Voluntourism in Timor-Leste: Travel with a Difference

Visiting people in developing countries can bring deeper insights into the way they live – and bring us a new perspective at home too. Tan Yi Han tells how a trip to Timor Leste helped him appreciate life in Singapore.

Dili, Timor Leste, 21 January 2015. As a child, I had the good fortune of being taken by my parents to many places around the world. We would usually book a package and end up being bussed around on a tour coach from one tourist attraction to another.

Visiting the people of Timor was an eye opener for Singaporean Yi Han

Visiting the people of Timor was an eye opener for Singaporean Yi Han

If you’ve gone on similar tour packages, you would know about the rushing from place to place, taking photos and then getting back on the coach. There would likely have been little interaction with the locals, and what little we learned about the local culture would always depend on the tour guide. As I grew older, I knew I wouldn’t go for such a superficial experience. I started to explore less conventional ways of travelling such as attending overseas camps, going on exchange and finally volunteering plus touring (or volun-tourism) where you can combine travel with helping out in some way. All of these unconventional trips gave me amazing experiences, but above all, my latest volun-tourism experience has been the most life-changing.

Some of you may be thinking: I want to enjoy myself when I travel. Why should I subject myself to hardship? After my experience in Timor Leste, I can confidently say that not only did I enjoy myself during the trip, it has helped me enjoy my life even now I’m back in Singapore.

My journey started when I had the good fortune to win an air ticket to Timor Leste, thanks to the nice folks at Air Timor. I looked for and found a non-profit organisation – the Hummingfish Foundation – to volunteer with from Dec 2014 to Jan 2015. My main task was to go up to the mountains where I would stay in village called Batara. There I could help train Hummingfish Foundation’s local manager on computer skills and English.

Time to stop Worrying

When I arrived in Timor Leste’s capital, Dili, I was shocked to realise that food and groceries were so expensive! A typical meal with drink would cost US$4 to 6. When I asked the locals how much they earned, they would typically say US$200 to 300 a month. But yet they find the cost of living manageable; few seemed to be worried about making ends meet. Like most people in Singapore, I used to worry a lot about cost of living. Not now! On the contrary, they are grateful for what they have. Perhaps it is because they have seen much worse.

Many of the village kids I met were eager to learn English and computer skills too. In fact, knowing that I was Chinese, they also urged me to teach them Mandarin! Soon I had a regular class of about five students ages ranging from 9 to 23. It was very different from what their parents experienced.

When the Indonesian military invaded in 1975, they bombed villages, forcing civilians to flee to the jungle. One of the locals shared how he took up arms for 3 years and was constantly on the move, mainly feeding on leaves, and sometimes not eating for a whole day. Another shared how his father, his wife’s father and some of his siblings died during the occupation, many from starvation. After a UN-sanctioned referendum in 1999 when the country hoped for peace, the killing sadly starte

d again. Rebel militias forced Timorese people to follow them to Indonesia and killed those who refused. So the simple fact that there is peace today is a cause for optimism.

Furthermore, the Timorese hold no grudge against Indonesia and the Indonesian people. To them, it was the Indonesian regime and military that committed the atrocities, not the people. One Timorese explained to me that most Indonesians had no idea what was going on in then Timor Leste, and for those Indonesians living in Timor Leste, most of them voted for independence during the referendum. Seeing how the Timorese could let go of past hatred and future worries, while focusing on improving themselves left a deep impression on me.

Generous and Kind

Timor children are always keen to learn new things

Timor children are always keen to learn new things

Another incident that left a deep impression on me occurred happened when I hiked up the mountains together with a few village children to pass something to one of their god-parents. When we entered the house, it was terribly dark inside as there were no electricity and no lights, and I could hardly make out the old granny and grandpa who were staying there. We only had a short time to visit, but on leaving granny gave me a bottle of wild honey, which I reckoned was the probably most valuable gift in the house.

At that time it was raining heavily and granny wanted to lend me her umbrella. I was wearing my waterproof jacket anyway, and I had a feeling they would need the umbrella themselves, so I politely declined and started to leave. Granny was mortified and stepped out into the rain with me while pushing the umbrella towards me. I had no choice but to accept it. I felt the warmth of her humanity in the simple gift, and as I walked down the mountain, tears started to well up in my eyes.

Back in Singapore, I realised that I was starting to worry less. I used to be very self-conscious and worried about what people would think of me. It was especially bad when I passed up an opportunity to help others because of this worry.

However, a couple of weeks after my return from Timor Leste, I was in a bus when I noticed a blind man sitting at the front row had dropped his guiding stick. The blind man was in a precarious position, bending down to look for the stick. Although I was sitting near the back of the bus, I shouted to the front, “Stop, stop, I’ve got it,” and pushed to the front of the bus to pick up his stick. As I walked past the other passengers to return to my seat, I felt amazed at myself, and not worried at all what people thought.

The Legacy of Timor

As well as worrying less, my time in the mountains has made me appreciate how wonderful it is to breathe fresh air; I now go regularly for a morning jog in the park. As I jog into the morning sun, I recall the beauty of Timor Leste and the wonderful friendships I made there. Timor Leste is truly a special place and I feel it tugging me back.

Teaching music brings its own rewards to teacher and pupil

Teaching music brings its own rewards to teacher and pupil

Hummingfish Foundation and the villagers are really keen to host more volunteers. Besides teaching computer and English, you can teach music to the villagers, help them improve their coffee processing, help them build a new coffee processing plant and many other projects. You can also help them with health screening or teach them basic hygiene.

They are also looking at opportunities for exporting their amazing wild honey! Depending on your interest and skills, there’s bound to be something for everybody to contribute. So if you want to join me and experience the magic of volun-tourism, either contact me or Hummingfish.

Tan Yi Han, President,  People's Movement to Stop Haze (PM.Haze)

W : pmhaze.org

FB: www.facebook.com/pmhaze


AIR TIMOR flies direct to Dili from Singapore three times a week, or daily from Denpasar in Bali. Go to http://www.air-timor.com for details, booking, and a tourist backgrounder