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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!