what’s different this time

Two days before I left Melbourne, I was drinking at the Brunswick Green with a few friends who had spent time in Timor-Leste. One of them knew the woman I described in this post, and listened patiently as I explained how worried I was about repeating that friend’s folly — to arrive in Dili not realising how little I knew after being away for so long.

My friend was reassuring, and the conversation melted into something else — and then three days later I was at a different pub with a different friend, having a gin with Geordie at Castaway, after I’d asked to go to Esplanada and he had to tell me it’d closed down in the two-and-a-half years I’ve been away from Dili.

Half the venues on my favourite places lists have shut, I’m suddenly a beach runner now, and I forgot how to top up my phone credit and that everyone gets gastro simultaneously when the first big rains of the wet season hit. Here’s what else has changed for me in my time away from Timor-Leste.

The venues are different

This was always going to happen, especially with how COVID-19 lockdowns affected businesses, so I’m not surprised — but I am mourning. Indulge me in tribute to some of my favourite now-gone places: vale Kaffe Uut Pateo, Agora Food Studio, Esplanada, Royal Beach Hotel, Food L Do, Prato, Curry Box, Turkish Ottoman Restaurant in Metiaut, and the Indian place at the Timor Plaza food court where I ate lunch every Friday for a year.

But, of course, with the loss of every favourite comes an opportunity to find a new one, and to learn where people are hanging out. In Farol we now drink at Ponky’s, not Reggae Bar. For a coffee in Kampo Alor we’ll go to Cafe Atsabe, not Agora. I think we’re still brunching at Beachside, but if you find somewhere good to get a dosa at 10am, please let me know.

We eat, drink, and dance in different places from when I was last here. I don’t know where we’re going out, but I’m happy to be invited.

The daily life is different

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things I’d forgotten after leaving Timor-Leste, which have come flooding back this month.

  • That you don’t have to change your outfit between afternoon and evening, because the weather, and the level of formality, doesn’t change.
  • What the text codes are for Timor Telecom data packages, and how you top up new credit.
  • What it means when your house’s electricity box starts beeping, and to get two EDTL dockets at the same time, to have a spare on the fridge in case you run out at night.
  • That the water is linked to the electricity, and you should always fill up the bathroom bucket when you have running water.
  • That everyone gets gastro at the same time when the first big rain of the wet season arrives.
  • That rainy season means mango season, and you’ll see huge wire carts of them along the roadside behind Dili Port.
  • That you should take a helmet to the party if you don’t have your own transport, because you’ll be able to get a lift home on the back of someone’s motorbike.
  • The hand signals for how much oxygen you have left during a dive, which way a regulator goes on, and to carefully sunscreen your back after surfacing.
  • How to get to the UN compound.
  • That USD and AUD have a price difference, and I’m not ordering the cheapest meals of my entire life.
  • That it’s normal and expected to see your friends five times a week; equally, it’s not rude or strange to cancel or postpone plans.
  • That thongs, flip flops, are acceptable footwear, everywhere.

I’ve tried to meet this sudden unfamiliarity with curiosity and calm — and even excitement, when some of the new things have proved fun or interesting. Paying with a card at a supermarket or restaurant wasn’t an option the last time I lived here; there was no real food delivery service; and I panic-shopped at Chemist Warehouse every time I went back to Australia because there was no possibility of having something posted to you or ordered in for you. That’s all different now.

In many ways it’s a gift. A new sense of novelty in a city that sits very deep within my heart. But it can be disorienting, too — I suffer from the same over-confidence that friend had when she first came back. I invite new friends for a Horta Loop walk before realising I no longer remember the route. I repeat names of familiar towns — Maubara, Laga — and then have to ask where they are and did I go there once. I launch Tetun conversations I can’t actually get myself further into; I barter down taxi fares without remembering how long the drive takes.

I am different

Who saw this coming! It is not just this place that is different now; it is the person I am inside it, and of course that means more than whether or not I can get a dosa at Royal Beach.

When I first moved to Timor-Leste, in 2017, I was desperately anxious and afraid. I had applied for a job I didn’t really think about wanting, was surprised when it was offered to me, and then bullied myself into accepting only on the thought if I don’t take it, I’ll always have to tell people the story of how I nearly moved to Timor-Leste. Once I got here, I was wide-eyed and earnest, naïve, eager, fretful — a bundle of nervous energy.

I am no better or worse a person than I am when I was here the first time — I’m better in some ways (I only say yes to plans I really want to attend, I remember people’s names, and I donate money to causes I believe in), and I’m worse in others (I gave up and started shaving my armpits again, I spend a lot of money on myself, I’m less confrontational than I used to be, but in a cop-out kind of way). I’m just different. I’m 30 and stretched-out and tired and content and I like my friends and it won’t ruin my life to miss out on one trip, one dive, one stranger’s farewell party, and Dili for me now is smaller and more domestic and a dog that comes when I call and two feet on the ground but not bogged down too deep.

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