I’ve been thinking a lot about food…the finding of it (is all the meat frozen?), the cooking of it (can it be steamed or fried?), the eating of it (is this actually safe?), the disposal of the by-products of it later (is that even a toilet?!). It feels like the most basic of human functions, and I’m unfamiliar with the tight and fixated focus.
You’ll hear people say you can pretty much get anything you want in Dili. Relief should be short lived however because the next statement is, just not in the one place and not all the time.
So, I wake in the morning and I think, what shall we eat tonight. And before in our lush life I could’ve opened the fridge, the pantry, the freezer and thought, just one more ingredient I’ll grab on the way home and we’ll have this, or that.
There’s an abundance of supermarkets in Dili, big ones that stock everything from Johnny Walker Black Label to plastic NicNacs from China, there are kiosks and stores everywhere, and vegetable markets large and small down just about every street. There’s fish to be brought along the water front and there are at least two butchers that I have found so far.
An abundance of opportunity to stock your fridge or pantry it would seem. But here’s where it gets complicated. Depending on your list, you may have to go to half a dozen to get it all. Everyone has pork belly, but only one has bacon. Everyone has butter in a can, but only some have cheese. Want chicken stock? There only one place that sells that. And maybe not this week. One of the butchers last week had mince and chuck steak. And something else I didn’t recognise.
And so, we eat accordingly. The excitement is in the creativity. You never know quite what you’re going to end up with.
Last weekend we took the bikes out of town to a place called Dollar Beach. As you crest the top of the hill and look down towards the ocean, on the left spread out below you appears a manmade recreational area complete with toilet blocks, concrete bench seats and tables, shaded pagodas and two above ground swimming pools. And yet. Somehow it resembles a post-apocalyptic film set. I can’t decide whether it looks like a place that hope has abandoned or a place waiting for hope to arrive. There’s tagging on the walls and 5 of the 6 toilets are locked. There’s no water in the one that remains open. The pools are half full of green water with a hose lying half in, half out of one. You wonder if the chap filling it was plucked away by a zombie horde. It feels abandoned, or half lived in. It could be new and unfinished, or old and derelict. There are cows and goats sheltering under the trees.
And yet. The sea is warm and turquoise blue and calm. If you swim out 200 metres you’ll find staghead coral, another few metres, bright blue star fish, further yet a reef with plenty of fish and the ubiquitous nemos. All this right off the beach and 40 minutes out of the dust and heat of Dili.
A drive another five minutes down the road leads you to several roadside stalls selling lunch. We pick the one distinguished by the most interesting decorations (street appeal exists everywhere) and are greeted by two girls who can’t help giggling while we try to work out how to order our food. It shouldn’t be hard. The choice is: fish with teeth, on a stick; fish without teeth, on a stick; octopus tentacles, on a stick; squid, on a stick and rice. The rice is served wrapped in intricate parcels made from leaves and the fish has been coated in chili oil and fried on the smoking wood bar-b-ques.
I am sticky from the sea, tired and hungry. I pick a big fish, refuse to look it in the eye while I pick the flesh from the bones and lick my fingers clean. I buy a can of Sprite for the sweet to the salty and pay $2.50 for the meal.
When we get home, I spend thirty minutes doing the detailed calculations about what to cook for dinner. It’s not just the what but also the how…two gas rings, only two heats, hot and smoking hot. Hardly any bench space, no drinkable running water which means washing vegetables with bottled water, no oven, no microwave. It’s a bit like living in a student flat, there’s a LOT of stir-fry’s and I’ve even made a couple of spagbols.
Here’s the thing though, there’s something incredibly satisfying about turning out a half way decent meal particularly when you’ve had to be inventive. There’s also something deeply gratifying about the hunting/gathering element required when there’s no lavish supermarket and what you do buy has to be stuffed into your back pack and carried home on the scooter.
It’s not all about food though. There’s that other F word. Feelings! I’ve been thinking a lot about whether I could fall in love with Timor Leste. It’s early in the relationship, 7 weeks, we haven’t had our first falling out yet, there hasn’t been an argument about money, we are still getting to know each other and on our best behavior.
I think when I am riding home in the warm still night, with the air on my bare skin and the smell of cooking on the wood fires lit all along the street, and when I am coming out of the sea and there’s a bunch of kids running along the sand, I think when I am sitting at home and there’s singing at the catholic school that goes on for hours, and when I am stopped at the lights and there’s a mum and dad on a scooter with 3 little ones jammed in between them and the baby sees me and her eyes go wide and she just STARES. Then I think, oh yes, you’d be very easy to love.
When the children are climbing into the rubbish that someone else has pulled out of the bins, and the smallest one is naked and playing in the puddles and the roosters are tied by their legs to the cart waiting to be sold for cockfights, when the power goes off for the 4thtime this week and the madness of an intersection where no one gives way, or everyone gives way, when there’s another pregnant skinny dog wandering the street and round the corner there’s a multistory gilded mansion surrounded by shacks, and when you hear about another birth that’s gone wrong and a baby that isn’t going home. Then I think, let’s just wait and see. Plenty of time to use the L word.