on dusk.

We can’t imagine how we’d respond to such seismic hatred and bloodshed, but in Ego and Yanti’s home and within their community of friends and colleagues, the response is wisdom, restoration and love. In 2023, Ego was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award, also known as the Asia’ Nobel Peace Prize, for his food sovereignty programmes in Timor-Leste.

Patrick and Ego made time to record a podcast during the week our families came together. In the podcast Ego outlines his permacultural vision for the country and the work of Permatil, the organisation he started in 2001.

If you wish to donate to Permatil you can do so here.

In the podcast Ego explains a little of the sensitive cultural work Permatil does alongside local villagers and their elders. During our stay, Ego invited us to accompany him, with several staff and volunteers, to visit a village in the province of Ermera. We travelled Timorese style in the back of a ute. Meet Sebas (Permatil director of projects) and Thomas, a German professor of social and cultural anthropology, who also joined the small party up the mountain.

Last year, Thomas wrote Mobilizing the Future: Timor-Leste’s Permaculture Youth Camps, which is an excellent review of the permaculture youth work Ego and his team have established. Thomas has made many visits to Timor-Leste over the years and speaks the two official languages, Tetun and Portugese, well.

As we travelled up the mountain we passed under a number of honey trees, where the bees make an open comb. Sebas told us that there are expert honey harvesters who climb high up to procure this wild nutrition. There is plenty of honey in Timor-Leste, yet none of it is cultivated in hives.

When we arrived on the ridge of the mountain we were met by the head of the village, who guided Ego and a small cohort of us to a natural water basin.

On the way we met his wife collecting cassava for the breakfast that was being prepared.

Ego explained to us the work that was needed to restore the water basin, and recharge the springs below. He described how the sedimentation and weeds that choke up these natural catchments are due, in part, to the absence of water buffalo who have traditionally played a significant role in maintaining them. When these basins are functional they enable the abundance of water that falls in the wet season to deeply penetrate into the mountain and significantly recharge all the springs below.

Before breakfast Ego took us to see Ramelo, the highest mountain in Timor-Leste.

As the elders began to arrive, we were called for breakfast.

We were treated to freshly harvested cassava and sweetened local coffee. Our gratitude flowed for the love of this food and for the welcome we received.

After breakfast, the elders began preparing for the ceremony. Instead of us describing this sacred event in detail – a ritual intended to see whether Permatil’s work should go ahead here in the village – we’ll share just a little of what we experienced as invited participants. Photography was welcomed.

The people of the village, the cohort from Permatil, regional clan elders, and we overseas visitors gathered at the ceremonial hearth,

to listen,

to witness,

and to learn.

We were given betel nut, betel nut leaf and desiccated lime to chew.

The gentleness, respect and inclusivity of the village moved us greatly. We witnessed these qualities in the preparation of the pig, from whose liver the sign was given that Permatil’s work in the village should proceed,

While the lunch was being prepared Meg was shown around the village,

Woody got a game of catch going,

and Patrick spoke with Zecky, a graduate of Permatil’s youth programme,

who now runs his own organic compost enterprise, and whose shirt sports his own unique permaculture wisdom:

“Better to seek funding from creativity than seek it from the government.” So true, Zecky! Then lunch was served consisting of village-grown vegetables such as bok choy, sweet potato, taro, and chillies,

and the sacrificial pig.

Every part had to be eaten before the end of the ceremony, and one of the elders took delight in cutting this delicious animal into small shareable parts, and handing them around.

Meg helped with the clean up, and the women communicated she was the first “Portuguese” woman they’d seen helping with the dishes. In Australia a picture of a woman happily doing the dishes can illicit outrage in sectors of the population. In Timor-Leste the very same image can be a marker of decolonisation, and respect.

When it was time to leave, the elders said to us, “No, do not say good bye, just go. We know you will come back. This work has begun now.”

And so begins a process that will last many years, which will see both the national and international PermaYouth camps come to the village and much water restoration work carried out. For our family, who are part of bringing back ritual, ceremony and earth care in our community, this day was profound. We gathered and yarned across languages,

we feasted and played together.

We learnt from each other, and beheld the ritual of an earth-honouring tradition. All this activity intermingled with such ease, gentleness and respect. We were immensely grateful to have been participants in such an important day for the village and for Permatil, and we are ever thankful to Ego for including us, for his great skill at bringing people together, and for his sensitivities and respect for life and for people.

The next day, for something completely culturally different, we sought out Dili’s main stadium where we’d heard the T20 national final was going to take place. Cricket is just 12 or so years old in Timor-Leste, and Woody was eager to attend the match. On arrival we were welcomed by the game officials, Sakara and Marianna,

and watched the match between the two teams.

It was intensely hot, even from our shady vantage point high up in the stadium. Water was brought to spectators to drink, and the players had regular drink breaks. After the match Patrick was spontaneously and unexpectedly invited to present the player of the series award,

and after the awards ceremony, Woody was invited to play in the young people’s game. They kitted him out,

and sent him in to open the batting.

While we stayed with Yanti and Ego, Woody played catch out on the street with Thaddeus and the kids in the neighbourhood,

Patrick helped Steve with a plumbing project,

and Meg helped prepare food with Misha’s mum, Melda.

We’ve made new friends over the past week,

and we’ve shared many stories and meals together. Thank you beautiful Lemos-Wondeng family for all your love and care of us in Timor-Leste.

We left Dili for Maliana, near the Indonesian border, at 3am in the morning on a bus that started off with just us, the driver and two young assistants.

It was a six hour trip that may forever rid us of any remnant Australian preciousness. In fact it was so hardcore we highly recommend this journey to any Aussie who is easily triggered. Consider it a kind of anti-whingeing therapy. Woody vomited out the window many times as the bus rattled over the innumerable flood-made potholes in the dark. Live pigs rode in the boot, squealing. Bags and people were sardined in, and what luggage couldn’t fit inside was thrown onto the roof, including a goat. Cigarette sparks flew across the bus stinging travellers. Pop music thumped so loudly our hearts, and ear drums, felt like they’d explode. Colourful lights strobed epilepticly down the aisle. Young men held onto the outside of the bus for dear life, as there was no room inside. Sleep was absolutely not possible. As we approached Maliana the daylight broke and the bus slowly emptied out village after village.

It was a wild ride. We were the last to get out and had to be stern with the local boys who kept attempting to take our bags. At first we thought we were being robbed, but they were only fighting over whose taxi they could steer us into. We had little language in common, and these spirited young men laughed at our disorientation and confusion. Several minutes later, Yanti’s beautiful parents, Yan and Ama, arrived to collect us and bring us to their family home.

We have been treated to the most generous hospitality while in Timor-Leste. Yanti’s sister and brother in law, Len and Selinoo, invited us to lunch at their home where we were treated to water buffalo, chicken, a chilly-lime ferment, vegetables and guava juice. So much gratitude has flowed in us in this magical country.

After lunch Len showed us her garden.

and before lunch, Yan took us high into the mountains to see the traditional villages, complete with living fences, bamboo gates and palm-thatched shelters.

On the way down the mountain, Yan pointed out the Indonesian side of the Memo River. Tomorrow we will travel in the back of a pickup truck to Atapupu in Indonesia, passing through Balibo on the way, which has a dear place in the hearts of our community back home. As our time in Timor-Leste comes to a close, at least for now, we are reflecting on just how much this country and its people have suffered, and have grown from the trauma with positivity, kindness and resilience. We have been touched deeply by the people, their spirit, their animals,

and the land. Long live Timor-Leste!

54 comments

  1. Peter O'Mara says:

    oh. loving this! x

    1. Thanks Pete! Sending you loads of love xx

  2. H says:

    Thank you, so many delightful and beautiful experiences, and the bus ride , what a blast, keep wellx

  3. Penny says:

    What a rich experience, thank you once again!! I don’t think I could handle how some of the animals are treated though. Looking forward to the next instalment!

    1. Thanks Penny, it certainly is rich. We are farmers back home so are close to the living and dying of things. While a pig in a bus boot and a goat on a bus roof isn’t our reality back home, the way animals are treated here befits the cultural and economic context. Thanks for following us on this journey.

  4. Emma says:

    Look at all that amazing fresh produce! It looks like you ate like royalty there. It’s amazing how when a country gets “richer” their diet often deteriorates. You would think it would be the other way around wouldn’t you? It looks like they have such a rich community life. This is something I yearn for. Something I have never really known. I do have wonderful friends and elders in my life, but we are not doing life right alongside each other, you know? I am loving your stories guys, safe travels and blessings to you on your path. – Emma xx

    1. So true, Emma, when a country gets richer its diet deteriorates. This is the corporate model of nationhood. We hear you about community life, too. Calling it in, and cultivating it is possible, however. And working with where people are at. We’re sure you’re doing all that already.

  5. Alix says:

    Beautiful blogpost full of humanity! All the best for the rest of your trip!

  6. Jo says:

    This is such a great experience that I’m having as I follow along with you guys.
    Thanks, Jo xx

  7. Ellen says:

    Absolutely life-changing wonderful experiences!!
    m
    That puts such a different perspective onto what we white folks by “birthright” take for granted but actually haven’t got a sense of the utmost importance of togetherness, sacrifice for community and joy of living really well (not materialistically well off) Such treasures you are describing here.

    I would love you to post the banana flower/heart recipe. I have tried many and would be so keen to try a Timor-Leste dish.

    1. Thanks Ellen, you treat the banana flower heart like you would a globe artichoke. The soft, cookable parts are in the centre and in the stamens, so you peel back the outer layers, and each little stamen just requires the removal of the central (hard) chord. Once all the soft parts are harvested and chopped finely you can treat this precious starchy material as you would a Greek Horta dish, or some such. Hopefully this gives you enough to go by.

  8. Jeanette says:

    Such an inspiration and joy to read. Thank you for taking us along on your travels.

    Best from the far north, Denmark.

    1. Thanks Jeanette, we hope your summer is kind and giving to you.

  9. Ruth says:

    amazing! Loving the photos – look at those gorgeous kids! X

    1. The children are so alive, here, Ruth, and beautifully cheeky!

  10. trace says:

    love seeing how Meg is so at home in the kitchen with the women and with the kids, woody getting ball games – even cricket! and all of you listening and learning and sharing with such love… big gratitude for bringing us along in this way! love from the frosty hills of Djaara Country

    1. Thanks Trace, both in Timor-Leste and now in west Timor, it is so very easy to get a game going. And now using translation apps we can share more stories.
      Sending our love from this Mother Country to Djaara Mother Country xx

  11. Lovely to read about your adventures! 🙏🏻

    1. 🥰👋🏽🙏🏽

  12. Jean-Marc says:

    Wanderlust into humanity…

    1. And into so much more than humanity…
      Big love to you dear neighbour. x

  13. Renaee says:

    I am now caught up on the last two posts from your travels – just remarkable and so inspiring!! Timor Leste was my favorite. When I was younger (around 20) I lived for six months on the Thai Burmese border in a Burmese Refugee camp and these pictures, espescially of the children, reminded me of that time. And the wild bus trip – you guys are incredible to survive that and come out smiling the other end! I am so glad you are sharing it here on your blog in this way with such rich reflection and so much respect and love for the people you come across. I was chuffed to see you in the ABC too. Looking forward to the next installment! Rxx

    1. Thanks so much Renaee! Wow – 6 months in a Burmese Refugee camp – what a formative experience that must have been at that age. Sending much love from here. x

  14. Cint Clare says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences 🙂

    1. Thanks for joining us, Clint!

  15. Sebastião Mendes Pereira says:

    I appreciate your kindness to visit Timor Leste

    1. Sending all the best, Sebas. We hope to see you again. x

  16. Ann says:

    Ah, this is the life. Thank you for your clear hearts and adventurous spirits. Foto essays are the best way to share a good adventure!

    1. Thanks so much Ann! We are so pleased to hear you like this format. We are enjoying putting each post together, though the culling and sorting of photos is so hard! We could easily do a long post each day. x

  17. Lottie says:

    Your posts are becoming the highlight of my week! Sending love from Scotland

    1. Awwww that is just so lovely to hear. Thanks Lottie! x

  18. Dianne says:

    Hats off to you guys! Your sense of adventure, your openness to sharing, your readiness to listen to and tell stories and your flexibility and resilience are remarkable. What wonderful and varied experiences for Woody.

    1. Thanks Dianne! We admire how you and José travel too, with such openness and joy. Big love to you both. x

  19. David Holmgren says:

    Apart from all the wonderful and sad things about Timor that touched you, its great to hear your appreciation of the work of Ego and others in using permaculture as a positive agent of change and revitalisation in this tiny country that is a beacon for other places around the world. Another marker of Ego and Timor’s contribution to permaculture is the Tropical Permaculture Guidebooks vols 1-3, (that are also available free to projects in the two thirds world)

    1. Many thanks, David. Timor-Leste really is a beacon for other places around the world. People were so thrilled to hear you and Su are friends of ours.

  20. Gerda says:

    What a wonderful experience.
    I live in South Africa so have experienced the chickens or goat travelling on the bus. But must admit the rides are a little more subdued.
    Loving every moment of sharing your travels and can’t wait for the next adventure.
    Sending love from SA

    1. Many thanks Gerda! Sending much love to you. x

  21. Tiago says:

    I´m very surprise that Timor Leste is full of abundant ! Despise the fact im Portuguese, unfortunately Timor-Leste is another country that the Portuguese explored for centuries for resources and after that we left the people alone for their own destiny. I´m happy that exist a strong community in there using Permaculture to live in a simple and resilience way without the necessity of any foreign exploiters. When i was reading this post i came to the conclusion that countries like Timor are in the vanguard of civilization. You guy´s witnessed that ., Again thank you for this post keep following you, and i wish you well for your journey. Tiago from Portugal

    1. Thanks so much Tiago for your reflections. There is so much abundance and renewal happening in Timor. We have left now and are already itching to go back. x

  22. Nicole says:

    The absolute best way to learn!

    I applaud your willingness and ability to flow around dogma with creativity, with a continual eye on your enlightened self interest.
    If only more people could look at their sweet child’s face pushing aside all of societies bullshit expectations and ask themselves – “what do they need right now, in this moment” that can blow on the embers of their joys to truly create that fire within.

    With love from the pacific north west where we are loving creating relationships of reciprocity with unschooling families in this sadly extremely conflicted nation state.

    1. Sending so much love to you Nicole and fam. As no doubt you are also experiencing on your trip, each day is a hurricane blowing on the embers of ours joys. x

  23. Shane says:

    Thank you for sharing this awesome journey in such detail. I am loving the immediacy! Your friends in Timor-Leste might be judged poor by our country’s standards & yet their lives are so much richer. I look back on my normal – impoverished – schooling here in Australia w/ rueful disbelief. What you’re doing is what real education can look like – for Woody, for you both, & for all us lucky readers. May blessings keep flowing to & through you.

    1. Thanks so much, Shane. Education is viewed so differently here. Some people are so confused when we tell them Woody is homeschooled here as to them it is their ticket out of peasantry, while for us it is a step back to it. The irony is not lost on us. Thanks for joining us on our adventure!

  24. Eka says:

    Such a warm introduction into Asia

    1. We feel so utterly grateful for every moment here. Love to you dearest Eka. x

  25. "PermaGrannie" says:

    Such beautiful lushness, and abundant love.
    Sending hugs,

    1. Hugging you back from the Flores Sea xx

  26. Adrien Bray says:

    Fantastic to hear about the Timor-Leste embrace of permaculture and their already centuries old way of traditional food growing & eating – 70% local, 70% organic! If only in Oz…. still something to aim for! You’re experiences in the villages & on the bus teminds me of my 11 yo son & mine’s experiences backpacking around Fiji – the lack of common language didn’t stop the children having fun together 😊 Enjoy your next legs!

    1. Thanks Adrien, yes those figures are certainly worth walking towards, and they’d be much obesity and heart disease mitigation in the effort. And, so true about the universal language of play. xx

  27. Jimena says:

    My heart is filled with pure joy from reading this beautiful recount of your trip!

    1. Thanks Jimema, we’re so glad for your joy.

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