It’s just harder than we think

A few weeks ago, at Tetun class, our group started talking about the Timor-Leste government’s multi-million-dollar megaproject plans for the region of Oecusse, in the far west of the country (hardly the most interesting chit-chat, I know, but stay with me).

A classmate shared that she wasn’t a fan of the development plans, which makes sense.


They’re laser-focused on glitzy tourism and large-scale international infrastructure, when Oecusse families still struggle with drought, malnutrition, and clean water access; they’re vague, ambiguous, and plagued by rumours of nepotism and cousin-construction-contracts; and, as I wrote in my blog post about visiting Oecusse, the millions of American dollars flooding into the region seem more peace deal between two previously warring political opponents than genuine attempt to develop Oecusse.

I agreed with my friend’s assessment. But, curiously, I found myself mounting a defence of Oecusse. A far cry from what I used to think.

“Gross big bridges and desperate drought, is what I imagined,” I wrote in that Oecusse blog post of my expectations of the region pre-trip and pre-Tetun class, explaining all I’d known previously of Oecusse was from plaintive Oxfam fundraising emails and concerned analyses bemoaning the government’s breakneck spending. “Why would you want to go there?”

I then, of course, loved my trip. I enthused about waterfalls, hiking, snorkelling and sunset caipirinas; wrote that I’d recommend it to anyone and that I would be back one day. And then, a month later, I’m in Tetun class, anxiously correcting my friend’s scathing take-down with yes the bridge is unnecessary but it’s not a bad place and huffing about how it’s important to respect the government’s authority to make its own decisions without the interference of us all-knowing foreigners we don’t know what’s best for them.


A few days after that Tetun class I read an article, published the month before by the academic Michael Leach, whose Timor-Leste writing I respect. Describing the country’s new-ish government, an uneasy alliance of three parties, Leach avoided the easy hyperbole favoured by other foreigner writers on Timor-Leste and instead described, in dutiful, dull detail, the country’s constitutional system, its precedent for ministerial rejections by the president, and its relative lack of bother or clamour in response to delays in forming government.

What struck me about this article was the tacit respect and legitimacy it afforded Timor-Leste with such a dutiful, procedural, stepped-out analysis. This was no rag decrying Timor-Leste as a failed state or nearing constitutional crisis; it was merely a political website analysing the intricacies of a teenage democracy.


Many months ago I ate cheese-salad sandwiches for lunch in the tiny Portuguese cafe with my backgammon teacher, an Australian working in Timor-Leste who expressed frustration with us foreigners’ tenancy to throw up our hands and say it’s just impossible when our plans fall apart. “It’s not impossible,” he said, “just harder than we think.”


And this morning, I sat on my front porch with a mug of coffee and read news headlines, like I do every day. I found the Australian Financial Review article claiming Timor-Leste is now trying to buy out ConocoPhillips’ 30 per cent share of the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea, and promptly forwarded it to a writer friend asking if the “AFR has learned” in the article was enough of a source to constitute the article.

I was sending it defensively to this friend who’d asked me how I’d respond to the same criticism I was levelling at another writer being made about my work. (The friend also told me not to bother writing a lengthy blog post unpacking that question, but he rarely reads here anyway). Proof, I thought; proof of sloppy writing about Timor-Leste and a substantiation of my own criticism.


In a blog post I wrote introducing my boyfriend, Felix, to readers of this blog, I wrote about the house I lived in last year and how I’d returned to Dili after Christmas to find it repainted a garish, glaring tennis-ball green.

I wrote that I previously would have thought it “ugly, gross, ruined”, but that I was instead newly setting an intention to be a fan, and to tackle the frankly more difficult task of celebrating than criticising; loving and championing over being cool, aloof, and distant. Throwing myself into dating someone whose country I should have been leaving, loving the sunny tropical house and committing to hope, optimism and energy over guarded-ness and apathy.


This is, of course, all about the same thing. I’ve lost my way a little, recently — slipping into being bitchy, cynical, unnecessarily judgemental. Quick to show how much I know and how big I am. Making the story about me; forgetting it’s just harder than we think it is; not impossible.


It’s not impossible, it’s just harder than we think.

It’s not a failed shitty development it’s just a good place suffering poor decisions. It’s not a failed state it’s every government with its own internal problems. It’s not a bad article it’s just ambiguous referencing and a jealousy complex. It’s not a country not listening it’s a plan not tuned-in to local needs. It’s not an eyesore it’s just a green-painted house.

And it’s not the solution to throw our hands up, reinforce our own assumptions that everything’s farked and pat ourselves proudly on the back for getting it. 


Three months left in this year. Time to re-set intentions. To be a fan, to not settle for judgmental distance. To have space for clear-eyed criticism, but to remember how little we all know and how ill-equipped us fly-in foreigners are.

It’s not impossible, just harder than I thought.


2 responses to “It’s just harder than we think”

  1. […] speak the language and don’t really know the culture, and to live in Timor-Leste without screwing majorly up because of that is just about as good an outcome as we can hope […]


  2. […] Things are just a bit harder than we think they are […]


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