24 hours in Timor

I touched down in Dili just before 7am yesterday – my early morning Air North flight the third and final in the journey that has taken me from inner-city Melbourne life to my new gig living and working as an Australian volunteer in Timor-Leste’s capital. While certain things about those two situations are similar – both cities contain a good chunk of their country’s population, I’m scared to cycle in Dili like I was in Richmond twelve months ago, and – blessedly – black coffee seems basically on tap in both places – but, of course, there are huge differences.

I can only assume I’ll clock countless more in the 18 months I’ll spend living in Dili as a participant in the AVID program, but as a start, here’s what I’ve observed in my first day here that makes last week’s life seem a whole world away.

The environment

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Dili beach road, looking north to Atauro Island

I’d forgotten what Dili smelled like. That was the first thought I had as I stepped off the plane. I stood, inhaling, at the stop of the stairs to the runway, trying to pick it – a curious, wet-dirt quality, rich and ripe and pungent; strong but not necessarily unpleasant. The smell of your dog running through the sprinklers, or of an old air-conditioner being cranked back into use on the first day of summer. I came to Timor for the first time in September last year, and though we’re staying at the opposite end of town from where I was then, enough of the environment feels familiar that I was reassured as we drove from the airport into the nearly foreign city I’ve signed up to live in for the next two years. The dusty sun-bleached streets, the clunking yellow taxis, the rough single-storey tin-and-brick buildings, all backed by a brilliant wide blue sky and the rat-rat-rat motorbike motors and bipping horns of the morning traffic. We zipped through thin traffic and arrived in good time at our temporary accommodation, a sweet guest house on the same street as the AVI office, where we’ll spend the next few weeks doing an in-country orientation. I broke a sweat carrying my suitcase up to my room – it was heavy, sure, but I’d also forgotten the humidity. Thick, still, uncomfortable air like a too-tight jacket zipped to your chin, and wrists, and ankles, and tiny hot beads of sweat dripping despite the early morning. Right now it feels tolerably tropical and exotic – my own island holiday. I hope that feeling lasts.

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Our street at sunset 

In the courtyard of our guest house, crowded with plants, the air smells clean and fresh. Since we arrived yesterday morning I’ve spent a fair bit of time out there, trying to write in my journal (easier said than done with a damp sweaty hand), and eating fish for dinner with Laura and Christine, the two other AVID volunteers who arrived with me yesterday.

The lifestyle

After storing out bags at the guest house yesterday morning, we walked next door to a café for coffee and fruit salad with Cathy, AVI’s Timor country director. We chatted, complained about the early flight time, and discussed our agenda for the day: a walk around town guided by Christine, who has already completed an AVID assignment in Dili and who was familiar with the city; an afternoon session in the AVI office with Maria, another AVI country team member, who’d help us fill out visa applications and other forms – but not before a rest at the guest house. Despite the early start I was surprised by the relatively low-key day – I don’t need a rest, I thought; I’ve just had a day off in Darwin and an hour-long sit-down breakfast! But as I fell through the door of my room after our walk, stabbing at the air conditioner’s on button and opening a magazine, it hit me just how badly I needed a break.

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The top floor of the guesthouse – Laura and  I are staying on the left-hand side

Curiously, the magazine I’d brought – Womankind, a philosophy and lifestyle title focused on mindful living – was an issue I’d bought six months ago in Melbourne but had always been too busy to read. As I relaxed into both the bed and the magazine, my thoughts idled over the article topics – boredom, over-stimulation, connection, mapping what’s important to you – and how they relate very neatly to the position I’ve found myself in here.

I rarely said no, living in Melbourne. I worked hard, built friendships, went out, pushed myself – and my life there was fizzy, beautiful, exciting and busy. But it was non-stop. I’d book three coffee catch-ups and a gym session into a day I’d planned to grocery shop and finish an article, and I’d chastise myself for not having the time to make yoga, too – because no one was there telling me to slow down, and if anything, my friends’ equally packed schedules only encouraged me to go faster. Maybe I should enrol in a master’s degree, too?

Here in Dili, life is slower. I can feel that already. You have to rest, with the oppressive heat and energy-sapping humidity – and more than that, you want to rest.

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View from my guesthouse window

“What applies to drugs applies also, within limits, to every kind of excitement,” Womankind writes, quoting Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness. “A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure … and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty … a certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young.”

I haven’t been bored for a decade. I’ve rested, sure, but only quarter-time breaks to slow my heart rate just enough to sprint back out onto the field again. I can’t help but reflect, today, on the myriad tiny details I’ve very likely failed to notice over the last few fast-paced years.

I’ve fitted a lot in, and I don’t begrudge my breakneck Melbourne life at all – but I’m grateful today for a new start in a new city that seems like it’ll teach me a lot about caring for myself and finding flavour before cracking a salt grinder, if I’m patient enough to wait.

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Our street in daylight – I’ve already spent multiple hours inside that Gloria Jean’s

The people

In Tetun, Timor’s local language, you use different greetings depending on what time of day it is. Bondia, in the morning; Botarde, in the afternoon; and Boanoite when it’s dark. I know Melbourne’s a friendly city, but by the time darkness hit last night I was sure I’d greeted more strangers in a single day than ever before. Everywhere we walked we were hit with a chorus of Bondia, bondia; friendly (and curious) smiles from Timorese on street corners, new-kid excitement from the malae – foreigners – in the fruit-salad café. Even Cathy’s neighbour’s dog wanted to make friends. I was touched by the attention – I learnt last year of Timor’s warmth and openness – but I took it home as a broad, more abstract memory, leaving behind the thousands of tiny smiles, greetings and expressions that connect you to other people. Even though I’m big and white and foreign and clumsy, I felt welcomed and included.

Though it’s unnerving knowing the word malae – you know when people are talking about you but you have no clue what they’re saying.

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I guess I deserve it, taking photos like this one

Maria and Cathy at AVI were no exception. I was struck by their patience – Maria literally stepping us through each form line by line, answering the same question three times in a row, and Cathy bright and funny and on time on the other end of the airport X-ray machine (she literally couldn’t have been closer to the aeroplane) at 6:45am, and both of them doing it like it was their first time (it definitely wasn’t). Two warm women with whip-smart wit cracking jokes with us almost immediately and making me think, quietly and peacefully, over a warm-ish beer in the cool early evening, that I might quite like it here.

It’s been a day that feels, in the best possible way, like at least a week. I think Dili life will be good to me.

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