I live in a central suburb of Dili called Farol, which stretches inland from the little white lighthouse on the coast (guess what farol means in Portuguese). It’s a quiet, leafy suburb with wide, paved streets, and is home to a handful of cute coffee shops, several NGO offices, almost every embassy in the country and the homes of the prime minister and head of the military. Our power rarely goes out, our footpaths are swept free from rubbish every morning, and I suspect it’s the very easiest suburb in which to live in Dili. I’ve lived here happily since I first arrived.
But all that comfort hasn’t stopped me from friggin hating Farol sometimes. Because this gentle, neat suburb, with its reassuring grid-like straight streets, recognisable landmarks, and easy parallel to the flat coastline fools you into thinking the suburb’s easy to navigate — just go straight through this intersection and make a left, and you should end up in the same place as you did the other day when you made three tight rights around the other corner. Only, somehow you don’t. Farol wonderland.
Two years here have seen me lost in my own suburb countless times — often in quite desperate, sad moments. Flapping around frustrated trying to find Tiger Fuel when the pulsa’s run out late at night. Confidently clambering into a navy number nine microlet thinking it’s the four that’ll take me to the markets and ending up confused on the stinking corner of that drain that flows into the ocean. Lugging the plastic FarmPro box of vegetables home from Da Terra in lingering heat at 9pm, taking too many turns with burning arms trying to ignore the skinny teenagers on bicycles staring and following and I love you hunny. Trying to direct the UN Hilux home after an exhausting four-day field trip and accidentally directing you all down that confusing small ABD road instead of your own and forgetting the Tetun word for turn, turn. Politely ignoring the guards at the Thai embassy and the Brazilian embassy and the New Zealand embassy as you walk back and forth in from of their gates trying to figure out if it’s this turn or that. And even just last week, carefully sliding my half-baked crumble into a woven bote basket to carry under an umbrella in the pouring rain to Vicki’s round the corner and then getting confused when it wasn’t the two-minute trot I’d thought.
I’m not particularly clever, but I’m not dumb either — I’m not just hopeless at navigating my own suburb. I realised just six months ago that I’d been utterly fooled by Farol’s straight, soothing lines. I thought Farol was a square or a rectangle, the reassuring 1800s-urban planning of my own inner-suburban Perth upbringing bleeding my assumptions about Dili’s own design. But it’s not. Farol is a triangle. And, risking an eyeroll, I’ve newly realised that knowing that is key to thriving as a foreigner here in Dili.
Not Farol’s specific shape, exactly. But knowing that what you think is different from how things are; steadying yourself with knowing that you’re carrying assumptions you can’t quite unpick yet, and not requiring that of yourself yet. You don’t need to know your way around Farol, you just need to know it’s not a square grid. Farol is a triangle.
I surprised myself by how quickly I settled back into life in Dili after my return from my last trip to Perth — where before it’s taken a couple of weeks or at least a few days, this time, I was probably 45 minutes and one trip down Comoro Road in before I felt like phewf, I’m home. I suspect a large part of that is the sheer number of trips, the number of homecomings and goings, the number of months I’ve now logged here — and another part likely due to knowing that Felix was leaving and my life here would flow in a markedly different way from how it had been last year (for the record, there’s more sleep more vegan food more reading more time with the neighbours less mess fewer meals out less teasing less laughter).
But it’s also because I’m finally leaning in to what I’ve been telling myself for a year: don’t try and resist what is. I’ve written about setting myself arbitrary goals and standards to make movement; about how normal it is to not be good at things; about lowering impossible standards and accepting help. In more than one of those, I’ve written we struggle when we resist what it is.
I cause myself unnecessary grief when I get myself flustered and lost in Farol’s bending streets. I waste energy for no reason griping about misunderstanding Timorese people’s impossibly polite passive social cues; about feeling intimidated by bored skinny kids on the street; about the sweltering sultry build-up that makes life feel hot and hellish just before the rain comes (it always comes; it always comes; it always comes). None of that energy is particularly productive and being stressed about Farol’s layout does nothing to realign me. But leaning into the fact that it’s a triangle not a square, that life here is just a bit different, all the time, in every minute way, from what I expect — that guides my way clear.
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