How do I articulate a 10-day trip, with 18 girls, 2 teachers and 1 tour guide? How do I explain how it felt to be immersed in a whole new culture for the first time? How do I translate how hard it was to say goodbye to a bunch of girls who we had grown so close to and built a relationship with over 5 short days? How do I express the feeling in my belly as I waved goodbye to 120 orphans who I will never see again, who I will never hug again? How do I illustrate the poverty I witnessed, the huts, the skinny dogs, the fallen faces gazing from doorsteps? I can’t. My first overseas trip highlighted the varying impact other worlds can have on every individual. That an experience is subjective and potentially, no one will ever know the overwhelming emotions that can change a person, challenge them, bring new learning and alter their identity – habits, values and passions.
Our trip to Timor-Leste began in Dilli, the capital. An excited and suddenly sweaty group of girls bounced off the plane, through the relaxed customs and onto the footpaths of a brand new country. The first drive through the streets was unreal – colour, faces, risky driving. My eyes felt glazed in amazement; I know I will always treasure that feeling in my chest.
The first two days in Dilli were about settling in, becoming comfortable with our group and seeing some ‘tourist attractions’. We learnt about the painful history of the country – war and genocide; their constant fight for independence.
The Santa Cruz Massacre was the shooting of at least 250 Timorese people who stood for independence at the location of the Santa Cruz cemetery on the 12 November 1991; an example of the Indonesian genocide. Upon arriving at the Santa Cruz cemetery. I was struck by the beautiful colours, the extravagant but seemingly suitable structures and the eerie peace – the celebration of life. I cried as we tiptoed through the hundreds of graves, set so closely together to ensure everyone had a deserving resting place; even twins who had not yet lived 2 days. Watching visitors rest flowers on their family, I realised how recent the massacre was, and how much further we have to go in ensuring peace for the whole world. I realised the reality of war and violence, something that I had always detached myself from and never chose to think about. I realised people’s devotion to their country and its people – their family, friends and the strangers they pass on the streets. I realised my gratitude for anyone who is willing to risk their own lives to represent and stand for something bigger.
6 girls boarded each of the 3 troopers and we began a 6-hour journey to Baucau, the location of Sacred Heart College’s sister school – CTID college. For me, this drive was one of the most enriching experiences of the whole trip. I was exposed to varying landscapes; rolling hills, rice fields, a continuous sea, bumpy, unfinished roads and extreme poverty. We sung, bantered, read our school book out loud and tried to get a little rest. The latter was unsuccessful. We saw water buffalo, women selling local produce and children walking to school in lovely, ironed uniforms. I realised the little pride so many students in Australia have in their education. In such a short time, I witnessed new faces and places, such varied landscapes. It felt like a movie as I gazed through the grubby car windows and watched a whole new world, each scene as refreshing and fulfilling as the last.
I realised that there is billions of people on the earth, each with their own thoughts, personality, worries, passions and identity. I realised that my world was bigger than me.
Our tour guide paused the trip to buy some bananas from a local village and I leapt out of the car to take some photos. I had always had an element of anxiety about travel, I feel as though I had been fed an idea that it was unsafe, that I couldn’t trust others, that it was a risk. And while this could potentially be true, choosing to get out of the car and take photos of the locals allowed me to realise that travel doesn’t always have to be entwined with fear. That it can mean taking a chance and becoming completely absorbed in a moment, in a sense of presence, and leaving preconceived ideas and hesitations behind. These photos were some of my favourites from the trip.
Our accommodation was bright and only a 2-minute walk from the school we would be working at. Immersed in the hustle bustle of the town, it was a dream location to watch people buying from the market, waiting for buses and walking to work.
We were challenged by bed bugs on our arrival. While making a few homesick,
I realised that not everything has to go perfectly right to make an enjoyable trip. Such a large part of travel is maintaining perspective, rolling with the punches and understanding the value of home.
The time we spent with the girls at CTID was certainly time spent well. CTID is home to a women’s empowerment program that provides the opportunity to learn skills such as sewing, cooking, technology, office administration and English, which equips the girls of Timor to be self-sufficient and support themselves and their families in the future.
So many of us met the girls with the mentality that we would be helping them, or that we would be giving the girls more than they would us. But, as we experienced their loving and welcoming nature, as they held our hands, braided our hair and called us sister, as they sang together and showed us traditional dances, as they taught us Tetum, demonstrated their passion for learning and remembered our names despite meeting once, I realised that they were offering us so much more in terms of their inspiring culture, determination and gratitude. That regardless of skin colour, clothes, language, family, friends and the things we own and do, we are so the same.
Our time at CTID involved us attending their classes and attempting to communicate (surprisingly successfully!) and sharing our culture with each other. They wore their traditional costumes and danced their traditional dances from each Timorese district. We cooked sweet potato balls and they skilfully sewed us bags. We shared lunch and bought bananas. We laughed, showed photos and they tried on my glasses. It is so hard to encapsulate the 5 days we spent with the girls and try and explain the highs and lows, the exhaustion but also the hysterics. The connection we felt so fast with people from another world and how sad it was to then say goodbye. I can’t explain it, and that is why I feel so lucky to have had the experience.
Applying for this trip, I was completely unaware of the friendships I would build with both the Timorese girls and the ladies I travelled with. I didn’t know that I would be able to relate to people on a whole new level and that conversation can be so much deeper and more meaningful. I realised connection.
In amongst the 10 days was a trip to an orphanage. This has been one of the most life-changing experiences of my life. Since arriving home there has not been one day that I haven’t thought of the 120 girls that had been given up due to their parents dying or being too mentally ill (particularly due to poverty) to take care of their children.
Their bunks were aligned without fluffy doonas or teddy bears, their clothes were worn and feet unprotected. Their hair was short and their eyes sparkled so brightly. And I couldn’t help but wonder what those innocent eyes had seen. I hope I never have to experience that feeling in my stomach again as we watched them eat in small clusters, a special meal served for our arrival. For the first time, I couldn’t eat my food, I couldn’t finish the plate. I couldn’t fathom these children’s lives and how they must feel at night with no one to tuck them in, without a mother’s hug or a father’s bellowing laugh. I couldn’t fathom their strength, their determination and their massive, massive hearts. I felt tingles in my toes when they smiled up at me, when they also loved dancing, when they braided my hair and held my hand, when they called me sister and taught me little clapping games, when they asked me to sing and told me I was good, regardless of my very off tune voice, when they told me I was beautiful, handed me flowers and asked me to never forget them. Even though my tummy was filled with so much sadness, an anxiety about these girl’s past and their future, my heart was so full of love and excitement and compassion. I was fulfilled and I know that that feeling will always mean more to me than any new pair of shoes or eye-shadow or my 6th coffee of the week. I realised how truly lucky and blessed I am and that physical things do not dictate your happiness. Our 3 hours that felt like a whole day was over so very soon and we were asked to say goodbye. I cried and cried and I can still hear their voices calling my name and their hands reaching out to say goodbye. I will never be able to recreate the merging of euphoria and absolute sadness as they waved goodbye, gifted me a bracelet and received the best hug of my whole entire life.
Our drive back to Dilli was very similar to the way there, but with even louder singing which resulted in some very major headaches. There was also lots of waving hello as we travelled through the outskirts, calling ‘Botarde’ and in our case, receiving mobile phone numbers from boys through windscreens. We all felt wired when we got out of the car and we couldn’t help but think about returning home to our families and to our own beds.
The next two days were set to be reasonably relaxed, finishing our trip in each other’s company and attempting to ‘make sense of it all’.
We ate our first Western meal in 9 days (which we hadn’t realised we had missed so much) on a beach-side restaurant, and enjoyed the sparkling water, the coke and each-other’s company. We also visited Tyce market – a little shopping village that creates the income of many families. While the products were very similar, it was lovely to wander, meet some new people, tick of some presents and try and survive the humidity.
Our final shared dinner was a real treat. Emma and I decided that while we made the group late by falling asleep, it was serendipity as we arrived at a table that overlooked the electric sunset. The mood was hard to define – exhaustion, excitement and sadness. For the first time, I could sense true gratitude in all the girls. I thought that was pretty special. I filled my plate up as much as it could fit and I ate in giggles. What a lovely way to say goodbye.
I am sitting here 12 days on from arriving home and I am still trying so hard to understand this once in a life time trip to our neighbour, with some of my best mates. And I am sitting here 12 days on knowing that I will never fully understand the experience or what I learnt. I am sad to never see the same faces again, I will miss the spectacular views and the lovely girls of CTID, I will think of the orphanage every day and I will reminisce with the gals at school. And I am sitting here knowing that the real learning starts now, at home, where I change my habits, my nature, out of respect for those that I have met, the things I saw and learnt. Maybe it is here that my trip truly begins.
Dear Timor, hau hadomi O.