You’ve just arrived in Dili with a brand-new job contract, AVID assignment, research project or consultancy offer in hand, and you’re anxious to get started. But on day one, they forget you were meant to be starting now. Then, the power goes out and the internet’s off too. Your office doesn’t have a window and no one knows what to talk to you about.
You write yourself a work plan, maybe colour-code it to fill in some time, and try to start having the meetings, appointments and discussions required to get your stuff done and to be useful — but the person you need to talk to has gone back to Maliana for a funeral, and no one told you that thing was cancelled and the director-general’s in meetings all week, and we don’t know when the internet will come back on and oh didn’t you bring your own laptop?
In my nearly-two-years in Dili, I’ve worked for four different organisations — a local NGO, an international NGO, an Australian government-funded aid project, and a UN agency — which just about covers the spectrum of places you’re likely to be employed here. And, while I’m just two years in and no expert, I’ve learned a few things that a younger me would have loved to know in those few first awkward office weeks.
1. Go to the office
Go there, be there, show up every day, even when you don’t want to, especially when you don’t want to, even when no one would really notice if you were working from home and the air-conditioned comfort of Agora Food Studio seems a lot more attractive than a dingy, dusty office with no running water or visible windows. Go to the office.
I learned how important this was because during my sticky, boring AVID assignment I often copped out. I’d have a weekly Tetun class at home at 4pm, which my boss knew about and approved, because he said the Tetun was important to my work so I should do it during office hours – but on those days I’d often drift out at lunch and just not return for those last couple of hours. I had to, um, prepare for my class. Or I’d ask my boss if I could work from home, and he’d always say yes, and I’d feel calm and smug for getting stuff done without having to sweat through the microlet trip to the office where no one talked to me.
But now I know that the getting-it-done is only half of the whole assignment, the whole purpose of being here. No matter how organised, how skilled or how relentless you are, you’ll never achieve as much with sheer force as you would if you take the time to get to know people, to be seen, to allow people to get used to you, to casually chit-chat, to be able to just drop in on someone instead of sending 15 increasingly passive-aggressive emails to an inbox you know they don’t open anyway — to be present; to be part of the team.
I didn’t do this in two of my old jobs so this year, I’m making more of an effort with the other two — heading into the office even after a field trip that drops me home, hot and tired, at 3pm, saying yes to a meeting I don’t really need to be at because it’s an excuse to cross paths with our Aileu team, never never never letting myself work from home because I’m only two days a week at both places so I don’t want to lose office time with either.
2. Say yes to every field trip
This is effectively me saying don’t go to the office, but it’s not a contradiction: one of the best pieces of advice I received when I first moved here told me to get on every field trip I possible could. I just looked it up to get the wording correct, and it’s actually so good I’m going to extract the whole paragraph:
There isn’t one way to get up to speed easily, and even I only scratched the surface, so don’t be discouraged if things fly over your head or you feel you don’t understand. Ask lots of questions! And take whatever opportunity you have to join field trips and see things in action. There’s a lot of good stuff in the reports you can read but most of it’s dead boring so face to face interactions or in long bumpy car trips will be helpful.
Every single long bumpy car trip I’ve ever been on has accelerated everything work-wise for me: the longer hours and more casual time spent with co-workers deepens our relationships (Plan trips are now like, slumber parties, with gossip and karaoke and yoga); physically seeing things for myself, instead of “reading stuff in the reports”, is indescribably helpful (meeting farmers, seeing water systems, physically bumping through those pebbly, pot-holed roads to understand intimately how difficult access to some places is), and getting out of Dili tires me out and makes me feel mellow and refreshed — and excited to come home, and back to that dark office.
People won’t always invite you on field trips — in my experience, people either assume I won’t want to go, have something more important to do, or they forget I’m an option for the trip — so make sure you volunteer yourself. I always take a camera to get at least one Facebook post out of it, so if you’re worried about justifying your per diem, suggest you can document activities for your colleagues — take some photos, and maybe write a field note for their donor report.
3. Invest in personal relationships
If you’ve come to Timor-Leste through any kind of program, it’s likely already been drilled into you that you need to build trust, go slow, and invest in personal relationships with your colleagues, not just transactional getting-it-done stuff.
This is hardly groundbreaking — but as with most tired, oft-repeated information about living in Timor-Leste (don’t drink the tap water, you can’t use a MasterCard here, work pace is sloooooower than back home), it’s important because it’s SO. TRUE.
And I’m not just talking about chit-chat, or about extracting as much information as you can from your colleagues (husi ne’ebe? kaben ona? iha oan nain hira?) — something mutual and meaningful, however small. If you have a car, offer to drive someone to or from work. If you have a debit card, help someone with an online payment. If you like a song someone’s playing, tell them, and try and sing along. If you’re going to zumba or yoga later, invite your colleague along (Timorese people have all the body hang-ups and fitness interest as we do; growing up with high rates of malnutrition doesn’t preclude you from caring about your health and being self-conscious of your appearance in adulthood). Ask someone if you can go to the Taibessi markets with them. Volunteering that my boyfriend is Timorese has immediately delighted and intrigued colleagues in three offices — being ready and willing to share information about yourself, and being curious about the same in other people, will hold you in good stead for fitting in, building trust, and working well. And that’s what I wish I could tell my past self now.