When I first moved to Dili I lived in a little green house in a compound just around the corner from where I do now. It sits behind a small electricity kiosk, which was run by a couple, Fredi and Angelina, who lived with their two small kids in the compound. I used to make small talk with Angelina on my way in and out; frequently, I’d leave those broken-Tetun chit-chats feeling awkward, self-conscious, and out-of-place: talking to Angelina gave me an intense rush of emotions; of feeling uncomfortable privileged and fussy, of feeling profoundly out-of-place in this new city; of recognising the gaps between us and failing to see similarities; of humility and respect and shame and admiration. Oof.
I knew Angelina and Fredi’s young daughter has her birthday in July, just a few months after I first moved in. I wanted to help celebrate, so I did what I’d do if I were in Australia: bake a cake to take over.
I mashed my bananas, beat some eggs, folded in flour and set the tick-tick benchtop oven to bake the cake — but when it was ready and cool I couldn’t find Angelina, and it was getting kind of late anyway, and I was having second thoughts about whether it was actually appropriate or not or whether I should do something else and would she just have to take it out of politeness and maybe she didn’t even like banana cake and do Timorese people even celebrate birthdays and how could I explain what it was I didn’t know the words and would I have to sing and she’s not even here anyway I didn’t promise her anything I can just quietly put the cake in the freezer and pretend none of this ever happened and that’s what I did; I pulled it out three months later for my own birthday in September and made a dribbly lemon-y icing and it still tasted surprisingly good and the whole memory was gone with only crumbs left over.
Two years later, I’m living at a different house in Farol, just around the corner. I know my neighbours–my land-family, Ane and Eufrazia and their four gorgeous kids–and I know it’s their son’s Ze’s birthday sometime in March. I see his sister walking down the driveway and I call out to her in loose Tetun; hey, when’s Ze’s birthday?
She tells me the date, I realise it’s the Monday of the following week; I follow her into the house to find her mum and tell her I want to bring him a cake if that’s ok with them.
She giggles, says konformi mana, depending on you, which a year ago I would have panicked over oh gad what does she MEAN by this, but now I know she’s probably agreeing but is too polite to say yes outright, so I say yes I want to, but it’ll be a bit late because I have a late day at work on Monday, maybe 7pm or 8pm, is that ok? She replies yes, that’s fine. He does like cake, right, I ask. She giggles again; yes. At lunchtime on Monday I walk from the office to the bakery where Felix last year bought my birthday cake; I point at one in the fridge and carefully copy out Ze’s name for the counter girl to pipe onto the top; I give her $10 and say I’ll be back at six to pick it up. That night, I hand it to grinning Ze, let myself into the house, sing and eat and chat and laugh and watch the GMN tv news with them for an hour; when Ze’s grandmother tells his sister to move my shoes away from the dog and she carries them to me I take it as a sign and say I should probably go now; they all said an immediate ok and thank you, and I left, feeling happy and settled and sugar-hyped. I love birthdays. I love ten-year-old boys’ birthdays. I love moments to celebrate where you feel comfortable; I’m celebrating the difference in myself between these two child birthdays just as much as I am Ze hitting double digits.
My second year in Timor-Leste has felt in many ways easier and more relaxed than my first. I wonder if it’s because I’m different; I’m more relaxed and less fretful and more expecting that things will be different so less stressed-out when they are.
It’s not the kids nor the cake who are different; it’s not that Ane and Eufrazia are any more kind or welcoming or normal than Angelina and Fredi (who, incidentally, works with me at Plan and who I still see and chat happily with every day). It’s that two years have passed and I’ve changed; like a hard ripe green banana ripening on the bench I’ve grown softer and sweeter in the Dili sun.