What surprised me about Dili

In a few months’ time, as I head into the introspective slump apparently inevitable for volunteers here, I could forget everything I found quirky, exciting and energising about my first few weeks in Dili.

So, to safeguard – and to gently remind myself, in one or two or three years’ time, when I’m reflecting on my time here from the other side of it – here’s what delighted and intrigued me when I first arrived in Timor.


Most of the things that have interested me are things that already exist in Australia, so it makes sense to start this list with its single most underwhelming item. Supermarkets in Dili are, in fact, similar to those in Australia – the same fluorescent lights, plastic baskets, too many types of washing powder to choose from (and the cursory identity crisis that comes with trying to decide if you want your clothes to smell like fake lemon or fake lavender) – but the ways in which they’re different feel novel and charming.

You can’t take produce from the vegetable section if it doesn’t have a barcode for the teller to scan (no scales at the till). At Centro, the supermarket close to my house, everything’s pre-wrapped (a Styrofoam tray of beans costs $0.75, and a six-pack bag of imported New Zealand apples – my, admittedly sad, treat to myself – costs $1.85); and at Kmanek at Timor Plaza you have to take your bags to the scales by the potatoes to get someone to sticker items for you (a practise very at odds with my efforts to avoid plastic bags, so a few times I’ve bought a single head of garlic with its barcode sticker wrapped around its belly). There are more (seemingly) idle staff members at supermarkets here, you have to check your bags at lockers before you can enter some stores, and if a product’s out of stock, it’s just not there – sometimes for weeks at a time. We’re currently in a soy milk shortage, and last time I was here, you couldn’t find a single can of soda water to save your life, so I still descend on the fridge with a breath held in my chest every Centro trip.

School uniforms

I noticed this on my last trip here – kids’ school uniforms are cool. At Nicolau Lobato High School in Tasi Tolu, where we worked last year, the kids had three different uniforms that they wore, depending on the day of the week: a bright purple-and-red checked pattern, for girls worn with lavender skirt, for the start of the week; blue and white for mid-week; and a slick polyester powder-blue two-piece for sports day on Friday. At the school near my house, the kids wear tennis-ball-green–checked skirts with dark green collared shirts, and I’ve seen students on street corners in all kinds of colour pairings, usually with some tartan or a check in there somewhere. I thought the maroon pleats and stiff white collars from my school uniforms were over-the-top, but I hadn’t seen anything until I came to Dili.

You can buy everything

As I mentioned in my last post, I was worried coming to Dili, because I wasn’t sure if I could buy the things I use in Australia. I knew from my last trip and from the information provided to us by AVI that everything was available, but for some reason (conceit? fear? an unfounded belief that my needs were unique and special?) I didn’t quite believe it, and packed in my suit case things like sunscreen, bookends, eyeliner and extra underwear. I mentioned in that post how utterly well-stocked Dili is, but I didn’t describe how childishly jubilant I felt discovering that: for a good few weeks, it’s been like Christmas every time I’ve entered a store. The supermarket has soda water! This one has real oats! The Leader Store at Timor Plaza sells toasters and blenders! You can buy blue Bic pens and vermicelli noodles here! The roadside market in Bideau has tempeh today!

Fture Soph will doubtlessly look witheringly back at that and think, of course it did. But right now I’m sheepish and relieved and excited, and that glee is only costing the $0.50 I dropped on tempeh in Bideau.

Trilingual numbers

After the lesson on numbers from our second week of Tetun class, I thought I knew enough to confidently ask taxi drivers for fares in Tetun, or to enquire about prices at the markets in Tetun. Anyone who’s spoken to a market vendor here will know how misguided my confidence was. Here, people use a free-flowing mix of Bahasa Indonesian, Tetun and Portuguese for their numbers – I’d ask a price in Tetun, get a reply in Bahasa, request the number to be repeated in Teun, and get a helpless smile and proffered fingers in return. Last time we were here, we asked our Timorese translator the Tetun name for the school called 99 Atauro – his reply was something like escola secondariu noventa nove Atauro – using Portuguese for the larger number (to be fair, that number in Tetun would be the four-word-long phrase nulu sia resin sia, and that’s actually a really short one). Likely because I’m a malae, I often have figures at cash registers read to me in English, even if the preceding conversation has happened in Tetun (it’s usually me braying la precisa plastika, obrigada, on my continuing quest to use fewer plastic bags).

Brightness and colours

I forgot how beautifully sunny Dili was. Even in the rainy wet season, there’s rarely a cloud in the sky, and it’s uplifting and energising, particularly coming from gloomy Melbourne. You’d think with so much sun everything would be dry and faded-out – which likely will happen, come dry season, but for now, you can’t escape lush greenery and brilliant blue ocean views; in Culu-hun, where I work, purple bougainvillea spills down pastel-painted walls, bright paintings of green-and-gold cans of banana juice adorn buildings and street corners, and plop a few of those uniformed high schoolers into frame and you’ve got more colour than your eye can process – and it’s all better-lit than whatever X-Pro II filter could provide.

Chickens, pigs, cows, oh my

Since I’ve been in Dili I’ve seen the following animals: cats, dogs, chickens, roosters, pigs, goats, cows, mice, rats and geckos. That’s not particularly unusual – even though I’m living in a large city, 80 per cent of Timor’s population are farmers; sterilising animals – particularly strays – is expensive, so no one does it; and in the wet season in the tropics rats and geckos come with the territory. But what’s quirky and interesting is the utterly underwhelming and frankly boring way they seep into my everyday life. On the weekends, children (I nearly wrote kids) walk baby goats on leashes out the front of my house; I saw a gecko in the kitchen and told Laura – “yeah, there’s two of them, was it the big one or the small one?”; the neighbour’s cat just had kittens so we’ve got mewling babies at the fence; and this week I stepped off the verandah and into a pack of squealing piglets just at the front door.

And it’s totally normal and underwhelming here! Where I’m freaking out about seeing cows on a drive, my Timorese colleages are likely rolling their eyes – and where I think the rooster and the goats are medieval and thus anthropologically fascinating, most of my neighbours think the wide-eyed malae is a much stranger sight.

Electricity by voucher

A quick one – the other night, our house started beeping. “What’s that noise?” I asked Laura, alarmed. “We need to buy electricity,” she replied blithely. Together we walked down the driveway to the little shop at our front gate, staffed by the woman we both wave to every morning – the proprietor of what I then understood to be an electricity pulsar shop. We traded $20 for a crisp white docket, and returned to the front of the house, where attached to the wall sits a small black box I’d not noticed before. With Laura reading out the 16 digits printed on the docket, I pressed the box’s keypad, saw it flash “ACCEPT”, and heard the swift silence as the beeping ceased. Then, I started laughing. I couldn’t stop – here I was, pushing a voucher for electricity into the side of my beeping house in the middle of the night, keenly observed by a curious proprietor who couldn’t understand my sheer delight at it all. I felt simultaneously prehistoric – this is how I bought phone credit as a 15-year-old on prepaid – and fluidly future-focused (no bills, no connection fee, no waiting on hold, no bitching about Synergy, no passive-aggressive housemate messages when the three-month graph on the bill shows your usage is up on last month’s, no “you each owe $17.65”). Depending on how much I want to spend at a time, I’m likely going to do this something like 70 more times – and I hope it won’t ever stop being interesting.


It wouldn’t be a new expat’s blog on Dili if it didn’t mention the microlet: the ubiquitous, brightly coloured, pop music-pumping public minibuses that transport Dili’s people around the city. For 25c (for a malae; I think students pay far less) you claim your seat on one of two long, shared benches that push strangers’ knees together in the bus’s centre aisle, squint out the window as you lurch along until your destination appears (or until the sauna-like air gets too hot for you) and then tip-tap your coin against the bus’s ceiling bars to pull the whole thing to a shuddering halt. They’re fantastic, and despite the sweat, the crowding, the scared stares from students, the fuzzy sound system bass (and the innumerate techno remixes of John Legend’s All Of Me I’ve had the privilege of hearing in just a month of microlet-riding), I hope I never see them as normal or boring or their use chore-like: to me, they’re quirky and wild and thrilling and trademark Timor, and I can’t right now see how they could ever seem pedestrian.

Nothing seems normal right now – in the best possible way. I hope I can remember that as the months while away.

3 responses to “What surprised me about Dili”

  1. […] Buying pulsar for my phone and for the house’s electricity […]


  2. […] written before about how you buy electricity here in Timor – pre-paid voucher codes punched into an alarm-like box on the side of your house – but […]


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