Navigating life in East Timor

Saturday, August 16, 2014

This week marks a year since leaving East Timor. To celebrate this, I am going to write without mentioning melanoma (phew! no tears!). And to be honest, although the majority of my time spent in East Timor was spent as a Stage 1 melanoma patient, little time was spent thinking about melanoma. I followed the rules of returning to Australia for frequent skin checks and would always slip, slop and slap. I was a patient with a 95% chance of survival. There was only a 5% chance that this cancer would spread. Nothing to waste precious time worrying about!

I left for East Timor at the end of July 2012. I had just finished university, graduating from a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my future. So like many young people, I was tossing up between travelling and studying more… anything that meant I did not have to enter the grown up world of a 9 to 5 job. I decided that I would seek out the opportunity to travel and volunteer in East Timor for 3 months, leaving the opportunity open for me to begin study the following December. I ended up continuing for 12 months and putting post-graduate study off for another 12 months.

My indecision for my future career path was not the only thing pushing me to East Timor. Early that year I was heartbroken after a relationship ended. I ran to East Timor. During this relationship, I had lost everything that I thought I was. I didn’t feel like I could offer anything. I didn’t feel like I had a role to play in this world. Looking back now, it took traveling to East Timor for me to realise that none of this was true. It took me traveling to a place where no one knew me to gain my confidence. East Timor was my time to heal.

My colleagues at my farewell
I worked at an organisation that provides rehabilitation services for people with physical disabilities. Working in this field was very challenging. My job was to establish a monitoring and evaluation tool that would help measure the success of their services… it was a hard task! I loved my job because I got to travel a lot throughout my 12 months in East Timor, visiting clients in 9 of East Timor’s 13 district, but what I did learn is that I really didn’t like the administration/sitting-behind-the-desk side of my work, but instead loved meeting with the different patients, and by far, I enjoyed most of all playing and communicating with the children with Cerebral Palsy. I knew that I didn’t want to continue with organisational development, but instead, I knew that my future was to be in clinical services. I wanted to be an Occupational Therapist. 

The lack of resources and services available for people with disabilities were far from adequate, and this made most days confronting. The condition that you would see many people enter the rehabilitation centre was heartbreaking. It was not unusual to see some crawling on their hands and knees unable to walk and not able to use a wheelchair because of the terrain. I would also meet people affected by the years of conflict, including victims of torture during the Indonesia’s occupation. It was hard not to become attached and affected by many of these patients. But with every tear, there would be a moment of laughter and joy. I feel privileged to have watched so many people take their first steps with their new prosthesis.
My big brother (from another mother), Tim

Like work, everyday life was filled with ups and downs. East Timor is known as one of the most difficult environments to work and live as an expat. East Timor was the first time I had lived out of home and also the first time I lived alone. I didn’t know the language, and I also failed to learn even though I tried (many laughed at how thick my Australian ascent is). I lived in a country where I didn’t feel safe to walk around by myself, day or night. Groping was a regular occurrence. And most of you will be shocked by what I say next, but… I lived on bucket showers and did not have hot water for 12 months!!! 

Simon was our wonderful MC at the wedding
However, there were so many moments of joy and so many things I miss. Each morning I would drive along the beach and watch the fishermen bring in their mornings catch and line them up along the road ready to sell. Children would be flying kites made out of plastic bags on the beach and around the neighbourhood. Each day would end with a sunset that would stop you in your tracks. Many of my weekends would be spent scuba diving (until crocodile attacks came a little to frequent). But, most importantly I miss my evenings and weekends spent the friendships I formed. It is these people that I owe finding my place and confidence to.

I arrived in East Timor as the youngest volunteer by far. I didn’t arrive in East Timor with a group of volunteers, but instead, was left to navigate the expat life on my own. I was lucky to quickly land in the guiding hands of Tim, who today I consider not only one of my best friends, but my big brother. My dear friend, Emma, who helped me settle in until she abandoned me to go home a few weeks in (she did return a few months later and we continued where we left off). And the final person who helped me settle in was Simon, who was equally as separate from the expat community as I was. Simon and I lived together for a few months when I moved into my own place in December. It was these three people that pushed me to break out of my shell in my first few months. It was a few months later that a knew group of expats arrived, including the lovely Jen and Mel, I was no longer the new girl on the block. I feel it was at this point that I found my ‘crowd’. I found the people that I wanted to spend my year with. It was with this group that I did things that I never thought I would – ride on the back of a motorcycle weaving through the streets of Dili, dance to really bad cover bands until the wee hours of the morning, overcome my fear of singing in front of people to my favourite (some would consider shit) music, and to make a point of enjoying weekly massages (lets be honest, it didn't take much warming up to want massages on a weekly basis). These may seem little points, but for me, these were big signs that I had relaxed and finally felt comfortable in my own skin.

My lovely Timor friends at our wedding - Mel, Em, Tim and Jen
Sometimes it takes something big to happen in your life to realise your worth. For me East Timor was my time to concentrate on myself, separate myself from everything in Australia. I did not abandon Australia and everything I left behind, but I believe my year overseas made my relationships, with my family and friends, healthier. They deserved to have the best version of me.

East Timor will always have part of my heart. Hopefully one day soon I can enjoy the sunset, the beaches, and be reunited with the friends that still remain. 

Do not leave this blog until you watch this video (ignore the woman prancing in her bikinis at the beginning of the video), Welcome to Timor Leste, you will be booking flights to East Timor!


  1. I reckon your friends and family have always had the best version of you. The East Timorese people whose lives you touched were very blessed to have you there. You will return, I'm sure, and will enjoy many of those sunsets as you reunite with old friends xx

  2. Hi Emma, thank you for your wonderful blog and sharing your experiences, sometimes we find ourselves when we are selflessly helping others and taking our mind off our own problems. I'm sure the Timorese people loved your compassion and help. I think you are very brave with your own journey of health challenges as is your husband. I would love to catch up with you for a chat Emma as I feel I may be of help with your health and you can contact me on my email and if you are not up to meeting then I can send you some info. My name is Catherine and I live in Brisbane


Thank you so much for your comment. I really appreciate you taking the time to connect. Emma x

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