In lockdown in Melbourne last year, I started running. Felix and I were cooped up in our one-bedroom flat, allowed out of the house for just four reasons — to get groceries, to work or study if we couldn’t from home, for care and compassionate reasons — and to exercise.
Neither of us had ever been into fitness. I’d flowed through a few gentle vinyasas and plodded a lap or two of the Hyde Park lake in my time, but we were both about as sedentary as two middle-class, inner-city office workers could be. But the dreary repetition of lockdown days got to us, and Felix downloaded a couch to 5k app. We set off around the Carlton Gardens — first for just a minute or two at a time, and then building up to much longer stretches. I maintained the habit after he left, looping Princes Park on my lunch breaks, and was running 10km on a Saturday morning along Melbourne’s Merri Creek before I left for Dili.
It’s a funny thing, returning to a place you’ve lived before. I wonder if it’s easier. You’d think so, of course — I packed perfectly this time, knowing exactly what clothes I’d need for the weather; I’ve found friends instantly, knowing instinctively the social cues of Dili’s expat crowd; and I’ve not yet been surprised or flustered by the weather, the traffic, the internet, the power cuts.
But at the same time, you arrive heavy with expectations, and a false sense of knowing how things will be.
For me, that came as concern and premature grief, mourning an expected loss of the fitness and habit I’d nurtured over two years and six lockdowns. I knew what was coming. Those long Saturday runs at the Merri Creek were the result and reward of every Wednesday and Friday Felix and I huffed around beneath the Carlton plane trees, before waking to Woolworths then Capitano for focaccia. After injuring my ankle last Christmas and taking a month off running I know how quickly I can lose fitness — and I was scared arriving in Dili, knowing how exercise goes here.
You wake up with the best of intentions — an early walk, 6am along the water, before the day gets hot and cramped and noisy. But then you’re heavy-eyed and the friend you’re walking with has a flat tyre and maybe you’ll postpone for another day. Or you show up at a yoga class to find the teacher’s caught in a downpour, 20 minutes away, maybe more. An after-work run scuppered when a friend’s had a bad day and just needs chips and gravy and a beer at Caz Bar; the sunset’s summon. Even a Saturday Horta Loop, followed by Back Beach and brunch, gets downgraded to Back Beach and brunch, and then to just brunch.
It’s easy to stay still.
I didn’t want to lose that fitness, but if I know anything about being a foreigner in Dili, it’s that you have to arrive without any expectations. Clear out your preconceptions like you’ve just drunk a cup of Dili canal water. I knew I wouldn’t be heading off on lunchtime runs at the park like I did living in Melbourne; it’s just too hot, and there’s nowhere to run, and the footpath’s all cracked up and everyone will stare at you. But I wanted to. Before arriving, I considered joining the gym — an environment I feel very anxious and stressed in — because maintaining fitness, ensuring calm, and honouring those two years of lockdown effort, were that important to me.
But as a friend told me once, over a salad sandwich in a now-closed Portuguese cafe in Lecidere, it’s just harder than we think — not impossible.
This afternoon, I checked the forecast. I saw it wasn’t raining today, but that it would be for the next five evenings. I waited until 6:15pm — late enough for day’s humidity to soften to a hum, but not too late that I’d be alone in the dark, and I went out. I jogged slower than I would back home, along the shoulder of the road that follows the beach. I criss-crossed the road to avoid mud sludge and motorbikes, I stopped a couple of times to let someone pass. And I paused completely at one bend, to witness the sky suddenly streak violet; ridged slate mountains silhouetted against a burning pink sky — the most beautiful sunset.
Fingers too sweaty for my phone to open my camera, I chanted to myself no time for cameras, we’ll use our eyes instead, and jogged on. Six kilometres, a slow-for-Melbourne-me six-minute pace, home to the Hera roundabout and back again, the best sunset I’ve seen outside of Western Australia, home just as the headlights came on, bathed in sweat, feeling strong and settled.
It’s not impossible, just harder than we think. And sometimes, it’s better.
I’ll follow these thoughts with a more practical post about where and how to exercise in Dili — if you’ve got a favourite gym, Zumba class, running route, yoga retreat, hiking group, please let me know. For now, I’ll keep an eye on the forecast and watch the sunset on my street.