A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post about the things that made living in Timor-Leste–a tiny, newly independent, post-conflict, drought-stricken country–better and easier than living in Australia. Since then, I’ve seen a few more.
1. A small city flattens formal hierarchies
Dili’s relatively small population and its smaller still bunch of foreigners sees familiarity flatten hierarchies. I’m in a book club with the New Zealand ambassador; I work a couple of doors down from where former president Jose Ramos-Horta parks his eye-catching roofless blue car; I did a week of Tetun classes and microlet-catching with the wife of the head of the United Nations; I see the bosses of aid projects jogging and cycling by the beach in the mornings; and I’ve joked with the Australian ambassador about ruining good suits with tropical sweat (when he made a formal visit to one of our work sites we were gently reminded to call him ‘His Excellency’, instead of what we had been using: Peter).
Pretence and puffiness plays less of a role here for me than it does back home–where I’d never dream of crossing paths with the prime minister in Perth, or calling my state’s governor by his first name, in Dili our small-town proximity, its laidback climate and the fact that we’re all awkward floundering foreigners regardless of title makes it easier and fun.
2. There’s no expectation to be stressed
I touched on this in my last list, but it’s something I’ve been thinking more and more about (particularly since reading this excellent argument for not doing much on the weekends: “what if what makes you happy isn’t productive?”, and realising how much pressure I put on myself to be constantly churning, constantly performing, constantly listing tasks because I conflate productivity with happiness).
And it’s something I’ve been worrying about ahead of moving back to Australia–I’ve newly realised that a slowed-down life is better for me, and that culturally, our capitalist tendency to tie achievements and worth is toxic, but I don’t know if I’ll have the wherewithal to stick to this new gentle mindset when I return home. I’m grateful for Timor-Leste for forcing that upon me; for making slowness be the thing that is normal, for making it odd to leave work after dark or to flit manically between five different tasks or to never need just a couple of days of nothing to calm down and reset.
3. There are fewer things, so the things are more exciting
My housemate’s boyfriend pointed this one out to me: there are fewer things to do in Dili than there are in a city like Melbourne or Perth, so the things that do happen feel extra-exciting.
Where in Australia I’d roll my eyes at an invitation to a happy hour at a tacky rooftop bar, here I’ve been like yeah, why not! The weekend camping music festival that happened in Maubara a few months ago was something I looked forward to like people do Meredith or Falls festivals — despite it being a fraction of the size, with just one band and maybe 50 attendees (we all knew each other), it was one of my favourite weekends here. Felix loves the movies and in Australia, with hundreds of options on thousands of screens I’m like meh, but at the Timor Plaza Cineplex with its four choices weekly I’m like yes! date night! But can we watch A Star is Born again please.
The Lecidere night market a few weeks ago, super fun!
Every gig, house party, weekend craft market, OB secondhand clothes shopping trip, morning hike or Back Beach snorkel feels just a little heightened and special, and it’s a good generous reminder to be appreciative, to be present, and to delight in little things.
4. People take care of each other
I mean this both in the collectivist Timorese way of sharing responsibilities in a way that doesn’t really exist in white Australia–grandparents raising children in far-flung towns so their parents can work, families in Dili hosting cousins from the mountains here to do their studies, four generations of cousins and mothers and uncles living together on two incomes in one compound, how my old Tetun teacher’s family pooled together in a single weekend an amount nearly 30 times the annual minimum wage to medivac his niece to Bali for an urgent operation–and in the way us foreigners glue together like each other’s surrogate families.
My biin! My Dili older sister, Laura.
While I had this in Mebourne, too, it’s heightened here because we’re not just in a different city in our own same country, where my Virgin mobile phone still works and my Commonwealth Bank card gets me my crisp red Aussie twenties from the ATM–we’re Australians, Kiwis, Koreans, Americans, Germans, Tanzanians, Indonesians, Nepalis, Russians, Indians, Filipinos, Portuguese–our support systems are oceans and time zones and languages and phone networks away. It’s not weird to need to see the same people four times a week; it’s not weird to ask for money or lifts or food from your friends; it’s not weird to plan every single holiday together and go out for dinner the day before you depart. It’s family; it’s a stand-in, but it’s closeness and vulnerability I’ve only ever known from my own blood kin.
Felix and Sadhie, my Dili housemates/family
5. I’m accidentally healthier here
If you’ve come here from my Instagram, where I constantly share huge platefuls of MSG vegetables, deep-fried snecks, and the greasy elaborate cooking Felix and I do near-weekly, and where I share photos from my one gentle exercise walk per week and then complain about feeling run-down and crabby, you’re probably rolling your eyes. And yep: the choices I make with my health here are pretty shoddy, but! Dili make it easy to be accidentally healthy.
Lecidere market fruit
Most of the fresh produce here is organic, locally grown, freshly picked (no cold storage or long weeks of transport), well-priced, and diverse–totally different from our blandly uniform Australian supermarkets. I have fat ripe mangoes and papaya tumbling from the trees in my backyard; you pick up buckets of guava, lime, rambutans and sweet cherry tomatoes for a dollar by the side of the road; the modo guy comes around every dusk with his piled-high cart and I get a loose, plastic-free bunch of dark green spinach or pumpkin or mustard green leaves for 25c. Fresh coconuts whacked open roadside and local honey and homemade chili sauce sold in recycled bottles. Tempeh and tofu swimming in huge tubs for three-for-50c.
In a small city with limited infrastructure, there’s less air and noise pollution than you’d find in a big city like back home. I’m writing this from upstairs at Letefoho, where I’ve got a fresh sea breeze and a view down to the road; totally empty for long seconds of time, before a single car or motorbike crawls past at twenty ks an hour.
And the heat and humidity have me constantly sweating (one day I’ll write a blog post and not mention how much I sweat, but today is not that day), my skin pushing out shit and glug and my water consumption SKY-HIGH and my kidneys doing their WORK and I can’t remember the last time my skin felt dry or irritated. I’m pimply from dust (and sugar, probably) but my skin feels like a baby’s; soft and gentle, and my inside pipes are ticking along (an unexpected bonus is the free colonoscopy every six months when you accidentally drink a bit of tap water and you flush yourself OUT).
I’m still a bit mad, metal-health-wise, but again, see points two, three and four–Dili is a pretty difficult place in which to feel too sad or too stressed for too long.
It’s a beautiful place to be and I am lucky, lucky lucky to call it home right now.