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Day One in Timor-Leste

Day One in Timor-Leste

I arrived in Dili just after 7am today, after a patchwork flight up the country from Melbourne that involved just as much layover time as it did time in transit. Such an interrupted night’s sleep might have felled someone less excited; but in my enthusiasm I fell happily off the plane and into Geordie’s waiting taxi - though not before he greeted me with a cheery “How’s your Tetun?” and an instruction to direct the driver home myself.

Thanks to Geordie’s patient repeats, I stumbled through the pronunciation, and we were soon en route to the hostel he, Sophie and Inika were staying at. I gaped out the taxi window as we drove - the wide, still ocean silent by my elbow; the tight rows of tin-roofed shanty shops lining the streets; the T-shirted people out and busy in the already-warm morning sun.

Though I was glad for the blast of heat that greeted me as I stepped off the plane - an open oven door after a rainy week back home - the temperature spent the morning climbing, and by the time I was briefed over breakfast (and two cups of coffee), I was sweating through my cotton shirt. We took another taxi to Nicolau Lobato - one of two schools that work with Oaktree’s Timorese partner, Ba Futuru - and I began the day by observing Sophie and Inika conduct an evaluation session with the school’s management committee, and taking a quick tour of the school (it has orange walls and a huge flat-leafed tree in its courtyard’s centre, which acted as a perfect shade for the Ba Futuru staff clustered beneath it).

We went to Ba Futuru’s office for lunch - a feast of vegetables, tempeh, rice and meat - and then returned to work: Sophie, Inika and Geordie ran sessions with teachers, and I met with several Ba Futuru staff: Angel, Manu and Sierra, who each patiently explained to me the students I could interview for our filming days in Dilli; listening to and workshopping my ideas; and explaining the context Ba Futuru was operating in. I felt like I learned a lot about Timor’s history and the problems it faces today - and was also made intimately aware of the potential in its huge youth population to really excel. We decided to ask the students in some of our interviews what they’d fix if they were Prime Minister of Timor: to understand Timor’s challenges, from the perspective of its people, but to frame them as the opportunities they really well could be.

In the evening I met with a teenage girl - a student at Nicolau Lobato - who’s a member of the drama club keen to participate in our filming. I asked her a lot of questions about her background; she carefully answered some of them in English; we made a time to film tomorrow; and with her parents’ approval, this video we came over to shoot - this video we’ve been planning for two months now - will start production tomorrow.

We left Ba Futuru exhausted and delirious, pathetically clutching those oversized 1.5L water bottles - but happy. We caught a mikrolet to a restaurant to eat our dinner, before clambering over several patient Timorese into another sweaty mikrolet home - a fantastic, cramped converted van-bus hybrid, costing 25c a ride and accepting hangers-on outside the bus if the body’s full of white tourists and their water bottles. Inika has a knack already of making transport friends - she clambered off the bus halfway through a conversation with her second Timorese travel mate of the evening - and Sophie’s intuition for knowing exactly when to knock her coins against the metal and request the bus to stop was dead-on. And Geordie - well, without him and his translating, I’d likely still be standing at that airport - excited; sure, but having missed out on that entire day. And right now, in our hostel, newly showered and quietly listening to those three plan their sessions for tomorrow, about to crash but still holding on - I couldn’t think of anything worse than missing out on all this.

Sweat stains aside.