It’s my last two weeks in Timor-Leste before we head back to New Zealand for Christmas and for me to return to work in the New Year and it’s got me thinking about all the things I’ll miss.
So, here’s a list, in no particular order.
I’ll miss the heat. That lush, moist 34 degrees that saturates right through to your bones. All those aches and pains of tight tired joints disappears into a mass of sweat and I end up feeling wet right through. The sweat, salty on my upper lip, rivulets of moisture running down my back and into my undies. Getting onto my scooter after a swim and the seats so hot my togs dry instantly; I imagine the steam rising off around me.
The ground so hot on my bare feet that I can’t stand on the concrete for too long and I have to hop across patches of grass to my jandals.
I’ll miss my jandals. My sandals. Not wearing shoes for nearly a year. Sitting at beachside with my toes in the sand, a stray dog leaning against my ankles. Feet so black after a day out they need scrubbed before I head to bed.
I’ll miss the animals. Even the rooster starting at 4.30 and crowing most of the day. The pigs and goats on the street out in the villages. The monkey who looks at me with disdain down by the massage place, the baby deer and chickens. The dogs, all the dogs. And the lizards who skitter up the wall and into the cracks in the roof. The cats genetically strange, born with only half a tail. The pig on the beach during the screening of Babe. So many baby animals. The water buffalo and the wild horses. The cattle. Even the cockroaches who duck out from under the loo when I’m on my 4th visit through the night, I’ll even miss those bloody parasites that make my guts dangerously temperamental.
Ill miss the bum washer. How Western cultures cope without one seems frankly unsanitary and a bit mental. Serving not only as a handheld bidet it comes in super handy for filling a bucket to wash your smalls and reef shoes after a snorkel.
I’ll miss the sea. A constant daily reminder of a small island paradise. The water warm as blood, holding me aloft as I float in its wave less arms. And then sometimes crashing against the shore, tossing up sand and stones, too fierce to even paddle in. All the kids in the afternoon playing in the shallows, mothers walking amongst the receding tide looking for small fish and crabs, the fishermen on the streets, holding their spears in one hand, a tangle of octopus in the other. The small boats and drying nets along the esplanada.
I’ll miss the legend of grandfather crocodile, the shape of Timor-Leste his back as he rose out of the sea, his image in art and crafts everywhere.
I’ll miss the iconography of a country that embraces Catholicism and animism in equal measure. The churches, grand and grander, right next to the uma lulik (the spirit houses). The conflict of modern religion and ancient mysticism where the greatest deterrent to bad behavior is the idea of a generational curse. The conflict and contrast of a huge youth population in the city with access to the world via the internet and mobile phones, and the bigger majority out in villages where water and food are a constant issue and traditional values continue to hold sway.
Where marriage is consecrated in the village, the combining of families tied to the amount of cattle provided as a dowry by the husband’s family, with numbers sometimes so great the families remain linked in a sort of cattle debt for generations. And then married later in the church, with your children in tow.
I’ll miss the children. So many children. 6 per family makes sense when viewed against a post-conflict backdrop when so many were lost and like any post war baby boom it’s not just about replenishing numbers but also about a real and very deeply felt hope for the future. So many children, so many under 30’s.
I’ll miss the rarity of seeing our lovely grandma. Elegant and quiet as she moves around the compound, sweeping up the leaves, making things just so.
I’ll miss the cemeteries where ancestors and more recent family members are treated to lavish grave sites, some costing as much as the house the family currently live in. Where folk gather on mass during high days and light candles and clean graves. Our almost daily ride past the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili which saw the massacre of at least 250 pro-independence demonstrators on the 12 November 1991, during the Indonesian occupation.
I’ll miss the flags and what they represent. The sense of a new country rising from its colonial past, covered in no small amount of blood, hopeful for a brighter future.
I’ll miss the food. The supermarkets with their startling array of weird and wonderful products shipped in from just about everywhere. The frozen meat from New Zealand, the Brazilian chickens, the Chinese fish, the ice cream from Thailand, the vegemite from Australia, the huge number of beauty products with extra “whitening”. Including some for your nether regions, from Indonesia. Fresh vegetables and fruit from the markets, avocados, passionfruit, tomatoes, chili, peppers, sweet potato and sweet bananas. Oh, those sweet bananas.
I’ll miss knowing that I can find dairy here this week, but not next. That I won’t see any more paper until the next container comes in. That if there’s something I might want sometime then the time to purchase is right now cos there’s no guarantee I’ll see it for another 2 months.
I’ll miss all the places we eat, the “Not Have”, when you ask for the same thing you’ve eaten every time you come. Sweet and Sour chicken? Not have. What? Not have chicken. The fish, rice and vegetables for 3 bucks. I’ll miss the best fish curry I’ve ever eaten anywhere. Mark will miss the cheap Bintang.
I’ll miss the chaos of a busy run to work in the morning on my scooter, and the quiet quiet streets on a Sunday when everyone is at Mass. Riding home at 9.30pm when the streets are dark, and the air is warm on my bare skin. The streets sparkling with open fires of barbeques, groups of people sitting, smoking, talking quietly in the dark. Karaoke pumping out from behind gates, food smells and a life being well lived after dark.
I’ll miss riding my scooter. The 6-hour adventures in the saddle, when my arse is so sore, I whimper when I finally get off the seat. The terrible, good, terrible, great, terrible road where I inch along at 15kph. The great swaths of potholes and loose gravel, the steamy melting black oily tar which makes my eyes water, the 4 lane Chinese built highways to nowhere. The kids calling out greetings as I ride through the smaller villages. Taking a pee on the side of the road, there’s no public bathrooms, eating in the warangs and learning quickly to order what the locals are having. Finding the local market, staying in the guesthouse. Power out at midnight and no diesel for the generator, a knock at the door and a lantern passed through to light my way. Discovering a waterfall with a bunch of kids who strip off and encourage me into the water, laughing at my age, my white skin, my otherness?
The cooler hills, the change of scenery as I go inland, trees and birds and mist as I climb up and over the crocodiles back. Street stalls on the coast laden with chili oiled fish hot off the grill and woven flax bags of steamed rice, bananas from the mountains. Salt for sale, or pineapples.
I’ll miss unlimited internet for $30 a month with coverage even in the remotest area, $40 a month for power and gas. I’ll miss a bag of 8 chicken sausages (not sure about whether it’s actual chicken) for $1. $3 a fortnight to fill my scooter with petrol, 20 litres of water for $1. I’ll miss the car wash where the guys spend half an hour on my bike and charge me $1 (I always give them 2). Where they’ll check your tire for a flat and turn down any money you offer. I’ll miss my washing being done and coming back folded so well I never need to iron, for $5.
I’ll miss my tiny Thai grandma’s energetic massages, her strong fingers rubbing away the knots and her laughing as I groan when she folds me in two.
I’ll miss my newfound friendships forged in the trenches and around conversations about discomfort, the heat, the strangeness of a day, the long sometimes sleepless nights. I’ll miss making space in my life to let newcomers in and the joy in finding friends like I did as a kid.
What is the most important thing in the world? He Tangata, He Tangata, He Tangata. It is the people, the people, the people.
And oh how I shall miss the people. Battered by a bloodied past and working so hard towards a brighter future. The idea that we are only better off because of an accident of birth that delivered us into our lives in the Western developed world. Where riding past the casket maker I reflect on the thin line here between life and death, and that idea that life is hard but joy and family and love still seem ever present.
I’ll miss being stared at and spoken to at the lights, in the shops, while I stand outside the café. The constant greetings from everyone and last week when I was shocked by a terrible accident witnessed on the road, the small girl who threw her arms around me and squeezed my hips,” botarde mana botarde” she said.
I’ll miss the protective skin I have shed in the last year, but welcome the newness of my slightly brown flesh and the clarity of my ability to see the world through a different lens.
I hope I have given as much as I have taken.
I hope I am missed too.
Viva Timor-Leste, Viva.