A confession: just over a year ago, when I was preparing to depart Australia for Timor-Leste, I let myself get very nervous, anxious, scared and worked up about my trip.
I think that’s understandable: then, I was a solo 24-year-old who’d never lived overseas before preparing to uproot her life to work in a low-income country whose language she couldn’t speak and whose culture she didn’t understand.
But I’m embarrassed about that now, because just last week I realised something: as I was doing my AVID trainings and saying my goodbyes and fretting myself into oblivion, I was focusing so much on what I was leaving behind that I didn’t even try to think of all the things I was moving towards. I knew that moving to Timor-Leste would be scary and stressful, but I completely forgot that it would also be… fun.
A good friend who’s recently moved interstate confirmed this for me the other day, mentioning to me that he was feeling nervous about his own move. What he’s leaving behind is tangible, he said, and what he’s heading towards is more abstract, more unknown.
I knew exactly what I was leaving behind when I left Melbourne last year. I had a bicycle and a cafe job and park beers and long blacks in favourite cafes and bookstores and fruit markets and Tinder boys and the Fitzroy Baths to miss; to long for.
And all I really knew about Timor-Leste was what I’d gleaned from the two short weeks I’d already spent there (hot, sunny, squinty, lots of plastic rubbish in the streets, $1 coconuts, lots of white rice); the research we’d all done as part of our AVID pre-departure training (40 per cent of the population below the economic poverty line, 38 per cent of parliamentarians female, zero per cent people I know); and what I’d read on the blogs of Timor-Leste expats who had come before (frequent power outages, tiny kitchens, motorbikes, cleaners, sweat).
The very vast majority of what I was tracking towards was unknown to me, and what was worse, the things I did know seemed… terrible.
Fast-forward nearly a year later, to 6:45am last Wednesday. I’m in exercise pants, walking along the waterfront with the two friends whose commitment pulled me out of bed an hour before my usual alarm. One of them is sharing about how happy she is that her fridge has finally been repaired, and reflecting ruefully on the fortnight-long runaround involving four different people and a lease re-negotiation the simple repair required.
“It’s never as easy as you think it’s going to be, is it?” she said with a laugh.
That same friend had just the day before posted something reflective and beautiful on Facebook — a string of poetic musings on life in Timor-Leste that reminded me again of this blog post (I had my own go at it here). It’s clear that she loves living here, and her gratitude on our morning walk was genuine — but it did make me think if I’d read her post before living here, I’d ask her: why on earth do you want to live in that place?
My friend wrote frankly about the cloying, never-ending humidity. About the putrid open sewers and the constant threat of dengue-carrying mosquitoes. About the unnecessarily laborious bureaucracy that push patience to its very limits. As we walked, we saw a man masturbating on the beach below, and no one batted an eyelid.
She also wrote about the crisp sea air, the giggling kids who greet you every morning, the shocking new green of the hills after the first wet-season rains, the depth of culture and bonds and tradition we have the privilege to witness and will likely never understand. The opportunity to practise patience and adaptability.
Twelve months ago, I wouldn’t have paid attention to any of that. And if I’d found my own blog a year ago, I would have read the dengue, the sewer, the masturbator, the not understanding. The differences.
I would have forgotten the rest of it.
The fun part.
The waking up in a big bed with crisp sheets and the weak warm morning sunlight through the window. The sympathetic smile shared with my housemate as we laced up our sneakers and headed to the road. The 30 seconds it took to get from our front door to the beachside. The easy, flowing conversation between friends, the way the light changed and danced on the water as the sun pulled itself higher in the sky, the familiar faces also out walking and jogging and riding before the heat of the day set in. The instant, shared decision between us not to even try to run, and then the moment on the return trip when anyone want a coffee? was floated and we’re a minute later around the Letefoho bench and I’m introducing my friends to Reena. A $3 pour over coffee and a slow walk back home before a good hard day of work, a fun afternoon meeting, and then Japanese food and a date with someone I barely knew a year ago and who has now become my home here.
There is so much I love about my life here. There’s so much that’s fun here.
There are beautiful, important friendships (that come easily, with empathy and energy). There’s the stunning landscape and the endless-summer climate. There’s the $1 coconuts and $3 gin and tonics and the mateship with the fruit guy who knows my name and knocks 50c off my weekly bag of passionfruits. There’s the joy and richness of being foreign, no matter what you do or where you go, and thus finding even the most mundane, everyday things thrilling and exciting and impossible and conquered and heightened. There’s the fun of a new language and the forgiveness of people who know it’s not your first. There’s the landlady who spends time with you because in the compound you’re closer to family than neighbours. There’s familiar faces around every corner and a waitress knowing your regular order and the back of a scooter to jump onto to make it to dinner on time, beep beep.
There’s a lot that’s gross and hard and foreign and stressful and scary and frustrating, but always and everyday it’s worth it; the good is better than the bad is bad.
When I was just beginning my AVID assignment, I thought: just eighteen months. Just last eighteen months and then you can come home. Grind it out — like it’s a punishment, or something.
But living in Timor-Leste is a privilege, not a prison sentence.
I’ve since finished my AVID, and have chosen to stay in Timor-Leste. Right now my plan is to stay until the end of the year, but I now know that regardless of whenever I leave, I’ll be sad, and worried, and grateful, and nervous: how could anywhere else stack up to my island home?
When it comes, I’ll look forward to finding out.