The small nation of Timor Leste endured decades of oppression, genocide and political turmoil. After gaining independence, the demolished country had little infrastructure to meet the needs of local communities, especially limiting the safe and healthy development of its youngest demographic.
After encountering a dilapidated skatepark in Dili, Nick Oats felt inspired to create new opportunities for Timorese youth. Together with skatepark designer Wade Trevean and a small team of volunteers, they constructed a space for education, fun, community and freedom. One that honors the history of its land, while also equipping its community with skills for the future.
Discover the story of the newly completed Timor Leste skatepark. THE SKATEROOM is proud to have officially supported the project with sales from our Mak2 collection earlier in 2023. Today, Melbourne-based Oats and Trevean tell us all about the inspiring story behind the build, the rewards and challenges of the project, and the deep connection they have formed with Timorese locals throughout the process.
How did the idea for Timor Skate find its way into your lives?
Nick Oats: A couple of jobs ago, I worked in a public service relationship with the Government of Timor-Leste. I used to go over to Timor Leste every six months or so, one week at a time, primarily to Dili. I noticed a skatepark there and got interested, so I tried to spend a bit of time getting to know the local landscape. In the process of that I met Ba Futuru, the Timorese non-governmental organization that’s all about youth-empowerment. They facilitated building the first skatepark with great effort, lots of passion but no design experience and the park became degraded over time. I started chatting with them and daydreaming about putting together an initiative to rebuild it. Then, one of my friends said – you need to speak to Wade.
Wade Trevean: I’ve been designing skateparks for 20 years. Through that journey of designing them in Australia, coupled with the fact that I love to travel, I first had contact with Oliver Percovich from Skateistan during its infancy. That started a bit of a fire and a passion in me. I do this for a job, I know the benefits of skateparks because I’ve seen and experienced them myself, so in a volunteer capacity as an extension of what I do professionally, I thought – let’s see how I can be involved. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to go to numerous places like Libya, Laos, Iraq, Palestine, Mozambique, Morocco and others, with the likes of Wonders Around the World, Make Life Skate Life and SkatePal. When Nick contacted me and explained there was a project, in a sense on Australia’s doorstep, I said – sure. With the skills I had, combined with Nick’s passion and other volunteers with shared experiences, I thought it was a pretty deserving project. Fortunately over time through fundraising we had the very generous financial support of THE SKATEROOM, Wonders Around the World and numerous individual donors around the world to help fund the build.
And so you took on the challenge of redeveloping an existing skatepark in Dili?
Nick: It really needed to be completely demolished and rebuilt. It didn’t have a professional design, the layout wasn’t good, the angles of the banks were too steep. It had some very challenging obstacles, very difficult to learn on, with limited space for multiple people at a time. It did show however, that there was a local community who really wanted to skate. They were still out there everyday despite how challenging the park was, and they had very impressive skills for what they had to work with. It was quite obvious that if we could help them to build a good quality, safe, well-designed park it would be a great thing for them.
It seems like you really took the time to immerse yourself in the local community and identify their needs.
Wade: It’s a pretty cliche thing to say but – it’s their park, not ours. With any skatepark, as far as my job goes in Australia, we always go and meet the local community as a starting point. The more ideas we can get from them, the easier it makes my job and, importantly, starts to establish that it’s their park. They can say the most out-there thing but if that’s what they really want then we’ll see what we can do. I was very fortunate to go to Dili and meet the community, and to see how established the skate scene was. In Timor, there were already some great skateboarders. Imagine how much better they could be? So it was very rewarding to meet the community, document their ideas, see the site and think about how to create something that responds to it. We had consultation forms, translated into the local language of Tetum, so that the locals could fill out and sketch their ideas. We then collated all this information and came up with the 3D design. Then, we went back to Timor to present it to the locals and hear their further opinions of the collaborative design.
Could you explain the design of this skatepark? What makes it unique to Dili and its people?
Wade: Often, when we do a skatepark overseas, it’s the first for the country so you don’t want to do anything too advanced that only a small percentage of people are going to use. You want to have something that really encourages people who have never skateboarded before to be able to step into that place as a beginner and build confidence. But equally, you want elements that some of those really good skateboarders and the inevitable progressive users would not get bored of in a hurry.
One thing that we came up with and got approval from the community on, was telling the story of Timor, i.e – there was a crocodile wandering through the ocean carrying a boy on his back who saved his life. As per the boys wish the pair explored the world, trying to find somewhere to stop. Over time, the crocodile got tired and found its resting place offering a home for the boy’s family. That resting place is the island of Timor, with its spine resembling the mountains which define the central plateau. We managed to get that crocodile into the skatepark as a skateable element, to be able to share the story. It’s nice to have that local connection within the park, offering its own Timorese identity for whoever sees it.
What are some of the ways in which you are engaging the local community now that the skatepark is running?
Nick: We got a grant through the Good Push Alliance to employ Jinho, a skate programme manager. He is there everyday, at the same time. People know they can grab a board and have a skate. He teaches kids how to skateboard – not just older kids but also kindergarten lessons. When he first started doing it, a year ago, there were twenty or so kids who appeared regularly. Pretty quickly it became sixty. It’s safe to say that that has been eclipsed, now that we have such a fantastic new facility.
The big game changer is having someone to manage the skateboard equipment. There was a good stockpile of equipment at Ba Futuru, but it wasn’t always predictable when people could access and use it. Over in Timor, I hear there are a couple of places where you can buy a skateboard, it’s about 200 USD, which is a lot of money when an average income is around 5 USD a day. Even a lot of the top skaters there don’t actually have their own skateboards. They just rely on being able to borrow them from Ba Futuru. The importance of that loan-out of skateboards can’t be understated.
Is there a plan to grow the on-site team even further?
Nick: Now that we have the park in place, it’s looking at how we can have more of the experienced skateboarders involved in helping to bring up the younger generation. Jinho is very naturally teaching and passing on his skills, but there are a lot of great coaching resources out there, so how can we make them accessible to the older Timorese skaters in their local Tetum language? Even though Jinho is a part-time employee, he’s got friends who come there and help out, just because they want to see the skate scene grow.
Wade: It’s a pretty fostering and mentoring environment. When we were there, during the build, you could clearly see it. Sometimes skateparks can be quite divided and the beauty of building them in new areas is that this division hasn’t been established. There’s no prerequisite of – skateboarders only, boy/girl, young/old, rich/poor etc…. When we were there, there were roller bladers, BMXs, skateboarders, and there were no conflicts whatsoever. It was everyone’s space, which is beautiful to see. I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing about the future growth of the space and its users.
You really created an atmosphere of freedom on the site, which is what skateboarding is all about.
Wade: Skateparks are for everyone. There are no walls, fences, timetables… you use it how and when you want to use it. If you want to roll down the ramp on your bum – you do that. If you just want to sit there and hang out with friends – you can. We know the benefits of skateparks, but it never gets old seeing how they’re enjoyed. Especially in remote and disadvantaged places of the world. As a volunteer you’re working very hard and you kind of forget where you are, and then you look up and you see four girls holding hands, rolling down the ramp for the first time as their peers are cheering them on. Then you’re like – yes, this is clearly worth it.
Nick: It also goes back to the importance of the original skatepark. It was built during a large political upheaval in Timor. There was a large number of displaced people camped by the airport, and a lot of antisocial behavior from the youth. There was a lot of trauma after decades of occupation and violence and then the reemergence of violence internally in Timor. Ba Futuru really recognized that a skatepark could provide a healthy outlet, a constructive place for kids to congregate. Seeing how it started from that kernel into what it means today, has been a very important journey.
The traumatic events in Timor’s history are still relatively recent. Did you encounter any hesitancy, distrust or pushback from the local community at any point of the process?
Nick: Quite the opposite. Anecdotally, a lot of people come to Timor with wonderful ideas and then don’t come back. We were planning to build in October 2020, then Covid happened and we had a big lull, so a lot of our challenge was showing that we’re still engaged, involved and that we’re coming back. But we never got a sense of anyone not supporting what we were trying to do.
Wade: The wider community could see that we’re there for the right reasons. They see us working 10-12 hours a day, starting at 6 in the morning, spending time with the locals, buying from local stores… I think it was evident that we were not there for financial reasons. We really did engage with the locals. It’s not just the skaters – we were engaging with the people that regularly went past the site and asked questions, we were talking to the local hardware store and buying things from them and then eating with locals at their establishments. Timor is a small country, Dili is a small city, so word gets around pretty quickly. People realized what we were there for and we definitely felt that support. Everyone wanted to jump in and help. We experienced some amazing hospitality.
How was the construction process itself?
Wade: To be honest, it was a bit harder than planned. By the time we got the green light to start, there were six of us on the team (Ben, Gilbert, Karloz, Louie, Nick and myself). Which is fine although a couple more skilled hands would’ve been handy, but I remember when we were building in Taghazout (Morocco) there were about eighty of us, a slight over-kill! So this was a very small and intimate team, but formed of passionate mates, three of whom build skateparks professionally. The process took longer than anticipated because of Covid infections and other setbacks that one experiences in developing countries but, at the end of the day, we knew we had to get the skatepark finished. We just had to do what we had to do to get there which everyone did and then some. Fortunately, it was in this smaller city, which is very chill and has some incredible beaches. So although you might start at 6am and finish at 5pm, you can go to a beach and decompress afterwards, which is certainly a blessing.
Everyone worked so hard. I’ve spoken to everyone individually after and apologized, as I’d hoped it would be a bit more relaxed, due to the inclusion of more volunteers. And everyone was like – no, this was the best project I’ve worked on. Because all managed to have the opportunities to see the impacts of their commitment and experience the local connections with now friends. You quickly forget the long hours, the heat and the logistical challenges. We were also very lucky to get huge support from the local construction company, RMS. Not only did they help us with reduced prices but gave us so much stuff for free. They were incredibly generous with their time which was a huge help.
One of the things which I encourage during the builds is also learning about the country. We had a day off and went to the Timorese Resistance Archive and Museum, which went right back to the Indonesian occupation, Australia’s past involvement and all through World War II. We also went with local guides to various other historical sites related to what the Timorese went through in the years of the occupation and afterwards, which was an insightful thing to be able to do. It’s a very historical place, it’s very sad what happened to it. It was important that we all gained a greater understanding and compassion of the country’s struggles and in turn ongoing resilience.
How does it feel to go back home to Australia once a project like this is over?
Nick: I had to come back a few weeks before the construction was finished due to various work commitments, and I had an immediate sense of missing out. Wade was amazing, keeping me up to date with photos and videos, so it often felt like I was back there, living vicariously through everyone else. But after a few intense weeks where everyday you see tangible benefits, getting that intense daily connection with what you’re doing and the people who are involved in it, to then go back to a normal work environment where you’re maybe not getting that immediate sense of achievement… that was a bit of a harder comedown. But seeing the finished product as it came together with Wade and the rest of the team was amazing and brought so much joy.
Wade: You work so much when on these builds that you need to make sure you have moments when you stop and appreciate where you actually are. You’re so socially engaged in a different world that you never stop to decompress once home. It’s such a weird (and lucky) position you’re in, because you’re not a tourist, you’re not a local, you’re somewhere in between. You’re there to work. The locals see us in those filthy clothes, spending time within the communities, and are like – what are you doing? So to live that life and to come home to a normal routine can be, at times, a slow adjustment. Kudos to the numerous ones who jump straight back into building parks as their profession.
But there are those moments when you stop and think – yeah, what we did was pretty cool. If someone else was doing what we do, I’d be like – that’s amazing… hang on, that’s what we’re doing! It makes you feel global, connected and fortunate that you get to go to experience these places and communities and… leave behind some functioning concrete.