"Park and Ride" : take the Sunset Fair Shuttle bus from Lecidere, near Lita Store!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Sunset Fair Stallholder Focus: Maubara baskets and tourism

Many Sunset Fair traders have stalls every Friday but also run a primary business for the rest of the week in another location. Basketware is especially popular: there are four stalls, all selling colourful creations, which the ladies weave at home in Maubara, Liquica District, and bring to Dili each week to sell at the Sunset Fair.

These items are  made from different types of leaves, some from the akadiru palm - a characteristic tree that defines the landscape along Timor-Leste's arid north coastal strip - and others from a reed-like plant that is often grown in gardens.

We went to Maubara to trace the origins of one of the Sunset Fair's favourite local products - and discovered a charming coastal town that is well worth a day trip - it's only about an hour's drive from Dili. Maubara is famous for its 17th century Dutch fort, with its pair of cannon rearing up from solid walls, pointing out over the waters of the Ombar Strait. On the beach below, we find the cluster of basketware stalls where the Sunset Fair ladies - Maria da Costa Cabral, Olivia and Virgilia Serao and Isabel dos Santos - can be found throughout the week.  

The people of Maubara have always made baskets, but Maria da Costa Cabral has played a key role in helping to develop the art as artisan product for the fashion and souvenir trade. Maria and the other ladies decided to form an association to enable them to receive funding and technical support from donors and the government, and have since gone from strength to strength.

Maria remembers that in the year 2,000, only a handful of people were involved in the basket industry in Maubara; now, in 2011, it directly supports 45 people and is a valuable source of income for these women's families. In fact, demand has grown so much that Maria has had to hire two helpers and has been able to invest the profits in a minibus, another source of income and also the means of transport for her to take her goods down to the Sunset Fair each week. 

The preparation of the materials is hard work, and requires a high level of expertise. The leaves have to be soaked to render them pliable, split with a sharp knife into strips of equal thickness, dyed and finally, woven into mats, handbags, boxes, hanging mobiles, jewellery, hats and a myriad of other products. These techniques are handed down from mother to daughter and have been preserved in a book that Maria keeps safe at home, which is written in the Timor-Leste official language, Tetum, as well as the local language of the region, Tokodede.  

They key to the success of the product is the creativity - the constant invention of new lines - and the use of colour. In this, the basket ladies have received support from a Portuguese NGO, "Mos Bele" (roughly translated as "We can, too").  Funded by the Portuguese Government, "Mos Bele"  is achampion of development in Maubara, active not just in the handicrafts trade, but also in developing the town as a tourism destination and stimulating other types of economic growth.  

With assistance from "Mos Bele", the fort has been tastefully restored, with a delightful small restaurant, peaceful, shady seating areas under the towering trees that dominate the gardens, and children's play area. The restaurant menu is simple  - barbecued chicken, local seafood, rice, noodles - and reasonably priced, but the dishes are served with style and elegance by well-trained staff. 

When you sit on top of the fort's battlements, or astride one of the cannon, you feel a real sense of history. The fort has a magical atmosphere and the views out to sea are beautiful; in the months of November there is a real chance of sighting one of the migratory whales that pass by and occasionally surface to blow and breathe. There is also good scuba diving to be had on the pristine coral reefs adjacent to the beach below. 

Maubara itself is a welcoming and well-ordered community. Beautifully turned-out schoolchildren offered a smile and a cheery "hello missus!" as we walked through the small town on the way to Maria's garden, where she showed us the special grasses that she cultivates to make the some finer handicrafts, more flexible items like purses and handbags. 

The more rigid and robust baskets are made from the incredibly versatile akadiru palm. The tree is used in the production of palm wine; its leaves are also used to thatch roofs and are an important element in the production of sea salt in the nearby village of Ulmera. 

The salt-makers occupy tidal coastal flats, where they harvest the salt-laden sand, wash the brine out, filter and boil it to produce a coarse grain that is prized by gourmets and which has now joined coffee as one of Timor-Leste's export products. This process takes place in akadiru-thatched huts and the piles of salty sand are pinned down so that they don't blow away, using the same leaves. And yes, the final product is kept in baskets just like the ones that are sold at the Sunset Fair!  

When an artisan product is bought by a tourist, as a souvenir, it somehow seems to be worth much more when it has an enduring relevance in the lives of local people. Maubara is now famous for its handicrafts but it also has potential as a tourism destination. Why not visit and collect the memories to go with the basket?