The flickering bulb

Timor districtsTimor Leste

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A mosquito buzzed around the solitary lightbulb that was illuminating the pastel pink room.

My phone still kept the time even though it barely had any reception.


We’d gone to bed at 9pm, but my colleague wouldn’t turn the light off. She said she was used to sleeping with it on and so I said it was fine. I’d then been praying for a blackout since 10pm. She had prayed for other things as we settled in, carefully moving her fingers along her rosary beads while I stared at the ceiling and tried to process the day we’d had and the day ahead.

She was a good woman, my colleague, and I liked her very much. She was trying hard to do her job well and trying hard to learn. She had a little baby that she was trying hard to do everything right for and she just wanted to study and improve and learn.

There were so many good people in Timor-Leste trying, each little push like prayers on a rosary bead for things to keep on going forward.

But even though I admired their perseverance and even though I tried to be good and patient, there was always a gap. I couldn’t understand about 90 percent of what was going on in the country, even when it was happening in a language I spoke. Every question I asked would only be half-answered, so sometimes asking just made me more confused. I felt like I was scrambling to grab hold of those fragments of meaning and history and culture that were just tendrils of smoke off a candle in our conversations. I always felt like I was failing to catch the air in my hand, like I wasn’t trying hard enough. Perhaps Catholic guilt rubs off.

I also couldn’t understand why we were sleeping with the light on. Was it Lospalos spirits? Bad memories of the bad things that happened here, floating in through the window frames? Whatever it was, that flickering bulb was casting ghosts of its own on the walls, shadows lurching to the sway of the torn lace mosquito nets.

It was now 4am.

The mattress was all of 5cm thick and I could feel each bar of the metal frame imprinting itself on my skin. Every time I moved, the bed groaned angrily in the otherwise silent night.

But it was a privilege to come here – to see those sweeping vistas, to turn those breath stealing corners along the coast. Worth bruises and bites and dark circles under the eyes.

Finally, the bulb went out. It was 6am, when the town’s power supply was turned off for the day. Light was creeping in the sides of the window frame, scurrying away the ghosts. The rooster was crowing by the window. It was time to get up.

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