Falling in awe of the Timorese
I first traveled to Timor in 1990 from Darwin, arriving in Kupang (capital of West Timor) venturing to Flores and up into the highlands of the less trodden trails in West Timor. I was 30. Entrance to East Timor has been more sporadic, and so when I speak of Timor in these pages I am nearly always referring to rural West Timor.
In a land that is predominantly Christian, in reality it is a thin veneer atop 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 your destination unless you want to go on the grand tour to show off the white tourist); gracious people who taught me a few of the customs and a little culture (I can get anywhere in Timor with a bag of balloons and betel nut). All of which contributed to my falling in awe of the Timorese.
I brought home some statues, masks, betel nut containers and weaving’s, quite unaware that I had stumbled onto the “real thing”, a true Alladins cave. Authentic traditional crafts, of which no two are ever the same and each tells its own story – weavers continue the tradition of creating unique handwoven textiles on a simple back strap loom often using hand-spun cottons and natural dyes to produce scarves, blankets, throws, shawls, runners, bags and tubular sarongs or tais. Often, using only a machete and penknife, carvers bring to life bamboo, wood, bone, gourd, fossilized coral and coconut, to produce artifacts in the traditional way.
Sales of these pieces led me to return yearly and have 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 hence the duplication of crocodile (bes) motif throughout Timorese craft and textiles. Another story tells that about 600 years ago, some seafaring traders passed looking for a place to land. They ventured on out into the open ocean and when they turned back they saw it rising out of the sea shrouded in mist and named it The Land of the Sleeping Crocodile.
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 millimeters a year. Limestone makes for good fossils, fish, an incredible selection of ammonites, blastoids (the first sea animals), crinoids and dentoids from the late Permian about 300 million years ago through to the Upper Triassic 260-280 myo and a more recent uplift revealing bi-valves, sprial carbonates, brachipods and fabulous fossilised coral – but it makes lousy farming land.
The pressures of population growth in the last 60 years have taken their toll on the resources and resourcefulness of the Timorese. The landscape is denuded and eroding resulting lower rainfalls and the knock on effects on subsistence level farming, which dictates the heartbeat of the lives of 85% of the rural dwelling population from a total of 3,182,693 . Calculate at least 3,500,000  all living within half an island that is 300km long x 80 to 100km at its widest and the impact.
Rural and indeed city dwelling Timorese work hard at eking out an existence from gardens and livestock. Indonesian bureaucracy means that there are office jobs however the level of competency was substandard to begin with as the ruling Dutch barely educated and even less prepared the local people to take on administrative responsibilities upon their departure. Better educated and informed graduates are finally finding jobs as the old guard retires. Regrettably after 50 years of incompetent mismanagement many newcomers are hard pressed to usher in a new era and standard and are prone to repeating the poor performances of their predecessors.
Timor has a lack lustre tourist trade which suits all but the hardy and adventurous. Bus and truck driving, service industries, and selling goods at the market are some ways to supplement income in order to generate funds to educate their children. Where possible a rural dwelling family will toil long and hard to send the eldest boy to University of which about 20% get jobs afterwards [fortunately this statistic is changing as noted above, however that was the reality 10-20 years ago]. Of course many of the young invariably do not return to the kampong (small village).
Central government in Indonesia issued a decree a couple of decades ago advocating a two-child policy. I think the seat polishers in Jakarta, removed from their rural up bringing, forgot that one policy does not fix nor suit all. The consequence is having ramifications in the social structures in villages. Between this policy and higher education there is a virtual genocide occurring in some rural districts in Timor, the elderly and the culture is paying the price.
I trust all is not lost and that 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 weaving’s 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 continue to wear their handwoven selimut-blanket, selendang-scarf or tais-sarong daily including market day, for which many Timorese may walk up to 20km to buy, trade or simply to socialize and renew allegiances. The majority have an extremely fine one for Sundays and special occasions such weddings and funerals. This makes for bright and gay affairs on such days, as the colours and motifs not only tell of the weavers clan and totemic guardian spirits, but also strongly indicate the retention of pride of place in the social hierarchy as well as daerah asal [place of origin].
I personally have photographed and documented close to 1,800 weavings. Each one is unique and no two weaving’s are the same. A woman receives her traditional motif and construction, which varies according to her family and where they live, as a part of the traditional heritage that binds her and her family and extended clan. She will never weave the same story twice, there is always a variation bold or subtle that distinguishes one textile from the next. Each handwoven piece tells its own story, it has a meaning that is deeply embedded into the weaving woman’s life and soul. Because the textiles are area specific it is possible to tell a persons clan and village down to and area of 3-5km!. The few exceptions to this rule are the cross-road pieces where intermarriage had created a unique blend of 2 styles.
For a number of years I despaired that this amazing weaving tradition would be lost 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, because of demand locally which was a result of another Jakartaan decree that actually benefited some rural people, requiring all Indonesian office workers to wear a garment or garments made from traditionally handwoven cloth to work on Fridays….a notoriously short working day… instead of the standard khaki uniforms.
I value pieces woven with hand-spun cotton and natural indigo dyes, pay the women more for them, and honour the weaver for continuing the age old traditions. 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 hand-spun cotton and natural indigo dye are becoming fewer. One of my aims is to encourage the more traditional cloths by paying well at source. The follow-on from this is that I/they need to have a market who equally respects and receives these unique story cloths.
Timorese carving traditions
The carvers of Timor are even more area-specific, with very few provinces in East and West Timor continuing the tradition, I have been fortunate to travel to most of the main carving areas and continue to meet many personally.
I owe this legacy to Pak Piet Tallo, the then Premier 1983-1993, of Timor Tengah Selatan (TTS), West Timor, Governor of East Nusa Tenggara (NTT) 1998-2008, in the eastern end of Indonesia. He was 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 into it 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. And which is an ever evolving line of craft through which the carvers not only express their clan motifs but are now moving into the fantasmagorical. You will see some examples in the shop side of this website under BETELNUT Container…Bamboo and Bone are the places that these fanciful containers are visible.
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 (aluk-cloth woven bags for the men and oko-mama-baskets for women).
The practice of chewing betel nut (see also Culture and Daily Life in Timor) dominates throughout West Timor with most men and some women enjoying 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 while watching the chickens scratch in the dirt and the corn grow as the kids run amok.
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 [kind of like a tribal force field], whereas those of good heart and intent would have no difficulty entering.
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 [a way of anonymity or saving face?]. Likewise, be prepared as 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 much longer documented history, mainly due to the practice of recording ancestral figures and guardian spirits for posterity.
I do not know of any rural Timorese who own a camera, let alone have the money to develop a film. Statues therefore play an important role in storytelling and recalling past members of the clan at ceremony or simply sitting around a flame or fire. The figure was usually kept in the false roof of the traditional grass hut along with other family treasures [harta] and the grain for next years crops.
Sadly many original figures have been acquired by unscrupulous traders in the 70’s and 80’s who “raided” distant kampongs and homesteads. The ploy goes like this:
Flash car pulls up to grass thatch hut. If no-one is home [in the garden 2-3kms away or at the local market for the day] the pickings are easy as the brigands help themselves to whatever is stored in the false floors of the traditional huts and a few rupiah are tossed onto a table. If someone is in, the dealer will often help himself to the private storage place [mountain folk not knowing the difference between a dealer from the city/bali/java or a government official are reluctant to speak up] 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 don’t use or need this pagan object of worship”. Toss the person a pittance and make off with an ANTIK which is in fact a revered ancestor figure.
Consequently there are very few genuinely ‘old’ carvings left in rural Timor. Fortunately for us the carving and weaving tradition has continued and I am able to obtain a wide variety of treasures which I present to you. I return annually to the heartland of West Timor to renew allegiances, find out who has birthed and who has died, return photographs…[yes I print them out and take them back as the only photograph that most folks have of their loved ones, alive or dead, is the tiny blurry photo on their KTP/resident card], give out reading glasses [donations always welcome-email me], hand out pumpkin seeds [nutritious, tasty. long storage time food] and acquire new treasures.
Little did I know that nearly 30 years on I have been partially responsible for the continuation of a unique traditional culture. I trust that in the treasure shop on this site that you may find that special treasure that will connect and link you to this genuine age old culture; thereby supporting the crafts people into creating more traditional and contemporary authentic heartfelt craft to remind us that some traditions are never lost.
Traveling in Timor today
I traveled with now daughter from her birth in 1995 until she fledged in 2015. She retains her connections with Indonesia and is currently studying the language at Uni and engages in cultural programs and internships whenever she can to expand her experiences. Delphi can count amongst her numerous friends and experiences Kings and Queens, Govenors and Premiers, some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest Timorese and Indonesians, illness and joy, death and birth. Travel and accommodation in rural Timor can hardly be regarded as luxurious and being “on the road” is not always as glamorous as it may seem, but there sure are many highlights along the way that keep the Timor magic going.
I now speak reasonable Indonesian and a smattering of the local languages of both East and West Timor. Packing and shipping is still a dance and help is virtually non-existent in Timor as there are only a couple of westerners who venture the wild and unpredictable ways through the highlands of West Timor seeking out craftspeople and their treasures. Just purchasing pieces necessitates vast amounts of organisation. Old newspapers for wrapping treasures, boxes to put them in, tape, plastic rice sacks and needles and rafia to sew onto the outside of the boxes must be found and gathered.
Getting the treasures assembled into one place for packing after going out to markets and villages collecting whilst traveling 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 going off on some tangent to potential rendezvous that may or may not yield gold creates packing parties that often go on into the night. While writing up packing lists consumes most spare times in between. 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 alter the face and indeed the essence of the craft. Tread carefully and watch what you leave behind.
I do have a “favourite” orphanage in SoE where Delphi gave her outgrown toys and I donate clothes, books and pencils, and food and when possible contribute a financial donation [any donations are welcome, email me OK].
I am aqualified aromatherapist, herbalist, masseuse and reflexologist. Occasionally 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 as well as people [men and women] well versed in traditional plant medicine, 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 the other side of Timor – 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, dollies, 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. Pandanus and grass woven mats, baskets, bags, purses and containers, trays, and other assorted treasures are also on offer.
In 1995 I realised that I was sleeping on a completely Organic natural fiber Kapok mattresses and sleeping head pillows often with accompanying bolsters Dutch wives or sailors’ comforts as they are known throughout the pacific rim. I have always been interested in sustainable, low impact, capacity building, chemical free lifestyle choices whenever possible in my life.
I made a decision to begin a side business making pillows, yoga bolsters, neck and lumbar rolls, chair cushions (also suitable for meditation), doona’s, duvets, comforters, quilts and mattresses. Despite some savage ups and downs to secure consistent quality and importation without chemical treatment, I have persisted and the results can be seen on this website under the category KAPOK. And also our latest website www.goldilocksnaturalbedding.com.au and its predecessor www.kapokpillows.com.au
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