This week I logged into my TripAdvisor account to leave a review of one of my favourite places in Dili. I was surprised to see three reviews already sitting in my profile: places I’d loved in Phnom Penh, which I’d visited while backing through Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam for a couple of months in 2014.
That trip was my first time travelling solo, and one of my first backpacking experiences. And I hated it.
Travel photos, from someone who hates moving: juice and journalling in a Phnom Penh cafe, 2014.
I hated the constant, restless pace of bouncing backpacker travel. I hated the repetitive getting-to-know-you traveller chats shared over mugs of shitty beer and between grimy hostel-room mosquito nets. I hated the competitiveness of the where have you been oh you MUST go here. I hated wandering the streets with a comically large force-folded map, lugging a half-empty plastic 1.5L water bottle and squinting dumbly into the sun.
Of course, I loved travelling, too. I loved seeing new things; getting a glimpse of a different way of life; seeing world wonders and new environments. I loved the challenge of being alone, of relying on only myself, and I loved being forced out of my natural shyness and into new situations.
And I feel really lucky to have the opportunity to travel: I don’t take my wealth, health, passport and circumstances for granted.
I fell in love with Pai, like every Thailand backpacker.
But I spent a month in Phnom Penh whiling away hours writing in arty little garden cafes and taking naturally-hot vinyasa yoga classes in the upstairs studio at NataRaj studio – and not much more. I overstayed my Thailand visa because I got myself stuck in Pai for a week longer than I’d planned, riding a scooter around the town centre and listening to jazz every evening on the breezy Edible Jazz outdoor deck. I decided in Battambang, Cambodia, that I’d return one day to the city to live and write a draft of a novel. I love living abroad.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last year travelling around Timor-Leste, and I’ve had an amazing time and a lot of fun adventures. But my very favourite thing to do here, and what I loved doing those few short weeks I spent backpacking in South-East Asia, is making myself a little base.
Baristas at Letefoho Specialty Coffee who know my name and coffee order. A city grid memorised. Streetside fruit vendors who knock 50c off the price because they know I’ll always buy from them. Neighbours who wave at me as I walk down the street, and whose language I can chit-chat with them in — my Tetun’s not good by any stretch of the imagination, but in West Timor late last year I realised just how liberating it is to know even, “Where’s the toilet” in a local language, and I promised myself I’d never again visit a country without having a decent handful of local words.
I love settling into a foreign, daunting, difficult environment and finding in it things that feel like home.
Koh Rong Sanloem, Cambodia. Koh Rong is a well-known party island; this is its quieter neighbour.
In Phnom Penh I started drinking coffee. I loved the Daughters cafe, which employs women who have escaped violent relationships. In Australia I’d never liked coffee, but sitting in their upstairs room, overlooking the crawling, vibrant downtown streets, it felt good to order a black coffee with a little milk on the side and sit and write by myself.
Moving to Melbourne in 2016 I refined my taste and eschewed the milk, and now my pour over coffee at Letefoho is a weekend ritual.
Travelling taught me that taste for black coffee — and myriad more things. That backpacking trip was one of the most important things I’ve done for myself and lit the desire inside me to one day live overseas: a reality I still can’t believe exists for me today here in Timor-Leste.
“Nice work, Soph.” Adorably proud of myself for sourcing tofu (in Asia, lel) and going for a tuk tuk ride. I totally deserve my TripAdvisor “newbie” badge.
I’m quietly very proud of my younger self for taking that trip, and I did enjoy myself a lot. But this week, in Dili, in my little green-painted house with my friends over for dinner and a standing Tuesday morning beach walk date and a trip to Kmanek supermarket because they always have beans and snowpeas and a morning drive up to Castaway because the pulsar guy always hangs out downstairs and my routines and friends and decisions and space — this is what I love.