how it feels to be back

On my first night back in Dili I went to Castaway Bar for a drink with a friend — my last remaining friend from the last time I lived here.

He asked me how it felt returning to Timor-Leste; whether it felt weird, or normal. Was my answer — ‘both’ — a cop-out, or correct?

I hit a couple of speed bumps arriving in Dili.

I came here from Melbourne, which has COVID-19 case numbers that concern other Australian jurisdictions. I needed to stay for one night in the quarantine facility at Howard Springs, outside of Darwin, during my transit from Melbourne to Adelaide to Darwin.

That was fine and expected — but the second night, after our flight to Dili was cancelled an hour before it was scheduled to leave, was not.

I ended up had a fine time in hotel quarantine — I found it comfortable and relaxing, and I loved the food — and arrived in Dili less than 24 hours later than planned. It was later that same day I was in the corner of the Castaway deck with a gin and tonic and my questioning friend. Both, I said, in answer; both.

I’d spent too many hours earlier in the day at the Timor Plaza shopping centre, trying to sort out my phone and eating tofu-lettuce rice paper rolls in the food court, and I remembered staring at the signage for the phone provider Timor Telecom and thinking, I’m in Dili. Suddenly I’m in Dili. How am I in Dili?. But then someone I knew from last time came up to say hello and I stopped the microlet at the right part of Comoro Road for the pub and I recognised the staff as I scaled the Castaway stairs and it just felt like I’d been here and doing this for years and of course I’m in Dili; where else would I be?

I felt so emotional leaving Melbourne and so confronted by the logistics of my departure and complicated transit I didn’t think ahead to the arrival part of the trip. I’m only away for three or four months — I’m in Dili until March, then visiting my home city, Perth, before going back to Melbourne — but I moved out of my sharehouse as I left, and I know a couple of friends will move away while I’m over here. It feels like the end of one big chapter; too much to farewell, too much in Melbourne to think about to move my mind elsewhere.

The unexpected second night in Howard Springs could have been the moment when I turned my thoughts to Dili.

Safe and sheltered in-between time; my liminal space between ports, between homes, between the version of me at the surface in Melbourne and what breaks through abroad. But it wasn’t.

I spent that time correcting typos on this blog and eating pre-packaged biscuits and calling Howard Springs admin for my taxi time and taking photos of the sunset donga opposite mine and picking at my fingernails. I forgot to think about Dili.

I forgot to think about Dili but I never stopped thinking about Dili.

It’s like the moment you remember a dream you forgot you’d had.

In Howard Springs I knew I’d dreamt but I couldn’t remember what about; as the plane touched down at Nicolau Lobato International Airport and the red-roofed terminal came into view the memories came flooding back. I have thought about this city every day for two years; through Felix and the language we use together, through emails with old friends, through mentions of this blog in passing conversation, through meeting new people and explaining the last years of my life and why I have such a taste for salt and spice and sunlight. Physically, I left Dili years ago; emotionally, cognitively, never. It’s normal to be back because so much is still familiar and present; because I’ve been thinking of this city every day and none of it’s unusual or uncurious. It’s strange to be back because every day I’ve thought about coming back and that second Howard Springs morning was the chance time it happened.

I feel good being back. I feel happy, welcomed, settled, familiar. It feels bizarre that the last time I washed my hair was at Bruce Street; the stubble now in my armpits started growing in Melbourne. Being there was such a short time ago, but Dili already feels so normal. My cases of coats and chillblained fingers are someone else’s story. I am cotton shorts and clavicle sweat and a gin soda next as the sea breeze comes in. I feel like I’m living in a dream; someone else’s, please remember me when we wake up.

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