Last week, I asked on Instagram what people would like to know about the delicate details of my everyday life in Dili. I answered a few of them in this post, but saved a couple for separate answers — including a question about how I made friends in a new place and managed without my people.
When I was raking through my blog archives to make my big mental health post this week, I was surprised to see a post already answering that very question: Where do you find your friends, which I wrote barely a month after arriving in Timor-Leste.
But sixteen-odd months on, I’d like to think I have a few more insights, and I thought it prudent to answer the question in full.
How did I make friends moving to Timor-Leste? How do you make friends when you live abroad?
Like I noted in that early post, I scoured Timor-Leste expat blogs before I moved, growing increasingly envious of the flippant group road trips and beach days I saw documented there. How did they all meet? I thought, stupidly, of my chummy fellow foreigners. I wrote:
How do you know who to go with, and how do you get there? Who will I hang out with when I live in Dili, and how will I meet them? Will they like me? Am I likeable? (that was a fun rabbithole, trust me).
I realised very soon after moving that there’s no mystery; that foreigners together clump, and it’s normal in a place like Dili to be a little bit more friendly, a little bit more eager, a little bit more welcoming than you would be back home. Where you’re cool and casual in a big anonymous city, in sardine Dili you see the same people three times a day and inevitably it’s weirder not to approach the other white person at the warung for a quick hello chat.
The two AVID volunteers I arrived in Timor-Leste with became my immediate and constant companions for our first weeks in Dili. At a beach brunch that first weekend we met a handful of other AVIDs, who immediately introduced us to the new Red Cross workers they’d just met on a boat to Atauro (one of whom would quickly become one of my dearest friends here and commander of our very own road-trip vehicle).
The stranger I’d met briefly at Esplanada on my first trip here in 2016 messaged me upon my return offering a drink, introduced me to four more people and later became my boyfriend (through whom, of course, I’ve met a hundred more people).
Seizing that openness, that eagerness, would be my advice for anyone moving to a new place, even a person without the safety blanket of a hundred fellow nervous newcomers in their first few months in a brand-new town, desperate for any gesture of friendship and more willing than usual to try new things.
Just make the effort. Even if you’re in too-cool Melbourne and it’s awkward to thrust yourself on new people, I’d still go out, go to gigs, go to art class, ask the people you meet to introduce you to others, ask for something specific (the girl I bought my bicycle off when I lived in Melbourne seemed lovely, and now I’d take her number and ask her out for coffee), join a book club, smile at someone at yoga class, make Instagram friends in your suburb and not be shy about sending an introductory message — Timor-Leste has taught me that people crave connection, people need each other, people like friendship gestures more often than they’re scared by them and you don’t have to be a newcomer in an intense expat zoo to be enthusiastic and deliberate in seeking out friends and making yourself available.
But making meaningful friendships was trickier.
I wrote in the end of that initial post:
I haven’t been here for long enough to really know anyone well, or to assemble a tribe of people like I surrounded myself with in Melbourne, but with the reception I’ve had so far I’ve lost my fear of not finding friends. Fingers crossed I present as likeable enough to get a spot in a car for a Balibo trip one day.
Just a few short weeks later I was in that very town, Balibo, with two cars full of friends.
I met at a standard AVID welcome lunch the volunteers who arrived immediately after me, and upon finding out they lived around the corner from me I obnoxiously invited myself over for a wine. Through Felix, whom I’d just started dating, I met the two new interns at his work, and foisted my friendship onto them one night at Skybar. With the Red Cross worker and Laura, my fellow AVID friend, we made a formidable road-trip team, and the handful of trips we took together cemented our bonds (they were the friends I went with to Ramelau, Liquica and Adara, as well as that longed-for Balibo trip).
If intensive, school-camp-like trips for friendship aren’t your thing, I’ve also made close friendships in Dili through the thousands of repeated small interactions you have that of course make a friendship: lunches, porch beers, wines at Esplanada, beachside brunches, early morning hikes, chip chip chip, and am now fortunate enough to have around me a small and very slowly amassed, but very wonderful and nurturing group of close friends.
It feels a little odd dedicating an entire post to reflecting on how I made friends here, but every time I write on this blog I think back to the nervous girl I was at the tailend of 2016, knowing I was about to move to a brand-new place, devastated to leave home but too proud to reject the promise of a new place. Timor-Leste has delivered to me more than I ever could have imagined and now feels like home. I can only hope posts like this one, answering the questions I had before I moved, find their way in front of another nervous newcomer facing the thrill, the pain, the challenge, the joy of making their life in a different place.
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