Isac António de Sousa Araújo - "Their ancestors came from the sea or the bamboo trees"
Atauro is an island visible from Dili, about 40kms away. We went there initially to scuba dive but found out that the island had much more to offer! While having lunch at the "cooperativa" in charge of the "bonecas" factory, we met Isac.
1. What is your name, where do you come from and what do you do for living?
I’m Isac António, I’m 31 years old and I am a doctor.
I’m originally from Atauro in East Timor, but I was living in Cuba for the last 5 years. I went there when I was 27 to study medicine because East Timor and Cuba have an agreement, which allows Timorese people to apply to go study in Cuba and if they pass the test the Government offers financial help.
I went to Cuba with 200 people, some to study business, others pharmacy and others medicine like me. Now there are 6 of us back in East Timor, working in Atauro Island.
2. What advice would you give to someone like us that just arrived here?
Not many people know about Atauro, but it is a unique island and more people should come here. Some NGOs have come here to help promote the island and bring more visitors and also to help the communities, but it’s not enough. I always tell people that come here to speak about it to their friends, to tell them good things about Atauro so that more people come visit us.
It is a very special island and it has very special people. In Atauro, there are 9303 people and 1746 families. Families are very big; usually parents have 7 or 8 children. The people from Atauro believe that a long time ago there were only three brothers living in the island and their ancestors came from the sea or the bamboo trees. People hold on to old traditions, for instance, boys offer girls a “rama” (arrow) as a marriage proposal because it symbolizes what men used in the past to hunt.
3. What would you say is your favourite food?
Anything! I just eat what we have, which is not much. Usually people here eat rice and vegetables, that’s it!
But if there is a chance and I go to Dili, I love eating meat. In any restaurant they have meat, it’s delicious!
4. What's your favourite place in Atauro?
In East Timor there are districts, sucos and villages (aldeia), ordered by size. So here in the district of Atauro, my favourite suco is Macadade because it's slightly cooler than the rest of the island. In August the weather is perfect there, that’s why I like to work in their Health Center.
I work in different clinics around the island and I also do some house visits in some remote villages. Usually the type of work I do is focused on preventing diseases, people don’t know much about hygiene or health, so I teach them about sexual education, STDs, and the importance of hygiene and food.
Up in the mountains, in Macadade, it gets very dry, so people have many problems due to lack of water, they have serious skin problems and malnutrition. People eat a lot of rice and bananas but other nutrients are missing. Even though there is no hunger, they are weak sometimes and they feed babies with rice “papa” because they have nothing else.
5. What do you usually do for fun?
If I have some free time I love going to Dili, I have many friends there that I almost never see and there's a lot to do; there are many shops and restaurants so you can do some shopping and eat some good food.
Sometimes I go to parties with my friends. It's nothing like the parties in Cuba, but there are a few good places. There is a bar called Tower that is quite famous in Dili.
6. What makes you happy?
My family. Knowing that we have each other and that if something happens to one of us, the others will be there to help makes me very happy. The most important thing is to make sure we are healthy and always have food on the table.
My dad was very important for me, he always gave me everything I asked for and he taught me to do the same for my family. He died when I was 12, but my mom and my brothers and sisters made it possible for me to go to university in Cuba. Even though our government helps a lot with the costs, it was still hard for them support me. Now it’s my turn to help them. I earn 597$ a month working as a doctor, which is quite good. I’m the oldest so I need to help everyone.
7. How has your culture been influenced by foreigners?
There have always been tourists coming to Atauro, they come by boat from Dili and they like to climb the mountain of Manucoco, dive or just visit the famous “Bonecas de Atauro”. It is nice to have foreigners come here because they love it and they make other foreigners come as well. Tourism helps bring more and more people to the island, which brings some money to the locals. Here most people work as farmers or don’t work at all and tourism creates new jobs, just like the tuk-tuk drivers that we have now.
Some tourists come here just to see the island and they leave right away, they don’t bother to walk around or meet the locals. It’s a shame because it’s also good for our people to meet people from outside, practice English and learn one or two things from them. But unfortunately, it’s not always possible.
But I think tourism is slowly increasing. According to the Government plan there are many construction ideas and proposals for Atauro. People have bought land to build hotels, diving centres and other things that attract tourists. At the moment, there are only a few places where visitors can stay, like Barry’s in Beloi or Mario’s Place in Adara, but more hotels will be built here in Villa, Beloi and Acrema for sure.
It’s quite easy to get a government approval to build in Atauro, as long as people have money there won’t be any problem. This is a good thing! Receiving tourists is good for the economy of the Island, we don’t want it to become like Bali, but still, we can share the island with a few more tourists, it’s a beautiful place!
8. What would you like to ask our next host?
What do you think has changed the most in Timor?
Tips & Recommendations
Visit the "Bonecas" factory in the villa and watch the seamstresses working on the typical Atauro Dolls.
Cross the island by foot to get to the deserted beach of Adara. It's a 3-hour walk under the sun so be sure to start early and take a lot of water.
Dive in Atauro. It is said to be the most bio-diversified reef in the world and, because there are not a lot of tourists, the coral is still very well preserved.