Volunteer thrives in Dili's lively din

Last updated 12:00 07/11/2012

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Peddling furiously in the tropical heat while dodging trucks, cars, people, dogs and roosters, Maria Bland's commute to work in Dili, the capital of East Timor, couldn't be more different from her life at home.

Every weekday for the past six months the Feilding woman has made her way from a small house on Banana Rd to the East Timor Development Agency, where she volunteers.

It's easy to spot Mrs Bland, too. It seems nobody in Dili apart from her bothers to wear a cycle helmet and she had a hard job finding one.

In the end she settled for an ill-fitting lid with a red nuclear symbol on the back - not a popular choice in New Zealand.

"It just sort of tickles my fancy riding round in this nuke head thing," she said.

Mrs Bland's work in East Timor is almost done, she returns home next week, the day before Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, come to town. She jokes that they are welcoming her home.

"The first thing I'm going to do is put on the washing machine. The novelty of washing in buckets wore thin after about two days.

"It doesn't matter if there's no washing, I'm just going to put it on for the sheer hell of washing."

Drinking water from a tap and opening a window to let in fresh air will be nice too.

Mrs Bland, who has a doctorate in nursing and works at the Ranfurly Manner retirement home and hospital in Feilding, has got the development agency's business courses accredited as a recognised qualification in East Timor.

The courses are six months' long and would be comparable to bridging-type programmes offered in New Zealand universities.

She's done similar work with the UCOL nursing programme, so decided to put that experience to good use when she saw a Dili posting advertised with the Volunteer Services Abroad organisation.

She says she's loved her time in East Timor, although it's been hard being apart from her husband and normal way of life.

Work could sometimes be slow, too, because of the language barrier. Tetum is the native language in East Timor, while many speak Portuguese, a legacy of the hundreds of years of colonial rule that ended in 1975, just before Indonesia invaded.

After independence in 2002, internal ructions carried on for years.

"They've been through so much and I wonder how New Zealanders, under the same set of circumstances, would act," Mrs Bland said.

While Dili is much safer than at any time in recent history, she can't just stroll around the city at nighttime, meaning she's spent her share of evenings at home doing jigsaws and reading electronic books.

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"I can't go out by myself after dark . . . I think it's a legacy from the last civil unrest [that] the taxis have never got back on the street at night.

"Feilding's very clean and safe and I miss the independence.

"I have a temporary life here, my real life is back in New Zealand."

On the other hand, she enjoys the peace and quiet she gets in Dili - some of the time, anyway.

"I get up early. I'm awake at half past five. Banana Rd during the week is quite a busy road.

"The traffic starts about 5am and the roosters are crowing," she said.

Outside it's dusty and the roads are busy in the capital city of 200,000 people on East Timor's northern coastline. "I didn't realise that Dili itself would be quite so small.

"I just knew it was going to be hot."

Away from work, she has taken the chance to explore the country - quite an experience on poor roads that turn 60-kilometre trips into 3 -hour marathons.

Mrs Bland's return home coincides with the withdrawal of the New Zealand military and other foreign forces.

This year East Timor held presidential and parliamentary elections and there was little trouble.

However, Mrs Bland said for a couple of days around the polls she would leave work early to make sure she could travel safely. Her workmates were worried about what might happen.

"There were gunshots at night that I could hear.

"It was just slightly scary and I also knew that I would be evacuated if there was any trouble."

As it turned out, there wasn't any and Mrs Bland will instead take her planned route home via Darwin, Sydney and Auckland.

"I've had a fantastic time here. I hope I've made a difference, I think East Timor's made a difference to me."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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