around here, again

Late February, 2022, in the suburb of Bidau Santana.

If last month was campari sodas and feeling worn, this morning is molen and the mornings; it’s deep-fried bananas in a shortcrust pastry dough, bought first thing by the side of the road, usually after or during a morning run. I’m embarrassed by how pleased I am with the image of myself jogging down Avendia de Metiaut at 7am with a greasy plastic bag of fried snacks hanging off my elbow; I text photos to everyone I can think of captioned “balance, balance.”

But we do feel steadier. January was rough at times — Felix and Pepi alternating illnesses, my frustration with Dili’s slow bureaucracy compounded by how inefficient and worn I felt at work, what was supposed to be a victory-lap final week in Dili scuppered by COVID isolation. A shaky start to a new year. We entered it with no expectations of high promise or getting-what’s-ours, which almost made it worse: I thought we’d already downgraded expectations to something workable and realistic after two years of lockdowns and closed borders and shifting circumstances, but suddenly, here we are again, crying in the kitchen and the immigration office, ignoring each other on the couch, worried about the dog and the border and my pants fitting, making plans we won’t follow through on, and spending too much time on our phones.

A few mornings I’ve taken the dog down to the beach. She spent the first three months of her life exclusively within the confines of Felix’s parents’ yard, and the second two exploring only our compound. A recent growth spurt saw her restless and curious, trotting behind the bike as we went out, or following me down to the intersection of our small road and the medium-sized road where we buy old tomatoes and good bananas; straight ahead is the Bidau Santana cemetery and then the fish market, and to the right is the road to our place. So I tried again with the leash that hadn’t worked before, and this time, she came out. All lolling tongue and flopping ears and snuffling her snout into tree roots and rubbish piles; wary of other dogs, even the one exactly the same size and shape as she, which we now call Fake Pepi. Dog’s leash in one hand and bag of snacks in the other I plod along the water at low tide in the cool morning air before the sun burns up too bright.

Felix and I have spent a lot of time at home this month. When he was really sick I cooked every night. Some meals were better than others. Coconut-fried discs of eggplant with brown rice and kangkung, oyster mushrooms and rigatoni in home-delivered pesto, then takeaway Nepalese potato curry and momos delivered on Valentine’s Day. a A green laksa was uncomfortably spicy, with gluey noodles and watery tofu, but redeemed, almost, with fresh basil blended into the coconut milk donated from Georgia’s lush garden. The restaurant above their house has opened, Jardim Matak ba Labarik Cafe, Green Garden for Children Cafe, and we’ve walked the dog up and down twice past Georgia’s window for a sunset beer and to see the view over Dili’s sprawl to the south. There I had a tiny farewell drink — I told Geordie I have six friends here and wanted to only see them, then made him guess the names — and wore a cowboy hat and linen trousers with Pepi by my side, golden girl.

Things I am not doing lately: reading, stretching, getting enough sleep, going out on weekends, biting my nails, making smoothies.

Things I am doing lately: walking in the mornings, training the jasmine plant, diving, playing the Ronettes and Sam Cook, cooking lunch, avoiding confrontation.

The weekend I got out of isolation, after seven days and three negative COVID tests, I lined up a frenzied list of last-gasp activities, like I’d been released after a life sentence. Five dives in three days to finish my advanced certification, a hair cream bath and a facial and the worst stubby manicure of my life of a weekend in Lecidere, sunset drinks at Caz Bar and brunch at Beachside, and a paying-it-forward bag of groceries to friends who entered isolation just after Felix and I were freed. They live in Taibessi, near the vet, in a lush compound with a landlord who sells plants and whose cat had just delivered tiny, wide-eyed kittens. Pepi, sturdy and wolf-like, suddenly seemed no longer a puppy. It felt good to pay back the generosity that friends had shown us while we were at home. I cried when coconuts arrived and then froze the ones I couldn’t drink into cubes for fresh pineapple smoothies.

Life here can sound very glamorous yet feel pedestrian. Fresh pineapple and fresh coconut, a minute’s walk to the beach, scuba diving at dusk and hiking bush hills before brunch on the beach sand. It’s also oh have I frozen again can you still hear me in the Zoom call and smelling like chemicals to keep mosquitoes away and ninety nine per cent humidity and strangers laughing at you on the bus for a reason you don’t understand and Pepi nosing at the neighbour’s dead rooster before we can get her away and then shitting on the kitchen floor on a day when the water’s run out and the landlord’s not answering. Yet it feels peaceful and it seems to make sense.

In my compound, where Pepi wanders around, there’s maybe seven or eight houses, all owned and inhabited by adult siblings and their families. Our landlord is a priest who lives in the clergy, which is why our house is rented out. There’s no area for rubbish here, and the council’s dump is nearly all the way to the fish market, so when I first arrived people piled rubbish outside our gate and burned it. I texted photos of the communal rubbish pile when I felt sheepish about showing off the enviable aspects of my life in Dili.

The neighbours and their children one weekend raked away all the residual, burnt rubbish. They cleared the mound and carefully planted chilli plants, leafy tropical plants, and things that would grow into flowers.

Almost all of them died.

The dogs and the roosters race through them, the sun is unforgiving, and the water never enough. Most of the plants withered within the week.

But the flowers survived, and bloomed. The mound is now resplendent with zinnias, lush green foliage and magenta blooms everywhere.

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