Why I Returned to Timor Leste
The flight from Darwin to Dili takes barely an hour and a half. Cabin service starts before the seatbelt light’s switched off and descent is announced as I’m extracting the last flakes of a margarine-greasy apple turnover from its in-flight plastic wrapper. A bump-bump landing and we’re the only plane on the runway for the day.
Dili, the sleepy seaside town that woke up not that long ago as the capital city of the world’s newest country, is a worn-out pastel paradise; all green and pink and blonde and shaggy chopped-up banana palms; hot and dusty sun-bleached city.
The sun’s setting behind us as the taxi crawls out of the airport, a left onto Comoro Road and an easy merge with a pulling-out mikrolet, the little coloured minibuses that crawl loops around the city. There’s a girl, bored with folded arms, balanced on the back of her boyfriend’s scooter; the tinny off-beat of the taxi driver’s turned-up reggaetron; a kid on the busted-up footpath with bunches of limp, worn coral lettuce threaded onto a loop of cord.
It’s Dili at dusk; it’s billboard ads for Portuguese beers and packet mi goreng; it’s men in faded polo shirts ashing cigarettes onto the pavement; it’s the putrid piss stench of drainage canals; it’s roadside piles of eggplants and tomatoes and 25-cent bunches of long thin kangkung spinach; it’s the Portuguese obrigada and the black kerchief-covered curls of women in mourning; it’s the dusky warm air and never needing a jacket at night; it’s home, it’s where I lived, for two years before leaving in April this year.
As I left, I told people in Dili that I’d be back someday—my boyfriend’s family all live there and I want to visit; I hadn’t managed to get a police clearance; the friend I’d sold my car to was repaying me in cash instalments because Timor-Leste doesn’t have internet banking yet. A litany of reasons, shared quickly and loudly, as if I was waiting for someone to critique or correct me, to tell me that no, actually I can’t. You had your go. Time to go back home.
In Tetun, one of the two national languages of Timor-Leste, you don’t really say goodbye. Copying the Portuguese of its coloniser, you can say ate logu, see you later; or ate aban, literally, see you tomorrow, jamming together the Portuguese ate and replacing its usual amaña with the Tetun word for tomorrow, aban. You can even say ate loron seluk: see you another day.
But when someone’s going for good you say adeus.
On the day I left, maybe for good, my friend dropped me at the airport. My flight was early morning, boarding at 7am, and we sat in sleepy silence upstairs at Burger King, watching the plane arrive from Darwin and unload its first passengers. We thought we’d be able to see my flight start to board from our vantage point, so took our time—a final hug, a Facebook photo, the scatty, distracted conversation of two sleep-deprived and nervous people not too sure whether they’d see each other again. I entered the terminal to find it completely empty—not that Nicolau Lobato International Airport, named for the country’s first president, killed on the first day of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion after colonial Portugal pulled out of the country—is necessarily a bustling place.
But the passport stamping guy had closed up, the x-ray machine was off; I had to explain to a security guard that I’d been taking selfies at Burger King and needed to get through to boarding.
“You can’t,” he said, brusquely, in English. “The flight has closed.”
“Please,” I replied, in unconfident Tetun. “That’s my flight. I have to get on it. Hau tenke ba; I must go.”
He stared, laughed. Radioed someone. We waited in shifting, uncomfortable silence as a high-vis-vested guy ran up, pleaded my passport off me, and left with it. Ten desperate minutes later, my English-speaking friend ushered me, passport-less, onto the plane, the final passenger, as high-vis suddenly vaulted the stairs and thrust my stamped passport at me. The cabin door squeezed shut behind him and I was in.
A system I thought I understood; a near-catastrophic mistake and the kindness of a stranger to pull me through. That’s what Timor-Leste was for me; on that very last day and almost every day before it.
I was considering visiting in August this year—just four months after I left, but a trip which could coincide with the 20th anniversary of Timor-Leste’s historic vote for independence from Indonesia, which unlawfully occupied the country for 24 years. It’s why almost everyone there speaks fluent Indonesian, why Indonesian vocabulary stands in for words Tetun lacks—bengkel, kantor, es krem, pulsa—and why half of Timor-Leste’s population is younger than 19; around two-thirds of the country’s people were killed in the war, and after the 1999 vote repopulation efforts began. A post-war baby boom.
It was an independence that was bravely fought for, but never expected. Every day of peace is a gift; I knew that the 20th anniversary of the vote would be huge.
But I dithered over the idea of the trip. Excuses came easily. I didn’t really have the money for flights; I couldn’t really take time off from my new (casual) job; I’d only just begun to feel back settled at home in Perth; I felt tired.
But they were really a cover for the biggest one: I was afraid it’d be different.
That my dusky-pink memories would have fermented into something saccharine and unreal; that I’d be disappointed by the reality of hot, stinking, sweaty Dili if I ever returned. I wanted to dip straight back into my preserved memories; the same old friends and the same lazy beach brunches and weekend hikes in the eucalyptus hills behind the city and second-hand clothes shopping for crinkled holey blouses and the fridge red wine and giggling stories on my sweaty front porch eating whatever dried beans were 50 cents a bag from the guys who push the honking vegetable carts through suburban streets at sundown, calling modo! vegetables! in their gravelly voices; of buying Timor Telecom pulsa for five dolars, lima dolar, from the guys on street corners and complaining about messing up Tetun words and showing off about knowing which ATM had run out of cash and which supermarket had soda water and soy milk this week and oh, you don’t know that place? Okay, if you’re on the corner of that street that Lili’s warung is on and the street that WaterAid is on, and you’re looking down the hill, it’s diagonally opposite, you know the place?
What would it be like to leave and come back again?
I spent two nights in Darwin on my way there, because I couldn’t afford the $800 flight that arrived from Perth on the same day as my Dili departure. I didn’t think about Timor-Leste when I was in Darwin, really—instead, I drank good strong beer at the pub and climbed my bunk bed at the backpackers and read a serious book about rape culture and went to Coles for almonds and fancy crackers and Parmesan and watched a film at the Deckchair Cinema and bought my boyfriend’s brother new T-shirts at Vinnies and walked around in the squinting sunlight feeling happy to be in the warmth and apprehensive about the amount of work I had before me. But, buckled up in the plane for the hour-and-a-bit flight from Darwin to Dili, headphones in and sitting alone, I started smiling. A wave of quiet relief, of feeling in the place I didn’t know I needed to be at precisely the right time. The sting of the cool night gone and the creeping warmth a relief.
As my plane bounced down on that skinny Dili tarmac and I grinned an easy, manic grin at the boring billboards with their bimvendu mai Timor-Leste and the colourful sign of that Burger King that had almost stopped me leaving the country, I thought of the faith you need to decide that you want to do something and to go out and make it happen. I can’t control how Timor-Leste changes around me; it is different. It was always going to be different, going back. But I can control how I move within it. And this time, this trip, was new permission to feel foreign and clumsy and different without being angry at myself for it; for relaxing into being a clumsy outsider who’s slowly learning her way. To make mistakes and to be taken care of and accept help and exhale.
Cover by Omar Prestwich