Small Island, Big Heart

Mark and I have been watching a Netflix series called Black Sails. Featuring all your favourite pirates, Black Beard, Long John Silver, Charles Vain and Anne Bonnie, it’s a swarthy mess of sex, violence, rum, palm trees, whores and dreadlocks. Every now and then the pirates leave the safety of the local brothel and head out in search of plunder, excitement and a punch up on the high seas. Once they’ve fought, flagellated and fornicated their way across the ocean, invariably they need to find shelter, fresh water and food that’s not infested by weevils.

I can almost guarantee that had the good ship Walrus captained by the very handsome but mostly BAD Charles Vain passed by Atauro Island they would have kept the sails hoisted and waited for somewhere a little more inviting to drop their anchor.

Our home for the weekend, Atauro Island sits 25k north of Dili. On a clear day you can see her tantalizingly close, on other days she remains shrouded in mist, a mystery off on the horizon.

25ks long, 9k wide, home to around 10,000 people Atauro clearly came into being through some violent forces of Mother Nature. Uplifted from the sea by submarine volcanoes the island features high peaks, a rugged landscape and areas of deforestation that leaves much of the hill side looking patchy and dry.

Currently you can get to Atauro by ferry, a steady plod of 2 hours or by fast boat, a bit more high spirited and salty in 1 hour. There’s an airstrip but like a lot of things In Timor-Leste its either reached and peaked its potential or hasn’t quite got there yet. 

We arrived in time for the Saturday market. I’d wondered why there were so many stalls and so much dried fish and lush vegetables, when clearly Mark and I and the other couple of malae could only be counted for very minor purchases, when the ferry from Dili arrived and like the classic clown car gag at the circus, opened her doors and spewed forth.

People. Lots and lots of people. And motorbikes. And carts loaded with plastic bowls and brushes. And mums and dads with their handful of kids, they kept coming out of the guts of the ferry. We saw people laden with stuff, 2 guys carrying a washing machine between them. And then just when you thought there could be nothing left, she squeezed out a couple of trucks and a few more motorbikes.

People come from Dili for a picnic, to see family, to come home after a working week. They come for the dried fish, squid and octopus, for the chickens, the tomatoes, and I suspect for the feeling of joy at being away from the city. There is perfect sense in leaving one island for another island.

We sat and watched people come and go and found ourselves chatting to a young guy who wanted to practice his English. Sit still long enough and it seems to happen everywhere we go.

We stayed at Beloi Beach Resort. It’s tucked up on the hill, has a pool, a tiki bar, a high staff to guest ratio, pleasant rooms, flushing toilets and food. I find myself searching for words. I guess a tourism brochure would say, natural, untouched, authentic. Bits are rumpty. Slightly faded. A bit uneven.  I guess it’s like loving your girlfriend’s crooked tooth or your baby’s big ears, the imperfections are the things that feel worthy of love.

The power goes out several times while we are there, but it makes little difference to the temperature of the pool or the beer. In fact, sitting in the dusk listening to the singing from the Church below is magical.

There are 3 other groups here. 2 very young American guys, here with the Navy building a school, a Portuguese couple, he’s a captain in the army about to leave Timor-Leste for good, he’s happy to be going back but sad too, and an American couple who have been out of the states for 10 years teaching in International schools, she’s American Korean, he’s all Iowa. We circle around each other, passing pleasantries at the pool, saying hi on our way to our rooms and then over dinner there’s a merging of our plates and cutlery to one large table and we sit and eat and talk. It’s wonderful. We touch on politics, compare our worlds, grow a little closer to each other over shared and different experiences. When Nate says you guys should come to Korea, we say yes, of course. And then laugh when we explain that it’s a New Zealand thing to actually turn up. With bags. And family. For weeks! 

When they all leave on Sunday morning Mark and I rattle around as the only quests and it feels a bit like the end of school camp.

I am cheered though by a visit to Boneca de Atauro, a women’s collective who make dolls. We get there in the back of a tuk-tuk, bouncing over the limestone roads, I think if I hadn’t been in Timor-Leste for 4 months and wasn’t an old hand at this, I’d be shocked by the time it takes to go 5 k and the rickety, bone jostling it takes to get there.

The factory is opened for us by a woman across the road and I fossick about in cupboards whispering…  “I’d take you all home if I could”, and settle on the lovers, and a revolutionary. We throw in a crocodile hand puppet for good measure.

We realise quickly that our life in Dili must be more out of the sun than in it when we notice each other’s red noses and cheeks and that little sting you get on your legs when you step into the sea. 

There’re things you should know about Atauro. Things like bring cash, there are no ATM’s or credit cards.  And bring coins for the markets and to pay your drivers. No one has change for that big tenner you’re waving around. Bring battery packs to charge devices and a torch. Bring sunblock and maybe some snacks if you’re the hungry type.

Bring your snorkel and dive gear. I read that Atauro has the highest diversity of reef fish and coral species of anywhere in the world.

Bring your few Tetum phrases and your tolerance for a slower pace.

Bring your appetite, there’s plenty of food but some of it won’t be familiar and some of it won’t be flash.  Breakfast could be omelets and those little chicken sausages I’ve mentioned before (like Sizzlers you get in NZ but with less meat). I’m sure they’re addictive. At 75cents for 8, they’re certainly cheap. There is also the high possibility of banana fritters (not quite as good as Grandma Philomena’s).

Bring your sore body, I had an AMAZING massage, 25 bucks for an hour, after which I went back to my room and promptly fell asleep.

Bring your sense of adventure and your curiosity and some extra room in your bags for at least a handful of dolls from Boneca de Atauro.

But mostly don’t bring the desire for a sanitized, easily consumed, mass produced experience. If you wanted constant hot water you could have stayed at your hotel in town.

In a world where travel can be a bit beige, where the biggest thing you can do is tick a box, Eiffel Tower Tick, Colosseum Tick, London Eye Tick, Atauro Island brings the colour, the experience that’s hard to describe, in a place that remains untouched enough to be considered actually authentic.

1 thought on “Small Island, Big Heart”

  1. Really enjoying your writing Ruth. Reminds me of our time living in Malaysia, particularly when we left KL and had family adventures in remote places.


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