Late January, 2022, in the suburb of Bidau Santana.
The kids in my compound have flattened plastic water bottles and stuck them between the frame and back wheel of their bicycles; it makes a loud and constant rrrrrrrrtttttthh sound as the boys ride around. They’re scared of Pepi, our dog, because she barks at them, but she barks at them because she’s scared of them, but I don’t know how to explain that she’s tauk, not siak. Pepi has a mournful face and rolls of spare skin around her ankles, like she’s wearing a pair of leggings five sizes too big, and she’s skinny at the moment, her ribcage visible, after a week at the vet on an IV with gastro and from chasing roosters around the yard. Five roosters — five neighbours and each one has a rooster, and none of the roosters limit their crowing to just the morning. It was my turn in the team meeting on Thursday to talk about what I was up to; I unmuted to share and at the end of it my boss’ boss said I’d done an impressive job of persevering through the roosters; I’d just genuinely not noticed them.
I hear them now, sunset on the front porch. It’s 6:11pm and I’m waiting for our landlord, a priest who lives at the clergy, to come and collect our February rent, before we go out to Nari’s for dinner. It’s one of my favourite restaurants in Dili; an excellent, elegant, elevated Korean restaurant sitting immediately above a dusty Korean supermarket a little bit back from the beach in Pantai Kelapa. I will order tofu salad and Felix will order bulgogi and we will likely order some soju and in advance of that I am drinking already; first a campari soda (we will remember this period as the campari soda time; when we try to remember what was happening when Felix got dengue or Ash Barty won the Australian Open or the New York Times bought Wordle or omicron COVID hit Timor-Leste or Ramos-Horta announced his presidential run or when I read Extinctions it’ll be that’s when I was really into campari sodas wasn’t it) and then a little weak gin with the rest of the can of soda and Felix has just told me to get changed for dinner so we can leave immediately after the priest comes; all I can hear now is the rrrrrrrttt of the moto GP game he’s playing on the playstation he said he bought for his brother.
After dinner that brother came over, Felix’s two youngest siblings slept the night at our house. Every time we have a visitor, my 50s-housewife maternal grandmother takes over my body, and I’m fussing about not having biscuits to serve with coffee or clean towels to fold into neat squares for two teenagers who likely won’t use them anyway and it’s not just that the house isn’t appropriately welcoming for them it’s that I’m an inadequate host — it’s funny to me that self-loathing can mushroom out in this way to make you the star of the show; you don’t like yourself but it’s all you can ever talk about. His youngest sister fell asleep on the couch with her arm around the dog, who lay awake, and patient.
I’ve been a bit sad this month. I only realised this texting it to a friend, attempting to excuse my failure to call. A lot of people have had rocky starts to the year. Mine has involved Felix’s dengue, Pepi’s gastro, my having something that might or might not have been COVID, the Western Australian government rescinding its promise of an open border in early February that would have gotten me home to be with my sister as she has her baby… it’s not the end of the world, but it’s wearying. In December I was fizzing with energy; everything new and novel and bright and brimming with possibility, I’m back and I’ve got new favourite places and new friends and new hats! January the gloss came off and life felt slower and harder. Snoozing my alarm and leaving my blender gunked-up and soaking in the sink. Staring at Instagram with my Outlook open and failing to load and spending an hour on one newsletter post. Taking 45 minutes to walk to and from the supermarket and forgetting half the items I needed anyway. Emailing myself lists of things to do that week; ticking just one or two off. Never going for a run. Looking at photos of myself the first time I lived here and hating my now-soft face and fuzzy hair. Not talking to anyone except for Felix and half the time I’m nagging anyway.
The closest place to my house to buy vegetables is one dusty little stall that sits alongside one sate stall and one secondhand clothing stall on the corner of my dog-legged lane and the slightly larger road that eventually intersects with the beach road. It isn’t good — tomatoes are twice the price as anywhere else, the kangkung is limp and straggly, and the handful of other vegetables it sells (plantains, bananas, choko) are usually things I’m not interested in. But the ladies are kind and I like supporting their business (I’m not sure if my $1.50 makes much of a difference, but it feels nice to not walk past). Last night they told me to sit on the stool while I waited for the grandma to go home to get my change. I cooked the tomatoes hard, with red onion and olive oil, into a fleshy sauce for rigatoni, and I used a lot of garlic and a can of white beans with the kangkung and we ate that on the side, with a squeeze of orange juice from an orange I’d bought for negronis (let’s have a negroni tonight, not a campari soda), and garlic bread with the last roll Felix’s siblings didn’t eat for breakfast.
I woke up with the rain this morning and felt sleepy and refreshed. This is Friday — I will backdate this post to meet a publishing schedule I haven’t maintained properly for a month — and I’ve done just enough work for the week and ticked off three big errands: scooter, booster, visa extended, for the second and final time. I feel relieved, tired, accomplished, apprehensive. I don’t like the pace I’ve set for myself this year and I don’t know how to recalibrate.
I have cried about seven times this week. Three were at immigration and one was on Monday, when I tried to fry an egg, cracked it onto the bench instead, started laughing and then suddenly, like a little kid, laughing became crying, and Felix held me calmly while I cried and then fried both the salvaged bench egg and one more, for me and the dog, and it felt okay again. I had not truly had a Dili meltdown before this week and it feels, I suppose, like the final step in coming back. Landing is complete, just in time to take off again.