From KGB to home by the sea

Marlborough Express - The Saturday Express, Marlborough - - LOOKING BACK - DAVID JAMES

Not many of us can say that we’ve had a KGB file on us. Makes for great din­ner party con­ver­sa­tion. But for one Pic­ton local, it’s a tale she can tell. And just one of many sto­ries she has about her colour­ful life work­ing over­seas in some of the more un­for­giv­ing parts of the world.

Sarah Arias, and her hus­band, Paraguay-born Mar­i­ano Arias, have a set­tled life now in Marl­bor­ough. He works in IT for the New Zealand De­fence Force, and says that he could tell me what he does there, but then ‘‘I would have to kill you,’’ he laughs.

Both Arias and her hus­band have had quite a jour­ney.

Arias now has a new role as the Stroke Foun­da­tion’s new com­mu­nity stroke ad­vi­sor.

Along the way to get­ting here she’s been fol­lowed by the no­to­ri­ous KGB se­cret police, lived in a log cabin in a rus­tic Rus­sian back­wa­ter, and worked as a mis­sion­ary.

Now the trained nurse will be help­ing Marl­bor­ough’s stroke sur­vivors and their fam­i­lies.

‘‘It’s my dream job – I en­joy be­ing in a sit­u­a­tion where peo­ple are at a loss and I can of­fer them hope and en­cour­age­ment,’’ she says.

Arias was born in Bath in the United King­dom be­fore coming to New Zealand on the im­mi­grant ships in 1966, along with oth­ers seek­ing a bet­ter life here.

Af­ter train­ing as a nurse, Sarah felt a call­ing. She’d read a book called Chas­ing the Dragon by Jackie Pullinger, a mis­sion­ary who saved hun­dreds of drug ad­dicts in Hong Kong.

In­spired, she headed for Paraguay to work as a mis­sion­ary. There, she met her hus­band Mar­i­ano , and the pair de­cided to travel through China and Mon­go­lia to the re­mote Siberian state of Bury­a­tia.

‘‘It was like liv­ing in a time warp,’’ Arias says.

‘‘The peo­ple there were di­rect de­scen­dants of Genghis Khan. Ini­tially we were housed in a log cabin with a well in the street and had to grow our own food or queue for it,’’ Arias says.

The town the pair stayed in had been founded by Cos­sacks in 1666, and for many years the re­gion hadn’t al­lowed for­eign­ers to visit. It was so staunchly Com­mu­nist that the cap­i­tal, Ulan-Ude, boasted a 42-ton statue of Vladimir Lenin’s head.

It was only in 1991, with the fa­mous Rus­sian ‘‘per­e­stroika’’ re­forms, that Bury­a­tia started to ad­mit West­ern­ers.

‘‘It was 1994, and peo­ple were quite sus­pi­cious of for­eign­ers. A friend of ours who had worked for the KGB told us they were fol­low­ing us, and ap­par­ently had a file on us, but we had noth­ing to hide,’’ Arias says.

Work­ing in tem­per­a­tures as low as -40C, the cou­ple built the re­gion’s first Bible School in their four-year stay.

In all, it’s a very dif­fer­ent life­style to the one they en­joy in Pic­ton.

‘‘We re­turned to Marl­bor­ough six years ago to en­able our chil­dren to ben­e­fit from the life­style that Marl­bor­ough of­fers,’’ Sarah says.

‘‘I be­lieve that be­ing a com­mu­nity stroke ad­vi­sor en­ables me to make use of all my var­i­ous life ex­pe­ri­ences – I’m re­ally look­ing for­ward to meet­ing and help­ing stroke sur­vivors in the area.’’


Sarah Arias at her home in Pic­ton. Mar­i­ano and Sarah Arias moved to Marl­bor­ough six years ago af­ter spend­ing much of their married life in far-flung places.

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