Last week, I sent a quick Facebook message.
“Hey, Pelike,” it started.
“Karen and Lewti are going to Dilicious for Klamar tonight. Want to join post-ECC drinks?”
I re-read after I’d hit send, and smiled to myself. Every single one of those odd-sounding words made sense to me and means something, but a year ago the whole incomprehensible sentence would have meant nothing.
I’ve been thinking recently about the value of living a life you’ve made for yourself, rather than something you’ve just fallen into.
Pelike is the Facebook name of my boyfriend, Felix. Lewti and Karen are friends of ours, and Lewti’s partner runs a restaurant here in Dili, cunningly called Dilicious (I called it Dilly-li-shush for a couple of months until Felix finally took pity on me and told me it was just pronounced like the word delicious). They’ve organised a popular local band, Klamar, to play regular Friday acoustic sets in the restaurant, but Felix and are both tutors at the English Conversation Course I help organise, and I was torn about whether to join for the band or go to the ECC drinks I’d organised.
A year ago I knew none of these people, nothing of this restaurant or band, Felix was merely my Facebook friend, and I barely knew where to go for a drink, let alone sending an invitation to forty tutors to come for one.
Threads of thought, fragments forgotten as soon as I try to bring them into focus. How it’s better when it’s harder and good to be embarrassed.
Because I’m near-incapable of sitting in the present moment without barrelling blindly ahead, I’ve already started thinking about what happens when I leave Timor-Leste. It feels so incongruous, so baffling, that so many tiny fragments of meaningful things can build up over barely a year, and will leave me to sad to go. Three years ago this place was something I’d read about in Oaktree copy decks and quarterly reports. Two years ago it was a place I visited 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 shitty wifi connection at Gloria Jean’s (that’s a link to the first post I wrote on this blog).
Now, its’s home.
Having the courage to start over again.
I’ll very likely be back in Australia next year, and I’m already feeling nervous about trying to fit back in, or how things will be if I ever come back to Timor-Leste. Leaving Melbourne felt so raw in part because I accepted quickly that my life as I knew it there would never perfectly return: my friends wouldn’t wait in frozen animation for me to come back; things would happen in my absence. And I knew most of the friends I had in Melbourne weren’t from there, and would eventually drift elsewhere. I made peace with that part, and came eventually to relish it: my life in Melbourne meant so much to me because I chose it myself; I designed it; I wasn’t doing what someone else had laid out for me. Moments were seized and veneers were shod and we dove without thinking into clear cold water.
Now, I must do the same with my similarly transient Dili friends, and eventually with myself.
This month, two good, good friends are leaving. Women I’ve known for a year and who have become surrogate family. Their departures were expected, a long time coming, but still don’t feel real.
I think it will be like this until the rest of the year. I’ll see close friends leave Dili at a faster rate than I’ll gain new ones, which makes me apprehensive and preemptively sad, but at the same time, quietly contemplative: a year ago I couldn’t imagine myself being anything except the brand-new person, and here I am welcoming new foreigners blinking in the harsh tropical sun.
Our capacity to adapt and attach and let go
At the conference I went to in Bali last month I spoke with a woman from Timor-Leste, a foreigner who’s been living in Dili for decades. We hadn’t met before.
“Are you new?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I replied immediately. A year isn’t any time at all and I resent the lazy knee-jerk here that anything over than a year is “a fair while”.
“About a year,” my friend, sitting next to me, prompted.
“Oh, so not that new,” the long-term stayer replied.
“Next to new,” I concluded. We laughed.
I’ll always be a foreigner here; always an outsider, and I have no conceit about that. But in the last year I’ve built up layers, carefully pasting fragments of wafter-thin paper over one another, watching them dry and thicken and form strong cases of meaning and history. The bonds I’ve built with my Dili sisters. The bands I like and the restaurants I go to. The microlets I take and the tinny pop songs I prefer. The light in the hour between five and six when the setting sun colours the air and dapples the bougainvillea. Everything I didn’t know about before now colours my whole world and makes it rich and vibrant and real.
I am grateful for this.
Eyes wide open
My friends will, of course, never truly leave (both in a metaphorical sense, and in our shared bet that one, or perhaps both of them, will visit within weeks). And even as Timor changes in my absence it’ll never leave me; this year, year-and-a-bit, this next-to-new-ness, this little life built piece-by-piece, all of it chosen and all of it real.
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