Three years ago, I made friends with a young woman who had previously lived in Dili, left for some years, and then come back, to do a short-term consultancy with an NGO.
We became close in the way one night at Esplanada and a run-in at Lili’s warung soon after makes happen, and stayed in touch after we both left Timor-Leste. She is intelligent, humble and hardworking, and I admire her. Yet it’s a fear of replicating her return that makes me nervous to come back.
Foreigners turn over quickly in Timor-Leste. It is a place most people come to for a six-week consultancy, or a year-long contract, or twenty-seven months with the Peace Corps, or three years as UN middle manager, or five years to lead the development program’s lifespan. That isn’t to say people don’t stay – I know people who have been in Timor-Leste for decades, and have many friends who have made this place their home – only that the majority of people are more transient, and that all my fucking friends are gone?
I left Dili in April 2019, which is two-and-a-half-years ago, or one generation of Dili expats ago, or approximately an ice age of knowledge in this place ago. I’m not worried about making new friends or finding new cafes or not knowing people at the pub – what I’m worried about is how much has changed since I left, how little I know about that, and how embarrassing it’ll be to be a beginner once again.
My new friend struggled when she first returned to Dili. Her previous experience of living in the city had given her confidence – which didn’t quite match up to what she knew in situ, and there were big gaps. She’d forgotten more language than she realised, the old restaurants and bars she’d loved had closed down or been passed over, and the names of her old friends and colleagues – her social connections and capital – were met only with blank, polite smiles.
There’s something in myself here I dislike. Is it my patronising pity towards my enthusiastic friend as she settled back in? Is it arrogance, in highlighting how much I myself knew back then? Is it the endorsement I’m now giving of the terrible expat tendency to gatekeep and gloat over newly acquired knowledge in my saying wow I can’t believe she didn’t know the good clubs?
It’s in the fact that I’m now the one who doesn’t know where to dance in Dili.
I’m not good at being a beginner. I don’t like it. I tend towards perfectionism and am reluctant to try things I know I won’t be instantly good at. I can’t play pool, because I’ve been embarrassed to learn. I sing in a mock-Missy Higgins bray, lest anyone laugh at my real tuneless voice. The last time I lived here I could understand far more Tetun than I could ever speak, because I was too scared to open my mouth (which, if you know me, is very out of character). I was too scared to try in case I failed; I never missed a shot because oops, I never swung.
My friend has some hubris I (hope I) lack, and I’d like to think that over the past few years I’ve grown a little more comfortable with not knowing. I’ll be okay. But as I descend into Dili what I’m thinking is – they’ve closed the Burger King at the airport. I’ll be the guy saying ‘this used to be a Burger King’. This used to be this person’s house, this used to be a something else. This used to be my city, where I knew the names and had the conversations and navigated without maps and strutted around; this used to be a place that felt like home. What is this place to me now.