Day Nine in Timor-Leste
A solo semi-adventure to the print shop this morning taught me how to say “nice to meet you” in Indonesian: senang bertemu anda - and it also made me realise just how much my Australian accent and freckly skin carry me through when I’m travelling.
You’ll notice that Sophie, Geordie and Inika are (and will continue to be) absent from today’s story. They spent the two days we had in Dili between Atauro Island and our post-trip holiday to Baucau in external meetings with other NGOs and government departments, so I spent most of today by myself. You’ll hear more about their day from them soon, but for now, here’s my solo day (my single contribution to the meeting preparation was the trip to the print shop to get their brief documents organised).
The print shop manager, John, was a chatty Indonesian guy, and as his colleague formatted and stapled my documents, we got talking. He taught me “nice to meet you” in both Bahasa and Tetun (I stumbled through both on my way out), we took a few awkward selfies on his phone, and he only laughed a little bit when I got disoriented trying to exit and tried to leave back into the building.
John was the first Indonesian I’d met in Timor. Indonesia shares a border with Timor’s eastern edge, and after Timor declared its independence from colonist Portugal in 1975, Indonesia almost immediately invaded. It subjected Timor to 24 years of systematic torture, massacre, starvation and brutality, against a strong resistance from local fighters and international outcry, including condemnation from the United Nations. Approximately a fifth of the country’s population was killed.
Growing up in Perth, I knew Indonesia as the tranquil archipelago that housed our family’s favourite holiday destination, Bali (the trip to Denpasar is shorter and cheaper than the flights to each Melbourne and Sydney). And the Balinese know Australians like me as harmless, sweaty, bogan tourists who have the money to over-spend in an economy heavily reliant on tourist dollars.
It took until the moment I was grinning into a stranger’s phone to realise the sheer privilege of not having to worry about how well I’ll be received in a new country.
That stemmed mainly from the surprise I registered watching John, an Indonesian, seemingly fit so neatly into life in Timor. Imagining myself in someone else’s shoes, I would have thought a Timorese citizen might have been wary, dismissive or even violent towards a person who represents what Timor resisted against in its battle for independence.
(It’s important to note here that I’m not trying to attach John to the violence in Timor two decades ago - but merely to offer context for my own surprise. If my parents had been oppressed by a stranger’s government I don’t think I’d be as playful as his smiling Timorese colleagues; equally, if I knew my country had occupied the country I was currently living in I’d be warier, more reserved and more defensive than the guy who happily taught me to say nice to meet you, and seemed genuine when he repeated it in farewell later).
Maybe it was my proximity to that hypothetical that made me start thinking like this - the Timorese and Australian governments are currently in negotiations at the Hague over the maritime border (and oil wealth) the countries share in the Timor Sea.
Timor’s government might not be so fond of Australia’s right now - so how would its people feel about me?
It was the first time I’d ever had to contemplate what it could feel like to be unwelcome, and it was the first time that my Australian passport, freckly smiley face and wallet full of cash didn’t immediately brand me as future best friend. I felt vulnerable, and it was unfamiliar.
I wasn’t unwelcome. People here - regardless of background, ethnic or otherwise - are universally friendly, welcoming, polite and patient. And it’s given me the space to realise how preposterously lucky I am that this is the first time I’ve ever had to contemplate the reverse.
I hope I haven’t seemed entitled to friendship or favouritism each time I’ve entered a new country (and don’t worry; I’m savvy enough to know at least that the Kuta market vendors are as happy to see my desire for a dream catcher as they are me) - inside I know I deserve nothing more than ordinary, but with my new self-awareness I’m worried I’ve previously seemed entitled by accident. These two weeks in Timor are a bit of a gift in that sense - I’m so grateful for this experience for prising open my understanding of myself, millimetre by millimetre.
After leaving the print shop I grabbed a taxi to head back to our hotel. The driver was friendly, and we chatted a bit (I tried gosta hasoru ita bot on him, and his gentle laughter meant either he was pleased to meet me, too, or my clumsy pronunciation rendered my Tetun indecipherable). He said he was happy to meet an Australian, and I asked him if he was sure about that. He said yes, he was.