About 350,000 people live in Kupang, the capital city of the Indonesian province of East Nusa Tenggara, and most of them are Christian. Indonesia as a whole is roughly 90% Muslim. But in Timor, it was the Portuguese who arrived first, in the early 16th century, eager to exploit native sandalwood forests and establish a foothold for Catholicism. The Dutch arrived a century later and with them, Protestantism.
Religion is only a part of what differentiates Timor from bigger, richer islands like Java and Sumatra. And it stands to reason that the cultures of these places should differ, considering that there are upwards of 16,000 distinct islands in the Indonesian archipelago and 633 recognized ethnic groups spread throughout them. Is Timor’s less conservative? More open and direct? It's hard to sum up succinctly, but in the end, I think what I often heard the locals say about themselves is apt: Orang Kupang kasar or, People from Kupang are tough.
“Tough” still doesn't say the half of it though. Kasar is a layered term. Depending on context, it can mean “tough,” “hard,” “rough-around-the-edges," "rude," "direct," "transparent," or perhaps, "blunt." It can mean all of these things at once. And all are true, to varying, fluctuating degrees, of orang Kupang.
It was this kasar quality that made the texture of daily life feel so warm and colorful though—that made the city seem, at times, ten times denser and more sprawling than it really was. The year and a half I spent there as a Peace Corps volunteer rarely ever felt focused or organized. But it was also impossible to feel bored or stuck. Rejuvenation (or exhaustion) was always just a bemo ride, or a jaunt to the beach or market, or a rambunctious day at school, or a family function, or a Sunday service away.
And years from now, what I think I will remember about Kupang is the way its people, even in moments of trepidation or uncertainty, wore their hearts on their sleeves—the way emotion felt as distinct and palpable as the rain or sun on my cheek.