About 350,000 people live in Kupang, the capital city of the Indonesian province of East Nusa Tenggara, and almost all of them are Christian. Indonesia as a whole is 90% Muslim, and the onset of Islam's eastward spread from Sumatra predates the arrival Christianity by a few centuries. But in Timor, it was the Portuguese who arrived first, eager to buy sandalwood 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 Kupang from the bigger, richer cities of Java and Sumatra. The entire texture and feel of the culture is distinct. Less refined and conservative? More open and carefree? It's hard to articulate the difference. In the end, I think what I often heard the locals say about their own personalities and way of life is most apt: "Orang Timor kasar" or, "The Timorese are hard."

"Hard" still doesn't do them full justice. The word "kasar" has layers and shades of meaning. Depending on context, it can mean "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 those from Kupang.

It was this "kasar" quality that made 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 bottle of Bintang, or a jaunt to the beach, or a rambunctious day at school, or a family party/wedding/funeral, or a Sunday church 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 embarrassment or uncertainty, wore their hearts on their sleeves—the way emotions felt as distinct and palpable as the rain or sun on my cheek.

February 2020

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