Falling in awe of the Timorese
I first traveled to Timor fifteen years ago from Darwin, arriving in Kupang (capital of West Timor) and travelling in West Timor. I was 30. Entrance to East Timor has been more sporadic, and so when I talk of Timor in these pages I am nearly always referring to rural West Timor.
In a land that is predominantly Christian, with an Animist base, I found a tough yet gracious people. People with patience enough to help this naive “cas muti” (European in local ‘Dawan’ language) gain some understanding and insight into their lives.
They helped me to understand appropriate dress (cover the shoulders and not too much knee please); work out the menu (charades always wins laughs); jump on the best disco booming, flashing lighted bus or bemo to anywhere (be sure of where you ask for else you’ll end up on the grand tour to show off the white tourist); and learn a few of the customs and a little culture (I can get anywhere in Timor with a bag of balloons and betel nut). This help contributed to my falling in awe of the Timorese.
So I brought home some statues, masks, betel nut containers and weavings, quite unaware that I had stumbled onto the “real thing”. Authentic traditional crafts, of which no two are ever the same – weavings are produced on simple back strap looms using handspun cottons and natural dyes to produce scarves, blankets, throws, shawls, runners, bags and tubular sarongs or tais. Or, often using only a machete and penknife, life is brought to bamboo, wood, bone, gourd, fossilised coral and coconut, to produce artefacts in the traditional way.
Sales of these pieces led me to return yearly and served as a base for a journey of discovery both of a most remarkable island people and myself (and, yes, the book is coming).
About the Timorese
According to local mythology, the island of Timor was originally a giant crocodile. Another story tells that about 600 years ago, some passing traders were looking for a place to land, saw it rising out of the sea in the mist, and gave it the name. The Land of the Sleeping Crocodile. Whatever the origins, the crocodile motif is to be found in many Timorese handcrafts.
Geologically, Timor is a limestone atoll having risen out of the sea some four million years ago and still emerging at a rate of three millimetres a year. Limestone makes for good fossils, fish, (the first sea animals), crinoids and dentoids all about 320 million years old – but it makes lousy farming land.
The pressures of population growth in the last 40 years have taken their toll, and now the landscape is denuded and eroded, with resulting lower rainfalls.
Timorese people work hard at eking out an existence from gardens and livestock, and a few have office jobs in the bigger towns. Bus and truck driving service industries, and selling goods at the market are some of the ways to supplement income in order to educate their children, and where possible send the eldest boy to University of which about 20% get jobs afterwards. This, along with the two-child policy, is having ramifications in the social structures in villages, as the young invariably do not return to the kampong (small village).
I trust all is not lost, as the social and cultural ties that bind Timorese society will endure.
Timorese weaving tradition
Amongst the population is found a small percentage of clever and talented artisans. The tradition of Timorese weavings has been documented by a few the most recent comprehensive and in-depth study in the hugely varied vastly intricate Timor textile tradition is by Ruth Yeager and Mark Jacobsen(see Timorese Craft for details).
Many Timorese still wear their selimut-blanket, selendang scarf or tais sarong daily and often have an extremely fine one for Sundays and special occasions such as market day for which many Timorese may walk up to 20km to buy or trade or simply to socialize and renew allegiances . This makes for bright and gay affairs on such days.
I personally have photographed and documented close to 1,500 weaving. No two weaving are the same. A woman receives her traditional motif and construction, which varies according to her family and where they live, and she may never weave the same story twice. Each handwoven piece has a story, it has a meaning. It is possible to tell a persons clan and village down to 3-5km as the textiles are area specific. The few exceptions to this rule are the cross-road pieces where intermarriage had created a blend of 2 unique styles.
For a number of years I despaired as I saw very few girls learning this craft, which used to be essential knowledge in order to marry (got to clothe the family). I am heartened to see small numbers of girls taking up the tradition.
I value pieces woven with handspun cotton and natural indigo dyes. Commercial factory threads and dyes are making great inroads, and the weavers of futus ikat tie-dying or sotis lotis supplementary weft weave or float weave who use handspun cotton and natural indigo dye are becoming fewer. One of my aims is to encourage the more traditional cloths by paying well at source.
Timorese carving traditions
The carvers of Timor are even more area-specific, with virtually only one province in each of East and West Timor continuing the tradition, and just six major areas producing the authentic craft indicative of this Pacific Rim Island. I have been fortunate to travel to most of the main carving areas and meet many personally.
I owe this legacy to Pak Piet Tallo, the then Premier of Timor Tengah Selatan (TTS), West Timor, who is now Governor of East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), the eastern end of Indonesia. He is a remarkable man who, among his many deeds, encouraged the people to retain their culture and craft.
One famed story is of how he would take plastic containers holding people’s lime powder and crush it underfoot, dig in his pocket, give money to replace it and tell the person to make a Timorese betel nut lime powder container (Kal-au – Dawan, Tempat Kapur – Indonesian) out of bamboo, wood, coconut, bone, buffalo horn or gourd. To carve it with their traditional motif and use it with pride.
The result is an amazing array of betel nut and lime containers in which we see Timorese carving at its most unaffected.
He also encouraged men to continue to wear their handwoven blankets (Mau – Dawan, Selimut – Indonesian) and to place their betel nut ritual gear into shoulder bags (cloth woven bags for the men and baskets for women).
The practice of chewing betel nut (see also Culture and Daily Life in Timor) is still prevalent throughout West Timor most men and some women enjoy a chew. It is a time to reconnect and cement relationships, at all levels; a time to sit in the shade, spin your cotton or work on your betel nut container, mask or statue and talk of the stuff of life.
Timorese masks and statues or ancestral guardian figures have a debated history. It is said the mask carving tradition began in the 1930s to cater for a meager tourist trade. The Timorese I asked say that the masks were traditionally carved with “ugly or scary” faces and placed inside the hut, above the front door; so that those of bad or evil intent could not pass beneath, whereas those of good heart and intent would have no difficulty.
Masks with paddle handles, I am told, are used in some dance ceremonies. Also to sneak over anonymously to your neighbour in order to steal food when your cupboards are empty. Likewise your neighbour may reciprocate some time.
I find this amusing as no two pieces of Timorese handcraft are the same and indeed many are signature pieces of their creator therefore the anonymity is actually quite impossible. But I understand the concept.
Timorese statues have a longer documented history, mainly due to the practice of recording ancestral figures and guardian spirits for posterity.
I do not know of a Timorese who owns a camera, let alone having the money to develop a film. The statues therefore play an important role in storytelling and recalling past members of the clan, and the figure was usually kept in the false roof of the hut.
Sadly many original figures have been acquired by unscrupulous dealers who do “raids” on distant kampongs and homesteads. The ploy goes like this:
Flash car pulls up to grass thatch hut. If no-one is home the pickings are easy and a few rupiah are tossed onto a table. If someone is in, the dealer will often help himself to the private storage place and remove the figures, asking what religion the people are. Thinking they may get into trouble with the government if they confess to still being Animists, the people reply, “Christian”. “Ahh”, says the dealer, “then you dont use or need this pagan object of worship”. Toss the person a pittance and make off with an ANTIK.
Fortunately the tradition has continued and I am able to obtain a wide variety of treasures which I present to you. There is also a small domestic market for carvings and textile weavings.
Traveling in Timor today
I travel now with my eight-year-old daughter who has her ups and downs with her Timor experience. Delphi can count amongst some of her numerous friends and experiences Kings and Queens, illness and joy, death and birth. Travel and accommodation is not luxurious, being “on the road” is not always as glamorous as it may seem, but there sure are many highlights along the way.
I now speak reasonable Indonesian and a smattering of the 32 dialects of two main local languages of both East and West Timor. I am learning to dance the shipping dance which changes most years depending on what, where and how much is to be brought back one of the banes of many importers. Customs, quarantine and professional help even with packing are virtually non-existent in Timor, necessitating vast amounts of organisation.
Getting the treasures assembled into one place for packing whilst travelling the length and breadth of the island is another story: get up at the crack of dawn to greet the wonderful people who walk kilometres through the pre-dawn to bring me treasures that time constraints would otherwise have not allowed me to acquire; or head out to a market; or off on some tangent to another rendezvous that may or may not yield gold. I must give acknowledgment here to the good friends I have in Timor that back me up, patch me up and generally keep me going. I seem to manage to scrape through some of the most amazing situations with little more than naivete and pure instinct.
Preserving cultural integrity
My intention has always been to preserve cultural integrity and to try not to influence those that might not understand that my suggestion or request is to be viewed as innovation only, not permanent modification I hand out tools of the trade such as chisels and hole files with care, care not to change the face of the craft. Tread carefully and watch what you leave behind.
I contribute to income by paying directly and where possible with clothes. I do have a “favourite” orphanage in SoE where Delphi gives her outgrown toys and I donate clothes, books and pencils, and food.
And as I am an aromatherapist, herbalist, masseuse and reflexologist I often find myself in a position to reconnect people with their more traditional forms of healing. I have met some very talented bone healers amongst others Western medicine is expensive and difficult to access and often fails to cure, especially if the illness is connected to magic. But that is another story, and so too is East Timor.
My range of treasures offered to good homes
I am able to obtain a variety of masks, ancestral figures, statues, guardian spirits, totem and offering poles. A range of traditional musical instruments, drums, guitars, recorders, flutes, xylophones. Walking sticks, weaving implements, beaters, spindles, pieces of the back strap loom, cotton gins or mangles for de-seeding the cotton prior to spinning, doors, seats, beds, combs, amulets and statuettes. Large bamboo lunch boxes, crocodiles, toys such as catapults and spinning tops, hand-carved buttons and beads, pottery hand-pounded and patted low bake clay money pots and medicine pots.
Organic Kapok bolsters Dutch wives, sailors’ comforts, yoga bolsters, neck and lumbar rolls, chair cushions (also suitable for meditation), and doonas and mattresses made to order. Pandanus and grass woven mats, baskets, bags, purses and containers and other assorted treasures.
As each product is different I am unable to offer multiples of any items the exceptions being grass pandanus mats and the range of organic kapok goods.
I intend to continue to bring authentic Timorese craft to you to give good homes to. So please spread the word and help it grow.
My invaluable traveling companions Delphi from 1996 and Aja Bordeville from 1992