Tales of Timorese Hospitality

<img src="img/20230331_195313.jpg" alt="PCV with host family">
By Grayson Edgemon
Feb. 27, 2024

As I was hoisting my suitcases onto an elaborately decorated yellow bus at 1 a.m. in Dili, I dwelled on my momentous day. Earlier, my close-knit friends and I concluded our two-month pre-service preparation with a formal swearing-in ceremony. Most had already bid me a bittersweet departure in the afternoon as we began disseminating to our permanent host sites. Now it was my turn to journey to my new home in Balibo Vila, a town situated approximately 10 kilometers from the Indonesian border.

The significance of officially swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer was not lost on me. We were now a part of a distinguished organization with an illustrious pedigree for promoting friendship and world peace through intercultural exchange. The numerous hours of Tetun, safety, medical and culture classes had paid off and the time to boldly leap into the deep end was upon us.

I climbed into the bus and settled into a cramped bench which was too short to press my entire back on, hindering my ability to relax comfortably. My counterpart and co-teacher Mestre Eugenio didn’t possess any shy uneasiness about snuggling in next to me. Less than a week from meeting him in Dili, we had already established a cordial relationship. From inside the window, I reached and clasped the hand of Maun Jaime, our Language and Cross-Culture Coordinator, who accompanied me to the bus and was instrumental to our development.

We left and I met my new host family around 6:30 a.m. I mustered the composure to form an acceptable first impression and after a quick tour and the setup of my mosquito net, I submitted to the firm mattress of my then unfamiliar bed that I would have for the next two years.

After sleeping, I learned that two of my host brothers who I met didn’t even live with us. One attends school in Dili and the other in Maliana. But they both made their way home just to meet me. My neighborhood is gracious, convivial and very curious about me. From the first impression, everyone in my community were eager to accept me as one of their own. I’m extremely grateful for the good-natured aspect of Timorese hospitality.

My host family is always quick to heap praise on me when I insist on helping by washing dishes or chopping firewood. My host father, Apa Lucio, cares for me by making sure I have what I need and introducing me to the neighborhood and official members of the Balibo community. My favorite recreation with him is eating and playing chess. He is a very formidable player and the game transcends any potential language barrier.

My host mother, Ama Jina, laughs loud and often whenever I make a quip, act goofy or play with her children. My host brothers enjoy playing soccer, learning English and watching movies. Sitting on my neighbors’ porches is always enjoyable. We compare the peculiar cultural differences between Timor Leste and America, dote on the adorable four-month-old Kelliana and cackle abundantly from humorous back and forth teasing.

After three weeks, I have become pleasantly used to the sweet sound of Ama Olga’s “Bondia Maun Grace” on my morning walk to school and Apa Mino’s deep and raspy chuckle. On one occasion, their son Muan Egge asked me if I would enjoy a cup of milk. After I said yes, he got up and started off to go buy milk. I pleaded him to stay as I didn’t realize he needed to get it from a kiosk. He brushed off my appeals and to my shock, began fastening his motorcycle helmet. I protested by exclaiming I didn’t need to drink milk and that he didn’t need to trouble himself for me. But Maun Egge ignored my concerns with a smile and said that he’d be gone on his motorcycle for five minutes. I soon enjoyed a deliciously sweet cup of Timorese susu-been that his wife Mana Dele prepared for me. That night, I experienced the Timorese custom of always providing visitors with refreshment.

Whether it’s Maun Ikun randomly gifting me a bag of avocados after I mentioned how popular they are in my home state of California earlier in the week or Apa Mino fortuitously pulling over in his cop car to give me a ride home from Maliana, I know I have a social circle I can count on. Balibo Vila and the affectionate neighborhood of Fatuk Kuak is merely a microcosm of the benevolent Timorese culture.