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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

Kdo? Kaj? Kje? Kda?

K-doh? Ky? Key-vay? K-day? Doesn’t make it any easier does it? Simple questions though, if you know Slovenian. Kdo – who? Me. Kaj – what? Passing the time until my lift to the country. Kje – where? Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Kda – why? En route from Budapest to a work weekend for the European Scout Region’s adult resources group – too much info I know. In a nutshell, I had about six hours in Ljubljana before being picked up and driven to the final destination.

The last time I was in Ljubljana was in the 1980s when Slovenia was still part of Yugoslavia. I was backpacking and had met a chap called Tomas on the train from Trieste. There were no hostels in the city then and I couldn’t afford a hotel. He took me home to his mother, who lived high up in an apartment block about two hours by train from the city. The middle of nowhere. To get to his flat, we had to call to each of the  neighbours first and my rite of passage was diluted by thimbles of some very potent liquor. I was rat arsed by the time I met mum and she freaked when she heard I was Irish (we had a bad rep in those days). She calmed somewhat when he explained I was Catholic and that it was the Protestants who brought the bombs! Something definitely got lost in that translation.

IMG_2247I didn’t spend long in Ljubljana then; and six hours this time wasn’t a lot either. But it was enough to get a feel for what’s a rather small and compact city. I loved it. It’s the sort of place that reminds you of lots of places – considering most of it was destroyed in the 1895 earthquake, it’s retained much of its elegance. For one who is usually drawn to the older parts of  town, the opposite happened here. Yes, the old town is lovely. But living in this part of the world, I’m in danger of becoming inured to lovely old stuff and it’s good every now and then to rattle the cage and look towards the new. Like Metelkova City.

This club complex includes a youth hostel that was a prison and is a fine example of reclaiming old space. The result is fantastic. The self-described ‘autonomous culture zone’ was born in 1993 when a group of artists, musicians and war refugees squatted in what was the former Army barracks. Spraypainted to within an inch of its life, it’s gobsmacking! And some of the sculptures are what nightmares are made of. IMG_2245 You can’t help getting the feeling that someone, somewhere is giving someone the finger. It’s too way out to be generally accepted, tucked away as it is just five minutes’ walk from the train station. I headed in that direction because I’d heard of the Hostel Celica – the old jail house turned youth hostel. I planned to be back in the city Saturday night to get an early train Sunday morning, so I needed a bed for that night. I rather fancied staying in one of their cells – partly to see if  my ghosts had been fully laid to rest and partly because it was different! It was full… and anyway, I never did make it back to the city …another story.

My ‘direct’ train from Ljubljana to Budapest on Sunday, the one that involved no changes… or so I was assured when I booked it, actually turned into five trains and two buses. Quite the experience. Maybe I unknowingly trod on something in Metelkova… something that temporarily removed the order from my life and inserted in its place a sort of controlled chaos.