Peace Corps volunteer Daniela Perret (leftmost) dances with students at a Halloween party at the school where she teaches on November 2, 2019 in the village of Batakte, nine miles southwest of Kupang, Indonesia.

Peace Corps volunteer Daniela Perret (leftmost) dances with students at a Halloween party at the school where she teaches on November 2, 2019 in the village of Batakte, nine miles southwest of Kupang.

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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.

May 2020

Ivon, Yohana, and Ibu Ros walk along the beach at sunset on May 9, 2019 in the seaside village of Bakuin, 60 miles northeast of Kupang, Indonesia.

Ivon, Yohana, and Ibu Ros walk along the beach at sunset on May 9, 2019 in the seaside village of Bakuin, 60 miles northeast of Kupang.

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Jimmy balances atop a ridge on Gunung Fatuleu, an isolated butte in the village of Nunsaen, on May 1, 2019, 40 miles northeast of Kupang, Indonesia.

Jimmy balances atop a ridge on Gunung Fatuleu, an isolated butte in the village of Nunsaen, on May 1, 2019, 40 miles northeast of Kupang.

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Young men loiter and relax by the side of the road in a residential neighborhood on September 20, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

Young men loiter and relax by the side of the road in a residential neighborhood on September 20, 2019 in Kupang.

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Beachgoers wade across tidepools and reefs on March 7, 2019 at Oesina Beach, 17 miles southwest of Kupang, Indonesia.

Beachgoers wade across tidepools and reefs on March 7, 2019 at Oesina Beach, 17 miles southwest of Kupang.

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Sophomores Inho, Mario, and Bonita (left to right) unscramble the lyrics to Billy Joel's "She's Always A Woman" during their English class at SMAN 5 on October 3, 2020 in Kupang, Indonesia.

Sophomores Inho, Mario, and Bonita (left to right) unscramble the lyrics to Billy Joel's "She's Always A Woman" during their English class at SMAN 5 on October 3, 2020 in Kupang.

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Supporters of East Timorese athletes look on during a boxing exhibition match on July 7, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

Supporters of East Timorese athletes look on during a boxing exhibition match on July 7, 2019 in Kupang.

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Villagers fish in the Savu Sea while cows roam the beach on May 8, 2019 in the seaside village of Bakuin, 60 miles northeast of Kupang, Indonesia.

Villagers fish in the Savu Sea while cows roam the beach on May 8, 2019 in the seaside village of Bakuin, 60 miles northeast of Kupang.

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Yohana and Joyce dig up cassava tubers in Joyce's family plot on May 8, 2019 in the village of Bakuin, 60 miles northeast of Kupang.

Yohana and Joyce dig up cassava tubers in Joyce's family plot on May 8, 2019 in the village of Bakuin, 60 miles northeast of Kupang.

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Anton Fallo, a local track and field coach, prays with his athletes before a practice on October 24, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

Anton Fallo, a local track and field coach, prays with his athletes before a practice on October 24, 2019 in Kupang.

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Figurines depicting Catholic icons seen on the surface of a dresser on June 5, 2019 at the home of Mama Emy in Kupang, Indonesia. Neighbors come to Mama Emy throughout the day to receive spiritual consultations and be prayed over.

Figurines depicting Catholic icons seen on the surface of a dresser on June 5, 2019 at the home of Mama Emy in Kupang. Neighbors come to Mama Emy throughout the day to receive spiritual consultations and be prayed over.

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Students at SMAN 5 (Public High School No. 5) watch in admiration as a classmate performs during a talent show on May 2, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

Students at SMAN 5 (Public High School No. 5) watch in admiration as a classmate performs during a talent show on May 2, 2019 in Kupang.

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A house cat sleeps underneath a young papaya tree in an alleyway on June 6, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

A house cat sleeps underneath a young papaya tree in an alleyway on June 6, 2019 in Kupang.

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A man fishes from a concrete pier on May 21, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

A man fishes from a concrete pier on May 21, 2019 in Kupang.

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Om Saldi (right) grills corn for customers by the side of busy thoroughfare on September 13, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

Om Saldi (right) grills corn for customers by the side of busy thoroughfare on September 13, 2019 in Kupang.

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Felicia, Ochyin, and Evin gather with neighbors in the front yard of Evin's aunt to practice singing hymns on June 5, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

Felicia, Ochyin, and Evin gather with neighbors in the front yard of Evin's aunt to practice singing hymns on June 5, 2019 in Kupang.

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Graduating seniors at SMAN 5 decorate and sign each other's uniforms on their last day of high school on May 13, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia. The practice is common across Indonesia, though often frowned upon by teachers and administrators.

Graduating seniors at SMAN 5 decorate and sign each other's uniforms on their last day of high school on May 13, 2019 in Kupang. The practice is common across Indonesia, though often frowned upon by teachers and administrators.

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High school students at SMAN 5 play a game of volleyball during PE class on September 11, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

High school students at SMAN 5 play a game of volleyball during PE class on September 11, 2019 in Kupang.

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A woman gazes out the window of a minibus on September 1, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

A woman gazes out the window of a minibus on September 1, 2019 in Kupang.

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A fisherman wades into the Savu Sea on April 29, 2019 in Ende, Indonesia.

A fisherman wades into the Savu Sea on April 29, 2019 in Ende, on the southern coast of the island of Flores.

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Lightweights Farrand Papendang (left), Huswatun Hasanah, and light flyweight Kornelis Langu, all members of the Indonesian national boxing team, warm up before a training session on June 19, 2019 in Kupang.

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Neighbors and fellow parishioners gather in Mama Emy's front yard to practice singing hymns on September 16, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

Neighbors and fellow parishioners gather in Mama Emy's front yard to practice singing hymns on September 16, 2019 in Kupang.

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A young boy relaxes on the floor of his family's warung (roadside eatery) while relatives cook meals for customers on Nov. 8, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

A young boy relaxes on the floor of his family's warung (roadside eatery) while relatives cook meals for customers on Nov. 8, 2019 in Kupang.

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Sepri, a junior in high school and distance runner with a local track club, blows out candles during his 17th birthday party on September 26, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

Sepri, a junior in high school and distance runner with a local track club, blows out candles during his 17th birthday party on September 26, 2019 in Kupang.

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A crab freezes in places, alert, on April 29, 2019, on a beach in Ende, Indonesia.

A crab freezes in place, alert, on April 29, 2019, on a beach in Ende.

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A boy lights a fire by the side of the road in a residential neighborhood on August 24, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

A boy lights a fire by the side of the road in a residential neighborhood on August 24, 2019 in Kupang.

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A man strips off his shirt in ecstasy at a concert on August 31, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

A man strips off his shirt at a concert on August 31, 2019 in Kupang.

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Fitri Ciptosari, originally of Semarang, rides in the back of a truck on June 16, 2019 on the island of Semau, a few miles west of the Timorese coast.

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Cousins Ochyin, Evin, Desy, and Ocha (clockwise from left) relax at home on May 15, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

Cousins Ochyin, Evin, Desy, and Ocha (clockwise from left) relax at home on May 15, 2019 in Kupang.

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A roadside convenience stall seen on June 30, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

A roadside convenience stall seen on June 30, 2019 in Kupang.

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Locals chat and relax over drinks at Cafe Tebing, a popular haunt overlooking the Port of Tenau on April 7, 2019, eight miles west of Kupang.
Locals chat and relax over drinks at Cafe Tebing, a popular haunt overlooking the Port of Tenau on April 7, 2019, eight miles west of Kupang.
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A dog rests in a yard on May 9, 2019 in the village of Bakuin, 60 miles northeast of Kupang, Indonesia.

A dog rests in a yard on May 9, 2019 in the village of Bakuin, 60 miles northeast of Kupang.

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High school- and college-age members of local track club jog laps during a practice session on September 23, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

High school- and college-age members of local track club jog laps during a practice session on September 23, 2019 in Kupang.

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Shirts belonging to John Salus hang-dry in the sun on September 26, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia. The shoulder patch and khaki uniform in the foreground are worn by all civil servants, including public school teachers like Salus. The blue and black floral ba

Shirts belonging to John Salus hang-dry in the sun on September 26, 2019 in Kupang. The shoulder patch and khaki uniform in the foreground are worn by all civil servants, including public school teachers like Salus. The blue and black floral batik behind it is also worn by civil servants nationwide on certain days of the week.

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Locals play chess in the clubhouse of the local chapter of PERCASI, a nationwide chess club, on October 14, 2020 in Kupang, Indonesia.

Locals play chess in the clubhouse of the local chapter of PERCASI, a nationwide chess club, on October 14, 2020 in Kupang.

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Protestant students stand in prayer during a Friday morning service at SMAN 5 on October 4, 2020 in Kupang, Indonesia. Elsehwere on campus, Catholic and Muslim students gathered for their own religious services.

Protestant students stand in prayer during a Friday morning service at SMAN 5 on October 4, 2020 in Kupang. Elsehwere on campus, Catholic and Muslim students gathered for their own religious services.

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John Salus, a high school physics teacher, and his nephew Josalin relax at home on Feb. 15, 2019 in Kupang, Indonesia.

John Salus, a high school physics teacher, and his nephew Josalin relax at home on Feb. 15, 2019 in Kupang.

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