Like any relationship, my love affair with Timor-Leste has its rough patches. The last week, in fact, has resembled sandpaper with seemingly never-ending roughness. It wasn’t enough to force a break-up, or even the silent treatment, but it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing.
I’m the kind of person who suffers occasionally from Extreme Low Tolerance or ELT. Episodes of ELT often occur when I’ve been spending too much time with one person. Or, sometimes they’ll just happen for no reason at all. But I’ll suddenly find the tiniest thing that someone does worthy of homicide. That annoying smacking, chewing sound people make when they eat. Not putting something back in its rightful spot. Little, ridiculous things have the potential to drive me completely mad.
Timor, this week, has had that effect on me. And no amount of reminding me that I’m currently trying to live and work in the poorest country in the region can help.
Communication problems are at the top of my list. The very top. In large, bold, italic, underscored font.
I have a Timorese mobile. It seems to decide on its own who it will and will not send messages to. I can call anyone, at any time. But a text message? That’s a whole different story. My sister receives most of the messages I send her; my mum and my best friend received one or two when I first got here, but haven’t gotten any since. And I have no idea why.
The internet is expensive. I knew that before I got here. I was prepared for it. What I wasn’t prepared for was connections that are slower than dial-up speeds. I would actually be better off sending a carrier pigeon. Pigeons are consistent. They’re kind of always around, coo-ing away, not seeming as though they’re particularly busy. I think they’d be happy to do something constructive. It would be much easier I’m sure, to train a pigeon than to try to open Outlook from the goddamn internet cafe with its owner that can somehow be on porn sites, partaking in dirty web-chats while I can’t even get Google to load.
Next on my list would be dealing with bureaucracy. I don’t do well with it in the best of circumstances, let alone when there’s a language barrier, email addresses that don’t work, and a visa that is rapidly approaching its expiry date. I did the right thing. I applied for my research visa months before I departed. Three months before, to be exact. I obliged when they asked for additional information that nobody else seems to have to provide. I patiently waited when I failed to get a response. I didn’t question the fact that I had to follow it up twice more, before being told that it had been approved for processing a month after I submitted additional documentation and that it would take eight weeks. That was ten weeks ago. I’ve tried to follow it up three times in the last two weeks and I haven’t gotten a response. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Which means I now get the joyous experience of a trip to Immigration, and all that such a venture will entail.
I’m completely aware of the fact that all of my complaints fall squarely into the “First World Problems” category. I really am. It’s easy to dismiss little problems like not being able to check my emails as trivial. Living them, however, is a different story.
I will continue to remind myself that Timor-Leste is a new country. It is underdeveloped. Infrastructure is not what I’m used to – much of it was destroyed by the Indonesians or during the violence that followed Independence. Services are not what I’m used – businesses and the government are still relatively new and ironing out kinks in their systems. I don’t know the language. Frustrations will happen.
But Timor and I won’t be breaking up any time soon.
Because for all of the little annoyances and all of the little things that hinder a productive day, Timor seems to give back a little niceness. A moment that can make the frustration dissolve for a while.
Last week, two of my housemates and I were caught in a monsoonal downpour at the markets. We were totally unprepared and umbrella-less. We’d resigned ourselves to getting completely saturated when out of nowhere, two of the stallholders handed us umbrellas. They laughed as we thanked them profusely and told us we could bring them back the following day. A moment of kindness from strangers.
When I walk down my street, the kids call out. They ask how I am, shake my hand, or burst into a rendition of Old McDonald Had A Farm. They know the words in English, and they giggle when I sing along. My neighbor brings her baby son, Valentino, over to say hello. I kiss his chubby little cheeks and he smiles and babbles away.
It’s the little things. The little things that are frustrating, but also the little things that make me smile.