About 350,000 people live in Kupang, the capital city of the Indonesian province of East Nusa Tenggara, and the vast majority 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 hundred years later and with them, Protestantism.
Religion is only a part of what differentiates Timor from the bigger, richer islands of Java and Sumatra. The cultures themselves just feel different—a still vast understatement and oversimplification, considering that there are 16,000 to 17,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago, depending on who's counting, and 633 recognized ethnic groups spread throughout them. Is Timor’s less conservative? More open and direct? The difference is hard to pin down, but in the end, I think what I often heard locals say about their own personalities and way of life is apt: Orang Kupang kasar or, People from Kupang are tough.
“Tough" still doesn't do them full justice. 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 organized or purposeful. 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 emotions felt as distinct and palpable as the rain or sun on my cheek.