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  • Writer's picturematshakesjones

Adjusting to life in Sydney after Timor-Leste

Updated: Jan 25, 2022

Between December 2018 and March 2020 I was an aid worker in Timor-Leste, a country just an hour’s flight from Darwin but with a markedly different culture. My time there was life-changing and back in Sydney now I am reflecting on how much I have changed from the experience.


I can still see lush blue ocean, lichen-covered rocks and white sand as I ride toward Cristo Rey, dust in my mouth, blinded by sweat, trying to steer my motorbike round the tight curves of the pot-holed road while waving at the smiling Timorese shouting ‘malae’ (foreigner) in my direction. I park up by Beachside Hotel and am immediately offered an array of fruit and vegetables by the men who sell their wares there. I politely decline, ‘hau diak agora obrigadu’ (I’m good at the moment, thank you) but realise this could be taken as rude by the vendors who are maybe not faring so well.


Climbing off the motorbike, I take off my helmet, light up a Marlboro Red and scan the occupants of the tables on the beach. There is the typical mix of UN personnel, diplomats, Australian and Kiwi volunteers, Portuguese lawyers, wealthy Timorese and older Australians who have somehow found their way to this isolated part of the world. I chat to the waitress in Tetum, a Timorese dialect, order a coffee and sit under the shaded entrance with my book. Another day in paradise: a different kind of paradise to any I had imagined, but paradise nonetheless.


My dream is broken by a garbage truck outside my apartment. A glimmer of light comes through the curtains and I see the houses and apartment blocks outside, so unlike the buildings in Dili. I stumble out of bed and notice the quiet after the truck moves on. Where are the roosters, dogs and the street sweepers of my previous home? I remember I can drink straight from the tap here and fill a glass. There’s none of the humidity here and I shiver. I am in Sydney again, for better or worse. I’ve been back for 18 months after my evacuation from Timor-Leste when COVID-19 hit. Maybe it’s because of lockdown or that Australia doesn’t feel the same as it was pre-COVID, but I feel caught between two worlds.


Outside, the low sun hits Hotel Bondi, casting gothic shadows and evoking a 1950s postcard a Welsh immigrant might send his family back in the valleys. Two people fake-cough as they walk past – smoking is a serious faux pas in Sydney. The tall modern buildings would dwarf those of Dili. I walk toward the café where they know my name, but don’t pass any stray cows or roosters on the road. I go to press the button on the pedestrian crossing but realise it is no longer needed; I wonder if I ever actually needed to press it and the government has now brought it to our attention. The road is mostly cars rather than scooters and no one is using their horn.


The wind picks up and I gaze at the waves crashing towards Bondi beach with men dancing atop their boards. A police riot van sits improbably on the concrete above the beach. I hear the heavy breath and smell the sweat of joggers before I see them tearing past. At muscle beach, bodybuilders in Speedos compare notes on workouts rather than doing any; two women in jeans have rigged up speakers and are doing squats; one guy has a film crew following him around as he does half a pull up. The beach looks combed and pristine, ready for the day. Someone mows the grassy knoll – at least it can get a cut these days. The windswept and unkempt beaches of Timor-Leste with their wild grass and vegetation are more my style. An unnecessary leaf blower punctures the scene. Surely a broom would be more efficient and ecological?


I am more aware of cultural intricacies since getting back to Sydney. Feeling disconnected, I have met new people and learned their stories. My disconnection goes back to a sunny winter’s day in Sydney in August 2018 when I met someone who would change my life. I was working for Youth Off The Streets Australia and approached Mitch Rose, Program Manager for an NGO in Timor-Leste, for advice on furthering my career in international development. In a cafe tucked among warehouses and factories in Alexandria, I learned of his community development programs in Timor-Leste. We smoked roll ups, laughed and shared stories about living overseas and ate shakshuka. The opportunity of a job didn’t come up, but this conversation would start a journey that would shape my future.


A few weeks later I was offered a role in Timor-Leste, a country I knew very little about. Just before Christmas I took the short flight from Darwin into a completely different world. The plane ride was mesmerising: huge cliffs against a stunning coastal backdrop, lush vegetation up high with sandy rock lower down. A view of the Cristo Rey statue served as the imposing entryway into a place I would call home for the next 16 months.


I passed through immigration and was greeted by numerous mikrolet drivers offering lifts. My employer met me and took me for breakfast. Driving through the city I saw the beautiful coastline, people exercising on the beach, vendors selling fish, fruit and vegetables and a riot of colourful, scrawling graffiti. The city was incredibly lively and bustling: motorbikes revving and beeping, reggaeton blaring, shops and houses and the relentless humidity which made clothing cling like a second skin.


Those 16 months were life-changing. As an aid worker working with a team of Timorese to respond to the needs of at-risk youth, I gained experience in responding to crises, working in marginalised communities. I loved the pressure, driven by adrenaline and extremely strong Timorese coffee. Days were chaotic – waking up at 5am for boxing training in preparation for a fight, riding my motorbike with abandon and working sometimes 12-hour days. My personal life was hurtling along too without me being able to catch up or let anything sink in – international flights, travel on weekends, drinking with new people, losing my father and grandmother. I gave myself no time to grieve or rest during that epic journey. Working from home now back in Sydney, life seems quiet I have struggled to adjust after so much turmoil and adventure.


What at first seemed so foreign in Timor-Leste became home. As an introvert, I struggled in the early months as it is customary in Timor-Leste to talk to everyone; as a foreigner, the locals took a keen interest in me. Our Western need for space clashed with the Timorese need for connection. I would return after work, exhausted by talking and being around people all day and would slam my gate and be grateful for a few hours on my own. The neighbouring children always seemed to find a way to breech my defences while their parents enquired after my welfare. Slowly I changed and practiced my Tetum skills with neighbours, colleagues and strangers. Back in Australia, I found myself talking to uninterested commuters on the train, scared-looking strangers on the street and neighbours in my building. Where previously I had ignored social contact, I now craved it.


There’s a word in Timor-Leste I grew to love: ‘seidauk’, meaning ‘not yet’. Ask whether someone has arrived at work yet and the response will be ‘seidauk’. Ask whether the boss of a partner organisation has confirmed a meeting yet, the response will be ‘seidauk’. Any progress on development objectives? ‘Seidauk.’ It is a non-judgemental word with an element of optimism added in. It hasn’t happened yet, a nice shrug of the shoulders, nothing to get worked up about. For a Westerner obsessed with time management, obsessed with goals, objectives and productivity, it is an important lesson in how to be – it is out of my control right now, so why worry?


The laughs I remember most. I returned home from work one night and there was a tropical downpour. Drenched, I got off my motorbike and ran for shelter, saying to the two security guards ‘udan boot’, meaning ‘big rain’. They laughed and said ‘udan boot’ back to me... continuing to laugh. Every night after that, no matter what the weather, they would say, ‘udan boot’ and we would laugh.


Every morning when I got into the office, I would sit down feeling all around me the thick, humid air and heat and remark to my colleague ‘ohin loron iha manas loos’ (‘today it is very hot’). He would reply, ‘sin maun, iha mana loos’ and we would lose it… every day. The laughter, the joy in simple things, the sheer humanity and fellowship. I could not fail to undergo a change.


I have seidauk found my place back in Sydney but spend a lot of time in the beautiful parks, coastal walks and museums reflecting on my time away. I have been trying to learn more about Aboriginal culture whilst I have also learnt more about the many people here who have often moved from far away with equally fascinating stories. I have tried to retain the Timorese sense of humour and also not stress about things which haven’t happened yet. I grew as a person by learning from the Timorese way of life: they have walked a path out of a dark history which I admire and am in awe of. I realise that I am seidauk there yet... but I am on my way.


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