A fat goat on its hind legs, stretching up to nibble at the leaves of a roadside passionfruit vine. A clunky yellow taxi crawling Dili streets with its boot propped open, hundreds of beige-green hairy husks of corn tumbled inside. The warm wind on my face walking over the Comoro Bridge; the river’s muddy water tumbling and splashing over itself as it streams for the first time in nine months. The slow shuffling walk of the girls on the dusty path ahead of me. Sudden Facebook photos of the river gushing around a bus adrift further uphill; cool-headed locals evacuating every passenger and every bag of rice as the water races downstream to that trickle at the ocean’s mouth. Dili on a Wednesday, a Wednesday six weeks ahead of another Wednesday, the day I leave here for good, for now.
How am I going to leave this place?
When I returned to Dili last month from my annual Christmas trip to Perth, I knew it’d be my last time coming back here — I’ve shelved my Indo-backpacking plans and had no other plans to leave Timor-Leste until my final, one-way flight out on Wednesday, 10 April. And a fair few friends did as well. In my first couple of weeks I fielded repeated questions: how’s Felix settling into Melbourne? and how does it feel to be leaving?
I was so busy thinking about returning I hadn’t even thought about leaving.
Those first few weeks back, my thoughts were all settling back into this slower, newer life at home, nosing round my house rearranging and organising, easing the detritus of Felix’s life and taking over our room, our house, as mine (he’s doing really well, by the way!). Buying a new mattress without his help was a triumph; chatting easily on my neighbours’ porch eating hot greasy pisang goreng was a victory. Knowing I was no longer trying to cram six days of work into a week; living out the permission I gave myself last year to ease off a self-imposed burden of capital-E excellence, of letting myself enjoy it. Tropical flowers bursting in backyard pots and the edge of the monsoon sending rain streaming from my roof morning and night. Quiet and cool and immediately familiar. Returning was beautiful; why would I spend my energy in the future, thinking about leaving?
But last week, as I was sitting in my quiet little room at work, flicking through my laptop’s calendar and trying to figure out when I’d actually, finally, leave them for good (a 31 December contract end date did not stop me from showing up again that first Monday I was back), and I decided end of March, yeah, about a month more, that feels right, oh wait hang on I leave Timor end of March, wait, what? If the end of March is in about a month and I leave just a few days after that, is that like, a month left..? How?
Days in Dili take an age and a second; it’s counting out crawling minutes til lunch or wondering how it’s only just Tuesday or whiling away time in the back of a day-long workshop training meeting session anything and then suddenly also it’s the end of February and I’m leaving in like a month. An month-and-a-bit. Caught in an awkard in-between time of seeing on Facebook cool things coming up in Perth and Melbourne but not arriving home quite in time for them. Being invited to the first few Dili weddings, holidays, workshops I leave before.
Exactly two years ago I was caught in a similar in-between. It was my last week in Melbourne before I left for Timor-Leste, and I was ticking off a long Melbourne bucket list I’d written for myself. I celebrated one of my last evenings by ticking off #37 with some friends: cycling to the top of Ruckers Hill in Northcote with a bottle of wine and some takeaway curry for a farewell sunset.
Later that night, I snapped at my friend Sarah — a stoic, patient pal who’s known me since I was a shitty slick-haired 13-year-old on the St Mary’s school bus. She’d relocated from Perth to Melbourne the year before I moved, and remains a lot more easygoing and laid-back than I am. “You’ll be fine,” she told me repeatedly, breezily, about my impending move; a change I saw as a banishment, not an opportunity. I KNOW, I’d reply, tersely, snippily; not believing.
I emailed her this morning from the breezy upstairs at Black Box, a sunny Dili morning; telling her about failing to cook on Monday night.
And then we went home and our gas bottle had run out so we ordered $3 curries from the Bangladeshi place up the road and made the guy deliver it even though it’s like 1km away, and sat on the porch while the rain streamed down and drank red wine and ate curry and it felt so wholesome and nice and beautiful.How am I going to leave this place??!!?!!
“How funny though that we ate curry and drank wine in Northcote exactly two years ago and I got angry at you for (correctly) not seeing my impending move to Timor as the horrific banishment/prison sentence I assumed it’d be!,” I typed to her.
You’re my end and my beginning, even when I lose I’m winning, the John Legend song that played with an added-in reggae beat on every single tinny microlet sound system when I first moved here two years ago coincidentally playing on Black Box’s radio at I write this morning; two years looping around and folding back over themselves. Laura and I — my first and closest friend here — walking to get takeaway at the Thai place in Farol in the rain last Tuesday night, getting lost and confused, mashing mispronounced Tetun phrases into the English-language plastic menu and realising two years of language-learning has barely glanced off us.
“I must must must remember that because I’m getting angsty and emo about leaving Dili – everything is so beautiful and laden with MEANING (but like, it’s not, it’s just normal; if I had another year here I’d be like oh yeah that’s just fine not particularly special but today I’m like BLACK BOX COFFEE SHOP IS MY SANCTUARY I’LL NEVER FIND ANOTHER CAFE TO LOVE WOE IS MEEEE) – and I’m thinking how on earth could I leave any of this without thinking about everything that I’m moving towards,” I wrote to Sarah. The waitress who knows my order, who smiles at me when she comes in for her shift, the sticky barefoot nights here clutching fridge-chilled merlot and hollering oh doben, oh doben furak along with the band; sweaty slapping palms; of coming up the stairs late after book club for one more red wine and finding a table of friends prepared to eat the remains of the apple crumble I carried home in my wet woven bote.
It is normal, but it still is meaningful. In just two years a city that was a mere name on a map turned into a home; AVID-organised, prescribed friends became sisters; a nervous, lonely girl who thought everything she cared about was hemmed into two similar suburbs on either side of her sunburn country softened and bloomed; tropical sunlight coaxing out everything. I feel melted.
Six more weeks. When I left Melbourne I forgot how good it could be to go somewhere new. Now, I’ll try to remember how good it’ll be to go home.