Sunday, December 21, 2014

On bailing: a lucky dip of reasons

I thought I would begin this somewhat-negative post with a picture of my favourite part of Dili - I don't have a good reason, but whenever I motorbiked through that particular arch-way (tree, flowering tree, palm trees) I would think Dili is so beautiful. I didn't always think Dili was beautiful, or a want to be there, so this was a note-worthy little spot. 

To be clear, I'm writing this in the past-tense. I quit Timor-Leste. I quit a lot of other things simultaneously, I had a big quitting spree. I quit my 20s. I quit certain bad habits (and, hopefully, picked up some good ones). I quit my job and I also quit adhering to a notion of myself no longer proper to the self I am today (as my nordic Rune stones would tell it).  

I wrote 'a letter to my 16 year old self' while in Dili, to nut out some of these issues between the person I once wanted to be and the person I actually am. Here is an excerpt: 

"I won’t say it’s a mistake, because in the end I’ll be glad I did it. I’m glad now. There’s a nice breeze blowing through my seaside house in Dili and I am truly glad. However. I also know that I am no longer interested in being tough. I am okay with being tender instead. I’m okay with vulnerability, and delicacy, and the desire for community.

I can see you screwing up your house, muttering ‘hippie’ under your breath.

Well, I guess the apple hasn’t fallen that far after all.

Here I am, writing to my past self about community. And dreaming of stability, and a herb garden, and a constant routine. So, now that I just turned 30, dear young Leilana I’d like to thank you for your boldness and audacity. We did some crazy shit. We went to some wild parties, some sparkling places. I’m not closing the door on that, entirely, but I have bought some blinds. Or something. Some useful metaphor to say: no, thank you, for now." 

I'm not in Timor-Leste anymore and even with only one day's distance, it can be hard to remember the whys or wherefores of past emotions. It can be hard to remember instinctive truths; I replace them, instead, with images, with snapshots of what was actually a full-time life. 

To try and grasp at the past I'm dipping into some of the journal writing I did, so if this post seems fragmented, it is - because it will move between the past and now (where I am about to swim in a pool over-looking rice fields) and because my time in Timor-Leste actually did feel a bit fragmented to me. My friend Q was on the same plane as me, leaving, and she said "this is a bit of a weird time for you, you're going to be like... 'once I lived in Timor-Leste for three months,' and it won't seem real."

I said, I know - that's why I bought a t-shirt.

One of many embassies on 'Beach Road.' This one: China

Next door to the embassy

"Living in such a small country, like extremely small (not to mention new, and poor, and a host of other adjectives) feels like living in a parody of the nation state. First of all, there are all of the Ministers. It feels, sometimes, like every third person is the Minister of Something or the Chief of This, the Director of That or the Special Rapporteur of Obscure Bureaucratic Processes. This has good comedy value, but it also feels mildly sinister; sometimes driving past the rows of lavish embassies, lined up, facing the sea (prime real estate for big, largely empty buildings with no windows, excellent) gives me chills." - 17 November, 2014. 

"My pitiful imagination failed entirely to conceive of Timor Leste. It’s funny now to look back and try to visualize what it was I was anticipating; someone even asked me “what were you hoping for?” I don’t know. Every other place I have lived I have loved more than I expected, especially places I had even some negative connotations about, like Colombia and Israel. Those places still make my heart heave. People tell me about how that happened to them with Timor, they say it like “oh, so typical, I came for three months and stayed four years! Happens to everyone here!” and I say “well, except I’m the opposite” and I feel like a postcard picture of negativity; a Debbie-downer on solo parade. They look out, usually directly at the glittering aquamarine waters, or the swaying palm trees, and back at me, with that why on their faces. Why not this?

To write honestly about negative experiences is hard; I feel like people desperately want other people to be positive (maybe especially their friends, but maybe just most people in general). People want me to tell them about how beautiful Timor-Leste is (and it is), how great ‘the people’ are (someone once wrote that ‘people’ are white and ‘the people’ are brown, genius), what madcap adventures I went on. All of those things are true and all of those things are obvious. Those things have also been true for every other place I have lived, so they feel bland, like commenting on how a meal has the right amount of salt.

I’ve travelled in places which are ‘difficult for women’ before. I lived in India for five months, famously a haven of harassment, and I spent time in Bogota, which recently ‘won’ most dangerous city for women on public transport (I certainly had men rub against me in the collectivo). But, I don’t know why, but it just feels worse here. It feels relentless. My ‘female’ being feels like a giant neon sign I carry around, and I feel like even when I’m not directly harassed, the looking and the thinking is so loud. That makes me sound like a real primadonna thoughtpolice over here, but I don’t quite know how else to describe the heavily charged atmosphere.

I don’t know any long-term ladies who haven’t been victims of some kind of grabbing/ molesting/ following ‘incident’ (we call them incidents here – I had an incident, she had an incident, everyone already knows what kind of thing it would entail and obviously it’s up to the person in question as to how much they want to tell). I had a child grab my ass while I was turning into an alley on my motorbike. A child. He grabbed me and yelled to his friends to see and made lewd sexual gestures. It was the strangest event, because here is someone who (one assumes) doesn’t yet have a sexual drive mimicking a learnt misogyny. It perfectly illustrates the fact harassment is violence, and isn’t driven by sexual desire (it isn’t men who can’t control their urges, it’s a masculinity defined by the disrespect and public humiliation of women).

In any case, this one factor seems like the easiest one to latch onto to describe my rapid departure, but – in truth – as an isolated issue I would learn to live with it, as women who love Timor-Leste have. The fact is that the little wire-tap into my heart isn’t here, and it’s like how you go on a date with a guy who is everything, on paper, that you want. He’s super smart, his job is amazing (way better than mine!), he’s funny, self-effacing and not bad looking. He’s a bit short, but really, that’s who you are now? He has your favourite tv series as a box-set. But for some reason, some mystical, stupid, frustrating reason, your heart won’t join the party. Your brain is there, with cocktails and streamers at the ready, but heart stays home. Heart shrugs, like guys like this just come along all the time (hey, guess what heart? They fucking don’t). Heart would prefer to spend the evening playing on facebook, or ‘working on my writing’ (what), so it all falters, it falls away and you try to be as jovial about it as possible. It’s obvious to everyone, but you try to soften it. It’s so beautiful here, I say, and I really, truly mean it. But I’m also not sad to go." 

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