Hugs and Handshakes

Hugs and Handshakes

Volunteers generally come to Palms Australia with wide and diverse experience, before being immersed in entirely new cultures, where pre-conceptions quickly unravel. The exception to prove the rule though is Les Hartwig, who with his wife Norelle, has spent most of his life and career in Papua New Guinea. Now volunteering in Mt Hagen, he is assisting the management of the Diocese vehicle fleet. Retirement? Hmm…

What does one do when the reality of retirement fills the mind? Paint houses, play golf, potter in the garden, join a men’s shed, trip around Australia. Norelle my wife said, ‘Why not volunteer?’

I admit that volunteering was the furthest thought on my mind.

Until recent years volunteers to me were those who come and go after a short time in PNG and leave to talk about their experience for the rest of their life. Then…my life changed. I was working in New Ireland living in an SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) apartment surrounded by SIL volunteers coming and going from their designated mission stations. Like me and my family many had been in PNG for decades. We shared stories, our lifestyles as far removed as one could get except for one common denominator…a love of PNG. I saw volunteering in another light. Maybe there is something in volunteering in my…dare I say…senior years.

Norelle searched the Internet for volunteer work. She liked what she read about Palms. At home in Newcastle alone and with a last minute decision ‘you’ll never know unless you go,’ Norelle went to listen to Roger and returned volunteers speaking about Palms. With my PNG employment nearing an end we decided to do the Orientation course.

Norelle Hartwig shaking hands with a local man in Mount Hagen
Norelle Hartwig shaking hands with a local man

The Orientation course went beyond our expectations. On the serious side we learnt step by step the principles of Palms. On the social side our group were such fun. One went to bed on a high reflecting on the day’s events and looking forward to the next day. By now Norelle had mentioned to me about a Fleet Manager position at the Catholic Archdiocese of Mt Hagen that she had seen in the newsletter. My reply was ‘No, why would I want to go there?’ as most of our old plantation workers came from the Highlands.  ‘But…’ said Norelle who reminded me she had wanted a trip to Mt Hagen over 40 years ago.

A Palms Encounter trip to East Timor shortly after our Orientation course gave us yet another insight into Palms volunteering. We enjoyed meeting Palms volunteers and seeing the sights and sounds of East Timor, but PNG called…I accepted the position as Fleet Manager.

My task is to improve (local counterpart) Moses’ management skills. Being a National from Madang he is destined to become the Fleet Manager of the Catholic Archdiocese of Mt Hagen. As the Workshop Manager for many years, he has endured the complexity of organising the servicing of over 80 vehicles. Many of the Fleets allocated drivers, because of Parish isolation, rapidly deteriorating road conditions and the often lack of communication has resulted in increasing operating costs to the Archdiocese.

Updating the Fleet Maintenance records, education of our fleet users to comply with service schedules, together with promoting “help us to help you” is slowly making headway.

Four Wheel Drive on a muddy road
Four Wheel Drive on a muddy road

I now encourage Moses to lead the way authorising the business of managing the entire workshop. Step by step I hope to share my knowledge and support him through the transition.

I’ve travelled with him to many outlying mission stations of the Archdiocese, taking the Fathers as close as possible back to their Parishes. Often the roads are non-existent or un-trafficable, so some still have several days walking from the drop off point. All too common we are told roads that once took only a few hours to traverse now take up to seven hours one way due to lack of maintenance for up to twenty five years. The endless view of the majestic mountains lined periodically with the scar of a mudslide or cascading waterfalls far away, more than compensates the body jerking for hours inside our Landrover.

Sometimes a Parish vehicle will break down in these remote places and Moses and I will go to either fix it on the spot or, after temporary repair, drive it back for repair at the workshop.

When cars cannot be self-propelled, a converted Landcruiser and solid towbar is the only means of transport back to mechanical repair. Once a vehicle skidded off into a ditch at night and required heavy duty towing assistance. Making arrangement by mobile was impossible, so leaving and returning to the site, we found it empty. The Fathers’ helpers had arrived in our absence and lifted it bodily back on the road again.

Help by others always appears in unexpected ways!

No matter where we go, the locals wave from the roadside as we pass by. Modern technology has arrived in the remotest of remote regions. One can sometimes see a mobile phone in one hand and a small hand-held solar panel for charging in the other. On reaching any destination, people gather and one becomes overwhelmed by the hugs and handshakes for no other reason than us simply being there. Many of the old folk feel deserted and are saddened by the fact that their once thriving country is slip, sliding away. Tears glistens. A bigger hug, a stronger handshake when I tell them that I am now volunteering.

One of our highlights has been visiting my Palms counterpart Pauline Randall at Kiripia mission.

Father Joe’s and Pauline’s accomplishments in bringing health and education to this area is beyond words.

Finally, Norelle has enjoyed venturing to all these places with me.

‘Why not volunteer?’ Norelle had said. I am so glad I did.

The smiles, the waves, the hugs and handshakes are everywhere.

Mount Hagen! I LOVE IT.