“How’s your Tetun going?”

Outside the fruit market on Saturday afternoon I’m approached by a tiu ai leban street vendor with a long bamboo pole hoisted over his shoulders and mirrored RayBans balancing on his nose. Tightly clustered bags of passionfruit and mangoes and prickly pineapples hang from thin coloured strings tied to each end of the pole.

Senora, passionfruit?” he asked me, in English.

“No, thank you,” I replied, in Tetun.

“Passionfruit, mangoes, yes?” he urged, in Tetun. Ooh, I did want mangoes.

“How much?” Three for five dollars.

“How much for just one bag?” Three dollars.

“Can I get one bag of mangoes and two passionfruit for $5?” Yes. And you want the pineapples, too?

“How much?” Sephulu dollar. $10, and he’s used the Bahasa number.

“That’s expensive!” He cuts me off.

“Let me talk. You can have both for five dollars.”

“Five for both or just one?” Both. 

“But I only have big money, not enough coins.” No problem, I have lots of change. He counts it out, dollar by dollar.

“Put them in this plastic bag, please.”  He obliges and we chat. What’s your name? Sofia. And you? Joam. Do you like Timor? How long have you been here? Where are you going now? I told him I had to leave quickly to get home in time to cook.

“Okaaay, mana Sofia,” he called, and waved exaggeratedly as I crossed the road — pleased with myself for not using my Tetun crutch bele repete? once in the conversation.

Monday, at Kafe Uut; we’ve decided to order a post-lunch coffee.

Licensa, maun,” I begin, confidently — flagging down a waiter and commanding his attention. “Ami bele hameno kafe?” Can we order coffee?

A blank look. I try again. “Uh, kafe?”

He stays staring. My friend steps in to save me. “Mana hakarak kafe,” she explains. She wants coffee.

A lightbulb above our waiter’s head. He takes our espresso orders and is back behind the counter by the time I rest my forehead on the table in mock-defeat.

Some days, I convince myself I know it all. Other days, I can’t even say the word coffee right.

3 responses to ““How’s your Tetun going?””

  1. […] In my last reflection, I joked about the discrepancies between some conversations I have and others. Days before that coffee date, I’d returned from a trip to Jaco Island with a group of friends who arrived in Dili around the same time as me — including a new friend, who can speak fluent Tetun. […]


  2. […] When I couldn’t even order a coffee, six months in […]


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