Marilyn Tangey: A volunteer’s life is never mundane

My life as a volunteer in Timor Leste is never mundane.

Monday morning I arrived at my office in Instituto Profissional de Canossa and was asked if I could drive to Venilale, today. A young woman, Liliana Isilda Guterres, who graduated from IPDC only in December, had died and people needed to go to her village. I did not need to know more so prepared for the day’s travel, checking the car’s water, oil and filling up the fuel tank.

By 11.30 we were heading east to Baucau and then on to Venilale. Roads are in poor condition so the 120km to the second largest place in TL took four hours, including a stop for lunch. With me were seven students and Sister Olinda who has just returned from Brazil and speaks Portuguese but few words of English. In Baucau, three more students were waiting for us. That’s right, twelve people travelling in a twin cab Ute, very illegal in Australia, and boys in the open air.

At 4.30 we reached a turn off and began our decent from the main road. Down, down, down, across three concrete spillways surrounded by vivid green, luxuriant rice fields and with a magnificent mountain backdrop. The road was built in Portuguese times, at least 40 years ago so the surface consisted of large stones with some surface bitumen, just enough to be a nuisance. A student was transmitting directions from the back and Sr Olinda kept saying, “Round the back of the mountain,” and shrieking with delight every time. My self- talk was, “How much further Dad?” I put the car in 4WD for the first water crossing and needed to use it several other times to pull the car up steep sections or go across cavernous ruts in the roadway.

A funeral procession lead by students from Ossu Canossian College, Liliana's former schoolFinally we came to a fork in the road where a bright yellow vehicle was waiting for us. We drove on and soon viewed a procession in front of us, the coffin being carried to the cemetery. I later realised that this procession would have begun several kilometres away. The passengers alighted from the truck and I continued behind until we reached the cemetery.

The final sweep of the procession took the coffin to a grave site and the ceremony began. IPDC had a beautiful wreath in purple, white and green and this was placed on the coffin before it was lowered to its final resting place. Plywood and a piece of steel mesh were then placed over the top and a human chain brought small buckets of concrete slurry to pour on to make a slab. The men doing the work looked like they had just had a mud fight. No wonder a burial is not an occasion for wearing one’s best clothes. There were many floral arrangements that were then placed around the edges of the grave.

On completion of the service we piled into the truck to go to Liliana’s home, about 7 km away by road. The students presented her parents with her Diploma, transcript of results, a pictorial tribute they had put together only hours before and money they had collected. Mother and father were so overcome, bringing home to me the importance of making the journey to join them as they buried their eldest of seven children.

After a meal, we said good-byes and headed up the track, led by a cousin on a motorbike, just as darkness was surrounding us. I was thankful that there would be no risk of taking a wrong turn in the dark. Some distance from the house as the truck was labouring up a steep incline I noticed smoke/steam rising from the bonnet. Several phone calls later, all on my phone because no-one else had credit, we had lots of advice and a mechanic arrived to diagnose the problem – a hole in the radiator, a radiator that had been repaired only a short time ago. The mechanic assured me that with water we could move on.

After a night of hospitality from a Salesian priest in Venilale we were ready to return to Dili. Tuesday afternoon, with six stops in 135km to replenish the radiator, we arrived safely back in Dili 27 hours after we left. It was a great day’s work – one family very grateful to meet the friends their daughter had made in Dili and to receive the gifts they brought, and all of us in the truck knowing each other more intimately. Sr Olinda added some new vocabulary to her English but I hope she forgets those swear words that the Australian woman used when under stress!

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A partnership is not about money changing hands. A true partnership is about ideas changing minds. - Jan Vandemoortele