Somewhere in the south Indo-Pacific, there is an island. In legend, this island was born of an old crocodile, who came to his final resting place here, laying down his head and turning into beaches and mountains. In more recent history, this island went through the turbulence of colonialism, war, independence, civil war, occupation, struggle and liberation, eventually resulting, 10 years ago, in the creation of the half-island state of East Timor. My home for the past 6 years. (Photo: children on Atauro playing in the water on a Sunday afternoon - in the background, about 20 miles away, is East Timor.)
Geographically, the island of Timor lies on a diagonal to a chain of islands running east from Java, Indonesia. In this little chain, East Timor has one outpost: the tiny island of Atauro (spelled on Google maps as "Atouro" - go on, you know you want to...). Atauro is a steep, mountainous island surrounded by a ring of beaches and coral reefs. It is a dry place, with only one source of fresh water on the island, which must be painstakingly brought to the inhabitants of its several villages by a system of overland piping. It is a place of intense beauty and great scarcity, of extreme tranquility and also of poverty. In the 1980's it was a prison camp: thousands starved there, wasting away as part of the occupation to which Western powers turned a blind eye (and which was made possible in great part by their weapons and political support).
On Atauro there is a place that is one of my own personal sanctuaries: the eco-village of Tua Koin. Set up with the help of an Australian woman, Tua Koin is now a sustainable, community run tourism venture. Unlike many places of that name, Tua Koin is truly an ecological marvel: its simple facilities are constructed of completely local materials (bamboo and palm fronds), it has composting toilets and at night energy-efficient lights use solar energy gathered during the day to provide light. To conserve water, its outdoor showers use the 'dipper' method: dipping a small scoop into a tank of fresh water and pouring it over your body. (Photo: sunrise from my bungalow).
Over the years I have been there many times, with friends, family, and loved ones. It is like a breath of fresh air in our hot, dusty world to watch the sunrise from the porch of a bamboo hut. I have many memories there, and as all things transitory, they are bittersweet in the savouring. The thing that always strikes me the most is how simple life is there, and how that simplicity makes my heart soar and my soul feel more free. Rising with the dawn, birds call. Slipping into sleep at night, I am lulled by the sound of the waves on the beach, like the world is breathing. It is not a romantic simplicity: life there is hard and marked by isolation, scarcity and poverty. The nearest hospital is across the water on Timor, and if the weather is bad you can't get there. Women die in childbirth, babies die of diarrhea, children go malnourished and many will die before the age of 5. (Photo: sun salutations at sunrise!)
So, the notion of this 'simple life' is not to be thrown around lightly, nor does it necessarily equate ahimsa (non-harming), as we might like to think. Yes, it is eco-friendly, but not necessarily people-friendly. What it is, though, a glimpse of a world in which there is no pollution, no traffic, in which everything is used and re-used and re-used again, in which children are overjoyed to go to school and the little ones spend days splashing in the shallows, in which the passage of life is marked out in tides and moons and rains. A dying life perhaps, one more akin to the lives of our ancestors than to our childrens'. And yet my heart longs for a balance. Isn't there a way for us to have it all? To have simplicity without poverty, to be close to nature without it causing so much suffering?
Perhaps not... But a yogini can always dream, I guess.