During my first two weeks in Dili people kept telling me that I needed to get out of the city to see the “real” Timor-Leste. To me, this sounded like one of those things travellers tell each other in order to brag about their time “off the beaten track”, away from the support and security of other tourists and expats. However, after a bit of research into the economic situation and government system here in Timor-Leste, I could see that people may have had a point.
As a whole, Timor-Leste is not a wealthy country and their dependence on oil exports does them no favours, as experts predict that peak reserves have been surpassed and international marine border disputes threaten to leave little profit from offshore rigs. Additionally, like many developing countries, there are considerable challenges surrounding the distribution of wealth and economic opportunities. As such, industry and services are expanding in the country’s capital, while the districts remain difficult to access and underdeveloped. While the government is taking action to counteract these issues through decentralization and numerous economic and social programmes, it is a long process with numerous challenges ahead.
This past weekend, I was given the opportunity to see how extreme the disparity of wealth between urban and rural areas is in Timor-Leste through a home stay with a local family in the district of Aileu. I hit the road with three other enthusiastic expats and some wonderfully helpful guides to get us out to the district and act as translators (we’ve only had one week of Tetun language classes, so this was a blessing!). Upon arrival we were dropped off at our respective homes. My colleague Phil and I stayed in one home, while our two other counterparts stayed in another.
Two things struck me as soon as we arrived. The first was the beauty of the surrounding landscape, and the second was the conditions in which our generous home stay family lived on a day-to-day basis. The family I stayed with was made up of 16 members, with another on its way. The house… well… it was three bedrooms with two beds they had built specifically for their Australian home stay guests. Normally, the family sleep together on the floor of the rooms but they insisted (despite our protests) that this was not appropriate for guests so they bent over backwards to put us in a separate room each, leaving them to sleep in the living area and third bedroom. Their generosity was astounding.
A walk through the surrounding area revealed numerous other concerns. There was no running water or direct access to clean water next to the home. Rather, they had to walk a fair distance to collect water and then boil it to ensure it is drinkable. The small plots of farmland that belong to this family are also a considerable distance away. One garden, which we visited on the first morning, was a 45-minute walk from the house across a shallow river with no bridge. We waded through easily, but when wet season comes it is unlikely the family will be able to tend to the land. The food they eat is the food they grow, with a small amount of it being traded at the local markets, making the access to their farmland vital to their health.
I found the calm kindness with which the family treated us astounding and am exceptionally grateful that they opened their home to us. I am constantly blown away by the generosity of people here, despite their sometimes-limited means.
My favourite part of the home stay was the constant crowd of children who followed me with polite curiosity everywhere I went. They were as enthused as I was to be together, and they very patiently attempted to communicate with me in my very basic and broken Tetun. I eventually resorted to sharing Polaroid photos of my family and friends in Australia, drawing cartoons, and mapping out family trees to help us get to know each other better.