Dentist Volunteer - Maria Chan

East Timor's recent history and regional relationship with Australia inspired me to contribute to the East Timorese community in a positive way. Equal Health was the first organisation I encountered that had a structured approach to working with the East Timorese community to provide services on the community's terms and in a culturally appropriate setting. This demonstrated a respectful approach to providing volunteer services in a foreign country so I decided to volunteer with Equal Health.

East Timor was different than I expected. It was mountainous and heavily vegetated. It was wonderful to view the dense, dark greens of the trees over the peaks and valleys as we flew over the country. The view of the coast was all white sand beaches and sparkling teal-aqua waters - breathtaking!

Once on the ground we discovered many things...

The roads up the mountains are narrow and winding and in the best conditions would raise heart rates when four wheeled traffic approached from the opposite direction, but the views from the mountain roads were heart stopping. In the mountains, clouds lifted from ground level late in the morning and descended early in the evening, like a curtain revealing today's show. We saw very little wildlife, mostly domesticated animals and subsistence farming. In the understory of the jungle and forests were coffee plantations.

In the morning before school, children traipsed to the nearest water course to fill plastic bottles of water for the family for the day, then in pressed school uniforms walked to school with their piece of firewood for the fire to cook their lunch. After school they were again off to find firewood for the family in the evening.

East Timor is very poor. There is no real divide between very wealthy and very poor; the country and its population is, across the board, poor. However, the resilience and hope that the people display is inspirational. East Timor's plans to encourage and welcome international visitors and business is admirable. Volunteering in a place where the people have so little, compared to us in Australia, is a humbling experience which never fails to remind me how lucky we are.

The work situation was very, very basic. There was no power unless there was fuel for the generator. Individual head lamps, with back up batteries, are essential.

The highlight for me was the team of people that we got to work with, the different perspectives, sharing the days' stories and learning about the way of the world in East Timor, and of course, learning the language badly.

I thought I had a bit of a handle on the basic language we were using and I told a young man that we were waiting for him to go numb (hein martay) following an IAN block. There was silence and a slightly alarmed look on his face until Samu, the interpreter with me for the day, burst out laughing and then into a rapid fire of Tetun to explain to this poor unfortunate soul that I didn't really mean that we were waiting for him to die, only for his lip to go numb (hein marten). Oops. No wonder people are scared of dentists!

Working in East Timor is a bit like working in the very remote parts of Australia, only without electricity and with more people along the roads. It is a good exercise in remembering that dentistry began as a basic health service.

I'd love to return to East Timor as a tourist as well as a volunteer again. There is so much potential in the country, it will be exciting to watch it develop. I have been re-inspired to make a difference in my community by the experience.

My recommendation to any new volunteer is to go without expectations, but bring a lot of enthusiasm and be ready to be as flexible as possible.

Maria Chan - Dentist, Kununurra Dental Clinic, Kununurra, WA

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