A few small words that helped me last year: satu, dua, tiga, empat, lima.
Like Latin proverb they may look, they’re actually the numbers one to five in Bahasa Indonesia, and the key that unlocked the magic of Timor-Leste market shopping for me.
Any visitor to Dili will come across the fruit market at Lecidere, on the beachfront: brilliant piles of papaya, watermelon, tomatoes and pineapples spilling over the pavement, gentle betel-teethed ladies dozing supine behind their produce, and chatty tiu ai leben wandering around with tightly bound passionfruit, guava and hairy rambutan tied to the sticks hoisted over their sweat-pricked shoulders. It’s vibrant, busy, colourful, and Instagram-worthy – but if the vendors don’t like you, you’ll cop an angry swat to the air before you when you pull out your camera.
Mangoes in the markets at Maubisse
One way to win trust: shop using Bahasa numbers.
“Why not Tetun?” you may ask, fairly.
You likely already know Timor-Leste spent nearly 500 years as a neglected Portuguese colony before a brief week-and-a-bit of post-colonial independence crumbled under an Indonesian invasion that would see the country annexed as an Indonesian province for 24 years.
Full independence was restored in 2002 and Tetun and Portuguese adopted as the country’s national languages (classified a creole, Tetun Dili apparently lacks the flourish and fancy required of an administrative, legal language). But most of the population – educated in Indonesian, raised watching Indonesian TV, growing up with the language all around – speaks it fluently; without thinking.
Tomatoes and corn at Taibessi Market
“Ida ne’e hira?” I asked at the markets once, pointing to a pile of tomatoes. How much is this one.
“Satu dolar,” came the reply. Just weeks into my time in Timor, still shaky with the Tetun numbers, I stared back blankly. I didn’t know satu.
“Um,” I started, hesitantly. “Iha Tetun?”
It was the tomato lady’s turn to stare.
“One dollar,’ she replied in English. I handed over the coins and she curtly tossed the tomatoes into a tiny plastic bag and thrust it towards me. Finished.
Many people in Timor-Leste still use fragments of Portuguese and Bahasa in everyday conversation without even clocking they’re speaking a different language. So, in my efforts to learn the language of the country I’m living in, I too am bleeding Bahasa into my vocabulary.
Modo tahan, the generic term for leafy vegetables; dried corn, red beans
There are many more markets in Dili than the one down at Lecidere: the huge Taibessi market, of course; the local market at Comoro; the tiny tarpaulins laid out in front of shops in Audian and the wooden tables piled with greens in Fatuhada laneways. My favourite is the collection of stalls at the hospital intersection in Bidau, because it ticks all my boxes: tofu and tempeh and vegetables, fast sales and high turnover, predominately female sellers, and fair prices: you don’t barter at food markets in Timor, save for getting fifty cents knocked off if you clear out the potato piles, but I hear the prices charged to my neighbouring Timorese shoppers and know the ladies aren’t taking advantage of the bougie Bidau location to jack up prices or pop on a malae tax.
When I throw out the five numbers I know in Bahasa, smiles come easily, and conversation gets up.
Satu, dua, tiga, empat, lima. The number first, then the word dollar. The opposite of Tetun. The rushed lima-pul-sen for fifty cents; lima-pulu–cent. The English quarter for twenty-five cents. Portuguese for quinzie annus and novente nove and any year that starts doize mille.
To me, a curious mash-up of languages that often confuses me and leaves me tongue-tied and frustrated. But also, another very visible glimpse of Timor-Leste’s history, shared in the fleeting exchange of tomatoes passing hands.