Strike up a conversation with any non-local you meet in Dili, Timor-Leste, there’s a good chance they’ll be involved in some way with the Aid sector.
They may be consulting at a ministerial level on infrastructure or banking, running NGO agricultural or health programs, writing research papers on tourism. Big projects, officially recognized, with funding to facilitate results.
Then there are those that I think of as “doing a little bit of good” tucked away in the back streets, working under the radar with humble means, yet with no less intent to make a difference.
Andrea Mandal, founder of Gecko Beach, an ethical business producing hip accessories and homewares, is one of those “doing a little bit of good”.
After doing business via an Instagram connection for a year or so, we finally met up in Dili.
Over a late afternoon coffee this zany lady had me intrigued, in awe, and in stitches. Every tale of life in Dili, building a business one stitch at a time, had a dose of human ingenuity and resilience, with a dollop of drama on the side.
After doing business via an Instagram connection for a year or so, we finally met up in Dili. Over a late afternoon coffee this zany lady had me intrigued, in awe, and in stitches. Every tale of life in Dili, building a business one stitch at a time, had a dose of human ingenuity and resilience, with a dollop of drama on the side.
We all have a story, every one deserving to be shared. This is a snippet of Andrea’s….
First up a little background…
Where do you call home… An old rental farm house just outside of Nimbin, Australia. Three words to describe yourself… A restless mind. Can’t live without… Meditation. Most useful Tetum word you’ve picked up… Seidauk….not yet. The one belief that gets you through the tough days… We’ve had worse. Biggest ‘aha’ moment in life…The moment I realized that how I feel about a situation is all that matters. That I’m not responsible for the actions of others. That I can’t influence them nor alter them. And all that’s important is how I deal with what is before me. As it is……This insight has, on occasions, saved my life, so it’s virtually a mantra I recite on a daily basis.
K: You’ve led a colourful life. Care to share a highlight reel of your roles/chapters in life?
A: Haha, yes, an eclectic life. Indeed I’ve worn many hats. Highlights include working for a leather clothing designer who’d started his career making bondage wear, completing a performing arts degree, bartending in several inner city Sydney nightclubs, assistant manager in a gourmet vegan restaurant (ironically, it was situated in grounds that had once housed a whale slaughterhouse), costume design and construction, major roles in theatre, minor roles in film, script formatting, silver and gold smithing, working for a Pedal Powered Juice Van from Sunshine Coast to St Kilda, catering to the guests, crew and researchers on a whale and dolphin research vessel off the coast of Hervey Bay, picking apples and pears in Shepparton, Victoria, artist’s muse for some of Australia’s most reputable art schools and artists, caring for 5 wayward donkeys in Upper Main Arm ….…..and I’ve only just turned 30….There’s another 24 years to go… One life has so many stories, so many experiences..
And now, sole operator of Gecko Beach, Dili, Timor-Leste and Nimbin, Australia. This, I feel, is what much of my life has been working towards.
K: Let’s go back to the first day you landed in Timor-Leste. Is there one unforgettable memory, or maybe 3 words that sum up the day?
A: Thursday, June 2, 2011….I’d never been overseas before, I had no contacts in Timor-Leste, and no idea where I was even staying for the 3 weeks I’d planned to be there. So….in three words….total cultural overload.
K: 8 years later, how different is the feeling every time you return?
A: Returning has become more difficult, I admit. My romance with Dili has been tumultuous as, I suspect, it would be for anybody working in the capacity I do. Independent, unfunded, single, female, non-denominational, western, and not partial to the drinking culture that dominates the average expat lifestyle….. It’s a tough country, especially for women. Sometimes, if my energy is particularly low, going back can be tough.
But once I’ve started the journey all hesitation disappears almost immediately. Seeing Gecko Beach continue to progress in so many positive ways is definitely what keeps me going.
K: What ignited the spark in you to start Gecko Beach?
A: Necessity really. Physically, I wasn’t coping with working in hospitality any longer as I’d sustained a few injuries that were making things difficult. I was also contending with an underlying autoimmune condition which took years to have diagnosed and far longer to address as, up until recently, conventional medicine in Australia didn’t recognize the condition as even existing. So alternatives to hospitality work had to be found.
I’d been dabbling in markets, selling a line of hand crafted hats I’d been making, and they were selling exceptionally well. So I started thinking of how I could turn something so simple into a long-term concern.
My own ethics guided me towards working in a country where what I could offer would have the greatest impact and the situation in Timor-Leste at the time led me to believe that Dili should be the first destination for Gecko Beach. And we never left.
K: Initially, what difficulties did you face?
A: Building rapport, gaining respect….that takes a long time. We’ve done some hard yards with this one. The Timorese have had many disappointments and, from what I’ve witnessed of expat culture, they’ve plenty of reasons to not have too much respect for foreigners. They’re also very family oriented, much like the Australian Originals, and pressure from family to ‘take what you can get’ in the here and now, with no regard for the future, impacted heavily on progress for a long time. Remaining true to yourself is the only way, I believe, to get through this arduous phase. The integrity you demonstrate eventually starts to get noticed and eventually participants begin to see how it is of benefit for them to work with you rather than against you.
However, our greatest difficulty has always been accommodating the needs of the business. When I first arrived in Dili, rental prices were ridiculously high as, I’m told, tends to happen wherever the UN and it’s convoy of organisations have been in occupation. And they haven’t dropped that much since 2013 when they all finally withdrew. So we’ve struggled to find suitable and affordable premises which could act as store room, office, training space, and basic accommodation for myself when in Dili.
We’ve had some real doozies. It’s with much gratitude that I can now say that, after 8yrs of constant relocations, we’ve just secured the first truly viable solution to this problem.
Gecko Beach is doing the Happy Dance.
K: I’m sold on the ‘festival bags’ which I happily give as a gift to every one of my Sharing Timor-Leste guests as a very hip water bottle carrier. I love my eye glasses strap and confess to being addicted to my ‘scrubber’. How do you come up with these amazing products?
A: The introduction of new products to our range is usually based upon three things; developing skill-base, diversifying physical movement to avoid repetitive strain injury (RSI), and creating products that match my own environmental ethics.
For example, our Festival Bags (Water Bottle Carriers) began as a stepping stone in building skill-base. Prior to their introduction, we were only making one product which used only one crochet stitch.
And our range of 100% Scrubbers came about from the need to diversify the hand movements we employ in production, as well as my personal desire to move away from another unnecessary use of plastics.
K: Has the business evolved in the way you hoped? What’s the dream look like?
A: It’s probably taken a lot longer than I’d envisioned it would take to reach where we’re at right now. In saying that, I’ve had to contend with multiple pre-existing health issues along the way as well as unexpected complications brought on by a busted shoulder and two bouts of Ross River Fever.
But the vision remains clear and, having laid very strong foundations, we’re now powering forward.
In my periods of absence, work does continue without me. Two of our longest serving participants now have the skills and confidence to deal with most issues without my consultation, and this gives me the freedom to concentrate on other vital factors such as our soon to be launched first ever website (stay tuned).
Even two years ago such a thing wasn’t on our radar so, yes, we’re working towards independence, building skills, creating opportunities and working as a team.
It’s an exciting and positive time.
K: How can we help?
A: Sometimes it’s simple things that make an enormous difference. As I try to remain true to my own ethics, recycling is something I encourage participants to engage in, so donations of beads are always greatly appreciated. I try to use a minimum of 30% recycled beading in our products.
Purchasing our products and referring us on to suitable retailers is also a fabulous way of assisting our long-term success. Shipping remains complicated and availability of materials within Timor-Leste is never assured. On average, I carry 50kg of materials into Dili each visit and we are often limited by this as to how much we can produce. And for anyone heading to Dili who happens to have a spare 10kg or more of luggage space, if you’d like to take some materials over for us you are more than welcome.
K: Where can we buy the products?
A: Currently, through Australian retailers. We continue to gain new stockists all the time. With the emergence of our website which will cater to both retail and wholesale needs, not only will our selling capacity increase enormously, but we’ll be able to publish information on who stocks what products for those who want the traditional retail experience. If you happen to be in Dili, travellers are also welcome to visit us, view what we’re doing, and purchase directly from us.
K: Is there a piece of advice you wish to pass onto someone considering volunteering with one of the many aid based organisations in Timor-Leste?
A: Consider whether the organisation’s agenda creates on-going dependence or nurtures independence. There’s a lot of well intentioned dollars being spent on systems that have been proven to fail and it would be naive to think all organisations in developing countries impact in a positive way upon those they engage with. Look at their policies, their ethics, their track record in other countries etc.
Make conscious choices. If you’re planning a holiday involving giving your time and energy to an organisation/charity with an outcome such as building a school room, a well, or a community hall, then consider, perhaps, that there are no shortage of locals who could be learning from the experience of what you’re doing which, for you, is more likely a novelty experience but, for them, could become a career path. Nobody wants to be dependent upon others.
All voluntary work should be contributing to building independence or else it is pointless.
K: Do you have any insiders tips on what to do, see, eat, drink, must not miss for anyone travelling to Timor-Leste?
A: As much as I’d like the opportunity to explore more of Timor-Leste, my time here each trip is limited and we’ve always so much to accomplish. Getting beyond Dili and it’s close surrounds isn’t common for me so I speak only from my experience, limited by my circumstance. However, for people coming on short trips to Dili and surrounds, I can offer some sound advice. There’s some out of the way markets worth exploring around Dili. Often it’s good to ask locals where they shop. Or pay a local to take you around on their motorbike for the day. The Tais Markets where local weaving can be observed and stunning traditional pieces purchased, the Resistance Museum which will give you a very raw and detailed insight into the history of Timor-Leste, snorkelling with the dugongs out at Tasi Tolu are some of my favourites to recommend to travellers. And, of course, a visit to the Jesus Statue out at Christo Rei is worth considering as nobody should visit a heavily Portuguese Catholic indoctrinated culture and not pay their respects to the 27m tall Big Jesus. That’s a bit like visiting the Sunshine Coast in Queensland and not visiting the Big Pineapple….virtually criminal.
K: Most fave thing to do in your Dili downtime:
A: Get on the back of my mate’s motorbike and ride along the beach roads through Dili.
K: I always like to finish up by asking this question as I believe it helps us find the best in every day even on the crappiest day when life seems to fall apart…. What was you best moment of the day today?
A: Lying in the sun first thing this morning with a fresh steaming coffee within arm’s reach.
My next meet-up with Andrea was at the new house/office/workshop. I hung out on the verandah with the team. They had travelled in from their villages for a day of training and to pick up materials to continue their work at home. If you’re in Dili you should drop by.