Here we go on a blog post I’ve literally had sitting in my drafts folder for a year-and-a-half; I love secondhand shopping and I love it especially in Dili, where you can buy yourself a new dress from a dusty streetside shanty for a couple of coins and a game attempt at counting in Indonesian.
Timor-Leste loves its imported clothing — great big cheap sacks come regularly from Singapore and China, and buying a couple and stringing some dresses up on a clothesline outside your house would have to be in the running for having the world’s lowest business overheads. You can’t walk through a neighbourhood without seeing a few scattered clothing stalls with their tell-tale plastic coat hangers, and foreigners and Timorese people alike repopulate tired, drab wardrobes with market gems.
But if you’re a foreigner and you haven’t tried it before, it can be at best awkward, and at worst, intimidating: you’re often the only patron in a dimly lit, airless shack, with either a snoring shopkeeper or someone just a little too friendly following you around racks.
So, to help, here’s my totally amateur but learned-from-experience-guide to secondhand clothes shopping in Dili.
Where do I go?
While the obvious answer to this question is anywhere — there’s very likely a shop or two on your street — I’d alternate that with making trips to the big, established markets.
On the days I walk to work I know I’ll pass by a couple of shops in Farol and Lecidere and I’ll peek at what’s hanging outside, and then every couple of months I’ll go to Ai-mutin, Tasi Tolu or Manleuana, where banks of hundreds of stalls sell clothes, plants and produce.
Ai-mutin market, down the street behind Hotel the Ramelau, is smaller and less intimidating than the others, but it’s less protected from the sun and also operates as a busy, crowded street. There are some gems in Tasi Tolu and it’s cheap, but it’s cramped and dingy and dusty, and for me takes some working-up to. Manleuana feels lower-key and I appreciate the small patches of shade. There are also blocks of a few stalls together on the hospital intersection in Bidau which work well as a warmup for something bigger.
How much should I pay?
Hot-n-heavy Bali market haggling this is not — we foreigners likely do pay a slightly higher price than Timorese shoppers, and bargaining is acceptable, but generally, I pay the first price the seller tells me, because it’s usually cheap and it feels gross gaming up for a 50c discount.
Prices vary between suburbs and shops, but in general I expect to pay $4 or $5 for a dress, maybe $2 or $3 for a pair of pants or a nice top, and $1 for any clothing item that’s not hanging up, like singlets and shorts. (These are totally Dili prices — if you live in the mountains and are reading this you’re likely thinking omg, I got a jacket for 50c yesterday…) If I’m buying one item I’ll pay full price; if I’m buying a few or if I’ve stayed in the shop for a while and have had a nice chat with the shopkeeper I’ll politely ask folin bele hamenus?, or, can the price decrease?, or suggest hamutuk lima dolar, together five dollars, instead of the total six they’ve just told me for my dress and shirt.
What’s the lingo?
I spent my first few weeks in Dili staring at these stalls without feeling brave enough to enter, because I was self-conscious of my poor language skills. But in terms of vocabulary, it’s actually relatively simple. Know your greetings, of course, the question word hira?, how much?, and ida ne’e — this one — to save you learning the specific words for t-shirt, blouse, man’s collared shirt, long-sleeved shirt, singlet, etc (although if you’re here for a while it’s of course good to learn more, and vestidu, dress, is simply a better word than the English one).
Like in the fruit and vegetable markets, sellers will likely use Indonesian numbers to tell you prices. I remember on the first trip I took to Timor-Leste my friend taught me the Tetun numbers one to five and said if they said one I didn’t understand it was too expensive anyway. I’ll repeat that advice here. Learn satu, dua, tiga, empat, lima and maybe enam, and lima-pulu, fifty, so you can understand prices from $1 to $6, including ones like $2.50, and you should just about be fine.
Another important Indonesian word! Obralan; second-hand or used. Timorese people call these shops “OB”, as in, “let’s go OB shopping”, or “I got this top from OB, two dollars!”, which obviously comes from this word.
How do you find good things?
I’ve slowly and fortunately build up my collection of secondhand, OB, finds over the last two years using three strategies.
Be looking all the time — there’s a lot of crap in these stalls and if you go for one big shop twice a year you’re going to get overwhelmed and disappointed. I’m constantly peering at shop displays as I drive past, leafing through racks on my walk to lunch, just ducking in to the Bidau markets when I’m buying tempeh — I often don’t find things that I like, but my frequency takes the pressure off to find something perfect, and I’m pleased and surprised every couple of weeks when I buy something I like.
Know what you’re looking for — don’t be so prescriptive that you won’t settle for anything less than a size-ten-black-linen-spaghetti-strap-slip-dress (in fact, my standards have drooped to “no corny English phrases and no visible stains… on the front), but for my big market shops I set out thinking like, “I’d like a button-up collared shirt and I need new pants for work.” When I’m considering an item, I force myself to come up with three outfits I can use it in, wearing it together with things I’ve already got in my wardrobe, and I’m conscious of the colours I reach for again and again — white, navy, purple, green, never grey. Knowing what I need and the styles I wear help me keep my OB hauls relatively small and usually successful, and every time I buy a new item I pass something on to keep my wardrobe’s net number the same.
Don’t expect it to be a forever item — I don’t want to encourage thoughtless consumption (even if you’re shopping secondhand you’re still demanding a product and creating waste), but with no change rooms, dingy lighting and few mirrors, the OB shops are never going to help you choose perfectly, and I don’t necessarily believe these small-scale, mostly women-run local stalls are the best place to practise moral minimalism (try that in Quilina when the quinoa container comes in). My rule is to wear an item the number of times that corresponds to its price — three wears for a $3 skirt, five wears for a $5 dress — and after that, I don’t have to feel flustered and guilty for handing it on. I give clothes to my landlords and to Felix’s sister, who runs her own OB shop, and my friends and I often host clothes swaps, where we trade unwanted items.
A few quick notes on logistics
When should you go? What should you take?
My favourite time of day to shop is either first thing in the morning, or about five in the afternoon — before or after the heat of the day’s sun, and definitely not over lunchtime or early-afternoon nap time. And while I’m talking about this as if you’re going on these grand market pilgrimages, I usually last no more than an hour — four or five stalls usually thins my patience and fills my bag.
If I know I’m planning a longer trip, I’ll bring a large handbag or a reusable bag to store my finds in — OB stalls are as enthusiastic as other shops for giving out tiny plastic bags (another useful vocabulary addition is lalika tau plastik, don’t bother putting it in the plastic bag). And as much osan rahun, coins, as I can find, and if you read this and ignore it and try and pay for your bartered-down $2 t-shirt with a crisp twenty you are the worst and should spent the entire note in the shop as punishment. I’d spend on average six or seven dollars in a trip (though I did drop like, $18 in a wildly successful Manleuana trip last weekend), and bring that whole amount in coins.
And bring water. It’s hot and sunny outside, and then it’s stuffy and dusty inside.
I’m sort of making this sound like an endurance race now, aren’t I? It’s not. OB shopping is easier, less intimidating and more rewarding than it seems, and it gives you a super-fun wardrobe, like you can see here — in every photo I’ve pasted into this post I’m wearing something I’ve bought OB. Try it too!