In Batara last weekend for a work field trip, I got talking to one of the few other foreigners in the village: a newly arrived business student, who’s completing a three-month-long internship in Dili. She’d landed last week, she told me; then, in the same breath, observed that Timor was very different from what she’d imagined.
“In what way?” I asked, curious.
“Well, I read that people are really poor, and that sometimes they only eat once a day,” she started, “but these people here look fine.”
We were sitting at the back of the crowd, watching eight ribboned champagne bottles being popped to mark the end of a customary ceremony, held to celebrate the region’s coffee farmers. My new friend was right – we’d just finished a feast of rice and beef and vegetables; the table was straining under the weight of the celebratory cake, and the sneaker-wearing community members hardly seemed the impoverished souls statistics and reports would have us believe.
“I don’t think this is a normal day for them,” I countered. My friend conceded, then kept talking.
“Did you know that forty per cent of Timor’s population lives in poverty?”
I replied that I did.
“And there’s this thing called the hunger period, where every year for a few months farmers don’t have enough food to eat…”
I smiled thinly. I’d read about the hunger period.
“And so many people are farmers – did you know two-thirds of Timor’s population is employed in agriculture? – and seventy per cent of them live in poverty.”
I murmured noncommittally and stared ahead. I knew all the statistics. I was pretty sure I’d read them in the exact same report the intern had clearly just read. What did she think she was doing, explaining all this stuff to me – a person who’d been here for longer, who’d been working in the sector for more than a week, a person who at least knew how to say farmer in Tetun?
Then, in a flash, the pure hypocrisy of my thoughts revealed itself to me. Never mind the intern – who the hell did I think I was?
I too have cribbed everything I know about agriculture in Timor from a few reports and some secondhand conversation. I too have been working – if you can call my reading, questioning and silent following working – in agriculture for a single-digit number of weeks. I too enthusiastically launch into conversations with near-strangers about the myriad challenges and opportunities facing Timor’s farmers. I too want to share everything I learn with people in the same situations – people who clearly have at least a passing interesting in Timor and its development. So who was I, sitting in a blue plastic chair gazing absently at a crowd of happy villagers, to deny my new friend the opportunity to share her knowledge?
Four months in to my time in Timor, it was an embarrassing, but welcome reminder. I may know more than I did the first week I was here – I may know now that there are two navy-blue microlets, and they’re easy to mix up; and that you have to get to Lili’s warung in Bideau by 12 to get the red rice before they run out; and that in Tetun, “farmer” is toos nain – but there’s infinitely more to learn about Timor and I’ll never even scratch the surface. While I think it’s nice to reflect on how much I’ve learnt in four short months, I mustn’t get stuck in that; I can’t get complacent. I can’t congratulate myself for skimming some papers and opening my dictionary and googling “agriculture Timor”, and I definitely can’t stick my nose in the air when someone else does the same.
I’d like to say I realised all this then, at the festival, but it took me a fair few hours of brooding to nut out my embarrassment. In an expat community, local knowledge seems highly prized, and I wanted to claim my part of that.
Which makes sense, at first glance. The people who know what Moby’s pub was called before it was Moby’s, and what it was called before it was Dili Beach Hotel, and what the property it sits in was called before any of us were even close to being here, sit at the top of the expat pile. Whoever figures first that the Pateo ATM is out of cash gets a gold star this week. I’ve even seen people comparing phone numbers – the person whose is the lowest, the collection of the smallest numbers, is the winner, because they bought their SIM first (or, more likely, lost theirs less recently).
But the minute you think deeper than that, it’s bizarre. Because, of course, the people with the most knowledge of the place we’re in don’t give a shit whether their phone number is big or small, or whether they’ll be able to get cash with their $7 Portuguese wine, or whether the malae call it Moby’s or Dili Beach Hotel or Gino’s or Hotel Dili because it’s the same bloody place. All us foreigners are trading in the illusion of being informed, to try and disguise the fact we know nothing. And the locals, and the long, long-term expats, and the people whose connection to the land goes back thousands of years – the ones with the knowledge: they don’t need to show it off to a fresh-off-the-plane intern.
I might feel like I have something to prove, but I really don’t. And I know if I’m patient, my knowledge will grow. And my phone number won’t – and that won’t matter.