Adjusting to Daily Life in Timor-Leste

I’ve never been one for routines, but I am learning for myself that the hum of consistency is something I may have appreciated more than originally thought. I still seek spontaneity, but I am finding less energy to pursue it when more essential needs are no longer unconditionally satisfied. Living under the contingency that I might not be able to find the ingredients that I wanted for a recipe at the supermarkets depending on shortages, or that my AC might break, or that I’ll get stuck at work for hours due to rain are possibilities here that I never previously had to consider. The inability to control such aspects of daily life most certainly drains energy that I would like to be spending on personal reflection, but I trust that I’ll have plenty of time for that later (whether that be a couple of months from now, or in a year). In the meantime, I’ll just focus on writing things down as I see them.

Once I get into more of a rhythm with life here, I anticipate that the blog will also follow. Hopefully I’ll be able to sit down and truly write out some thoughts and feelings, rather than the prosaic informational spew being procured for you at the moment.


Some interesting aspects of daily life:

  • I am learning Tetun, as it is the working language of my office and is essential for daily communication with the staff. Being sick slowed down my studying process over this first month, but I did take an introductory class, and plan to dive in with a tutor soon.
  • The Tetun word for foreigner is “Malae.” Timorese will often address foreigners using the term, but it is not meant to be derogatory. When addressing one another in normal conversation, the most common phrase is “Maun,” or “Mana,” which mean brother and sister. Tetun is the lingua franca of the capital, and is gradually making its way across the country, although there are 15-19 functional local languages as well. Bahasa Indonesia, Portuguese, and English are also spoken by some, in that order of commonality.
  • Except for a few essential buildings in the center of town, Dili does not have a landline network for telephones or broadband. Therefore, all internet access at home goes through my cell phone, which I then connect to my computer. 2.5gigabytes of data costs $10, and I am using about $40 dollars worth of internet per month, with my telephone and computer activities combined. I hear that satellite broadband may be coming soon…
  • Power outages and surges are possible, although I have only seen one of each since arriving – seems like this aspect has improved pretty significantly in Dili since I was last here.
  • The quality of the tap water is quite bad. Sewage may be mixed in, and if you look at it in a cup, it will frequently appear brown. Therefore, locals and foreigners alike do not use the water for consumption. However, restaurants may use the tap water to “clean” there food, especially in the rest of the country, where access to potable water is possible, but significantly more difficult to obtain on a consistent basis, and more expensive. Here in town, I am able to walk across the street and purchase 16-gallon jugs drinking of water for $1. They are cycled through a treatment plant, and while many foreigners have also questioned their purity, it seems to be working out alright.
  • Dili has a population of about 250,000, but because of the international support and attention received during the independence process, there continue to be a significant number of mostly-western expatriates living and working in the city (I have heard estimates of around 3,500). Australians, New Zealanders, Chinese, and Portuguese make up the majority. This number does not account for an unknown number of migrant workers, who mostly come from China, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, and the Philippines (under various degrees of coercion) to work mostly in construction, restaurants, and prostitution. Because of poor border controls, Timor-Leste is vulnerable to exploitation as a transit, source, and destination point for human trafficking activity.
  • The case of the Portuguese migrants to Timor-Leste are most interesting to me, because of their connection to their pre-1975 colonial legacy. The Portuguese brought with them the Catholic Church, but managed to build little else in the way of infrastructure or institutions in their ~400 year tenure. Despite this, the Timorese still hold the Portuguese in high regard, an affection perhaps enhanced when held in contrast with the painful memories of Indonesian occupation. In this context, Portuguese migrants proudly return to their former colony, a place where their social status as most-esteemed guests may well exceed one of economic insecurity at home.
  • The cost of living in Dili is remarkably high. At first glance, I reckon that it is because most of the activities that I would consider normal, like going to restaurants, are luxuries that only the most privileged Timorese can afford. Therefore, meals end up very similarly priced to what I would find at home ($7-$13). There are indonesian-style “warungs,” which serve rice, meat, and steamed vegetables for around $1.5-$4, but I’ve been taking it easy on these since I got food poisoning a couple of weeks ago.
  • Tourism is sputtering to life. However, outside of Dili, online information for trip planning and the ability to make formal reservations are limited. Only the most experienced travelers who are comfortable improvising would be likely to navigate the terrain successfully.  However, living in a nation with the most biodiverse reef life in the world, a peculiar national history, and such incredible natural beauty, it’s remarkable that more people don’t visit.

More to come soon…