Thoughts on a year in Timor-Leste

One year ago I moved to Timor-Leste.

Keen eyes will notice I’m actually writing this fourteen-ish months after I departed Australia for Dili, which is an uncharacteristic delay for a person obsessed with celebrating every anniversary. 

Truth is, I had no thoughts on the one-year day when it happened. It was just a normal day.

Which, I guess, is sort of the point of it.

I remember waking up on the second of March this year, hungover from a wine-y fun dinner I’d hosted the previous night, and rummaging through my wardrobe for the loose cotton monstera-printed pants I’d worn on the aeroplane on the way over on the same day last year (my flight mate and Dili big sister Laura and I decided to commemorate our shared anniversary by having breakfast at the same cafe we’d first gone to when we arrived, and she requested I wear the pants because she’d never seen them since).

Clothed, I ran out to the church and met Laura’s waiting car, then leaned back woozily in the sear as she drove us to Agua de Coco, where we ordered granola bowls and coffee and made ourselves a small toast to the year we’d survived together.

I posted on Facebook something like, “One year in Timor-Leste. Just as hard as I thought it’d be, and much better than I could have imagined.”

And then continued with my day like it was just another day.

Which it was.

I think it speaks to how at-home and unremarkable I feel in Dili that I didn’t feel an urge to immediately grasp the anniversary and reflect on it, splitting it into digestible shards and lessons and next-steps. But it’s been one of the biggest and hardest and most important years of my life, and as I pull the brakes a little on a breakneck couple of months, I want to explore what I’ve learnt from the last year, lest it all slips me by.

Let’s rewind.

In late 2014, I moved out of my parents’ home in the leafy inner-west suburbs of Perth to my first sharehouse. I lived on Cleaver Street in a beautiful red-brick cottage with a big eucalyptus in the backyard, scrubby carpet over floorboards, and three wonderful men, who endured patiently all the vagaries of an outspoken and newly-liberated female housemate in her early 20s.

I’d finished my degree, broken up with my long-term boyfriend, backpacked in Cambodia and Thailand, moved out of home, started a dream job and found feminism in just a few whirlwind months.

I felt for the first time that my life was entirely my own, that I was the only one responsible for crafting it. I chose it, I built it, I was responsible for it.

Roll up your sleeves

I was overjoyed. But it was one of the hardest years of my life.

One of my old housemates and I were messaging the other day, and we spoke about the nostalgic lens through which we now viewed “the Cleaver year”. We agreed everything felt simpler and easier back then, and that we’d each give anything to return to that time.

This is the annoying pun-loving housemate I used to spew fire at when he told me he didn’t mind it when men swore but that women shouldn’t (“You’re a cunt, Jason!” I screamed once). The housemate on whose shoulder I cried when a (very shitty) man broke up with me, and who shared a cup of tea and an introspective, brooding chat on our hallway couches most evenings. Who shared my work stress and joined me in wondering where it was leading. Who was the first person I called when I lost my job and sat in the park because my boss told me just don’t cry at work.

I want to see you dance again

My job was difficult, my love life was a mess, and my mental health was shot. But I chose it all. I made my life like that, and that’s important. Every moment that brought so much stress and sadness also contributed to rich, complex tapestry of my life and soul.

And while I don’t doubt that life was easier in many ways at Cleaver, and that mine and Jason’s memories aren’t completely skewed, I’m reflecting now on how I’ve softened the stress and sadness I often felt that year because it was something I lined myself up for; it was something I decided.

Don’t fight it, don’t fight it, don’t fight it, if you don’t know what it is

One of the biggest things I’ve learned this year in Timor-Leste is to to not fight the unknown. I scrabble for control and I hate not knowing what comes next, but in Timor, uncertainty and unfamiliarity is given for me. Self-evident truths. So why struggle?

I now know I’m scared of feeling sad and scared of feeling angry. But that comes from an expectation or an assumption that we’re not supposed to be sad.

When I was seeing a psychologist, in the Cleaver year and the one that followed, she identified that I classify some emotions as “good” and some as “bad”, and I chide myself for feeling the “bad” ones, which creates an unhelpful layer of judgement around my natural responses to things, and leads to my neuroses.

I can now see that thinking rests on an assumption that prioritises happiness. Which is persuasive: happiness feels wonderful; it makes sense to want to feel like that. But happiness is an emotion like any other — it’s a condition, not a state. I don’t expect to feel worried or angry or tired all the time, so why do I hold happiness to a higher standards?

Honey and wildfire are both the colour gold

I love feeling happy. But more than that, I want a rich, soulful, colourful life. I want to feel everything and live with clear eyes and a open heart.

Timor-Leste has taught me I don’t need to struggle; I can sit in what’s happening right now. You know that aphorism about your headlights can only show you the few metres in front of you, but they’ll lead you the whole way home? That’s what I’m learning here.

So lean in close or lend an ear, there’s something brilliant bound to happen here

My first year here in Timor-Leste has been the highs of a new country, beautiful friends, fresh fruit juice; of learning a language, feeling at home in a foreign place, of hand-woven baskets and “mister, mister!” from the kids on the street; of knowing baristas by name and of  falling in love. The lows of shot self-esteem and hyped-up anxiety. Of self-criticism and laziness and sweat and perpetual discomfort. The boredom and apathy of a slow, foreign life that didn’t feel like my own.

And now it does.

Everything is gonna be alright

I chose Timor-Leste like I chose everything that first year I realised I was in charge of what happened to me. I have chosen this life, this version of myself who lives here, over the cooler, calmer Sophie in her boots and black skinnies in Melbourne, or the girl who would still be walking with her Cleaver housemates to the Cleaver Street Coffee Shop for Saturday takeaways.

I’m fiercely and enormously grateful to the opportunities I’ve had that have landed me here. Here in Timor-Leste, in this rich, wild, vibrant, dusty, sweat-stinking life.

7 responses to “Thoughts on a year in Timor-Leste”

  1. […] been writing on this blog for just over a year, since I first arrived in Timor-Leste. This blog has been a diary, a lifeline, a way to connect […]

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  2. […] for a whirlwind trip of photos and sweaty interviews and long skirts and polite nods and coconuts. A year ago it was huge and foreign and hot and unfriendly, and all I had was my life in two suitcases and a […]

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  3. […] I reflect on a year in Timor-Leste, I’ve been re-reading some of my old blog posts and remembering what my life was like when […]

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  4. […] And some of the posts I’m most proud of, I described in detail how my anxiety affects me, and how my perfectionism caused an eating disorder. […]

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  5. […] I wanted to say. I did publish a couple of posts I’ve been muddling over for a while, though: Thoughts on a year in Timor-Leste, One year of language learning, and Living in Timor-Leste with anxiety. I’m happy with […]

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  6. […] of course, reflected on that first year here on this blog. On the actual anniversary day, I wrote, I didn’t feel particularly special or different; […]

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  7. […] the blog post I wrote at the end of my first year here, I reflected on what it meant to me to live a life I had decided on; to find things tough but […]

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