Dili Days: Dinner at the Ambassador’s Residence

The group after dinner, in front of a display of beautiful tais—Timor-Leste’s traditional textiles.

Isabella Ruggeri. Isabella is a 2L at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU. Originally from Brazil, Isabella also lived in both Canada and the United States. Bella interned on the Training and Advocacy Unit at the Judicial System Monitoring Program in Dili, Timor-Leste, during the summer of 2019. 


This post is part of the Dili Days series. Four ASU Law students spent their 2019 summers living and interning in Dili, Timor-Leste, where they worked on international rule of law and development issues. Scholarship awards generously provided by the Jones Day Foundation supported their internships in Timor-Leste. 



We arrived in Dili on the last day of an anti-corruption training session that the U.S. Embassy held for Timorese prosecutors. Ambassador Kathleen Fitzpatrick generously invited us to a dinner in her residence that evening. We hadn’t even been in town for 12 hours when we got to talk to the Ambassador and both Timorese and U.S. prosecutors and judges about their work.


On our first adventure out of the house, we decided to take one of the blue taxis, which are run by a dispatching company and are usually in good condition with a working air-conditioner and meter. The downside is they often take a very long time to show up, if they come at all. More common are yellow taxis, which are driven by anyone with a yellow car and typically have no air-conditioning. We were told these were not the safest option, especially at night, and that we would have to negotiate the price with the driver, so we saved that adventure for another day.


Our house is on a small, dirt road that appears impossible even for blue taxis to find, so we walked to a nearby field that seems to be a point of reference in our neighborhood. New to the area and dressed up for the dinner, we earned many stares and comments while we waited for the taxi. It suddenly hit me that we were officially in Dili and we were very visibly malae—“foreigner” in Tetum. There is no way to escape the label while walking around Dili, especially in areas far from the beach. Despite the stares and the nickname, people have been nothing but nice to us here and the label doesn’t seem to come with negative connotations.


Our taxi finally arrived and drove us to the U.S. Embassy, where Ambassador Fitzpatrick warmly greeted us. We met Judge Thomas Varlan of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, and Jared Bennett, First Assistant United States Attorney for the United States Attorney’s Office, District of Utah, who had both come to Dili to teach the training course. Mr. Bennett speaks fluent Portuguese, which is one of the two languages of the legal system in Timor-Leste. (The other is Tetum, but some laws still have not been translated from Portuguese.) David Lewen, Resident Legal Advisor at U.S. Embassy Dili, organized and led the course. Judges and prosecutors from all four districts in Timor-Leste—Dili, Baucau (Timor-Leste’s second largest city, east of Dili), Suia (in the south), and Oecusse (an exclave to the west)—attended the dinner. At the beginning of the event, I was a bit overwhelmed by the experience and accomplishments of the people in the room, but everyone was very friendly and interested in our experiences and aspirations. 


I was happy I brought my most formal clothes, as this was the most formal dinner I have ever attended. The cutlery (multiple forks, knives and spoons) was perfectly arranged for the 6-course meal that was ahead of us and I wished I had paid better attention to etiquette before. My assigned seat at the table was between a young Timorese judge and a Timorese prosecutor who spoke very little English. We communicated in Portuguese about our experiences in law school. I was humbled to find out they learned Portuguese, the official language of the courts, while in law school, as law classes seem difficult enough on their own. We also discussed topics ranging from the difficulties of being a young judge to the Timorese love of country music. After dinner we took pictures and said our goodbyes. The embassy kindly called us a taxi and we were on our way back home, glad jet lag hadn’t hit us before this amazing experience. 

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