In the week leading up to my departure, I started to let people know that I was leaving. The reactions I got were quite endearing, and unexpected. Most often I was told, by people who knew very little about me, including taxi drivers and people I had just met, that I should send their compliments to my family.
Often, by women or regular acquaintences, I would get “O! Coitada.” Poor thing. You are leaving us, poor thing! While it may seem quite presumptuous, that they somehow knew that I loved Timor and had a very special relationship with the place, I suppose maybe in my speaking Tetum and general outlook, I relayed this to them.
Many people told me that ‘people like me’ (i.e. those who bother to learn the local language) should stay in Timor. I admitted to them that I myself had begun to think that Timor would continue to occupy a central role in my life. Certainly in the next year, I will continue to obsess over a small remote area of East Timor where in 1959 a group of disgruntled civil servants and traditional leaders took up arms (with the help of some Indonesians) against their colonizers. I am going to Portugal to read for a couple of months in the colonial archives in Torre do Tombo in Lisbon.
But I have told myself and others that I would like to return to work again. It just seems crazy to invest so much of yourself, not just learning language, but really getting to know a place, the good and the bad, to leave it after only 2 years. Toward the end, I began to feel like those ‘lifer’ type people who I had written off as crazy only a couple of weeks before. I have friends who have been in Timor for three years and want to stay at least another two. And I wouldn’t say its because they are vagabond, degenerate foreigners who have nothing better to do. It’s because there is something so addictive about the place for a small group of us.
I remember when I asked my friend Heike what she would miss about Timor the most, and her response was so simple, but so true: the ocean. I suppose it’s the ocean, and what it represents. The calming influence of the ocean is profoundly affecting. (It is so gentle on the north coast due to the reefs and ocean currents.)
We live so close to the ocean. Two of the three roads leaving Dili hug the coastline, winding around mountains. I remember trying to describe the Pacific Coast Highway in California to a Timorese friend, then I realized that we were driving on an equally spectacular route at that very moment.
The ocean also represents Timor’s distance from the world. Everything which is not hauled across the border is brought through a small port. If you want Oreo cookies, you can find them. But they were transported across Southeast Asia via the ocean. Once the ocean was what brought foreigners to Timor to exploit sandalwood and buy slaves. But now it is serving to isolate Timor, perhaps to protect it, perhaps just to drive up prices.
While I suppose the full range of western shopping attractions have reached East Timor, for me it is a place of limited consumption. A place where I do not feel like a mutant for not buying (or wanting to buy) new clothes every month. This is a rare feeling in the world. In my other experiences outside of the US I was never able to feel so completely apart from the consumerism which is so disturbing to me personally.
The last thing that I will miss about East Timor is all of the constant work put into interpersonal relationships and understanding people. I think part of what frustrates other people about Timor is exactly what I have enjoyed and learned from. Arriving in East Timor is not like arriving in an African or Latin culture. It is not closed per se, but making friends and winning people’s confidence is a process which takes time. I leave East Timor with only a small handful of friends. I know scores and scores of people and they know me. But I only have an open, friendly rapport with a couple. I have good working relationships, which I can tell developed over the 1 year I worked there.
Maybe you can detect I am slipping into some kind of colonial-era generalization of a people. But hear me out. Timorese people can be very tough. Maybe it is a strange comparison, but some, if not many, exhibit turtle-like tendencies. One little noise, or fright or reason to distrust you, and it will be a long time before you might see their head again.
Timor is a place where you earn personal relationships. You nurture them, and take nothing for granted. It is a place where ‘history’ if we want to objectify it as such, lives inside of people. I am a changed malai leaving this place.