double longs

Before I moved to Dili, I read as much as I could about what clothes to pack. I read about the climate — hot, humid, uncomfortable; about the culture — conservative, Catholic; and about the mosquitoes — everywhere; keep yourself covered. I came away feeling pretty grim about what I might be able to wear.

In Australia, I wear pretty ordinary clothes: jeans, shorts, singlets, shirts, jumpers. I like what I wear, and to a certain extent my sartorial choices convey my personality — but I don’t want to give the impression here that my style is inextricably webbed with my sense of self, or that I’m an eye-catching dresser. Nevertheless, I was still pretty disappointed by what the Timor-Leste websites told me I could wear here: it seemed drab, ugly, and lacking personality.

But then, I moved.

And I found out the blogs and websites weren’t quite right.

So, that’s what this post is about: an on-the-ground opinion on what clothes you can wear in Dili, and, hopefully, a comfort amid loose-and-baggy-ankle-length-cotton Timor-Leste packing lists. They’re not all wrong, but they’re not all right.

To me, you have three main things to consider in choosing what to wear: the climate, the conservatism, and the critters. Let’s talk about them.

The climate

Dili is a generally hot and humid place, and most packing lists rightly warn of dressing for comfort in the warm climate.

The general rule here would be: loose-fitting clothes in breathable fabrics. Think cotton t-shirts, linen-blend singlets, shorts and jeans that don’t cling to your body.

But the caveat, which I only learnt through experience: you don’t have to dress like a British backpacker in Phnom Penh to feel comfortable in Dili’s heat. No need for fisherman’s pants if that’s not your typical style; don’t throw out all your favourite polyester; and only bring a linen button-up if that’s something you’d wear at home. You don’t have to start dressing in a new way just because you’re living in a place that gets quite humid.

How I handle this is: through categories of clothing and liberal use of the air conditioning.

I wear different things when I’m at home compared to when I’m out. Home clothes for me are skimpy and tropical: short cotton shorts, baggy t-shirts, crop top singlets, flabby sleeveless dresses with no bra underneath. This is what I wear first thing in the morning, when I finish work, after I shower in the evening, and when I’m sitting on the couch or the verandah. Then, work clothes are slightly more fitted and covering — outfits that are better-suited for an office but perhaps more uncomfortable to wear in the heat. I take them off straight away after getting home.

I’m also not shy about using the air conditioning. (That’s not to say I’m greedy; I promise I am judicial with it.) I spend my work day in a room with only a fan, but take my lunch break under the full-bore AC. I often have coffee out, because I know the cafe is air conditioned. Felix and I have the cool on 24 when we sleep. One good thing about the weather being consistently hot and humid is you don’t question the need to use air conditioning — at home in Australia we make judgements; try to gauge whether today is really a hot enough day to permit us to turn it on, or not. In Dili, it’s always an option, and that’s what makes your midday comfortable — no fisherman’s pants necessary.

The conservatism

Timor-Leste is one of the world’s most Catholic countries, and in places and certain circumstances there’s the conservatism you might expect.

The general rule here would be: always cover your stomach, shoulders and knees.

But the caveat, which I only learnt through experience: in Dili, there’s no need to dress like a nun. Timorese people will likely stare at you when they see you (I’ve always perceived this staring to be benign curiosity, nothing sinister or lecherous), but I’ve found it’s enough to avoid extra glances when I’m covered on top and short below, or vice versa; no need for both. Timorese women, particularly older women, tend to dress differently — I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen my landlady’s shoulders, for example — but there’s no problem if you don’t follow those same rules in Dili. (In rural areas, I’d dress more conservatively — many rural areas are also cooler, so you’re naturally more inclined to cover up.)

How I handle this is: the clothes I wear in Dili are a little floatier than what I’d wear back home, but I cling to the style I know as mine by pairing one short with with one long, in colours and patterns I love.

That means jeans and camis! T-shirts with shorts! Boxy dresses with my knees sticking out! Purple, blue, green, white; never yellow, sorry yellow! I wear mostly items from my Melbourne wardrobe (and then when I was shopping to move I tried to make sure sure any new additions were from labels I’m familiar with). The Dili outfits are cousins, not siblings, of what I wear at home, but they’re paired in a way that still makes me know we’re family.

I do avoid wearing double short items unless I’m at home or only going to a foreigner friend’s house. When I’ve worn a strappy singlet with shorts, for example, out in Dili, I’ve noticed eyes on me in the street and supermarket — more staring than the usual, and it makes me feel uncomfortable. Have your shoulders and knees out at the same time only if you’re absolutely confident no strangers will see you.

The critters

This section is solely about mosquitoes, no other critters, but I couldn’t resist the alliteration. Now that I’ve lulled you, falsely, into thinking you can wear almost anything in Dili with this post, I’m coming back to remind you there’s another very good reason people recommend a lot of long sleeves.

The general rule here would be: keep your arms and legs covered, to protect you against mosquito bites (and the viruses, malaria and dengue, that mosquitoes carry).

But the caveat, which I only learnt through experience: sleeves aren’t your only line of defence against mosquitoes.

How I handle this is: I’m typing this post from the verandah of my house. On the table in front of me I can see no fewer than four different bottles of mosquito repellent, and two different brands of mosquito coil. I know in the house we have two different bottles of Baygon, and there’s a battery-powered fly swat in the bedroom. Other houses I’ve lived in have mosquito nets cast over the bed. I got a text from the Ministry of Health this morning reminding us to regularly replace the buckets of water in the house used to flush toilets and wash dishes, so mosquitoes can’t breed. I’m not telling you to chop off all your sleeves, but we don’t live in George Orwell’s Burmese Days; the gin is cold and the defences against dengue numerous. Welcome to the tropics. Wear what feels good.

A note on the title of this post and my use of the terms ‘shorts’ and ‘longs’ to mean short-sleeved or long-sleeved garments — the brainchild of my friend Georgia, who one night in response to Geordie, clad in jeans and a long-sleeve button-up and saying he felt hot, went, “of course you do, you’re in double longs”. Avoid double longs! And credit your friends when you copy their slang.

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