Monday, 22 September 2008

Message from Phil Clayton (One Life Charity and the Laura Foundation)

Hi Peter,

Glad to hear that you got back safely!

"To everyone on the convoy, it was an absolute pleasure and priviledge to have shared time with you in Bulgaria and a very heart felt thank you from the children at Panagyurishte and from me, Phil.

Also a big thank you for your support of One Life Charity and the Laura Foundation who have benefitted from CWUHA, its sponsors and its supporters.

Glad you all got back safely, keep in touch".

Best Regards

Phil Clayton

Sunday 21st September. Day 17.

Day 17 and home at last. After 17 days and a little over 6000 kms driving we arrived back in the UK this morning.

Last night on the ferry everyone was tired but looking forward to being home. Having made the ferry we were able to relax a bit knowing the trip was almost complete. With the pressure off most of us just felt tired and ready for an early night. There was still time however for us to win the quiz in the lounge bar (for which the prize was a bottle of red wine which wasn’t going to go very far between 18 of us.)

There should have course have been 20 but John and Alex are still making their way to Bruges. They stayed in Germany last night and have an outside chance of making the ferry tonight or if not they should certainly be on it tomorrow.

Disembarkation went smoothly and without any passport or customs checks we were soon on the dual carriageway out of Hull. We congregated on the outskirts for one last time before heading in different directions across the country. Sean and Lawrence were heading up to Scotland to catch the ferry this evening to Belfast. John, Matt, Tony and Cyril were heading to Liverpool where they will get the ferry to Dublin in the morning. The rest of us headed to various parts of England and in Ricki’s case Wales.

There was time for a final team photo and then some emotional goodbyes and then we all headed off.

The blog has hopefully given some insight into what a convoy involves but what is it like to actually go on one? Well it is a very intense experience and quite draining both emotionally and physically. Twenty people are thrown together and for two and a half weeks we are together 24 hours a day. The driving can be both monotonous on the motorways and stressful and frustrating on the poorer roads further east. In the evenings we eat together, have a drink and go to bed before getting up early to do it all again the next day. The visits to the orphanages and hospitals were both rewarding and upsetting in equal measure and as the trip gets towards its conclusion the absence from ones own family for so long becomes more difficult to endure. There are many lighter moments in the convoy as well, some of the banter on the radio while we were driving was brilliant as was the chat in the evenings over diner.

However the fundamental point of the convoy is to help the children in the homes we visited. The minor irritations along the way are really insignificant set alongside the heartbreaking stories that are the lives of the children we have visited. While we all return to our comfortable lives and our families we must not forget that despite the hope and improvement the convoy brings to the lives of the children, there is still so much more to do. Planning will soon start for next years convoys and the charity needs all the help you can give.

Peter Watson
21st September 2008.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Saturday 20th September. Day 16.

Day 16. Another clear and crisp Autumn morning. We walked into Bruges after breakfast. I have never been here before and hadn’t realised what a lovely old town it is. A few of us climbed up the tower in the square – 366 steps and a spectacular panoramic view at the top 88 meters above the ground. The tower has 48 bells and they all started ringing just as we reached the top!!

Ears bleeding , we made our way back down the steps and had a coffee in the square and after took a 30 minute canal boat trip. The old centre of Bruges is very picturesque and a canal boat is a great way to see it. Many of the buildings are over 400 years old and there are window boxes filled with flowers everywhere and trees overhanging the water.

We then began walking back to the hotel but on route stopped off at a number of chocolate shops. The smell of the Belgium chocolate was so inviting and of course we had to buy some samples.

We arrived back at the hotel with our melted chocolates and collected the wagons and drove to a local supermarket to stock up on cheap goods.

We then began the trip to the Port. Following the Convoy Leaders we took a wrong turning and ended up at the entrance for the ferry to Scotland. We then proceeded to the correct entrance and began the long wait to board the ferry.

At the port James and I went onto the ferry as foot passengers to book a table for us all for dinner in the buffet restaurant. From the ferry deck I took pictures of the wagons waiting below. After further delay the wagons started to embark. Poor, poor Ricki had to reverse the lorry onto the ferry!!! Having survived that she made her way up to the bar to enjoy a glass of wine!!!! ( Ricki wrote this part of the blog if you hadn’t guessed )

All being well we will be back in Leeds tomorrow so come back for the final blog of the trip.

Over and out


Friday 19th September. Day 15.

If forgot to say last night our trip meter ticked over the 5000 kms mark shortly after we entered Germany.

We woke up to a beautiful frosty morning meaning we had to use de-icer to clear the vehicle windscreens. We have certainly had some extremes of temperature on this trip. 34C on the day we went to Pleven and now 0C in Eastern Germany. The van soon warmed up and at 7.00am we were on our way.

For the first couple of hours we drove along almost deserted motorway through beautiful scenery. Rolling hills, deep valleys and picturesque little villages lined the route.

As we pushed further west the landscape became flatter and more industrialised particularly once we reached Cologne. However one that didn’t change throughout the entire trip was the miles and miles of maize crop in every country we passed through. I remember travelling through Europe as a kid and one of the most noticeable things about crossing borders was the difference in crops grown from one country to the next. Now it seems that just about everything has been replaced by maize and as you travel further east some sunflower crops as well. The reason ? Bio fuel.. Maize and sunflowers are an ideal crop for use in the production of Ethanol I believe and while I was aware steps were being taken to increase production of these crops I had no idea of the extent to which they have taken over the entire landscape of the countries we passed through.

At about 3.00pm we crossed into Belgium and by 5pm we were coming round the Brussels ring rood. Not a fun experience at the best of times but at rush-hour on a Friday night positively horrific. There were about 8 ‘spaghetti junctions’ in the space of about two kilometres and many entering, leaving and switching lanes.

We eventually made it though and miraculously all still together and continued on for the final 90 kilometres into Bruges. Everyone was tired but glad to have made it so we can have a free morning tomorrow before making our way to the ferry.

We all made our way to the restaurant across the road for our penultimate meal. Everyone was able to relax and have a couple of drinks as we had no early start or driving to worry about in the morning. It is a tradition of the last meal before the ferry to hand out various awards of which convoy idiot is the most prestigious. Although an honorary idiot award had been given to Jack from One Life Bulgaria in Sofia last week the real award was still up for grabs. After a vote the clear winner was Carl Webb for driving onto the wrong ferry in Hull on the first day. Carl also got the award for who made the convoy leaders laugh the most for his being sick at the Bulgarian toilets performance!

It was an enjoyable evening and good to relax after two very intense, tiring but ultimately rewarding two weeks.

Tomorrow we make our way to the ferry for the trip across to Hull and the end of the trip is now in sight.

Two more blogs to go however and tomorrow I will try and tell you a little bit about Bruges before summing the trip up on Sunday.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Thursday 18th September. Day 14.

Day 14. We left today at 7.30am with hopes of making the Austrian border by mid morning. A broken down lorry on the Budapest ring road put pay to that but we still managed to cross into Austria just before noon.

We had to top up our electronic toll boxes at a cost of 75 euros per vehicle. The total cost of taking the convoy through Austria in both directions has been over 1500 euros. I don’t know if I mentioned last week but Austria is the only country we have driven through which has refused to waive toll charges for the convoy. All the other countries have given us exemption as we are delivering humanitarian aid. Something to think about when you are choosing where to book your skiing holiday for next year…!

After a brief stop at the Austrian border we carried on and drove right across Austria in the afternoon. Some of the mountains to the South already had snow on them and the scenery generally was beautiful and much more green and lush than Hungary in the morning. (I still recommend France or Switzerland for your skiing though!)

At 5.00pm we crossed into Germany and carried on until around 8.00pm. We have covered about half the distance we need to cover if we are to make Bruges by tomorrow evening. Hopefully tomorrow without the traffic and border delays we had today we will do the other half in shorter time. We are not taking any chances though so it is breakfast at 6.30am for a 7.00am start.

I have included a few photos of Millar to go with today’s post as a couple of people were asking about him.

Finally, I said last week I would explain a bit more about the problems with the Bulgarian adoption laws as they were explained to us at Pleven.

The first problem is the time it takes for the process to run its course – usually about 4 years. This is obviously a major issue as the adopting Parents lose the opportunity to have the child from a very young age which is obviously desirable if at all possible. The other problem is that the natural Parents of the child have the opportunity to inspect the adopting parent’s home and impose conditions on how they want the child to be brought up. As it was explained to me this is a major problem which can scupper many adoptions particularly if the child comes from Romany tribe and 30 of the clan insist on inspecting the adoptive Parents home. This may be an extreme example but most people would say that if the natural parents have abandoned or given up the child then they should not be in a position to dictate to the adopting parents how they should bring the child up. However, consider this. What if the natural Parents don’t want to give the child up for adoption but are simply too poor to keep it. In those circumstances is it not fair that they should have some opportunity to feel that the baby they love is going to a decent home? Something to think about.

I suspect there is no easy answer and that what is really needed is a flexible system which puts the interests of speed and the child first but caters for the needs of those Parents who have to give up their children reluctantly.

On that note I will bid you goodnight and hopefully be writing from Bruges tomorrow evening!


Thursday, 18 September 2008

Wednesday 17th September. Day 13.

Day 13. Hopes of a shorter days drive were dashed this morning when we had to queue for 15 minutes just to get out of the hotel ! We then spent the next 3 hours crawling a few yards forward and then standing stationery for 20 minutes. Eventually we got to the source of the tailback – a 200 m stretch of roadworks!!!

We them ploughed on towards the border until we got to within about 4kms at which point we pulled up behind a long line of stationary Lorries all with engines switched off. There are so many Lorries approaching the border that they are stopped by police a few kilometres away and then allowed to proceed a few at a time a bit closer where they are then stopped and the process repeated. We could easily have been there all day or more. We therefore decided to just overtake all the stopped vehicles and if we got stopped by the police plead ‘humanitarian aid’ and hope for the best.

There was just one problem the road was only one lane each way so we had no choice but to go down the wrong way and hope to find a gap to pull into when someone came the opposite way. We set of one at a time at one minute intervals as soon as we could see a gap in the oncoming traffic. Our turn came so off we went. We got past about 30 Lorries before we saw a big artic coming towards us. We managed to find a gap where we waited until the coast was clear and then carried on. Theme park rides will never seem scary again. Fortunately the Humanitarian card worked with the police and after our wagon passed them he stopped the oncoming traffic so the rest of the convoy could get through without having anything coming the opposite way. We then repeated the process a couple more times as we got nearer the border and then we were all there safe and unscathed.

Our wagons were searched by customs on both sides of the border and then we were off and into Hungary with great celebrations all round! After another half an hour we were on the M5 motorway and the worst of the roads are now well and truly behind us.

We carried on up to Budapest and pulled into the same place we stayed at last week where the food wagon got stuck in a field.

We now hope to get to Bruges for Friday night ready for the ferry on Saturday teatime.

As for Alex and John, they are now hoping to leave tomorrow if the replacement spare part arrives and is fitted in time. If not they will have to fly home and arrangements will have to be made to collect the wagon at a later date. Unfortunately although it would probably be cheaper to scrap it than repair it and drive it all the way back but that is not an option as if it were scrapped in Bulgaria it would then be liable for import duty levied at the value of a new replacement vehicle!!

I’ll let you know tomorrow if we manage to cross Hungary, Austria and into Germany as planned.


Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Tuesday 16th September. Day 12.

Day 12. Well we did eventually find a motel in the end although in hindsight it would probably have been better to sleep in the van. Carl Webb was sick when the smell from the toilet hit him and most of us took our sleeping bags to the room to avoid touching the disgusting blankets. The shower was too filthy to use and the last few guests had thought the same judging by the number of dead bugs and other nasty things lying on the shower screen. In the middle of the night a stray dog found its way into the corridor and ran up and down barking like it was possessed until someone send it out. To add insult to injury it was just about the most expensive places we have stayed in .

This morning everyone was in their vans and engines running by the allotted meeting up time of 7.30am. It was the most prompt departure of the trip and everyone was glad to see the back of the place.

We really wanted to make good progress today in the hope of reaching Hungary where the roads - and the hotels are much better. For the first hour we made good progress until the only motorway in Romania came to an end. From then on it was painfully slow progress - usually about 35mph at best as on our way down through Romania last week there were long stretches of road under repair with only one lane open which meant when we were not crawling along at 35mph we were sitting stationery in long queues instead. The radio had conked out and the iPod speakers need charging up so Ricki and I sat and discussed the prospects for tourism in Romania. Not good we decided although to be fair we went through some national park this morning where for an hour or so the scenery was quite beautiful.

We also had our second brush with the police today. It seems to be common practice in Romania and Bulgaria to pull foreign vehicles over on spurious traffic violations and then demand cash in return for letting them move on. Of course the cops then just pocket the cash. Last week the last vehicle in the convoy was pulled and ‘fined’ 20 euros because someone further up allegedly didn’t have their lights on. This morning 3 of the convoy were stopped for supposedly going through a red light. Again it was totally made up. We saw him spot the foreign places and then leap out to flag the wagons down. This time he demanded all the drivers licenses and having inspected them said they could only have them back if they paid the equivalent of £120 fine per vehicle. Nothing makes Carl Webb more upset than the prospect of parting with money so he leapt out of his vehicle, threatened the police with the British Embassy and told them they could keep the licenses and we would report their illegal confiscation when we got home. To our surprise the bluff worked and they handed back the licenses without any payment. We bolted before they changed their mind!

By now hopes of making Hungary were fading and they sank further when we hit the worst traffic jam of the trip. We thought it was roadworks but actually it was just the queue to get through a small town!

Eventually about 8.00pm we pulled in to the same motel close to the Hungarian border that we stayed in last week on our way out. Budapest is still about 300kms away so we are hoping to get there by early afternoon tomorrow and have a slightly easier day than the last 2 which have been very long days on difficult roads. Much will depend on the border crossing because on the way out we saw vehicles queuing up on the Romanian side of the border for about 10 miles. At the moment the plan if it is like that again is to just overtake everyone down the middle of the road and if we get stopped to claim we are doing Humanitarian Aid and usually get priority. We will see if it works.

As for Alex and John the latest news is they are still in Sofia. The part they need for their vehicle arrived this morning after being couriered by air and they had hoped to be on their way this afternoon. Unfortunately the part was faulty so a new one is being sent so they will be stuck there at least a further 24 hours. We all feel for them as we know how we would feel if it was us.

For the rest of us it is fingers crossed for tomorrow.


Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Monday 15th September. Day 11.

Day 11. After a couple of days recuperation we now start the long journey home. We got to the lorry compound about 8.45am and loaded our cases onto the back of the wagons. Unfortunately one of the BT wagons had a flat battery and it took a little while to get it started but by 10.15am we were on our way. After a fuel stop to fill all the wagons we headed for the border town of Ruse. It felt a bit strange to be heading in the wrong direction – i.e. east instead of west but the hope is that this route will give us nice new motorway across most of Romania and avoid the problems we had last week.

For the first couple of hours we were following the same route as we had taken to Pleven but in very different weather conditions. On Friday it was Sunny and 34C. Today it was only 14C and lots of low mist and cloud. At one point as we crossed the mountains we were above the clouds which hung below us in the valleys.

Eventually we reached the border at about 5.00pm where we had to queue to pay a 35 Euro per vehicle Bulgarian road tax – you can use the roads as much as you like when you are there but if you want to leave the country then you have to cough up.
As we pulled slowly away to cross the bridge we said goodbye to Carl and Slavin from One Life who had escorted us to the border and who have been outstanding hosts since we arrived in Bulgaria last Thursday.

Once we entered Romania it was 55 kms up to Bucharest on roads which were an improvement on last week albeit still pretty ropey by UK standards. The plan was to hit the Bucharest ring road, travel round it to the North East where we should pick up a new motorway where we hope to find a motel for the night before continuing across Romania tomorrow.
Unfortunately we have been stuck in a 7 km long traffic jam for the last hour, it is now 7.10pm and getting dark so we are not really sure where we will end up tonight. One thing is certain is that by the time we find anywhere and get a bite to eat it will be too late to conclude the blog then so I am going to sign off now and let you know tomorrow how we get on tonight. Will it be the first sleeping bags in the back of the wagon job of the trip? I hope not but I will let you know tomorrow morning!!

Distance covered to date is 3547 kms.

Over and out


Monday, 15 September 2008

Sunday 14th September. Day 10.

Day 10 and our last day in Sofia before leaving home.

Most of us wandered down into the city centre for Brunch to avoid the hotel breakfast.

Unfortunately Alex and John had to go out to retrieve various personal items from their vehicle which has broken down and we have just found out can’t be fixed until the necessary part arrives from Austria. The part leaves tomorrow so is unlikely to be here before Wednesday. If the vehicle is fixed by lunchtime they may have an outside chance of making the ferry with the rest of us on Saturday night as they don’t have a speed limiter fixed but they will still have to drive until well into the evenings to catch us up.

After brunch in town some of us took a cab out to a huge market on the outskirts of town by the very run down football stadium. Then after a final stroll round town it was time to finish packing and get ready for the Ambassadors reception.

The organisers and staff from one life Bulgaria joined us at our hotel and we all walked down to the Ambassadors residence. Even those who were a bit unsure about the function enjoyed it. The Ambassador was very welcoming and the residence most impressive. He gave a short but very sincere and touching speech about the work of the CWUHA and the impact the aid convoy will have and we know that he is talking from experience as his wife Fiona visits the baby hospital with the One Life Bulgaria people every month.

James from Glasgow wore his kilt and looked splendid. Does a Scotsman wear nothing under the Kilt - I need to speak to James before I reveal the answer to that question.

Anyway after the reception we walked back towards our hotel and had our final meal in Sofia before starting the journey home. I had Kangaroo with Risotto from the Australian menu which was very nice. Alexis if you are reading this say hello to Skippys folks and give them my apologies for eating him.

Tomorrow we leave the hotel at 8.00am when we will be transported out to the secure compound where the lorries are parked. We have planned a different route back through Romania which will hopefully avoid the difficult roads we encountered here although the route is a bit longer. We have one day less to make the trip back so hopefully the new route will be quicker !

To find out if it is come back tomorrow !


Sunday, 14 September 2008

Saturday 13 th September. Day 9.

Day 9 and out first day of the trip without any driving duties! It was nice today to be able to sleep in a little bit and have a wander round Sofia. After covering 3200 kms in the last 8 days it was nice to just wind down a bit before our thoughts turn to the long drive home.

As those of you in the Simpson Millar Leeds office will know I love my morning latte and it was great to wander across the road from the hotel into a shopping centre and buy my first one since we left Leeds over a week ago.

Paper coffee cup in hand we wandered into town in small groups and had a very gentle wander around town. Sofia has a very extreme climate and it was a bit strange to think as we sat in one of the lovely pavement cafes in the warmth looking at the mountains that in a few weeks time the mountains will be covered in snow and temperatures could be well below freezing.

By 2.00pm I was ready for a siesta and woke up just in time to see Liverpool score the winner against Manchester United. That cheered me up no end as did the Leeds win at Swindon after playing virtually all match with only 10 men.

In the evening we all attended a function at a Bulgarian cultural restaurant with the organisers and staff from One Life Bulgaria, the charity we have been working with over here. Carl Smith gave a nice speech saying how amazed he was that everything that had been on the ‘shopping lists’ for the orphanages had in fact been secured and delivered. I think that is a reflection of the great work that everyone back in the UK and Ireland has done in the last few month to help all the crews with their fund raising efforts. It was my pleasure to reciprocate by presenting Carl with a Leeds United shirt on behalf of the CWUHA. Not only does he do great work for charity but he is a lifelong Leeds fan.

The evening continued with typical Bulgarian food, dancing and singing which everyone enjoyed and in between we were able to chat to our hosts about the work they do her and life in Bulgaria.

Ricki got dragged up onto the stage by a bunch of men in orange masks who proceeded to throw her up into the air and then seemingly stab her with long wooden poles. Despite the appearance given by the attached photo she did survive the ordeal and is now recovering from her experience in a Cuban bar close to the hotel.

Tomorrow we are going to a huge market on the outskirts of town and then at 6.00pm we are attending a reception with the British and Irish ambassadors. Then it will be time to pack our bags and get ready for the journey home starting on Monday morning.

I’ll let you know how tomorrow goes !


Saturday, 13 September 2008

Friday 12th September - Day 8.

View the national news video feature here.

Day 8 and the day we really travelled all this way for.

We left our hotel today at 9.30am in the government supplied minibus which took us to the secure compound on the edge of town where the vehicles are being kept. Once we got there we were met by a Bulgarian channel 1 TV crew who wanted to talk to us about what we are doing. Apparently the story went out on the national news tonight not just here in Bulgaria but also surrounding states such as Bosnia. The publicity can only be good in terms of raising local public awareness of the problems that exist and what needs to be done.

Once the TV film crew caught us all leaving the secure compound we split into four groups to take aid to our various orphanages or hospitals. Each group had a lead vehicle from one life Bulgaria, the local charity group the CWUHA has been working with to take us to our destination.

As we were driving to Pleven (through beautiful mountain scenery) we got a message that the Bulgarian army were on site at the hospital to help us unload our vehicle. This was a big plus as we were all worried that we would not have enough time to spend going round the centre itself. Without the need to unload we had a lot more time. As we walked into the entrance of the hospital the welcome was really touching. Lots of the staff and some of the kids were there to greet us and the director of the centre gave a speech welcoming us and explaining what the work of the centre entails.

Basically the kids are split into 4 groups. Firstly there are those who are so badly physically or mentally disabled that they were just abandoned by their parents. This was the most upsetting group to see. As you will see from the photos some of them had such serious disabilities that realistically they could not expect to live much longer.

The second category of kids were the premature babies who are looked after by the centre until they reach a weight of 3 kgs when they are then returned to their parents. It was fantastic to see the incubators that had been provided by the Irish guys already in use with little babies in them.

The third category of kids is those that are considered normal and are available for adoption. These are beautiful babies but they are suffering from a lack of human contact and stimulation. The grave risk is that without proper stimulation they end up with the other kids who are classified as disabled. The Bulgarian adoption laws don’t help but maybe I will explain a bit more about that on one of next weeks blogs if time allows.

The final category of kids is those who despite their disabilities are growing up and are really like any young kids – inquisitive, friendly and demanding of attention. These kids came up to us all with the teddies we gave them earlier with their arms outstretched begging to be picked up. They chatted to us in Bulgarian about whatever was exciting them. One little chap who took a shine to me was telling me to take him to the window so he could look at the lorries in the car park. They called us uncles (or Aunties in Ricki's case) and we were told that Uncles are visitors who come and show them some normal everyday kindness. Heartbreaking .

The photos I have uploaded with today's blog will give you a flavour of what I have described above.. You can easily work out which category the kids fall into.

We left Pleven at 5.00pm and started our 3 hour journey back to Sofia. Ricki and I spent the journey exchanging our impressions about the visit. We both agreed that there were aspects that filled us with despair but other parts that made us feel that there was hope for the kids and that the aid we had delivered would make a difference to their lives and that is what everyone came on this convoy for.

When we all got back to the hotel about 9.30 pm there was much swapping of stories about our different experiences and a real feeling of comradeship between us after all we have been through to get here and then our experiences at the institutions today.

Our mission has been accomplished but now we have to get home.

Tomorrow we have a reception hosted by the local charity we have been working with, One life Bulgarian and on Sunday we have another reception with the British and Irish Ambassadors. On Monday we start the long haul home. Mileage to date is 3250 kms!

Keep reading the blog as the next week will be as eventful as the last and I will try and give you a different account of the trip back.

If the photos have moved you I am sure Alex and Carl the charity organisers would be happy to accept any donations you can give.

Tomorrows blog will return to a lighter hearted note but I hope you understand why today's has had to be in a more serious vein.