Notes from the Road: Dili, Timor-Leste

Views from Dili's Cristo Rei statue
Views from Dili’s Cristo Rei statue

At the start of my 14-week venture abroad, I received some critical advice from a globetrotting Confidant, “Find the small things that you like and focus on them. Trying to take the whole experience on at once can be overwhelming.”

Though I’ve been told this many times, even during moments of daily life in the States, the additional tips that were to follow is what my migrant heart mostly noted. These tips enlightened me on a very well described cycle to long-term stints as an étranger working in international development: 1) Honeymoon; 2) Nose Dive; 3) Depression/Despair/Disdain; 4) A single victory; 5) Gradual improvements and further victories; 6) “Oh shit, it’s time to leave already?”

Having kicked off my 14-week stint in Amman, Jordan with a 2-week field course (context: I’m currently a graduate student), afterwards I ventured to Dili, Timor-Leste for a 12-week field internship. Like many others, I had no clue that this least developed island-country, located in the Southeast Asia Pacific near Indonesia and Australia, even existed. But it very much does exist, and up until the independence of South Sudan in 2011, Timor-Leste was known as the worlds youngest country.

So how does one fare in going from never leaving the United States since moving from the DRC at age 6, to now living in a seemingly ignored/unknown part of the world for 12 weeks at age 25? Well simple, I followed the advice of finding the small things I like and focusing on them – unfortunately not without some disdain and a bit of homesickness at times.

In short, these six stages for long-term stints as an étranger, is/has ended up being quite precise.

1) Honeymoon
Upon arriving to Dili, I was a bit frighten and apprehensive, but overall excited. Till now the idea of experiencing life and carrying out work in a developing country was merely novelty. But at this moment, I was set to turn the page on my meager novel of international inexperience, into a new chapter filled with cultural exchange and global citizenship. The local food is tasty and cheap, the spicy chili even better. Cab rides tend to be no more then US$2-$3 (cheaper if not malie*). And laundry?! Forget about it –that’s handled (folded and ironed) by the hotel staff. Also to top it off, the island was in a perpetual state of summer year round. Ladies and Gents – MK had arrived in Paradise!

2) Nose Dive
My downward plunge from honeymoon however was quite sudden. The reality and many times limitations of living in a least developed country as a étranger is perplexing. On one end you’re relieved that paved roads, Wi-Fi, Burger King, and places to gym exist, but on the other it’s still unmistakably noticeable that life here is far from the luxury of western abundance and indulgence. Even with these sprinkles of modern necessities, I became immersed in a culture with very humbling living standards.

3) Depression/Despair/Disdain
Being warned of this 3rd cycle felt a bit far-fetched. Because c’mon, I’m only on this island for 12 weeks –- I’m out as fast as I’m in. But nonetheless, 3 to 4 weeks in, I began to truly question my choice of career path. I began asking myself why couldn’t I do something normal like be a Lawyer, Doctor, Teacher or something. I wondered if my pursuit for global adventure and change making truly had to translate to ‘development practitioner.’ Besides, there are a slew of articles and ongoing debate for how aid has tended to be ineffective, and how through it colonialism persists in some of the most disdainful ways. I asked myself what difference will and am I truly making by being on an island for 12 weeks, that seems to be experiencing very marginal development progress?! Depression, despair, and disdain had surfaced.

Left to Right: 1) Birthday Celebration at Diza; 2) Sunset at Caimeo Resort in Liquisa (a district near Dili); 3) Monkeys for US$5 which I seriously contemplated buying
Left to Right: 1) Birthday Celebration at Diza; 2) Sunset at Caimeo Resort in Liquisa (a district near Dili); 3) Monkeys for US$5 which I seriously contemplated buying

4) A single victory
Far from honeymooning, and now grappling with a state of decline in morale. The only remedy I knew to help me sail through these winds was exercise and taking on additional workload. The group I am carrying out my internship assignment is a voluntary association of 20 conflict-affected countries. Its Secretariat is based here in Dili, and the organization collectively advocates for a new deal for how the international community engages in conflict and fragile environments. This is done through promoting development partnerships and country ownership for effective management and delivery of international aid. In short, work became a beautiful distraction. And I began to internalize the mission of the organization.

5) Gradual improvements and further victories
Having managed to avoid the small tight knit community of expatriates by keeping a low pro-file, my cover was blown once word got out that the organization was harboring an intern with no social life outside of work and the gym. Still a bit reluctant at first, I joined in activities such as happy hours, beachside coconut drinking, birthday celebrations, hiking trails, movie nights, an escape to a nearby district, and then some. All this contributed to an improvement in my overall enjoyment of life on the island.

6) “Oh shit, it’s time to leave already?”
As I write this post I now only have 22 days left in Dili. Talk about “Oh shit…?” While I reflect and look ahead, I think of the great deal of things I still hope to see and do with my remaining time (i.e. snorkeling, another district escape, enjoy local cuisine). The knowledge I’ve gained along with my contributions, experiences and network built in just less than 3 months from this far-away island has me contemplating what the future holds post-internship and graduate school. In the meantime, my work and times in Dili, Timor-Leste has nonetheless set the stage for my emergence as a development practitioner.

*Malie is the Tetun word for foreigner

Check out the NFTR-Dili video here:

About the Author
Mariel Kanene is Founder and Editor of and lead storyteller with a focus on music, startups and travel. His passion for storytelling was born in Kinshasa, Congo and bred in Washington, DC where he resides. By day, Mariel spends his days slowly trying to change the world—one meaningful interaction at a time. He loves reading factual-fiction, good podcasts, traveling, health and fitness, foreign languages and good conversations over good coffee and even better rum. He hates talking about himself in third person.Thanks for stopping by. Always appreciated. Find me on: Twitter | Instagram | Linkedin | Website.

One Comment

  1. karen

    so glad you’re blogging about your experiences. I can’t wait to talk with you about all this once you’re back in the states. Hang in there and take it all in or as much as you can with the time you have left.

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