It generated quite a bit of feedback and some wanted to know more about those journeys, and others asked if I had any more anecdotes from that time. So here goes.
For more than 15 years, I visited Belarus regularly. There were many charities doing their bit for the children in that part of the world back then and the Irish weren’t found wanting. A huge amount of humanitarian aid was collected and delivered by fleets of trucks and ambulances to where it was needed most.
I think the largest one I was on consisted of 20 articulated trucks and the same number of ambulances. Every vehicle had at least two people on board, so it was a logistical nightmare.
The trucks contained food, clothing, hospital equipment, supplies for building projects and toys, etc, and the ambulances were also used to transport aid. When all the deliveries were completed, the ambulances were donated to various hospitals and the drivers flew home. That took two weeks, but truck drivers had to drive back home again so they took a bit longer.
The vehicle was our home for the duration. Conditions were rough and you did the best with the limited space, but it was always cramped and almost certainly cold. On a good day in Belarus, you might get a bed in an orphanage or a space on the floor in a day care centre. On a really good day, you might get a shower, and even a cold one was a blessing. Other than that, we relied on baby wipes to remove the grime.
Humour provided necessary relief. CB radios were fitted to every vehicle and they were used to relay instructions and directions to everyone while we were on the move, but they also provided entertainment. There was a lot of slagging over the airwaves and nobody was immune.
One guy in particular orchestrated most of it. Pat Mohally is a Cork man through and through and a staunch Barrs supporter. He gave a huge amount of his spare time to collecting the aid, delivering it to the warehouse, sorting it and loading the trucks. He is a very genuine character, although I would never tell him that.
Every waking moment was spent devising new schemes and looking for fresh victims. He loved winding people up and he was even prepared to sacrifice himself for the cause.
On one convoy, Pat got his wife to leak a story that he had packed some ladies’ tights to protect him from the cold. We were delighted to hear that and we thought we finally had something on him. We spread the word, but said nothing to him.
There were plenty of Pretty Polly jokes coming over the airwaves and he played along, pretending to be completely in the dark. He kept it up for a week and didn’t care that he was the butt of the joke because he knew that in the end the last laugh would be on us as soon as we discovered he set it up himself.
We used a regular truck stop for overnight stays in Germany. On the autobahn, there were many signs for Ausfahrt and Pat would tell everyone that there was a concert in Ausfahrt that night. Tickets were €10 and anyone interested would be collected at 7pm and taken to the venue.
Naturally, there was no concert. Ausfahrt is the German word for ‘exit’ so you would expect to see that on the motorway. At 7pm, though, there would always be a few people waiting for the non-existent bus and that made his day. The money he collected ended up being donated to charity.
One time, we used the Channel Tunnel to get to France. It’s a 50km version of the Jack Lynch Tunnel except that you drive onto a shuttle train and they carry you over.
We always had delays at the Belarussian border while clearing customs and there was no mobile phone coverage, but Pat would pass the time by making pretend phone calls. He would walk around having imaginary conversations while holding something in the air that was connected to his mobile. He told everyone it was a special border booster, but it was just his charger.
One guy had previously arranged an interview at the border with his local radio station back home, unaware he would have no phone coverage there. When he saw Pat on the phone, he ran the length of 20 trucks to borrow it. As soon as Pat saw him closing in, he started shaking the charger and complaining that he was losing signal. Pat kept it up until the poor man was exhausted.
When we passed an area with a lot of windmills or wind turbines, Pat announced that they were the town coolers because it gets very hot there in the summer.
Driving through the UK one time, he spotted a helicopter overhead presumably doing a traffic report for a local radio station, but Pat saw an opportunity for some mischief. He announced over the radio that he had received a call from home to say that Sky News were filming the convoy. He told everyone to open the windows and wave up at the helicopter. Many did of course.
Even now, I watch myself when he’s around...