Just not normal

Today began like most other days. I rolled out of bed, killed the fan, stumbled to my bathroom, and waited for the spittling shower to start running hot. And waited. Aaand waited.

As it dawned on me that the temperature wasn’t changing, I steeled myself for a quick-and-cold hair-washing session. In and out, dressed and ready, I pencilled more colour into my newly-waxed eyebrows and headed to the kitchen to make stovetop coffee and prepare oats, yoghurt, banana, fresh passionfruit and a rationed half of one of my expensive imported apples. Watching the flame slowly droop beneath the pot I realised we’d finally run out of gas for the burner, and I decided last-minute to drive our car to work instead of catching the microlet, because I’d change the gas bottle after yoga class.

It was only as I was scrolling Instagram while eating breakfast that the true meaning of the morning really hit me.

I came across the Instagram account of a friend living in a village deep in rural Timor-Leste, and flicked through the photos she’d posted of her daily life. Pictures of her smiling host siblings. Of bucket showers. Of neighbours playing cards together. Of prized bread rolls for breakfast – an alternative to the previous dinner’s leftover rice, fried. Posts expressing joy for a good supply of vegetables this week, and a delivery of Oreos from Dili. An empty street and an hour-long wait for a ride.

Presented gently, matter-of-factly – a daily journal of life in the districts. And, here in Dili, I started to pay attention.

The majority of Timor’s population lives out in the districts – I think Dili’s only home to about 200,000 of the country’s 1.2 million people. And as an Australian in a country with a minimum wage of $115 per month and half the population living on less than a dollar a day, I’m disproportionately wealthy and have outsized access to luxury items.

Luxury items like – a shower. An ensuite bathroom. A gas cooktop stove. Bread rolls. Hot water. Running water. Imported apples. Yoghurt. Refrigeration. Eyebrow pencils. Shampoo. Fresh, organic vegetables, delivered weekly to my house. Oreos whenever I want. ATMs.

Access like just driving down to the gas place to change the bottle. Like not being able to walk ten metres down the road before getting honked at by a taxi offering a lift. Like ten dollars for yoga and two classes to choose from every night.

A lot of foreigners I know in Dili seem to like complaining about what we don’t have: posts on Facebook when the Pateo ATM’s out of cash again; soda water bought by the stab the second the ship from Indonesia comes in and it re-appears on supermarket shelves; Bushman-brand insect repellent stockpiled immediately on the rare occasions it’s sighted at Centro. The Italian place in Farol doesn’t have salad on its menu because it’s too hard to source fresh lettuce; people still talk about the four-month fresh milk drought of 2016; and driving between supermarkets to find all the ingredients for your dinner becomes an only-semi-fun scavenger hunt every night.

I’m absolutely one of those people (I have the soda water slab in my kitchen to prove it). So this morning’s scrolling was a real reality check for me.

I’m so lucky for the things I have in my life, and – more importantly – I need to remember that they’re just not normal. I’m lucky to have a hot shower. Outside Dili, running water, hot water, and a showerhead are pretty unusual things. I’m lucky to have a near-unlimited array of choices at every meal – over lunch at a warung today my friend and I lamented the 30 food options available, trying to figure out how we’d narrow it down to just three or four. I cram my fridge full of expensive organic eggs and homemade yoghurt and make coffee every morning using single-origin beans and drive my Nissan Tiida to yoga class and maintain my eyebrows and I’m actually living not in Fitzroy, Melbourne, but in one of Asia’s economically poorest countries.

But you can hardly tell, can you.

In many ways I have it a lot better than my friend in the districts; than the vast majority of Timorese people. My life is easy, my diet is nutritious, I have time to read and write and play. I speak fluent, native English; I have a university degree and a secure job; I have options and avenues for when things go wrong. The colour of my skin – pale and freckled – catapults me to the top of the social hierarchy.

But I’ve never taken a selfie or played cards with my neighbours – the kids are too shy (or too unimpressed) to say more than hello to me. I take no joy from my breakfast of fresh tropical fruit because it’s what I’ve eaten every day for five months straight. It’s normal. It’s boring. I don’t have a built-in family here like communities in the districts create for themselves. I complain when the power goes out because I forget it’s a luxury to sleep with a fan on. I can’t have in-depth conversations with the majority of my colleagues or neighbours because I don’t speak Tetun well enough to connect. Part of my hair-washing routine is sliming expensive oil into my fraying ends because the tropical heat dries them out. The kids on my street – fairly – laugh at me as they watch me try unsuccessfully to barter with taxi drivers or change my empty water gallons at the kiosk round the corner.

I have no real problems, because every single one of my problems can be resolved – I always have options, and a lot of them are easy.

My only real problem is that I fail to recognise that.

Life’s good. Life’s really good. For all of us in different ways, and I want to work now to reframe the way I see life here, and to be endlessly grateful for everything I have.

4 responses to “Just not normal”

  1. […] got a lot more of Timor to see before we go back – and a lot more of real-life Timor to experience before we try too hard to make weekends at Black Rock something normal (I never want […]


  2. […] I’ve also written about how my life here isn’t normal, and how that’s a very good thing. I moved to Timor for something different — to […]


  3. […] My perspective has warped so sharply I’m jealous of friends who do the exact same work as me, and beating myself up for enjoying yoga classes and hot water showers. […]


  4. […] Grappling with privilege and guilt and expectations […]


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