I write this from atop the wooden beamed balcony of the Dili beach hotel. Naked children fresh from a rough tide cluster among the beach weed like Eve. Anchored freight vessels hover around the port and taxis crawl past on the road below. Atauro Island watches me from across the strait. Again, an overwhelming sense of home tugs on my heart as I watch Dili go by. I’m startled as I write this when a floating child in the sea seems not to surface until pop! There he is. A man waves to me with his helmet. Ah Dili. How do I love thee, let me count the ways.
I have been here for just over one month now. If the next eleven pass as quickly I am in real trouble. I can’t help but feel a sadness already about leaving though I am still eleven months out. I am taking that to be a good sign. Having said that I have had some rough days lately, heck I had a rough ten days a few weeks ago. They were sort of a meld of missing my partner, adjusting to things on my own, acclimatizing to the heat and a dense isolation that comes from living in a compound. Cutoff and quietly sheltered, my apartment has all the mod cons like air-conditioning and a bathtub. What it lacks is humanness. I found myself timing my own bedtime to that of the Nepalese family next door’s child so that I wouldn’t have to sleep in the silence. Realizing this lifestyle wasn’t for me I have found a place through a friend that is a lot more real. I move in nine days into the top floor of a Timorese family’s house and I can hardly wait. In a lane full of children, tamarind trees and avocado vines, pigs scrabbling around in the dust and dogs nipping at one another’s tails is where I will be. This is the way that I want to be here in Dili.
Timor has been elusive and inconsistent. Incredible highs and then torturous lows. Sometimes all in one day. You wake up never knowing what to expect and you get better at expecting not too much and going with the moment to moment flow. Something that’s given me some excellent moments has been riding my bicycle. It’s a cheap creaky import from Indonesia but oh how she rides like the wind. I’ve had a deep and abiding love for cycling since I was a kid and Dili provides all sorts of challenges and twists for a rider. It’s also the best way to catch a breeze and shake off a bad mood.
A highlight has been fulfilling one of my adult dreams-to join a choir. I popped into the Dili choir several weeks ago when I was feeling blue after my beloved bossman’s departure, and what singing collectively with a bunch of over 55’s Timorese and malae did for my heart and spirit is best described as expansive. I felt open and buoyant singing at the top of my confused alto/soprano-back-to-alto voice. Tomorrow is once again choir night and you can bet I’ll be doing my throat exercises before bed this evening.
There’s always so much going on in Dili and it is up to you how much or how little you want to be involved. I’ve also joined a hash group here that does runs and walks around different parts of town. Last week the hash route was through Becora up in the hills where much of the trouble in 2006 was concentrated. It’s a very poor area with a lot of vulnerable communities perched precariously on hills made entirely of dust. The kids around there have these amazing sinewy legs that propel them up and down the hillsides. It was so amusing for them to see these large, oafish malae teeter along the dusty ridges. One kid told me we were so slow he couldn’t believe it. I agreed with him.
Work has been an interesting insight into development practice with a local community based organization. Figuring out cultural semiotics and all the densely intricate networks and connections that come with a different workplace culture, gender roles and interactions, how all of these things interact with age and hierarchy has been amazing. Being here I feel as though all my senses are on fire, my ears especially. I can almost feel my ears twisting and yearning outwards trying to pick up conversation. My eyes feel wide and my pupils dilated taking everything in, reading and understanding, connecting and comparing. My brain is full of sparks.
I’ve got the privilege of working with a local host organization working on child and housing rights in Timor Leste. I’ve been engaging in a slow and beautiful process of forming relationships with all of my colleagues. Making clunky jokes with my Tetun, then laughing about my clunky Tetun together has been pretty good. But a recent trip to the district of Baucau was a turning point. Speaking, and listening only to Tetun for three days laid a good foundation in my brain and I found myself thinking about Tetun all the time especially before bed. Sitting with my dictionary figuring out different sentences before the power ran out. I have never before appreciated communication and all its attendant gifts before. Each sentence understood is a delicious reward. Another thin silver chord that seems to reach out tying you a little more to the person you are speaking with. I returned on a high from beautiful and cool Baucau. The temperature cooled my body and mind and the quiet of the district brought us all a little closer together. We shared fish on a stick and Portugese wine from a box and in amongst it all I felt something shift. I look forward to all the tiny shifts.
*A quick note before I sign off to say how sad it has been to watch the fires in Sydney from here. Springwood was my first home and I am thinking of all my friends and family who are in the mountains. All things crossed that it fizzles to whisper of smoke tomorrow.
As I closed the door behind me this evening I glimpsed a boy shaking the tree across the road from my watering hole. I looked closely expecting a cock to fall from it, fresh and quivering for a fight. Instead, it was opaque leaves that fell light and dead around his head. Not happy with one shower, he shook it again laughing to some invisible friend. I think he did it just to seem em all fall. Another gleeful flash of beautiful Dili town.
I have been here three weeks now yesterday. Writing this I sit under the cool beams of a local hotel, taking equal advantage of their happy hour and wifi to wind down for the day. Walking up the stairs to the balcony you never know what combination of malae you are going to get and add yourself to. Today, it is a father and his two sons sharing a beer and talking through another day in Timor Leste. Less benignly, a group of cufflinks and ties sit and discuss cognac, lobster and champagne. Seriously. They did that.
I’m choosing a blog format to keep in touch with y’all, near and dear and to document a portion of the dialogue that bounces around my head about my experience and where I am. Some of it is useful, some of it is not. I like the idea of seeing change in the way I think or feel about things here.
So having said that, the last three weeks have felt like a marathon. I’ve had numerous mitochondriae flood my body and my digestive system has had it’s back against the wall. I have met a lot of people, malae and Timorese and had many conversations about Timor Leste’s past, present and future. Less so the latter because there seems to be a general unknown about this country’s future. I don’t know what my next year is going to hold but no one in Timor knows what the next year will hold. For a small country, it holds a lot of big records-not in all the right areas. It is over represented in road accidents, child malnutrition and sexual and gender based violence. But I learnt today that Timor Leste also has one of the highest levels of maritime biodiversity in the world.
Timor Leste has also been a lot of things I wasn’t expecting. Living in Dili is wonderful. It is a small city, flat and excellent for biking around because the traffic though plentiful moves at a snails pace. Unlike Sydney, I find that there is a bucket-load of tolerance and acceptance of cyclists. You’re just seen as another road user. No BMW’s edging you into the kerb or dickheads in utes yelling obscenities at you along Marrickville road. Best of all, for the first time I am the fastest person on the road. Faster than microlets, faster than government vehicles, faster than motorcyclists. It is also the best way to catch a breeze in a city that is unrelentingly hot and dry.
The hills look as dry as tinder and I have heard several people compare it to the Flinders Ranges. I haven’t been but the comparison to Australia is apt. When I first landed I wasn’t able to shake the overwhelming feeling that Dili was home. Since then I’ve figured that this has something to do with the light. It’s clear and thin and stupendously bright. I don’t love wearing sunglasses but they haven’t left my face since I’ve been here. I’m also dirty. All of the time. Caked in dust and today engine oil from who knows where. Each night before I go to bed the last thing I do is sit on the edge of the bathtub and scrub my feet, working a face towel over and around my heels especially which are now permanently black. I am the filthiest malae around and I know it.
Tetun is a fairly easy language in the sense that it doesn’t have the tenses that we have in English. It is straightforward, (infuriatingly so when it comes to numbers and counting) and like much in this resilient country, is morphing and coming up with something new every day. I’ve been doing Tetun classes at an institute here and I am at the stage where I can confidently converse with most Timorese about basic things. Many a cab driver has been on the receiving end of my earnest and flawed attempts at conversation. Today I managed to thank Mana who cleans my room for me when I am out for ironing and folding my underpants. Yesterday she placed all my bobbypins which were scattered all over the house in an ashtray in an attempt to housetrain me. She also went through my drawers and took out the clothes she thought looked best hanging, washing and ironing them. All in all she is amazing and I am both humiliated and grateful every time I come home because I can’t tell her yet how amazing she is and how right she is to put my bras in the right hand side drawer.
Safety is a big issue here. Or it is not, depending on who you speak to. My initial bravado has worn a little thin with a recent and uncharacteristic spate of stabbings around Dili. A powder keg situation of a high youth population coupled with massive rates of unemployment in said population equal trouble so the recent incidents are no wonder. Getting home at night can be a bit of an issue but having said that I have made a point to walk a lot around my neighborhood and am as familiar with people and their habits as they are mine. I figure the best investment in safety I can make is being a part of community.
I leave you all now with a Tetun version of ‘Sexual Healing’ ringing in my ears. Dili is home but home is also home. Ain’t that a wiggy conundrum.