Failing to connect with locals overseas

When I finished university, I went backpacking around Europe. I hated it mostly because I found it difficult to connect with locals. Sure the Colosseum is breathtaking but sometimes all you really want to do is go to someone’s home and have a cup of tea with them. There’s nothing like sharing drink or food with someone to better understand them, their culture and how they fit into the world. You know I tried, I made some friends with people I worked with in Belfast and Edinburgh, I even WWOOFed (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in Turkey, but I still came away thirsty and with no deep connections.

Then I moved to East Timor and things changed

On my first shift at work I was instantly connected, the boss invited me to her wedding anniversary dinner that night at Victoria’s Restaurant. I went. I ate, drank and talked with real locals. Then a landslide of invitations came, there were baptisms, weddings, funerals, anniversaries of death, farewells, birthdays to attend… I became the token whitey at many Timorese celebrations. It was really special and believe me, my experience isn’t unique, if you move to Timor, you can expect invitations to all different types of events.  It’s one of the special things about the place and the people; East Timorese openly want you to participate in their culture. There aren’t many places like that in the world.One day, when I’d been living in Timor for about six months, a workmate received a sms from his family telling him that his wife had just had a baby girl. My first thoughts were:

  1. What, your wife is pregnant? (East Timorese men have a way of keeping important information like this on the low down.)
  2. If your wife is in labour, why the hell are you here at work?

Before I knew it, another female colleague and the new father herded me into a taxi, we were all going to the Dili National Hospital to visit the baby! I was assured that even though I hadn’t met the mother, I would not be imposing. When we arrived, a call was made and a family member met us out the front of maternity ward. We went straight in with the new father scampering in behind us. I was told that men aren’t usually allowed in to the maternity ward because birthing is “women’s business”.

Both my parents are nurses so gore and blood has never made me sick, but I’ve never been to a maternity ward before, let alone a maternity ward in a developing country. We entered to women wailing. Gut wrenching screams of agony. We found the new mother; she was rolling around on a bed covered in bright red blood, clearly still in pain. Her Aunty was trying to make the baby breastfeed. The other women were patting the mother’s head but they seemed unconcerned, they’d obviously done this plenty of times before. Like in a lot of developing countries, the patients well-being (cleaning, feeding) is looked after by the family and not by the hospital staff. I knew this, but it was still surprising to see.

I looked around, everyone, except the new mother, was in high spirits. I started to sweat, really sweat. The screaming continued. My breathing got quicker and I started to feel dizzy. I couldn’t believe it, here I was looking at someone who had just gone through a grueling labour and I was about to faint. Are you kidding me? I’d never fainted before…. Air, air someone give me some air, my head screamed. I got myself quickly outside and sat on the cement step, pouring water all over my face and neck. It wasn’t long until the father joined me. We sat there for a while, not really talking about too much. He was happy, but he thought it would be a boy and despite having been told by the doctors that they were having a girl, he still thought it would be a boy. I couldn’t believe that I was with him the first time he laid eyes on his baby. We bought some fizzy drinks and more water and then headed back to work, it was like nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. Just another day in Timor.

Between 2004 and 2010 maternal morality rates were reduced by more than 50%, but East Timor still has one of the highest rates maternal mortality rates in the region. Are you a medical professional looking to use your skills to make a difference? Then maybe you should consider volunteering in East Timor? Keep an eye on our volunteering page for upcoming opportunities.