Day Four in Timor-Leste
Today started with a 6am wake-up, a frantic hostel pack-up, an overpriced taxi ride (sorry, Kartik) – and then two blissful hours in the open air on a speed boat to Atauro Island, where we’ll spend the next four days.
I’m writing this on Saturday, but you won’t read it til next week – there’s no internet on Atauro, and the electricity only runs between the hours of 6pm and 6am. It’s 9pm as I type this and it feels like the dead of the night: all I can here are cicadas and plugging keys.
Atauro Island is the location of Ba Futuru’s other supported school. Sophie and her team will have the weekend off and conduct their evaluation in the school on Monday and Tuesday, and Jackson, Woodrow and I will film over the weekend, before the guys return to Dili for their Monday flight home.
I’ve never seen a place like Atauro before. In the same way that Dili feels like a familiar hybrid of Kuta and Battambang, Atauro is similar to Nusa Lembongan or Koh Rong – a small, rural island near a bright hot dusty tourist city. But it’s nowhere near the same. Atauro is all dramatic scrubby mountains and dense dark forest; bright leafy palms and fresh green coconuts; thatched-roof shacks with clever ventilation – no bustling Lembongan night markets or glamorous beachside fish restaurants; no squawking caged roosters trapped for cock fights; no decadent French dinners in Koh Rong’s hardwood restaurant. It’s the same kind of quiet and still – but it’s definitely Timor; nowhere else.
The trip over was beautiful: the wind at our faces and sea spraying up; watching a pod of dolphins cresting through the velvet-soft water; then a tiny flying fish – again; nothing I’d ever seen before – and I felt more relaxed than I have in Timor, and likely in the last few months.
Over dinner tonight I described to Sophie the feeling I had on the boat over as like the final bus scene of the movie Almost Famous. Though I didn’t have Elton John playing in my background, I felt vaguely melancholy and tired – like the intensity of the past few work days, and the days leading up to that, and the indecision and anxiety of the last few months had finally broken over me like a wave, and I felt relieved and calm and still and tired.
We’ve finally broken the back of our filming schedule, which I think helps a lot with that feeling. We arrived at our Atauro accommodation to a coconut with a straw (!), and after a quick coco break took off for the school – which is just 100m down the road from us. We met the deputy school director and introduced ourselves, then met the students for filming and ran through our consent forms. Then, the guys started: shooting the school, student portraits, groups of students playing and laughing – organising clever activities to make them a hundred times warmer and more open than we’d had before – before a short lunch break, and then straight into filming. Jackson and I alternated the interviews, while Woodrow continued shooting stills, and we wrapped everything up at 3:30pm. It felt good to finish early and with so much of our schedule completed – we’ll film tomorrow, but the pressure’s really off now.
As we were packing up to leave, Jackson started musing about the way we do interviews on trips like this, and as I listened I agreed with him. I felt a little uncomfortable yesterday, positioning the students in front of the video camera and smiling eagerly and expectantly while we waited for them to tell us their career dreams of medicine, politics, gymnastics – anything that would lead itself to a great paragraph-long story. Jackson wondered aloud if he’d say as inspiring things as these students have been if foreign strangers came into his school back when he was a kid, and if he’d be as shy as they are with us. We agreed that we likely would be – what we’re doing is inherently intimidating; inherently imbalanced, no matter how much power we try and give our subjects – there’s one person asking questions and one replying. But we also agreed that it’s important to share the impact of projects, to garner attention and funding for more projects, and the other option of spending a month in a community to gain trust and familiarity (and more Tetun!) wouldn’t be an option with budget, time, or the impact our filming schedule has on the schools and Ba Futuru staff. It’s a difficult one to balance, and there’s definitely no easy answer.
I’m glad we talked about it though – because tomorrow, we’ll go into the house of another student, and it’ll be interesting to see if there’s anything we’ve learned from visiting Rosalia that we can deploy tomorrow to be better tourists. We’re undoubtedly well-intentioned – but something I’m equally sure of is the fact that we can find a way to improve what we’re doing.
When we got back from filming we cracked open three more coconuts, and I sat in the shady hut sipping my drink, laughing with the boys, and feeling more calm, present and happy than I have in a week. When the rest of our crew arrived we raced down to the beach, and as Sophie and I hit the water we both broke into enormous, giddy laughter, as light and frothy as the crystalline droplets. How good is this. How lucky are we that we get to do this as part of our jobs.
I promise this isn’t all just coconuts and swimming and art photography – if it’s any consolation, it’s even hotter in Atauro than it was in Dilli, and we reckon the mercury nudged 40 today. I’m halfway through my Hydralite and I’ve had to crack my GastroStop, and this is the first evening in Timor I haven’t felt like I’ve had a half-baked loaf of bread for a brain. I think it’s the fourth day thing: the day I arrived in Timor was the fourth day of Sophie, Geordie and Inika’s trip, and today is mine. I remember being impressed with how competent they were in the Dili heat and confusion – and though I doubt I can ever wear today’s shirt again, I feel like I’m getting into a groove, too. Not going to lie, the tropical island thing helps with that – but it’s also moving through the filming, adding a few more Tetun words to my vocab, shaking off home stress and easing into Timor that’s doing it, too.
Day four was very good – diak los.