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An Island’s Island. Exploring Atauro, East Timor (#71)

2014 June

At 15,410 sq km, East Timor is itself one of the world’s smallest countries, taking up roughly half of the island of Timor. The temptation to make one more step over water to an even smaller island is strong though, and so on my third day exploring, I got up at 5 a.m. and prepared for a morning “ferry” to Atauro Island, 25 kilometers north of Dili over a crevasse that dips 3500 meters below sea level. A rocky ride awaited…

There are two options to reach the island. The cheapest is to find a Timorese boat, most of which look highly unseaworthy but will cost just US$5. I went for the safer option of a foreign run service called Tiger at US$45, a nifty speedboat that runs infrequently, pretty much whenever enough people have expressed interest in going and only if the waves aren’t too high. Just over an hour after boarding, they dropped me and a motley crew of adventurers in the water (there is no pier for small boats) outside Barry’s Place, an eco-resort consisting of cute huts on the beach, run by Aussie expat Barry and his Timorese wife and kids.

Locally known as “goat island,” Atauro only has one serviceable road, its villages connected by walking paths, and its population seemingly undetermined. I was lucky to meet some Australians visiting to help on a project that enables widowed women on the island to earn an income by making (quite wonderful) Boneca Dolls, that are sold in Australia – the money being returned to Atauro. They explained how one of their colleagues had stumbled across a village unknown to authorities, who estimate that 8 to 9 thousand people live subsistence lifestyles by fishing and farming around the mountainous islet.

I rose at 5 a.m. for a second day in order to watch the sunrise on the island’s east side, climbing to a vantage point on top a hill dotted with the white-bark Eucalyptus alba tree, which seems to illuminate in sunlight. A young woman, wearing local dress and carrying a machete quietly gathered wood around me, while goats meandered around the steep grass verges. A simple “Bom Dia” (Portugese for “Good Morning”) eases any tension and raises a smile. Down below, on the beach, men and children are collecting sea plants washed in from the tide, used in local cooking. While up above, land that rises to 999 metres is burned off, as it has for centuries, to bring new life for the farmers to replant what they need to survive. Live doesn’t get much simpler than on Atauro.