Before I moved to Timor, I obsessively read the blogs of every Dili expat I could find, searching for answers to the mountain of tiny stupid questions that my fears about leaving were throwing up in my mind.
Here are five of the dumbest questions I had before I moved, and my best attempts at answering them, now that I’m on the other side of the move – as both a gentle reflection on my unfounded fears, and as a list for the off chance someone else reading is just as fretful as me.
1. Where do you get your friends from?
This sounds like the start of the saddest joke ever, but was a real, serious thought I had as I scrolled through blogs posts describing casual weekend roadtrips expat groups took to places like Balibo and Ermera. How do you know who to go with, and how do you get there? Who will I hang out with when I live in Dili, and how will I meet them? Will they like me? Am I likeable? (that was a fun rabbithole, trust me).
I’ve never been an expat before, so I had no idea what to expect from an expat community – but if you’re in the same position as me, it’s easy to imagine by thinking how your aunts respond when you walk in at family Christmas lunch. Without exception, every foreigner I’ve met here so far has been warm, generous, friendly and helpful, and gone above and beyond with an instant familiarity that makes it feel like they were just waiting for you to arrive. Every polite first meeting – as strangers in a Tetun class sharing first names, as a new volunteer at the AVI-hosted welcome dinner politely greeting twenty others who have come before, as the only other white person in a warung – is sweet and gentle, and then mere days later leads itself, almost inevitably, to an invitation to lunch, or an enthusiastic run-in in the pub, or a lift home from yoga, and then an introduction to another friend and another and another until you’re walking into the expat-heavy Skybar on a Friday night and can’t make it to the bar before you see someone you know.
I haven’t been here for long enough to really know anyone well, or to assemble a tribe of people like I surrounded myself with in Melbourne (my life there was Monkey Grip, just without the drugs and bacon), but with the reception I’ve had so far I’ve lost my fear of not finding friends. Fingers crossed I present as likeable enough to get a spot in a car for a Balibo trip one day.
2. Will I get fat?
This is another embarrassing one to write – but in the interests of honesty, it’s important to share. I’m one of those all-too-common Australian women with a probbo past of disordered eating and shonky body image, and while I’ve been eating free and fine for longer than I can actually remember, it’s still something of an Achilles heel for me – so, when I found out about my move to Timor, I naturally started fretting about whether I’d get fat on deep-fried bananas and sugary bread and MSG tofu and piled white rice.
The short answer is yes, probably, and the longer answer is that it really doesn’t matter.
I’ve been here for just over a month, and I’ve already noticed my pants fitting a little more snugly than they did back home. Fresh food is less available here than it is in Australia (a couple of times I’ve been in the supermarket and every single shelf in the vegetable section has been bare), there’s a fair bit of oil used in cooking, and eating doesn’t count as a meal unless you have a plate of (white) rice – which I gobble down and then feel ravenously hungry an hour later, so I eat again. And the fact that me and my Kiwi housemate constantly have a tub of Hokey Pokey-flavour ice cream in the freezer probably doesn’t help, either.
But I’ve bored myself already with being worried about it – I’m embarrassed by how self-centered and tone-deaf it feels to be bitching about my waistline in a country wracked with poverty and hunger, and none of us bloated AVID malae came to Timor to detox. There are far bigger problems to deal with here than our mirrors, and if my reflection was really that important I’d be back in Fitzroy North doing 6am body pump classes. And, neatly, I can always one-two nix my feelings of rich-guilt here and my desire to eat more veggies by hefting myself to the markets to buy mustard greens from smiling tia sira in my terrible broken Tetun.
3. How did you learn all the Tetun you’re studding through your blog posts?
I’m clearly guilty of this myself – the second I learn a new Tetun word, I control-I the shit out of it in a new post and make everyone reading this blog aware of (what I think is) my ever-increasing vocabulary (tia sira is aunts). When I do it, it feels (forgivably) obnoxious; when I read it in other people’s posts I felt overwhelmed and intimidated by their smarts.
So, this one’s easy: I reckon every other expat blogger has a better handle on Tetun than I do, but the lifuan sira Tetun dropped through people’s blog posts is more likely brand-new rote-learnt words than any kind of meaningful grip on a language, so don’t bother feeling intimidated by pre-reading like I did.
4. What do you wear?
Timor’s a conservative country with an unspoken but keenly observed knees-and-shoulders-covered rule. Certain people can get away with wearing more revealing clothes, but if you’re a dopey newcomer malae with no Tetun, you’re absolutely going to get harassed for wearing a singlet – and, particularly in formal situations, need to dress accordingly.
Which stressed me out, because my usual style is precisely the trouble. Singlets and skirts; above-the-knee dresses, going clubbing in hot pants for deep-dancing ease. How do I fit in appropriately in a new culture while still retaining the comfort and security I get from my style?
I’m still figuring this one out, but I’m growing more familiar with the situations in which I can wear clothes more like my Australian ones – like, for example, to brunch at the beach this morning: I wore a sleeveless blue floral top and above-knee khaki shorts (both items purchased from one of Dili’s fantastic secondhand clothes markets). At work this week, I wore dark calf-length trousers and crisp blouses bought in Australia; to a party on Friday I wore jeans and a silver-y T-shirt. And I’m more aware of where I can edit what I thought was my set-in-stone style to better adapt to Timor’s context, leaving me both comfortable and appropriate. Taking a scarf to cover my singlet-ed shoulders at Esplanada on a Thursday, for example, or choosing more appropriate thick-strapped singlets at the markets instead of my usual spaghetti straps.
5. Do I need to bring..?
Was a pair of bookends or a litre of sunscreen the most embarrassing addition to my Dili-bound suitcase?
The information AVI sent us before we arrived here helpfully told us that you can buy everything here in Dili. And I sort-of believed it. But, in a fit of overpacking nerves, I added to my stuffed suitcase the bookends, because I lived with falling-down books in Melbourne for six months before I did something about it, and sunscreen, because the last time I was in Timor (for two weeks last year) I got horribly sunburnt and couldn’t actually find sunscreen to buy.
If I was packing that suitcase again, I’d bring 20kg of brown rice, the Monthly and a change of underwear: you can literally buy everything in Dili. Toothpaste, hair dye, Nutribullets, toasters, sandwich presses, brand-name clothes, leather shoes, yoghurt, free-range eggs, soft cheese, English books, dumbbells, cameras, photo frames, flea medicine for your dog. The only thing I really want (besides magazines and fibrous rice) is dental floss, but I’m pretty sure I’m just not looking hard enough. But not to worry; there’s a very good optometrist at Timor Plaza.
So, the answer is: nine times out of ten, you won’t need to bring the thing you’re worrying about, and the exceptions seem to be things uniquely Australian, like magazines and particular books (if anyone wants to DHL a copy of that Helen Garner biography to me, they’d be soo welcome. I’ll keep it in my bookends).