It is one of those lovely sunny mornings that have been so rare this wet season at the Dili Vanilli home-base in Aileu. This year, unlike the last, we are experiencing, thanks to La Niña, a real good and consistent rainy season. In the latter part of last year the groundwater wells and streams started to dry up much earlier than normal, and we began to fear that we were in for a long period of drought. But the wet came in early October and hasn’t stopped since. Although over the last week we have had our fair share of sunny days, we have still had a good sprinkling late every day. But in the weeks prior our mornings were cloud covered, the rain sprinkled down in a misty haze, not unlike what they call in the north of Spain, siri miri, and from lunchtime onward we would experience non-stop rain until six the next morning. Things around here are definitively wet, and after months of wishing for the rain to come, we were reaching the stage of wishing it would go away. So this little sunny respite is welcome, giving us the opportunity to start preparing ourselves for the beginning of the vanilla harvest season.
As the crow flies, and they do around here, we are only about fifteen kilometres from the coast and the capital Dili. But we are here one thousand metres above sea level, nestled in the bowl like valley where the district capital, Aileu Villa is situated. Now, before I go on, I want to get that name write as I hear many people, particularly Aussies come out with all sorts of ways of mangling the pronunciation. It is not Ah-lee-oo, Ar-lee-oo or Ah-lie-a, but, in a way to best get across to language constrained Aussies and others, it is simply: Eye-Lay-Oo. Ai in Tetum means tree or a plant, and it provides the prefix for many words here. Leu means twisted or crooked – I am not sure if that is from Tetum or more probably the local mountain language, Mambai – and the original settlement of Aileu was established at the site of a sacred twisted tree. The symbol is commemorated in many of the town’s and municipality’s symbols. The tree itself, it is cared for and replaced in a manner not unlike the tree of Gernika in the Basque Country, can be found, in a village on the outskirts of the town, known as Suko Liurai. Suko is the traditional designation for a village in Timor, Liurai, whilst often corrupted to mean a king, is the name given to describe a traditional Timorese chief or clan leader. Although there is a history of sultanship in some parts of the archipelago, which has its roots in the Indian influences brought to some of the islands in precolonial times, it was during the Portuguese colonisation these leaders began to be designated as monarchs or kings. It is a bit like the way that the English when they first came to Australia, began to rename certain Aboriginal clan leaders as things like ‘King Billy’ and such.
Anyway, enough history! Up here the air is always cool, whether it is wet or dry. At the moment the temperatures range between seventeen and twenty five degrees, in the dry season between seven and thirty. It is so unlike the coast below which is always at least seven or eight degrees hotter during the day and never experiences the cool pleasant nights that makes this such a special place. I first came here in late October 1999, on a field trip to work with Taur Matan Ruak and Pedro Klamar Fuik. Taur is now of course the Prime Minister, and Pedro heads the National Defence Institute – the training school for military officers and others. But on that cool October night when I first escaped the devastation of a still smouldering Dili I somehow knew that this was particular place was going to play some role in my future life. On that day we drove up what we call the old road at dusk. Forty five kilometres of winding asphalt that had been built by the Indonesians and that already was beginning to fall apart as a result of the movement of the tank-tracked Australian Army armoured personnel carriers.
In the fading light of that late afternoon we drove up past Dare, the Catholic seminary that has played such a significant role in the development of Timorese intellectual thought and identity, and through the village of Laulara. At Laulara I got a glimpse for the first time of the ‘million dollar’ views which stretched out through the jungle gardens to Dili below and off into the deep trench that separates the capital from Atauro island and beyond. The rich landscape here fascinated me, already we had climbed up, to an altitude of close to eight hundred metres, but we were no more than five kilometres from the port and sea below. The green, cool, mountainous surrounds were a world away to what I was used to in and around my home town of Darwin some six hundred kilometres away.
Since then Laulara has become a place I visit often, and towards the end of March we will for sure be there on a number of occasions. Laulara has its own micro-climate. It is nestled on the north facing sharp folds of the edge of the mountains that cover most of Timor. On these steep slopes, covered in one wild and expansive permaculture forest, things seem to fruit earlier than in other places in the country. You can walk through the forest here and find palms, banyans, bamboo, oranges, rambutams, papaya, custard apples, sour sop, passion fruit, cinnamon, pepper, cloves and, of course, vanilla. All this fruit and spice hanging, as in the Garden of Eden, right before your eyes. It is here that the Dili Vanilli season starts in earnest. Each year Laulara is the first place where vanilla becomes ripe to pick in Timor. It marks the start of the harvest season that stretches across the mountains and the different micro-climates from late March until August.
I expect soon we will get the first of a series of phone calls from Tio (uncle) Julio, informing us that his, Antonio’s, Maun Katakistas or Tia (aunt) Augusta’s beans are nearly ripe for the picking. And when we get those calls Riko and I will arrange to come down and look. Last year we took three visits before we were satisfied that it was time to pick. During those visits we kept delaying the harvest, until the bottom tips of the beans had started to turn yellow. It is a this point that the beans are ready to harvest. Too much vanilla in the world is picked too early, too green, in the rush to get it to market. But our year begins at Laulara waiting for the time when that banana coloured tips appear and we can be sure that our beans will be full of flavour and suffer less through the coming month. It will be more than likely July before we are ready to send these beans to Australia and the world; the beans of this early harvest, what we call, playing with the language, our selesaun antesipada. We think that this time – nine months of growing from pollination to harvest, and the three or four months of processing, curing and conditioning – is more than worth the wait each year.
Until next time,
Martin at DVTL
Aileu February 2021