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Peace Corps volunteer Daniela Perret (leftmost) dances with students at a Halloween party at the school where she teaches in the village of Batakte, nine miles southwest of Kupang. A few of her students and counterparts had heard of the holiday, but none had ever celebrated or dressed up for it. Still, no party in Kupang, no matter its nature or origin, is complete without some line-dancing.

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Peace Corps volunteer Daniela Perret (leftmost) dances with students at a Halloween party at the school where she teaches in the village of Batakte, nine miles southwest of Kupang. A few of her students and counterparts had heard of the holiday, but none had ever celebrated or dressed up for it. Still, no party in Kupang, no matter its nature or origin, is complete without some line-dancing.

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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. But in Timor, it was the Portuguese who arrived first, in the early 16th century, 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 cultures themselves just feel different (a vast understatement, 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 Kupang less refined and conservative? More open and carefree? It's hard to articulate. In the end, I think what I often heard the locals say about their own personalities and way of life is most apt: "Orang Kupang kasar" or, "People from Kupang are hard."


"Hard" still doesn't do them full justice. "Kasar" is a layered term. 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 orang 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 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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Ivon, Yohana, and Ibu Ros walk along the beach at sunset in the seaside village of Bakuin, 60 miles northeast of Kupang, as the crow flies. The circuitous, inland route from the city to the village, however, is double the distance and takes, by bus, 14 hours to traverse due to rough, mountainous terrain and a lack of paved roads.

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Ivon, Yohana, and Ibu Ros walk along the beach at sunset in the seaside village of Bakuin, 60 miles northeast of Kupang, as the crow flies. The circuitous, inland route from the city to the village, however, is double the distance and takes, by bus, 14 hours to traverse due to rough, mountainous terrain and a lack of paved roads.

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Young men hang out atop a moped at dusk in the Tuak Daun Merah (Red Palm Leaf) neighborhood on Kupang's east side. The neighborhood constitutes a labyrinthine maze of small roads and alleyways and is almost exclusively residential.

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Young men hang out atop a moped at dusk in the Tuak Daun Merah (Red Palm Leaf) neighborhood on Kupang's east side. The neighborhood constitutes a labyrinthine maze of small roads and alleyways and is almost exclusively residential.

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Jimmy balances atop a ridge on Gunung Fatuleu, an isolated butte in the village of Nunsaen, 40 miles northeast of Kupang. Once considered a sacred site by local tribes, Fatuleu is now one of the region's most popular outdoor tourist attractions, visited by foreigners and locals alike.

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Jimmy balances atop a ridge on Gunung Fatuleu, an isolated butte in the village of Nunsaen, 40 miles northeast of Kupang. Once considered a sacred site by local tribes, Fatuleu is now one of the region's most popular outdoor tourist attractions, visited by foreigners and locals alike.

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Figurines depicting Catholic icons adorn the surface of a dresser in Mama Emy's prayer room at her home in Kupang.

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Figurines depicting Catholic icons adorn the surface of a dresser in Mama Emy's prayer room at her home in Kupang.

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Beach-goers walk on exposed coral reefs during low tide at Oesina Beach, 18 miles southeast of Kupang.

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Beach-goers walk on exposed coral reefs during low tide at Oesina Beach, 18 miles southeast of Kupang.

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Inho, Mario, and Bonita, second-year students at a public high school in Kupang, unscramble the lyrics to Billy Joel's "She's Always a Woman."

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Inho, Mario, and Bonita, second-year students at a public high school in Kupang, unscramble the lyrics to Billy Joel's "She's Always a Woman."

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

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

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Supporters of East Timorese athletes look on during the "Border Battle 2019," a boxing exposition held from July 5-7, 2019, in Kupang. Australian, Indonesian, East Timorese, Filipino, and Thai fighters competed during three day expo, along with the provincial governor, Viktor Laiskodat, in one-round exhibition match.

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Supporters of East Timorese athletes look on during the "Border Battle 2019," a boxing exposition held from July 5-7, 2019, in Kupang. Australian, Indonesian, East Timorese, Filipino, and Thai fighters competed during three day expo, along with the provincial governor, Viktor Laiskodat, in one-round exhibition match.

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Students at a public high school in Kupang play volleyball during gym class.

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Students at a public high school in Kupang play volleyball during gym class.

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A street vendor grills corn in Kupang. The corn is usually served with sambal, a ubiquitous, Indonesian chili paste that takes on different flavors and added ingredients depending on the region.

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A street vendor grills corn in Kupang. The corn is usually served with sambal, a ubiquitous, Indonesian chili paste that takes on different flavors and added ingredients depending on the region.

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A woman rides in the back of a bemo, a kind of mini-bus that provides public transportation around Kupang.

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A woman rides in the back of a bemo, a kind of mini-bus that provides public transportation around Kupang.

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Neighbors gather in Mama Emy's front yard to practice singing hymns. 

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Neighbors gather in Mama Emy's front yard to practice singing hymns. 

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High school and college-age members of a local track club jog at an outdoor track in Kupang.

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High school and college-age members of a local track club jog at an outdoor track in Kupang.

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Local men play chess matches at the clubhouse of the local chapter of PERCASI, Indonesia's national chess federation.

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Local men play chess matches at the clubhouse of the local chapter of PERCASI, Indonesia's national chess federation.

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

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

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A man fishes from a concrete pier in Kampung Solor, an old, coastal neighborhood in Kupang's city center.

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A man fishes from a concrete pier in Kampung Solor, an old, coastal neighborhood in Kupang's city center.

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

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

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Osin, Evin, Desy, and Ocha (clockwise from left) relax on their phones at home in Kupang after a full morning of chores and housework.

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Osin, Evin, Desy, and Ocha (clockwise from left) relax on their phones at home in Kupang after a full morning of chores and housework.

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A young woman riding in the back of a bemo makes eye contact with a girl riding in the back of a pickup truck on the streets of Kupang.

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A young woman riding in the back of a bemo makes eye contact with a girl riding in the back of a pickup truck on the streets of Kupang.

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A fisherman wades into the Savu Sea in Ende, a city of about 60,000 people on the southern coast of Flores Island, about 160 miles northwest of Kupang.


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A fisherman wades into the Savu Sea in Ende, a city of about 60,000 people on the southern coast of Flores Island, about 160 miles northwest of Kupang.


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Felicia, Osin, and Evin practice singing hymns with family members and neighbors one evening on Mama Emy's porch. 

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Felicia, Osin, and Evin practice singing hymns with family members and neighbors one evening on Mama Emy's porch. 

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Protestant students at a public high school in Kupang stand and bow their heads in prayer during a Friday sermon. Elsewhere on campus, smaller numbers of Catholic and Muslim students attended their own religious services.

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Protestant students at a public high school in Kupang stand and bow their heads in prayer during a Friday sermon. Elsewhere on campus, smaller numbers of Catholic and Muslim students attended their own religious services.

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Locals chat and relax over drinks at Cafe Tebing, a popular haunt overlooking the Port of Tenau on the western tip of Timor Island, eight miles west of Kupang.

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Locals chat and relax over drinks at Cafe Tebing, a popular haunt overlooking the Port of Tenau on the western tip of Timor Island, eight miles west of Kupang.

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Graduating students at a public high school in Kupang tag each other's uniforms on their last day of school. The tradition is common throughout Indonesia, though usually not approved of by teachers and administrators.

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Graduating students at a public high school in Kupang tag each other's uniforms on their last day of school. The tradition is common throughout Indonesia, though usually not approved of by teachers and administrators.

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A  boy lights a fire late at night on the streets of Kupang's Kayu Putih (White Wood) neighborhood. 

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A  boy lights a fire late at night on the streets of Kupang's Kayu Putih (White Wood) neighborhood. 

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Bintang (Star), a semi-stray, semi-house cat, sleeps underneath a young papaya tree in the alleyway next to Mama Emy's house in Kupang. 

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Bintang (Star), a semi-stray, semi-house cat, sleeps underneath a young papaya tree in the alleyway next to Mama Emy's house in Kupang. 

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Anton Falo, head coach of a local track and field club and a former distance runner, leads his athletes in prayer before a practice.

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Anton Falo, head coach of a local track and field club and a former distance runner, leads his athletes in prayer before a practice.

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Fresh fish on display in a night market in Kampung Solor.

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Fresh fish on display in a night market in Kampung Solor.

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Bapak John's shirts hang dry in the yard. The khaki shirt with a shoulder patch is a uniform that is all civil servants throughout Indonesia must wear on Mondays. The blue and black batik shirt behind it is also government-mandated (the floral pattern is standardized), but worn on Tuesdays and Thursdays instead.

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Bapak John's shirts hang dry in the yard. The khaki shirt with a shoulder patch is a uniform that is all civil servants throughout Indonesia must wear on Mondays. The blue and black batik shirt behind it is also government-mandated (the floral pattern is standardized), but worn on Tuesdays and Thursdays instead.

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A young man sings along in ecstasy with a local reggae band in Kupang.

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A young man sings along in ecstasy with a local reggae band in Kupang.

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Sepri blows out candles during his 17th birthday party at home in Kupang. Sepri is a long-distance runner and member of a local, government-sponsored track club. He hopes to compete and represent Indonesia at the international level one day.

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Sepri blows out candles during his 17th birthday party at home in Kupang. Sepri is a long-distance runner and member of a local, government-sponsored track club. He hopes to compete and represent Indonesia at the international level one day.

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Students at a public high school giggle and record on their phones as one of their classmates performs a self-composed song at a talent show.

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Students at a public high school giggle and record on their phones as one of their classmates performs a self-composed song at a talent show.

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A kios in Kupang's Kayu Putih neighborhood. These roadside convenience stands are ubiquitous throughout Indonesia. Most daily necessities can be found at one. Drinks and snacks,   toiletries, a pair of flip-flops, a kilo of rice, filtered drinking water, a bar of ice cream, a refill for your data plan, dan lain lain (etc.).

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A kios in Kupang's Kayu Putih neighborhood. These roadside convenience stands are ubiquitous throughout Indonesia. Most daily necessities can be found at one. Drinks and snacks,   toiletries, a pair of flip-flops, a kilo of rice, filtered drinking water, a bar of ice cream, a refill for your data plan, dan lain lain (etc.).

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A crab freezes in places, alert, on a beach in Ende, 160 miles northwest of Kupang on the southern coast of Flores Island.

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A crab freezes in places, alert, on a beach in Ende, 160 miles northwest of Kupang on the southern coast of Flores Island.

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Bapak John and his nephew, Josalin, watch a football match in the yard.

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Bapak John and his nephew, Josalin, watch a football match in the yard.

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