Late on Friday afternoon, I received an email from a colleague in our admin team, informing everyone about a staff meeting to be held at 9:30am on Monday morning. I asked my boss if I could spend a few minutes of it speaking briefly about my work; he said yes, and I sat for several enjoyable hours yesterday at Letefoho preparing a slick-looking Canva-template presentation filled with screenshots of examples, ideas for future work, and descriptions in Tetun of my AVID assignment objectives.
It’s now 10:36am on Monday and the only sign I’ve had about the meeting is seeing our program director leave the office in a rush, bag slung over his shoulder. I suspect the meeting is postponed.
Seven-and-a-half months into working life in Timor, you’d think I’d be familiar with this. Meetings organised or moved half an hour after the suggested commencement time are common. A lack of follow-up when something’s rescheduled isn’t required, because people will just wait calmly until the meeting does occur without Needing To Know or Just Wanted To Confirm. An excursion at 9am usually means 9:30am, deadlines are flexible, and you’d never schedule anything for earlier in the afternoon than 2:30pm, because lunch ends at a lazy 2pm. Power outages are common, and instead of frantically squinting into a dimmed laptop and hotspotting mobile data like us malae do, Timorese people (and well-adjusted foreigners) gently migrate to outdoor couches to tuur halimar, literally “sit play”, for the ten minutes it takes for the electricity to return.
For people like me — planners; perfectionists — it’s unbearable.
“Um, Sophie, we don’t really do that,” a Timorese friend explained to me gently when I asked him last weekend what he was doing this Thursday night. A short laugh and a polite headshake.
“We make plans aban bainrua, can we do that?” two days in advance.
That same friend is the one who told me the Tetun idiom etu sai sasoru. The rice has become porridge. Something’s happened that you can now no longer change, so why worry about it?
A fact that will surprise exactly no-one who knows me: I love knowing what comes next. I’d rather dry, watched rice than to have it accidentally sai sasoru.
I’m the kind of person who reads the back page of a book before the end. I line diaries with neat dot-pointed lists of tasks to-do and plan out items hour-by-hour. I rehearse phone conversations before they happen. I brew my morning coffee on the stove and wondering where I’ll get my lunch coffee from.
An obsessive, detailed-obsessed mind is difficult to deal with at the best of times, but in a country like Timor, it’s near-impossible. Friends I spoke to about working styles when I first arrived told me that you won’t receive the same level of supervision or feedback here as you would in Australia — “Over time, you just begin to pick up clues,” a friend told me — and in this highly contextual collectivist culture relationships matter more, trust is crucial, and context counts for everything — which of course is difficult when you’re still figuring out how the supermarkets are laid out, let alone how to interpret the true meaning of a “You eat first” or the silence in response to “Any questions?”, and madly analysing your own ability to know it all at the same time.
But, of course, that’s Timor’s charm, and that’s why we’ve come to a place like this: to learn, to expand, to have our thoughts and habits challenges and tested, and to explore different possibilities.
In my most fretful moments I convince myself I’m contributing absolutely nothing in here, and that DFAT’s essentially sponsoring my eye-opening gap year — but I remind myself that while work plans articulating precisely what I’ll achieve are likely overstated, I’m still contributing something. It just so happens that I’m taking a lot from this experience, too.
The meeting happened — of course it did. Sonia came to my office at 2:45pm and said, “Sophie! The meeting!” like I’d been the one holding it up (maybe I had been?). I sat silently for most of it, understood enough Tetun to laugh on time for once at a joke, and spent a hot five minutes haltingly presenting my work from the last few months. It went fine (of course it did), I finished work and farewelled my colleagues, and life continued like normal despite the meeting delay and my corresponding nerves.
There’s a lesson in that.
For a planner in Timor, there’s a lesson in everything.
And it’s ok to not know what comes next.
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