Here we are in Timor-Leste, living on a diet of sweat and rice and Bintang and gastro.
October last year brought the first big downpours of the rainy season and with it, a loose floating parasite of the kind that sticks in one’s stomach, churns everything they eat into rapid-fire faecal matter, and causes them to drop kilograms of muscle and pudge and softness very quickly. An enviable position for many people; sure, especially bloated expats growing soft on diets of three-buck beers and white rice mountains – but for an already-slight woman with a history of disordered eating and thus a vague resistance to regaining it, something of a predicament.
cw weight gain, weight loss, dieting; it’s joking but it’s still there
A couple of things you may have guessed: one, that woman is me; and two, I’m writing this post as I have the last few – with an eye to the Australians about to depart on new AVID assignments; with my mind on my past self, twelve months ago, preparing to make her first-ever move overseas and nervously tearing through every expat blog she could find for a roadmap.
This isn’t that. I still know shit-all about a lot of those things. But I hope this post finds someone about to move overseas, perhaps to the tropics, and some tiny kernel in it resonates with something inside them. Here is a story of weight gain, loss and gain, from a slim young woman living in the tropics.
Diet tip #1: Gain the weight
First, give your gut parasite something to do! Make peace immediately with the fact that despite what people say about moving to low-income countries, you will absolutely gain weight. The skinny arms and malnourished protruding pot bellies from old charity fundraising ads exist in the families who have been subsisting on rice and drought-salvaged crops for decades, not in the security-gated expat households that can afford imported beef and burgers out and red wine and cheese every Friday (and Wednesday) night.
This isn’t to make you feel bad about your diet – eat whatever you want. But just be aware that poverty isn’t a chic new diet, and the anxiety of moving will cause comfort-eating of the most spectacular, low-budget kind.
Diet tip #2: Try and lose it
Panic unnecessarily about your unexpected weight gain and immediately sign up for activities that will help you drop it – there’s nothing as important in a development context as remaining trim and good-looking! Take great relief in the fact that the vanity, or the healthy lifestyles, or both, of other expats has created a market for boot camps and circuit trainings and early-morning flow yoga classes and placed imported apples in supermarkets and added semi-sad lettuce salads to the menus of every mid-price café. You’ll be back to normal in no time.
Diet tip #3: Ignore your friends
Inconveniently, you will make friends quickly and in large numbers as a foreigner in a new environment, and will be invited to multiple parties, dinners, breakfasts, wine nights and more every week. In order to maintain your weight, you must staunchly resist: turn down every invitation, ignore your new friends, sit alone in your house with only your smug superiority for company.
If you perhaps recognise the ludicrousness of this approach, consider ignoring instead the voice in your head that tells you it’s more sensible to avoid the inevitable booze and cheese and deep-fried deals that come hand-in-hand with the socialising required to feel happy, settled and connected in an intimidating new environment, and mingle to your heart’s, and stomach’s, content.
Diet tip #4: Catch a parasite
You’re slightly chubbier than you were back home and are nicely settled in your new environment – time to uproot it all with a persistent gut parasite! Try and catch one the name of which you can pronounce – a tapeworm is preferred – but whatever you can find will do the job. Ingest accidently, shit copiously, and watch your limbs turn into chicken legs and your body lose all energy in no time!
Diet tip #5: Entertain
Has being raised female in a society that tells women to look rather like chickens conditioned you to think your new scrawn desirable? Great! Sit with this for a while – your stomach will take a while to settle, giving you ample time to wrestle with how grotesquely thin you are and how you’d like the regain the weight, but perhaps just a kilo or two, to re-smooth your bony elbows and retain your size-eight waist, and wouldn’t it be nice if the weight came back to your breasts and stayed away from your hips and stomach, and perhaps your hair will magically stay smooth now too, and do parasites whiten teeth and make one more socially interesting.
The parasite won’t participate in this, however, and will die a mundane death after a month of frenetic feeding. Now, it’s your turn.
Diet tip #6: Gain the weight, again
Rapidly regain the weight lost in fewer weeks than there were kilograms, face what you thought was one of your worst fears, realise it’s actually not that bad at all and wow it’s nice to have energy and white bread isn’t all that bad when it’s all that you can stomach and thus the only thing between you and death and speaking of that the uncertain existential future is far scarier than soft round hips and a not-pregnant-just-Bintang belly bump, hey?
Moving to a new country is intimidating, and stressful new environments will cause you to fall back into coping patterns. If you at all have a habit of attempting control over the varicosities of life by controlling your eating, know that it won’t fly in a place like Timor-Leste: catching a parasite isn’t worth celebrating, there’s far much more in this country that requires your thought and energy, and you miss out on precisely all of the goodness of this place by watching your diet over everything else.
Diet tip #7: Entertain, again
This weekend I’ll go to evening vinyasa yoga and then to Harii’s, the Indian place next door, for curry and beer with a good group of friends. I’d rather like this to be a sanctimonious finish to this piece – my way of telling you I’ve got it now all sorted, thank you very much, but in actual fact I’m feeling a little guilty for eating a biscuit at lunchtime and I’m a little worried I’ll have a drink at the night markets tonight, bringing my total evenings boozing to four this week, and it’s only Friday, but I’m noticing and acknowledging those thoughts without letting them rule like I may have twelve months ago. I’ll eat paratha and greasy dhal and a big drippy Bintang regardless of whether I go to yoga, and as long as that’s true I think I’ve nailed my tropical diet.