Permaculture in Baucau

I went on an impromptu roadtrip to nearby Baucau, the so-called second capital of Timor Leste. Its about a 2 hour drive, but takes 4 hours with the local bus (plus an hour or so, sitting, sweating and waiting for them to fill). My couchsurf host in Dili sent me straight into the arms of his Macau raised Portugese farmer friend, Fernando.

Fernando's garden

Fernando’s garden

Fernando moved to Baucau 3 years ago and rented a small plot of land surrounded by rice fields and local farmers to try and develop his permaculture project with Na-terra. He said the village people would all come and watch him farm, gawking at his strange techniques. Later he upgraded to a larger piece of land, and today he rents a 2,000m2 garden he’s grown and nurtured to the most bio-diverse plot of land in all of Timor! There are chickens, ducks, bunnies and over 100 species of trees and plants thriving in his little oasis, and all of it works together to form an ecosystem that’s totally self-sustainable and renewable, constantly supplying food to both animals and humans.

white bunny fertilizer machine

white bunny fertilizer machine

We arrived at his farm, surrounded my old big palm trees and a wooden fence. Before we entered, he prepared me by saying “make sure you’re aware of the space around you, the lay of the land and whats the highest point, where is there shade, where’s the water and how does it flow. I felt like I was entering a Jurassic park ride. Once we entered, the fence was completely living from the inside, with vines and grasses growing all the way to the ends and corners of the whole plot. No tree was older than 3 years, but still the canopy was meters above our heads.

We ducked under huge melons and stepped over potted seedlings, and through the cool bamboo trees. We watered the aloe vera and fed the fishes, watching little cat-fish whiskers poke out from the water’s surface We sniffed the lemongrass and the one (and only) Bilimbi plant in the garden (and probably all of Timor… he imported the seed himself from Chile). We harvested tomatoes and papayas to take home, and fed and pet the bunnies who produce all his fertilizer. Then he wriggled our fingers through their poop, mixed in with hay and a bazillion worms, to show me how fertile their fertilizer really was.

He thought me about the Moringa tree, which has 1000% percent more vitamins and good stuff in it than all other individual fruits combined – apparently it’s the obvious solution to solve malnutrition worldwide, but no one knows about it yet. There were vegetables, flowers, herbs and medicinal plants, and all the trees, plants, and permaculture knowledge is given freely to the local people. This way, the farm generates food security, nutrition, and even improves business since the markets now have more fruits and vegetables to trade.

Fernando and his friend on the beach for sunse

Fernando and his friend on the beach for sunse

Fernando talked with such excitement and enthusiasm for every leaf and rock that the garden came creaming to life in front of me, and even the smelly duck pond had an important function in his little circle of life. After cuddling some more with his sugar-cane loving bunnies, we retreated to yet another oasis, Fernando’s cliff-perched house, and watched the sunset from the beach below. For dinner we had spear-fished octopus with all sorts of delights from the farm, and for breakfast we had a Moringa smoothie – a perfect recipe for detox and rejuvenation.

A Tourist in Timor Leste

East Timor is one of those places totally off the tourist radar, but big with ex-pats and foreign NGO’s. It just came out of a bloody 25 year occupation by the Indoniesian, and its one of the youngest countries in the world at only 12 years old. It was colonized since the 16th century, but as soon as they declared independence from Portugal in 1975, the Indonesians literally moved in right away and caused non-stop grief and oppression until 2000 when the international media and UN finally took notice. The haunting Resistance museum covers the black years, when tens of thousands of Timorese people were killed or starved to death, and hundreds of thousands fled the country as refugees. Today its difficult to see any of these hardships on people’s smiling faces, but maybe they’ve just chosen to forget and instead focus on the happy peaceful days.

a Timorese house and shade shelter made from a flower bush

a Timorese house and shade shelter made from a flower bush

Though it’s a long way from a prospering country, they have a rich country, in history, culture and natural resources. Australia’s (still) trying to dig their greedy fingers into their oil and gas reserves, Starbucks (and others) contribute to nearly a quarter of their export economy with coffee beans, and the coast of Timor is jeweled with some of the world’s most pristine coral reef. There are a handful of languages, but most people still speak Tetum, despite Indonesia’s attempt to enforce Bahasa, and the official language of education has been reinstated as Portugese.

boiling salt

boiling salt

I couchsurfed with a Portugese guy who’s job is to start a publishing house. I met many of his ex-pat friends who were mostly teachers for the ‘reference’ schools, and the kids always assumed I was one of them and called me “teacher!” Their smiling faces always impressed me, and many kids also spoke a few words in English. Our conversations would start with “Hello miss, how are you?” although sometimes they called me mister, or sometimes sister. Then the exchange of “what is your name?” and then a fit of giggles when they learned my name and shouted it out in chorus.

dry rice fields

dry rice fields

It was arid and dry, even the ride fields dusty and grey, so the water buffalo were replaced by cute piggies and piglets. There was no karaoke obsession, but similar only to the Philipines in Asia, Timor Leste is a predominantly Christian country, but their animalistic beliefs have held strong. One of the most striking was their treatment of cats and dogs. Some believe that only the souls of perfect beings can be laid to rest in the mountain tops, so often you’ll see cats with purposely mangled tails, just so we humans don’t have to compete for space with all those cats. Dogs are just large rats, not worth much except meat, not ever pets or even guard dogs.

scanning for saltwater crocodiles

scanning for saltwater crocodiles

Crocodiles are the most fascinating animal – the Timorese call them “abo,” which means Grandpa, since they believe they are very sacred animals carrying the souls of their grandfathers. The problem is that there are a lot of crocodiles, and huge salt water crocs, that regularly kill people, taking them in the water, from the shore, or even from their boats. But since they’re such wise, sacred animals, they only kill those who should deserve it, so either the deceased or his/her family has done something wrong. There was the story of one elderly woman who was killed, and a 17 year old boy, probably by the same croc, and the villagers were so furious that they declared the croc a wild crocodile, and killed him when he wouldn’t return the body of the boy. A shaman later came to the village to mediate between the people and the croc, and after some intense chanting, peace has been restored.

the barely-driveable roads

the barely-driveable roads

I realized that before coming, Timor was one of the more worrying countries I was going to show up to with no plan. Since it was difficult to find information, I arrived with a tabula rasa, and all that I found were pleasant surprises. People were much friendlier here than I remember anywhere else on my trip, and though the roads are tremendously bad (it took 9 hours to drive 190km), traveling around always felt safe. And as long as I stayed away from the sea, I didn’t have to worry about any peace conflicts, since I’m certainly no match to a wild croc and that was about the only dangerous thing I encountered in Timor Leste.