When I go back to Australia, I’m inevitably met with the question: “Why do you live in Timor-Leste?”
For the most part it’s nothing more than curiosity. You’re from here and you’re living somewhere else, tell me how that happened and what you’re doing over there. But on occasion it feels skeptical; disbelieving.
And that makes sense. It’s how I felt when I first arrived.
“Just make it through a year and then you can come home, I told myself, full of fear and anxiety and FOMO and doubt. Yesterday would have been the last day of the AVID assignment that brought me over here, and I’m happier than ever living here in sunny Dili.”
I described the cheap fresh herbs, friendly strangers, blisteringly beautiful sunset and easy lack of bureaucracy–no parking fees or choked traffic for my trip home after work–and then counted 22 different plants growing wild in my garden. 22!
I genuinely believe that in many ways, life in Dili is easier and better than it is back home. But in case you were similarly skeptical, here are nine things I think Dili does better than my home of Australia.
Fresh, cheap fruit and vegetables
All the produce you buy in Dili’s markets is organic, locally grown and much of it’s sold by the grower themselves. This results in some of the sweetest, juiciest, tastiest produce I’ve ever had, for prices I’d think impossible back home.
In my home city Perth you pay $8 for a tiny Styrofoam tray of organic tomatoes; here, they’re 50c or a dollar for a loose pile tumbled into your bote. Back home, all the carrots are uniform long and smooth and taste like air; here, they’re knobbly and smaller but impossibly sweet and crunchy. Sure, in Perth you can find broccoli year-round, but at the Dili markets I buy fruit that was on a tree the day before, and the sellers don’t think to mention it because there would never be any other way. No months-long cold storage means fresh, cheap produce every day.
Another thing Timor-Leste grows, so of course it’ll be abundant and cheap — but one small thing I love is Dili’s determination to charge little more than a dollar for its espressos. Back in Perth last week, I paid four dollars for a single, milk-less shot of espresso, and yesterday at Pateo had my regular lunch coffee for $1, or AU $1.30. (I also order them daily at the Spa for $1.50, or about two Aussie dollars).
Like the feeling I had when I first moved to Melbourne and realised everything was just slightly cheaper than what I was expecting (where Perth’s pints are $11, Melbourne’s are $8) — it’s small and inconsequential, but it’s pleasant.
Friendly strangers and a small-town feel
In that Instagram post, I mentioned that as I left the market, a stranger grinned at me and said, “say hello to Felix for me!”
Felix is my boyfriend, and while I think my feminism should resent being known only by my proximity to a man, I did also love that a stranger would so confidently call out on the street to someone they didn’t know, and that after I described the person’s appearance to Felix he was able to roughly guess who it was.
I’ve written before about how frequently people on the street say good morning and good afternoon; it took returning to Perth for a week to realise just how uncommon it is back home to greet strangers on the street (perhaps you’d say a quick hi to someone you know, but I fire off bomdia and botarde 100+ times per day in Dili).
And I have favourite waiters and servers at cafes and market stalls all over Dili; people who remember and greet me when I walk in not because I’m particularly interesting, but because it’s common and normal here to greet someone, especially someone you’ve seen before. Back home, it’d be awkward for Felix’s friend–oh, I know that’s Felix’s girlfriend but I haven’t met her yet what should I do–but here, it’s no problem.
Extremely seasonal eating
Ok, I knew about eating seasonally before I got here: I know nectarines and mangoes arrive in Perth supermarkets just before Christmas, you can finally afford broccoli in July, and fresh blueberries are just always really expensive. But it took coming to Timor-Leste to realise that seasonal doesn’t just mean the summer-autumn-winter-spring seasons — many foods have seasons of just a couple of weeks, and it’s not just the slight dip in production or increase in price that you’d see in Australia when something’s out of season. In Timor-Leste, if it’s not in season, you just can’t buy it.
I now love wandering along the strip of markets at the Lecidere beachfront, seeing spilling buckets and realising oh, passionfruit must be in season, or watching the tiu ai leban walk around Dili with their wooden poles across their shoulders, strung-up cucumbers and soursoup for sale together (always at the same time; they must have the same season), or sit deep in the middle of the dry season watching the mangoes on our backyard tree grow heavy and ready to fall; or drive the winding roads to Maubisse and seeing if it’s guava month yet from the buckets sold streetside.
Ridiculous sunsets and evening light
I grew up on the west coast, next to the Indian Ocean — trust me, I know a good ocean sunset. But Dili’s are something else. The brilliant blazing pink, gold, fiery red slicing the sky as the red sun dips below the horizon; the curious way the light’s quality changes every minute, gentle highlight glinting on the cheeks of a city; the way you can sink into a chair with a beer 15 minutes after leaving the office and still catch the gentle colour fade as the evening comes.
Long lunches and reduced expectations
My lunch breaks here are 90 minutes long. I start work at 9:30am (and finish by 6pm), and if I come back late from lunch, have to leave early, or need to do an errand during the work day, my colleagues totally understand.
I work in a lovely office, but it’s not unusually understanding — this is just what working in Dili is like. Gone are the days of my 30 minute lunches or eating sandwiches at my desk; forgotten are never-ending email requests and stomach-churning feedback on draft documents; and absent is the guilt or competition you feel when you’re the last to arrive or first to leave the office.
My work days here are just a little easier, a little slower, and a little less laser-focused: perhaps it’s because I’m only technically a volunteer at both of my jobs, but there’s less scrutiny on both my work and my schedule here in Dili. (I’m actually very nervous about returning to Australian work pace next year after this — but also, Dili has softened my planning brain and that’s also totally next year’s problem).
Accidental zero plastic shopping
Sure, Dili’s not great when it comes to takeaway Styrofoam, supermarket produce packaging or that insistence on putting every kiosk item in a tiny plastic bag. But. Shopping in a Perth supermarket reminded me of how good Dili markets are for avoiding the plastic that comes as a given in Australia: where at home, herbs are wrapped in plastic paper or encased in ready-made tubs; pre-cut carrot sticks sit on shelves in disposable lunch boxes; and onions, potatoes and bulbs of garlic strung together in plastic mesh-string bags, they’re all loose and sitting on reuseable plates in Dili markets, and if you decline the offer of a plastic bag to carry your produce you can do a whole shop without taking plastic.
Really generous neighbours
Five minutes before I hosted book club last week I did a quick count of the chairs in our house and realised we were short. I ran to my landlord’s place, wandered into their house and pointed at their chairs, asking to borrow four. My landlord is the same person who backs my car in and out of the compound when I can’t be bothered trying to reverse, and who agreed to check the car before I sold it, and who replaced its front bumper after I screwed it up on the bricks. And at my last house, my landlords fixed everything: blocked toilet, dodgy lock, bung TV, that time I got locked in my own bathroom early on a Sunday morning and a sheepish Felix ran out to borrow tools, that time my laptop got taken and my landlady came over with her purse to try and pay me back.
Every neighbour I’ve had in Dili has been kind, considerate and overly helpful. I know this isn’t unique to Timor-Leste and that many people have lovely neighbours, but the generosity and kindness were new to me here
You can drive right up to the door
When I first arrived in Dili, the city had no parking meters, no inspectors, and few marked parking bays. In the last couple of months a few machines have popped up (an hour’s parking in the city centre costs a princely $0.25), but for the very most part, you can expect to drive directly to the door of the place you want to visit, find an available patch of road, and park for free for as long as you want. It’s made me incapable of planning Australian commutes and overly optimistic about finding street parking in Perth city, but apart from that, it’s a joy.
It’s all a joy. I could think of many more things that make life in Timor-Leste easy, or which I’ve grown newly aware of since coming back from Australia. If you live here, what do you like? What’s different here than it is back home?