Do I feel safe in Timor-Leste? It’s a question I’ve been asked a few times, and a topic I haven’t addressed directly on this blog.
After work at my regular office job today I had to finish some transcribing for an article, and I decided I’d walk up to Kaffe Uut from home to have a watermelon juice while I worked. I went to the cafe, typed up my interview, drank my juice, paid my $2.50, and left for home. I turned into my street at about 7:30pm, I was just a few doors away when a motorbike rounded the corner and stopped suddenly next to me. Instinctively, I panicked; I turned away, I ducked my head. “Friend,” the rider said to me, in Tetun, “where are you going?”
I replied with a curt, “home.” He asked me if it was close or far; I gave a noncommittal head wobble; I didn’t want this guy looming from the dark knowing where I lived. “Get on the back,” he offered. Head down, I walked on and he drove away; just seconds later I crossed in front of Belun, the NGO next door to my house. They have constant security and the three guys sitting out the front smiled at me as I crossed. “Did you know that guy?” one called. “No,” I replied. “Why didn’t you call us!” another one said; warm and genuine. These guys, and their colleagues, must have seen me crossing this street and wandering the neighbourhood every day for a year.
Tonight, I simultaneously felt more vulnerable and more safe than I do back home.
I think a big part of that is that here I feel more visible — in Perth or Melbourne, where I’ve lived before, my height and weight and hair colour and skin colour often make me blend in. As a foreigner here in Dili, I stand out a little more. It makes strangers approach me to offer rides home on their scary motorbikes; it makes me neighbours notice whether I’m getting home ok or not.
Do I feel safe in Timor-Leste?
Those of you who have read this blog from the beginning will know that I spent a lot of time in the archives of several other expat blogs before I moved to Dili. I loved Lizzie’s blog, Adventures in Life and Living, and remember she wrote a post after returning to Australia about the fact that she walked a lot while living in Timor-Leste — but never at night. “As a woman, walking alone at night-time just wouldn’t have been safe,” she wrote, in a post titled ‘I can walk alone at night.’, written just after she left.
In that post, she wrote:
In Timor-Leste, women who go out at night are stigmatised. They’re called ‘bad’ women, ‘broken’ women, ‘women of the night’. While men can (and do) move about freely at night, women don’t enjoy this same freedom. Last week, back in Canberra, I took a beautiful walk alone at night. I walked down the wide leafy streets of my neighbourhood, marvelling at the stars and taking in the views of the national monuments lit up in the dark. I enjoyed the cool night air against my face, which was warm from exercise. While I was theoretically vulnerable, I felt safe and secure. At no point did I feel that creepy, crawly feeling on the back of my shoulders that tells me I’m afraid. And for that I felt incredibly lucky.
Timor-Leste’s a patriarchal and post-conflict country, with high youth unemployment, a seam of inter-generational trauma and a lot of time for bored young men to laze out on streets (while their sisters do hard work at home). I’m generalising, but I’ve been groped on the street in broad daylight, yelled at more times than I can count, been spat at, had pebbles thrown at me, and seen countless flaccid Timorese penises from men jerking off on beach road in the early morning. It’s important for me to contemplate what might lurk beneath that.
These experiences have been unsettling and upsetting, but I do consider myself lucky that this is the worst I’ve had. Yeah, it felt pretty horrible having a little boy sneak quietly up behind me and squeeze my bum as I walked to the bus on a lunch break; but at least he was young and he ran away giggling afterwards – I didn’t really feel threatened. And most of the comments yelled to me are I love you babyyyy hunniii where you goinggg give me your number, and they’re perhaps not flattering but maybe it’s a joke, lighten up. The spitting thing sucked but it could have been an accident, yeah?
But it does feel frustrating to judge and diminish and calculate that; I’m lost in a swamp of I’m a foreigner in a country that isn’t her own, I’ll fit in with what happens here weighted against a I just want to walk five minutes home from the cafe without a man on a motorbike coming up to me; I don’t want to have to rationalise why it’s actually fine that I saw another stranger’s dick today; weighed against a if I don’t like it I don’t have to be here weighed against a there are thousands of other people who don’t spit or shout or flash weighed against a this happens in my country, too, and far worse.
Do I feel safe in Timor-Leste?
I write here about the times I’ve been shouted at and touched and spat at, and I want to contextualise that for if you’ve come here seeking a simple, straightforward answer. In the two years I’ve lived here, about 750 days, I have: had my bum groped three times by boys on the street (twice in broad daylight, once at dinnertime when I was walking home with a friend and some takeaway); have been spat at two or three times (in broad daylight, while I’ve been walking along a busy road to lunch from the office); have seen masturbators probably twelve times on 50 morning walks; have once had pebbles thrown at me from a boy in a microlet as I took that same walk; and multiple times every day encounter many people who greet me politely on the streets and several people who call out hi, hunny, I love you baby, where you going, I love you, give me your number, hii hunnyyyyyy. Maybe about 20 moments that have made me feel really uncomfortable in 750 days, and several more that have been annoying or a little unsettling.
I know that my whiteness, my status as a foreigner, offers me a level of protection Timorese women wouldn’t necessarily receive. It’s not as easy to denigrate or harass me as a woman when I have the complicating factor of being foreign, too. And I have good, kind, attentive, respective neighbours who watch out for me — both the guys at Belun, but also my landlords, and a female neighbour whom I’ve never properly met, but one evening, before sunset, when I walked the few minutes around the corner to buy electricity and the kids sitting outside the school yelled and called at me, in Tetun, when I returned with my electricity voucher minutes later, there she was, out there on the street scolding the kids for speaking to me like that, explaining I could understand Tetun and it wasn’t right what they said; that they needed to apologise.
Here, I feel more visible and more protected. More vulnerable and more secure.
I don’t walk alone at night, unless it’s 7:30pm and I’m returning 200 metres to my house along the well-lit main road with my takeaway or my belly full of watermelon juice. I can’t articulate why I wouldn’t beyond I wouldn’t feel safe. But I also probably wouldn’t feel safe doing that in Australia, now — three years ago in Perth I’d walk home at night; Lizzies’ blog post, written in 2014, walking alone at night in leafy Canberra feeling safe; that makes sense to me; but since women my age were raped and murdered in the Melbourne parks and on the tram lines I use to visit, used to take, it suddenly feels sharper and more real; more of a risk.
I do feel less safe in Timor-Leste in general, because I don’t know the context well and I’m out of my safety net. I don’t instinctively know what a stranger means when they offer a lift on a motorbike or when they jerk off on the street or when they ask me where I’m going. I don’t instinctively know the pathways I can take to safety if something bad does happen – I grew up with yellow-stickered Safety Houses and call-triple-zero and Neighbourhood Watch and I know Dili likely has its equivalents – even if they’re not corporate branded like ours may be – but I don’t know how to access many things; I feel more alone and more isolated and more vulnerable than I do back home by dint of the fact that I chose to move somewhere foreign to me.
I chose to move here, so I play by the rules of the country that has welcomed me. I catch taxis and drive my car; I greet my neighbours; I cover my shoulders. I knit together these threads of a safety net and feel grateful for a city that pulls me in, home.