On the ground

When bad things happen in the world and the social media channels are clogged with news reports, photos, and tales of loss and devastation, my first thought is usually: Thank God I’m not there. This is followed almost immediately by sympathy for those who are, and in quick succession, consideration of what I can do to help.

mepal3Along with all the reports of the devastation wreaked by the earthquakes in Nepal came a veritable deluge of appeals from international aid agencies looking for money to help those who had been made homeless as a result of Mother Nature’s latest onslaught. Lacking patience and wanting to act immediately, I was tempted. All I needed to do was to give my credit card details and key in an amount. Or use PayPal. Or make a bank transfer. I could do all three. But something held me back.

I have an innate distrust of big aid agencies. I don’t doubt for a minute that they are a necessary thread in the fabric of our society; that they have a role to play in trying to mitigate the effects of natural disasters; that they are staffed with very qualified, able people who work hard on the ground to make a difference.  But…

I begrudge the 35% or so of my donation that would be spent on fundraising and administration and yet I know that marketing is necessary in order to attract more donations.  I know that for the most part, the professionals in charge deserve the salaries they receive; they’re professionals. The plush offices though – those I can’t rationalise. But it’s not just about the agencies themselves and how they operate, it’s the scale on which they do so.

I’ve heard stories of supplies being held at customs, while the plight of those affected worsened; stories of corrupt local officials who take their cut, getting rich off the generosity of some and the misery of others.  So I shy away, keeping my money until I can find someone on the ground that I can trust to spend it – all of it – in the best way possible.

Nepal1Nepal was difficult. It took me a while to track down Mr B. My friend who introduced us said she’d trust him to the very core of her DNA. And I trust her. Ergo, I trust him. He’s in the tour business, the son of a Tibetan, and lives with his family in Nepal. His staff in the villages outside Kathmandu have lost their homes; they have nowhere to live. Monsoon season is just months away and if they’re to be rehoused, they need help – fast. He described the latest quake as if ‘somebody was trying to pull our office building from its root (underground) and was going to throw it’. I cannot begin to imagine what that must be like, but I can sympathise and I can help.

nepal2It took a week of emails back and forth to get the right bank account details – the IBANs and the BICs – and then to figure out how to word the transfer so that he wouldn’t have to  pay VAT. But we sorted it. The money is en route. He wrote to ask me how I’d like him to spend it. I told him to spend it as he thought best. Who am I to tell him what needs doing?  I’m not there.  I’m living in Budapest, on the other side of the world, a city on which Mother Nature has so far cast a rather benevolent eye.

First published in the Budapest Times 29 May 2015

A bloody good job

What seemed fun and adventurous to me as a kid, now seems grotesque and macabre as an adult. I have a particularly vivid memory of playing one day in my grandfather’s slaughterhouse. I remember  pulling on my shiney new wellingtons and walking down the laneway full of anticipation. My older cousins, somewhat annoyed that they’d been charged with minding me for the day, worked through their resentment by describing what lay ahead in excruciating detail. I can still feel the thrill of belonging as I went through the childish ritual of crossing my heart and hoping to die rather than tell any adult of our adventure. The slaughterhouse was strictly off-limits. I have clear memories of swishing through the ankle-deep rivers of red that swirled underneath the freshly hung carcasses of pigs and sheep and cows. I can still feel the texture of the marble-like fat on the meat and smell the iron from the pools of blood. I was small enough to hide myself in a carcass during a game of hide-and-seek. I can still recall a game of football, played with a cow’s bladder, inflated with a bicycle pump, knotted, and left to harden.  This, of course, was back in the days when the simple pleasures in life were just that: simple.

Blood: it’s in you to give

I have a hard time reconciling those carefree days when blood was no more than a byproduct of normalcy with my 21st century reality. Somewhere in the intervening years, I developed a strong dislike of the stuff. For a long time I resisted all pleas to donate blood, figuring that plenty of others were already doing it and that the world would get along just fine without my little contribution. Most of my friends in Ireland give blood on a regular basis. I used to think it was because of the free glass of Guinness given to all donors during the ‘recovery’ period – a practice that has sadly been discontinued; the more sedate cup of tea is a poor subsitute.

It was at college that I first gave into peer pressure. I was 17. The blood bank refused my blood, telling me that I was anaemic. I used this as an excuse not to give blood for the next 17 years. Coward that I am, I just couldn’t get my head around needles, tubes, and pints of blood leaving my body. My next attempt was in the UK where, again, bowing to peer pressure , thickened with the added guilt of collective responsibility, I signed up for a blood drive organised by the company I was working for. But they didn’t want my blood either; this time because I’d just come back from India and it might somehow be tainted. I’d psyched myself up for this and wasn’t at all happy to be rejected. So, when my quarantine was up, I tried again and for the remainder of my time in the UK, I gave blood regularly. It’s in me to give.

You’re somebody’s type

Back in 1901, Karl Landsteiner, an Austrian physician, discovered the first three human blood types: A, B, and O. As the most important figure in transfusion medicine, he was duly awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1930. Two years later, in 1932, the first blood centre opened in the Soviet Union. This rapidly spread and by the mid-1930s, the Soviet Union was home to more than 560 blood centres, large and small, where canned blood was stored and dispatched around the country as needed. News of this remarkable system reached the United States and in 1937, Budapest-born Bernard Fantus, Director of Therapeutics at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, first coined the term ‘blood bank’ to reflect the centre he had set up to preserve and store donor blood.

We’ve come a long way since bloodletting and leeches; since Pope Innocent VIII had an apoplectic stroke in 1492 and underwent a blood transfusion. Today, to meet the needs of the 10 million or so people living in Hungary, approximately 450,000 blood donations take place each year. This means that, on average, each person donates 1.6 times.  I know I haven’t given blood since I’ve been here (shame on me), so someone else must be giving it for me.

In last week’s Budapest Times, Susan Jeffries from NAWA wrote a letter asking people with AB+ blood type to consider donating blood to help 12-year-old Majercsik Boglárka (Bogi) in her fight against bone cancer. There are many more out there like Bogi and, God forbid, next week it could be you or me who’s in need of a donation. Giving blood takes about an hour. And it could be the best job you ever do. Blood station addresses are listed at
First published under ‘Hungary needs a litre more from you’ in the Budapest Times on 26 March 2011