ON BEHALF OF ALL THE WOMEN IN UZBEKISTAN Travel Journal - 1996: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan (Part 9)

Friday, June 28, 1996: Andijon, Uzbekistan: Today started out at a quick pace. The newspaper reporters and the television people were gathering at Ahunov Uktem Nabievich’s office. He is the chairman of the Andijon Regional United Committee for the Republic of Uzbekistan and is one of the main leaders in Andijon. He works in the same office building as Ted Elder, only up on the top floor.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 9a.jpg

We gave a briefing to the committee and the reporters regarding Project C.U.R.E.’s work in Central Asia. Then, we informed them about Ted’s activities in teaching English to the people of Andijon, aiding in health-care development, and supporting of small businesses, and reminded them how all our efforts tied in to helping and encouraging the wonderful people of Uzbekistan. At that point, the media folks were ready to go outside in the garden area to do some video shooting. The TV people interviewed me first near a fountain area. The interviewer was very generous with his comments about Project C.U.R.E. and the fact that we were bringing over half a million dollars’ worth of medical goods to Andijon. The newspaper reporters’ interviews were quite short, and they said they would have more questions after the presentation of the containers.

Our media interviews made us run late for getting to the presentation site. One official from the health department could not stay for the whole ceremony and left early. Ted Elder had arranged for the containers to be located in a very secure storage area, unloaded from the trailers, and set on the ground. Everything was perfect. When will I quit fretting about details that God has already successfully worked out?

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 9b.jpg

The head medical man opened the ceremony with some remarks and then turned to me to make the presentation. During the presentation I called for Dr. Erkin to come up and stand with me. That was a signal to the medical people that he was not to be cut out of the loop. Dr. Erkin’s face just glowed. I tell people that Project C.U.R.E. is not political – but we sure are diplomatic.

During my part of the presentation, I took the liberty to give my personal testimony as the reason for Anna Marie’s and my being there to give the medical supplies. I told the audience that it was a special day for me because once again God had given me the opportunity to fulfill my vow to him to use my energies to bring honor and glory to him and help as many people around the world as possible by distributing donated medical supplies to help their hurting hearts and bodies. All through the testimony about God giving me a second chance with my life and about giving away our wealth so that we could start over again, the men in crowd were really into it, nodding their heads and agreeing.

After I spoke, the head man responded. Then Ted spoke, another man spoke, Don spoke, Dr. Erkin spoke, and so on, but before the ceremony came to a halt, something strange happened.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 9c.jpg

The woman reporter from the Uzbekistan national newspaper signaled that she had something she wanted to say to the crowd. “I have never before in my life met anyone who has given away millions of dollars to help other people. On behalf of all the women in Uzbekistan, I would bend down and kiss the ground this man walks on for his acts of kindness to other people. I hope the men of Uzbekistan who will now be making lots of money from business, will follow this man’s example.”

We were all kind of speechless as we realized that the Holy Spirit had been faithfully ministering while we talked. I guess that we will never know just where the ripples of obedience will travel before they lap up against the shores of eternity.


ANYONE FOR SOME FERMENTED MARE'S MILK? Travel Journal - 1996: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Belarus

Tuesday June 25, 1996: Andijon, Uzbekistan: Upon arrival at the Andijon airport Dr. Erkin Djumabaev was there to pick us up. I had met Dr. Erkin, a very prominent doctor, on a previous trip to Uzbekistan. He had insisted that should I ever return to Andijon I would stay at his personal home. I had agreed. So, from the airport Anna Marie and I proceeded to Dr. Erkin’s home. His wife is also a doctor—a cardiology specialist. But she was away with their two daughters visiting her mother. So, Dr. Erkin was a little shorthanded trying to handle company from America all by himself for the first time. However, as is customary in Central Asia, the typically constructed Uzbek’s home is a high-walled compound that houses not only the parents but also the children and their families. Dr. Erkin is one of two children. His sister is married and lives elsewhere, but Dr. Erkin lives in the same compound with his parents and will look after them until they die.

Their home was quite spacious and very comfortable even though it was very traditionally Uzbek in style. All the buildings were constructed around a center courtyard. Usually families plant a garden in the middle courtyard. Dr. Erkin had planted grass. He said that it is the only home in Andijon with grass. He wanted it to look American. He had seen lawns on television.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 8a.jpg

Uzbek families also typically keep their pigs, chickens, sheep, and a cow or two inside the compound with them. Dr. Erkin had none of those. Instead, he owned a giant male Great Dane dog that stood almost tall enough to look Anna Marie straight in the eyes.

As Dr. Erkin was showing us to our rooms, he stopped by the bathroom to show us how to use the pump system. However, when he turned on the switch for the pump, nothing happened. There was no running water.

In Aktau, there was only some cold water … and it was brown from the rusty iron pipes in the city. In Dzhambul, we had no hot water and had cold water only part of the time—usually none when we needed to take a shower. But in Andijon, there was no water at all … none. Dr. Erkin’s maid found some water somewhere and filled the plastic tub in the bathroom. While we stayed there, we dipped the water out of the plastic tub, leaned our heads over the bathtub, and poured water on our hair to wash out the shampoo.

We met Dr. Erkin’s mother and father. Both are extremely well positioned in the city. His mother graduated from medical school in Moscow in 1957. She is a Jew, so they sort of banished her to the remote republic of Uzbekistan to practice her profession. There she met Erkin’s father, who had just begun to practice surgery. They fell in love and married, and it had never been widely published that she is Jewish or that Erkin is half Jewish. She was very interested that Project C.U.R.E. sent three containers of medical goods to Tel Aviv last year.

Wednesday, June 26

After a breakfast of bread, sausage, and cucumbers, plus green tea, we went to Ted Elder’s office. The Andijon government had allowed him to rent for a very reasonable price, a street-level suite of offices on the city’s main street in a very important building. All Ted’s team are there on visas to teach English and computer skills to the locals and to conduct humanitarian and health programs for the people. If they don’t perform those functions in a measurable way, they are out of the country. They have also taken up helping the locals fill out forms to get grants of monetary aid to help them start new business enterprises.

At that meeting I received some exciting news. The two containers we shipped have arrived and are being cleared through customs. They will be in Andijon in time for us to make formal presentations on Friday.

It must be understood that this was a miracle. There is no human way possible to control the timing of a container’s arrival at a destination. It takes a minimum of six weeks to ship a container to a destination, but it can take up to several months for delivery under poor circumstances. Andijon, Uzbekistan, is considered to be “poor circumstances.” The container was shipped from a port in the USA to Riga, Latvia, and then put on a slow train to the end of the old Soviet line … Andijon. You can plan and coordinate a date for a formal presentation of a container, but it takes a miracle, plus a little, to have that container arrive on that specific date.

I had gone through all that when the people in Ethiopia had planned to make a formal presentation to the St. Mary’s Hospital in Axum, Ethiopia, on a certain Wednesday. I told them that there was no way we could plan for a presentation on a certain date, because a thousand things on the water or on the land could easily alter the arrival date of a container. And even if the load landed in Eritrea, Africa, in good time, it still had to be trucked across Ethiopia to Axum on roads that had not existed three years prior. Well, guess what! We were scheduled to make the presentation in Axum, Ethiopia, on a Wednesday morning at 10:00. Late on Tuesday the big truck came chugging into town, and on Wednesday morning it was positioned in front of the hospital at precisely 10:00 for the presentation.

That certainly couldn’t happen twice within sixty days, halfway around the other side of the world. And yet it looks very much like a repeat heavenly performance is taking shape. Ted got busy and notified the local Russian newspaper, the Uzbek newspaper, the television stations, the officials at the health ministry, and every other dignitary he could think of. Friday will be the day of the presentation.

Following my meeting with Ted, I was scheduled to meet with Turdaliev Kozimjon, head of what could be called a “new business incubator.” His job is to support new entrepreneurial efforts and encourage bringing in joint-venture partners, especially from the West, to help build the economy of Uzbekistan. He had many questions and suggestions or opportunities for people to start a business in Andijon. We discussed everything from cotton-textile opportunities to importing gas camp stoves from Iran. I want to stay in touch with Mr. Kozimjon. Young Christian business students from, perhaps, Colorado Christian University or other schools would find a ready spot to work out of that man’s office. 

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 8b.jpg

At 1:00 we all went to Dr. Issif Yadgarov’s office at the medical institute. He had invited us to lunch at his office before touring his facilities. Compared to anything in the US, the neurology department was really sad. That facility should have been the finest possible, because it is the training institution for all other doctors in that field. But it was scary.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 8c.jpg

Dr. Issif followed me all the way out to the car with his doctor son Deemus translating. He once again begged us to help his children get out of Uzbekistan and get situated in America. Both Dr. Issif and his wife are Russian Jews and are fearful of the future for their children.

In the evening we were invited to Dr. Don and Sylvia Ellsworth’s house for dinner, but I could not eat a bite of food there. I had gotten hold of some very bad mutton in the rice pilaf at Dr. Issif’s office at noon. The very thought of food made my liver quiver.

Back at Dr. Erkin’s home, I spent a miserable night … extremely hot, no water. Just miserable.

Thursday, June 27

In the morning I was feeling better, but I was still a little queasy. Dr. Erkin had gone all out for breakfast. In addition to bread cakes filled with mutton meat and fat, onions, and whatever else, we had fruit, tea, and something very special. Dr. Erkin had also gone to great lengths to procure for us a very special kind of milk. He said it is known for being very clear and will keep during travels for a very long time. He wanted us to try the special milk he had gotten for us. I took a sip of it. It was the worst-tasting stuff I have ever had in my mouth—even worse than stale camel milk and tea!

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 8d.jpg

When I asked him what it was, he couldn’t answer me because he was swigging his glass down to the very last drop. Finally, he explained that it was fermented mare’s milk. It is a delicacy, and it will last a long time without spoiling. As far as I was concerned, it was already badly spoiled. It was twice as sour and bitter as buttermilk, and extremely yeasty tasting. I had visions of a whole barn full of a herd of dairy brood mares lined up with milking machines that had been altered to fit a horse. Then I envisioned a more realistic picture of a grubby old Uzbek farm woman having patience stripping out an old mare that didn’t even care if she were being milked. I was not sure what all went on in the process of fermenting the milk, but I did know that when several of Dr. Erkin’s doctor friends came over after breakfast to meet us, they went directly to the porcelain bucket, took the dipper, and with great enthusiasm dipped and drank the white brew until it was all gone. I even think I noticed some of them licking their lips.

Next Week: On Behalf of all Women in Uzbekistan


SHEEP HEADS and EYEBALLS Travel Journal - 1996: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbek, (Part 6)

Friday June 21, 1996: Dzhambul, Kazakhstan: People were beginning to slow down eating the piles of food. We were then served two strange entrées. One was a briny mutton soup. The other was more of a delicacy. It was tea that had been brewed in an old traditional samovar. The tea was mixed half-and-half with camel’s milk and had a very rich wild-animal taste to it. The briny mutton soup was outright gamey.

As we munched on sweet cakes and drank our camel-milk tea, the governor went into a long discourse. I think the great amounts of cognac and vodka had, indeed, loosened his tongue. He wound up by saying that they had chosen Mr. Jackson as the honored guest because of his heartfelt love expressed during his toast. So it was tradition to celebrate and honor Mr. Jackson with the ceremonial presentation.

All the women who had been in the tent left, and the tribal men all moved in closer and tighter around both sides of the front table. Then through the doorway came two men carrying platters. On one huge platter was the boiled fat and meat of a freshly killed sheep. On the other platter was the boiled head of the sheep totally intact. The boiling process had loosened and split the black skin of the sheep’s head, making it look even more grotesque than it was. But I could see very plainly that eyes, ears, brains, teeth, and tongue were all very well together.

With great pomp they set the ceremonial sheep head down in front of me. I began thinking, I only came to this Marriott coffee shop to have a little oatmeal with raisins, brown sugar, milk, and bananas, and a slice of toast with marmalade jam … and now look what I’m faced with.

I leaned over to Nadia, our translator, who was sitting next to me, and asked what I was supposed to do with the thing. “You must take the first bite of it … and ceremonially you must eat the eyes.”

Oh, sure!

 I reached over, put one hand on the top of the sheep’s head, and tore off an ear and bit down on it. I then quickly passed the platter to Nicholi. An old tribesman next to Nicholi saw that I didn’t know what to do with it, so he motioned for Nicholi to pass it to him. He then took out a sharp, narrow knife about eight inches in length. He grasped the sheep’s head in his left hand, pried open its mouth, and ran the knife up through the tender meat, through the sinus cavity, and with great precision, right out through the eye socket of the skull. Obviously this was not his first date with a sheep’s head. His skill with the stiletto had preserved the eyeball in perfect shape. With about three quick twists of the knife and a downward motion, he removed the eye, a round core of brain, and a lot of something else back out through the sheep’s mouth cavity. Johnny Carson would have paid great money for this elder’s act on his show in the days before his retirement. That was funny … but what came next wasn’t. The old man reached over the top of Nicholi and handed to me the fistful of prized parts. I thought, Okay, how do I get out of this?

I smiled graciously, took the eyeball and other parts in one hand, held up the remaining bit of the ear with the other. I worked my way up to my knees from my sitting position while still holding the vital parts in my hands. The pressure was on. I started out on another impassioned speech about how honored we were to be their guests. I thanked them for their accepting us into their family and how we would always remember them with love and gratitude. “I neither feel worthy of all you have done for us, nor worthy to accept this honor by myself.”

I thereupon took another bite of the ear, reached over a couple of new friends and handed the entire moist handful of parts down to Tyler. Everyone broke into applause. After all, I didn’t want to hog all the ceremonial spotlight.

I heard him mumble, “Thanks a lot.” He was stuck. There was no one else to pass it to, and it was on their land that he was going to drill his oil well.

He said later that his dad had been in a situation just like that years ago and had told him that the secret to the matter was found in a simple formula: “Don’t look, don’t bite … just swallow.”

I’m sure I’ll remember that next time. Everyone was having a great time as the party ended.


Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 6a (3).jpg

I took lots of pictures, and eventually we got into the vehicles and headed out. I thought surely we would head back to Shepte village … but no. The governor and his top Kazakhs got into our van and also followed in one of their vehicles. They had two more historic sites to show us. One was a mountain called the Sleeping Lion and had great tribal significance to them, dating back to the fourth century. I won’t tell the story here, but it was very similar to the story of Masada in Israel in the Roman-Jewish history of the first century.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 6b (2).jpg

It was still very bright and hot as we loaded up to see the last site on their agenda. I looked at my watch, and it was nearly 7:30 p.m. I was hoping that the next point of interest would be just a quick drive-by look-see, because it was almost a four-hour drive back to Aktau from where we were.

We headed up into a dry mountain region. Suddenly I realized that we were following a rusty iron pipe that was coming from somewhere on up into the mountain pass ahead. We gained elevation quickly, and off in the distance, I could see green shrubs and small trees in that mountain crevasse. At the end of all driving possibilities, we got out and started walking … still following the rusty iron pipeline. Sometime in the past someone had dammed up the stream of spring water and funneled it into the pipe. We kept walking up through the narrow pass between two sheer rock outcroppings. At a bend in the rock formation, we turned a sharp right. There, hidden away, was a rock basin where the cool spring water was spilling over the granite lip and on down the mountain. It was a great place, in the middle of miles of sand, to stop and rest.

Anna Marie and I had no more than gotten seated when the rest of the group walked around the corner. I was ready to turn around and head back down the mountain, but the governor had different ideas. Someone spread a piece of greasy paper on the ground and plunked down four rocks, one on each corner of the paper. Next, out of nowhere came a long, ugly tube of camel intestine, with horse-meat sausage bulging out. The drivers had also packed up a fresh supply of cognac and vodka.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 6d (2).jpg

Anna Marie and I looked at each other and simply rolled our eyes. To these desert people who eat sand every day as a regular diet, the cool water and mountain shade are like heaven to them. They began going through the same ritual of offering their snacks to us. We politely refrained. I looked at my watch and knew it would be late when we got all the way back to Aktau.

Our trip back was an absolute experience of beauty. The sun slowly set over the desert, and all along the roadway we watched the camels as they flopped down in the sand to sleep for the night.

Friday, June 21

This morning Anna Marie and I checked out of the hotel, finished our business in Aktau, and then headed for the airport. I didn’t know what we would have done in Central Asia if we had not had angelic and human assistance. Nicholi, Tyler, and Nadia saw to it that we got through customs and passport control and headed out to the plane. They had also phoned ahead to Almaty, the capital city of Kazakhstan, and arranged for Olga to not only meet us but to also purchase our tickets for the flight to Dzhambul.

We had about an hour and a half between flights, which gave us an opportunity to get acquainted with Olga. She saw to it that we got through customs and passport control and then said good-bye. The horse-trailer shuttle truck was just getting ready to leave the terminal as we came out of the building. We took off like crazy and just barely got on as they closed the side doors. The shuttle took the whole load of people a very far distance from the terminal to another Yak-40 Russian plane. Everyone was pushing and shoving as they left the trailer and walked to the plane to be loaded through the stairway that dropped down from the tail of the plane.

Somewhat jostled and bruised from the Asian crowd, Anna Marie and I made our way halfway up the tail stairway. The woman looked at my ticket and began yelling words I couldn’t understand.

I looked at her and asked, “Dzhambul?”

She hollered, “Nyet, nyet, Dzhambul.”

We had gotten clear out on the far edge of the runway, the trailer shuttle had left, and we were on the wrong plane. She led as we pushed our way back down the stairway through the shoving people at the bottom and out under the wing of the plane. There she found a man with a radio phone and called for a trailer-truck to come back out and pick us up. The flight to Dzhambul was scheduled to take off at 7:30 … It was now 7:30.

Finally the shuttle came rumbling out across the tarmac to pick us up. This could be real serious, I thought. No one spoke English, and we almost got on the wrong plane to a destination city about which I had no idea. It was very possible that we could have gotten off that plane in an unknown city, with no return flights for at least a week and absolutely no contact phone numbers or visas.

We had the long ride back to the terminal. By now it was really late. The plane to Dzhambul had probably already taken off. I was thinking about how I could get back in touch with Olga and get her back out to the airport to pick us up.

The trucks that pull the shuttle trailers were very separate and totally without communication possibilities between the riders and the truck driver. There was no way to even vent my frustrations by yelling, “Dzhambul … Dzhambul” to the driver. He simply drove up to the terminal, hesitated, and then took off. Fortunately, while he was hesitating, we jumped off. I ran back into the terminal and found some uniformed people. I just kept showing my ticket and saying, “Dzhambul, Dzhambul.” Finally another angel appeared, smiled, took us back out to the tarmac, hailed another shuttle trailer-truck, gave explicit instructions to the driver, and sent us on our way.

When we pulled up behind the Russian Yak-40 that was bound for Dzhambul, the tail ladder was still down. We ran over and started up into the plane. The woman there scowled at us. Something had delayed the plane, and they were not happy. But that delay allowed us to get on, stash our suitcases in the luggage bins behind the strap curtains, and slide into the two available seats. Anna Marie and I looked at each other, smiled, and breathed, “Thanks, again, Lord. It’s a wonder that you let two stupid little kids like us run loose all around this world. We’re sorry that we take up so much of your guardian angel’s precious time keeping us out of scrapes … but thanks.”

We landed in Dzhambul about 9:30 p.m., but it was still as light as if it were 5:00 p.m. Ruth Bittle, back at our office in Denver, had been able to contact Kazakhstan through e-mail and fax via the Caleb Project, and sure enough, Steve Unangst arrived in time to meet us in Dzhambul, Kazakhstan, instead of Tashkent, Uzbekistan. That saved us one whole day’s drive by automobile.

Steve took us to an apartment flat previously owned by some Russians. There we met Brett and Maria Westbrook from Muncie, Indiana, who were to be our hosts for the next four days. Anna Marie would now begin to experience the Central Asian lifestyle—no showers, no hot water at all, and no cold water about 75 percent of the time. Everything has to be purchased at the bazaars, and luxuries are things that are rumored about when groups gather and discuss what they read in leftover US or UK magazines. Life for many here is really difficult. Since the Russians began leaving around 1990, over 50 percent of the men in the city were unemployed, and 70 percent of the former factories and plants had shut down.

The Westbrooks fixed us a fine dinner of noodle soup and Kazakh bread. We even had some tea before we went to bed.

Next Week: Opening Historically Shut Doors



THE SPIRIT OF JACOB MARLEY

Marley was dead, to begin with” starts out Charles Dickens in his Christmas masterpiece A Christmas Carol. “There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” Dickens intended to give Marley a position of authenticity and place him in a position where no one could argue with his established wisdom. He was already dead, but now he had access to knowledge as to where he was and why he was where he was. Somehow, Marley had bargained for the chance to revisit his old, selfish business partner, Scrooge, and give him one more thin chance to mend his greedy ways.

After Marley made his scary entrance through Scrooge’s double-locked doors, dragging the chains he had forged in life link by link, he got down to giving Scrooge his otherworldly advice.

“It is required of every man . . . that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth and turned to happiness!”

Scrooge stabbed at a chance to turn down the heat of Marley’s message: “Speak comfort to me, Jacob!”

“I have none to give. . . . No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh, such was I!”

Scrooge couldn’t deflect the message, so he tried a little flattery: “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob.” 

“Business!” the ghost cried, wringing his hands. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Then Jacob Marley’s ghost went on: “I am here tonight to warn you: that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.” 

I have personally tried to discipline my behavior over the years to revisit the words and spirit of Charles Dickens’s Jacob Marley, not only at Christmastime, but throughout the year. His powerful advice, however correct or incorrect his theology, is as necessary as oxygen. Humankind truly is my business; that’s the “why” behind the past years of Project C.U.R.E.! “No space of regret can make amends for a lifetime of misused opportunities.” The common welfare is my business. “Charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence” must be the mainspring and clockwork of my life every day.

The message of Marley should remind us that the chains of life that we forge link by link, day by day, should not be chains that shackle us to the greedy accumulation of possessions in this world; rather, the crafted links should become chains that bind our hearts together with kindness, justice, and righteousness on this earth. 

     Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (Wheaton, IL.Tyndale, 1997), 3,4,16,18,19.


BLIND PEOPLE SEE AGAIN Travel Journal - 1996 (Part 3) Azerbaijan

Monday June 17, 1996: Baku, Azerbaijan: Fortunate for us, the oil company guesthouse is equipped with a marvelous workout gym. I got up early this morning and made use of their stair-climber machine, stationary bicycle, and treadmill. Anna Marie and I ate breakfast and were all ready to go to the ship to see the crowds lined up for eye examinations. Dr. Carlos had already performed four intraocular lens-transplant operations this morning.

From the ship we traveled north of the city along the coast about forty kilometers to where the new oil camp is located. They are constructing new roads, new off-shore platforms, new refinery buildings, and new pipelines from Baku north to Russia and northwest to the Black Sea. Lots of money is being poured into the project, which is joint-ventured by eleven major oil companies.

The oil group had allowed us to store the containers of donated medical goods inside their highly secured storage area until they were needed. Trucks were already there when we arrived.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 3a.jpg

They were transferring the medical goods from the two containers we had shipped. Personnel from the Innernest Orphanage were there collecting the things we had designated for them. They were loading the mattresses, beds, and medical goods for the orphanage clinic onto the waiting truck. The goods would then be taken to the orphanage in time for us to go there in the afternoon and make the official presentation to the directors.

It always gives me a funny feeling to be halfway around the world somewhere and see all the items being unloaded that had been in our Denver warehouse. I recall loading the individual pieces of equipment and boxes of supplies and remember just how they were all carefully fitted into the cargo container. I have fond memories of going up to the hospitals or clinics and picking up many of those pieces, perhaps on some snowy, wintery day in Colorado. And I love to see the looks on the people’s faces who are receiving the medical goods, and hear them say as they discover their new presents, “Wow, look at this! This is really good stuff.”

Today, Dr. Harper, head of Vision International, who since 1966 has had a goal of placing a Christian eye clinic in every major city in Central Asia, was with us. As he watched the goods being unloaded from the two containers onto the truck, he was astounded.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 3b.jpg

“I’ve never seen such good quality merchandise as this. How were you able to get these kinds of supplies and equipment donated?”

I simply replied that it was not through our ingenuity or cleverness that it happened but through the wisdom and direction of God himself.

After the loads for the orphanage were transferred and the goods were on their way, Anna Marie and I had lunch. The people at the oil company invited us to join them at the camp cafeteria. The food was great, and eating with the oil-company workers gave us a feeling as to what it would be like to leave your home, perhaps in the United States, and go to an obscure oil-field location to work.

The oil-company housing is situated around the cafeteria and the office complex. All the buildings are white and are portable and modular in construction. Indeed, they would have to pay me a whole lot of money to go out there and live for a couple of years to direct an operation like that.

With lunch finished, the driver returned Anna Marie and me to the city, where we checked in once again on the eye operations on the big ship. By now the sun was very hot, and lines of people had formed anywhere there might be a bit of shade. Anna Marie and I went to the top deck of the ship and snapped some pictures of the site. Today is the last day the operations will be performed. None of the people gathered outside the ship will have a ghost of a chance to be included on the list of procedures.

We went back down into the hold of the ship to see how many operations Dr. Carlos and his surgery team had completed. They had already finished twelve. That meant that already, twelve people who were blind with cataracts yesterday will be able to see again in a couple of days—an absolute miracle.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 3c.jpg

Anna Marie and I gave the team our words of encouragement and then went back up on deck to get some fresh air. The hold of the steel ship was an oven. I didn’t know exactly how hot it was down there, but I had to leave and get some fresh air. The doctors and nurses had been there working steadily on such a nerve-racking procedure, realizing that one mistake in cutting open the eyeball, removing the old eye lens, and replacing it with a new one … one slipup, and the patient would be blind forever. One faux pas, and all Christian witness through medical help in a strict Muslim country would turn against us, and our efforts would end up worse than if we had never shown up in the first place.

As we went up on deck, I witnessed perhaps one of the saddest situations I have ever encountered. Jay Randall was standing at the top of the stairs leading to the side door into the ship and announcing to the people that there was no possible way that they would get a turn to be operated on until at least next May. There were already ninety-some people who had been examined and were on the waiting list. But the people who had been waiting in line would not even be examined for the procedure.

Some of the older people who were accompanied by family or friends turned and fell into the arms of those closest to them and began to cry out loud. They could not see. They had heard about wonderful doctors who had come to do operations. Some of their friends could already see again. They had their hopes up that one day they would be able to see their family’s faces again and be able to walk again unassisted. They had hoped that perhaps today would be the day for their miracle. But, no … not this time. Their hopes were dashed like the oil-slick tide against the Caspian Sea barrage. No help. No more hope. They cried.

Some of the family members were crying, and Jay had to explain that if they would line up, have their pictures taken, and give their names, they would be called first next May when a new team from America returns to Baku to do more eye operations. From just watching the emotional earthquake taking place, I was nearly as caught up in the grief and disappointment as were the families. I felt my eyes well with tears, and my chest got heavy with the emotion I was seeing.

Several of the people spotted Anna Marie and me and came over to us, begging for us to represent them so they could still get the operation. It really was sad.

We left the ship, and Dr. Carlos and his crew went back to work on as many from the list as possible. Our driver then headed south out of Baku to the orphanage. We were about to move from one emotional experience to an even deeper one.

When we finally arrived, the truck carrying our medical goods was already there and nearly unloaded. I got out of our vehicle and went to the front entryway of the orphanage to inspect the Project C.U.R.E. items that were to be left there. I was really impressed … and so was the staff at the orphanage. It was like Christmastime. We met the directors and staff of the institution. They briefed us on the facility and told us that they presently have 110 children. Almost all of them are not only orphaned but are also mentally and physically impaired.

The plan was to next take us on a tour of the location. As in every orphanage, the children were so starved for a smile or a touch or a hug that they literally mobbed us. The kids were extremely pathetic. And as they were hanging on to every available handhold of our bodies, the director told us to please be careful and watch ourselves, because for the past several weeks, the children had come down with something that was causing all their hair to fall out. The majority of them also had large sores over their bodies and faces.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 3d.jpg

I looked over at Anna Marie. She was nearly in shock. Her life is kids. Whenever she goes through the supermarket, kids literally lean out of their own mothers’ arms and try to come to her. All the kids at the orphanage were being drawn to her now, as if she were some giant magnet. The kids somehow sensed her love and moved toward her en masse. I dropped back beside her and physically formed a blockade for her so that she would have a little space.

We were led upstairs to a room about twenty feet by twenty feet. There were about fifteen children gathered in the room. Every parent’s or expectant parent’s very worst nightmares were represented there. Kids were there who had been rejected for the most obvious of physical reasons—craniofacial disorders, such as double hair lips and cleft palates; severe malnutrition; badly disfigured faces and twisted little bodies; and severe motor disabilities. And most of them were suffering from easily observable mental disorders.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 3e.jpg

It was without question the worst situation I had ever experienced in my visits to orphanages around the world.

The lady taking care of the children in that room said she has worked at the facility for over twenty years and receives four dollars per month for her services.

None of the other wards were quite like that one. In another ward, Dr. Harper was asked to examine some of the children who had gone blind in either one or both eyes. Following his examinations, he told the directors that a whole lot of the health problems the children in the orphanage were suffering could be cured with a little soap and clean water.

I left the orphanage with some strange feelings. I knew that even as good as the medical supplies were, we were not going to significantly change the lives of most of those kids. However, I saw something else happening. The directors, especially a young woman from Norway who had come to help in that awful place, took on a totally different countenance as they watched the things being unloaded from the truck.

One of the things we had sent was a new stationary exercise bicycle. The Norwegian girl was so excited. She said, “We have talked about and hoped for something like this to put in one of our rooms. During the severe winters here, the children can’t go outside. Now the bigger ones will have some way to exercise and work off their energy while staying inside.”

It reminded me once again of what Vilmar Trombeta in Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil, told me after Project C.U.R.E. delivered a forty-foot container of medical goods to him: “Mr. Jackson, you bring many good medical things to us in Brazil. But you bring much more to us. The most important thing you bring to us is hope. To know that someone else knows about us and our problems and is willing to come help us, that gives us hope. We can continue if we have hope.”

As Anna Marie and I drove away from the Baku orphanage, I not only thought about the horribly pathetic kids we saw there and the political and social philosophy of the Communists who had, like in Romania and other places, allowed or encouraged such institutions to exist, but I also thought about the medical supplies things that were stacked outside the front porch of that large block building and the looks on the faces of those staff members. I thought, I’d do the collecting, loading, and shipping and come to this place all over again if I could once again be a part of the plan to bring encouragement and hope to the people who are daily asked to give their lives for such an institution. I want to be someone who brings hope.

From the orphanage Anna Marie and I once again returned to the ship to check on the final operations. We then had the driver return us to the guesthouse, where we ate and turned in for the night.

Tuesday, June 18

Through the night I kept thinking about the pitiful little children at the Baku orphanage. I would wake up angry, and my mind would go back to what I had encountered when I was in Bucharest, Romania. There the Communist dictator was intent on building a great army for Romania. In order for him to have an army, he needed lots of human bodies. So his program was to encourage every virile man to impregnate every available female and turn the country’s population into a baby machine. He promised them that once the babies were born, the parents would not have to take care of them, but rather, the state would take full responsibility for raising the nation’s future army. Not only would the children be cared for properly, but they would grow up thinking the way they “ought” to think.

Hundreds of orphanages were set up in Romania. After the people of Romania finally revolted against Ceauşescu, commandeered his helicopter, and took the dictator and his mean wife to an abandoned farm, they gave them a mock trial and then shot them to death.

Project C.U.R.E. had gone to Romania not long after the overthrow of Ceauşescu. We were able to use about $300,000 worth of medical supplies, along with some cash raised by Monty Ortman and Mike Ingram, two dedicated businessmen from Arizona to purchase one of the buildings in downtown Bucharest that had been used for one of the orphanages. While we were there, we learned a lot about Communist orphanages in Romania. They would select the best and healthiest kids and reject the others. The crippled and inferior or disabled children who had come along as a result of the “baby machine” were placed in special homes and were pretty much allowed to die. I understood from our sources there, that for the most part, they fed them very little and then during the winter would simply discontinue providing the special orphanages with any heat. The children in their weakened condition would quite quickly catch pneumonia or some other malady and quietly die. Or the other alternative was to allow humanitarian organizations from the Western world to take the undesirable children and place them with adoption agencies.

Perhaps all of that was running through the back of my mind when we visited the Innernest Orphanage. Dr. Harper shared with me that one of the most sinister uses of orphanages under the Communist regime was to punish anyone considered to be in opposition to the state. The Communist governments would take the children of those people, put them in an orphanage, brainwash them, and train them to unknowingly be the ones who would go back and kill their parents as the ultimate punishment for their opposition.

I do not wake up in the middle of the night with the same reactions to orphanages, let’s say, that I had visited in Uganda or Rwanda. Those little kids were sharp and in every way normal, except for the deep scars they bore from witnessing their moms and dads being hacked to death with machetes by members of another tribe seeking to eradicate them all through genocide.

Any way I look at it, I have to conclude that the creation called humankind, left on its own, is very capable of performing some dastardly acts of mischief and terror. The driving force behind all we do at Project C.U.R.E. is to somehow get out the message to millions of people that there is an alternative. There is a power that can change the wanton and corrupt nature of fallen humankind, and that power can allow them to become people of dignity, compassion, responsibility, and worth.

Next Week: “It’s Another One of Your Angels”  


"YOU CAN'T GET TO AKTAU FROM HERE." Travel Journal - 1996 Azerbaijan (Part 2)

Saturday June 15, 1996: Baku, Azerbaijan: I have always felt that Lufthansa airline is a very reliable company. They have a ticket office in the Hyatt hotel, so this morning I decided to see if they would help with the needed flights for the next couple of weeks. Rose Ann, my travel agent, had finally given up on trying to get any flights scheduled from Denver and told me that my only hope would be to go to the airports in the cities where we would be staying and see if I could find the right line in which to stand. But perhaps I could let Lufthansa take care of all our flights now that we had gotten to Baku.

I went into the ticket office, put my travel agent’s card on the desk, and said, “I would like for you to help me secure flights from Baku to Aktau, from Aktau to Almaty, Kazakhstan, from Almaty to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and even perhaps from Tashkent to Andijon.”

The two girls behind the desk just looked at each other. “We don’t fly there,” they said.

“Where?” I asked.

“There,” they replied.

I knew that I had overloaded the system. So I resorted to another approach. I wrote on a piece of paper. “Baku to Aktau as soon as possible.”

“We know where Baku is, but we have never heard of Aktau. Are you sure it is spelled correctly?”

I said, “You are on the west side of the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan. Aktau is just across the Caspian Sea on the east shore in Kazakhstan. Do you have a map?”

They brought out a map, and I pointed out to them the neighboring city of Aktau.

“Oh yes, there it is … but Lufthansa does not fly there,” they replied.

“Who does fly there?” I inquired.

“No one. In fact, we don’t think you can get there. We’ve never known of anyone who has.”

“Okay … could you check on your computer and tell me what other airlines might fly into Aktau?”

“We can’t. We only have Lufthansa’s schedule.”

“Okay, how would I find out which airlines might fly into Aktau?”

“Well, you really have to go to the airport and queue up in the line. Maybe one airline would fly to Aktau, but most flights aren’t on Saturday or Sunday, so you could not find out until Monday.”

“Okay, if you, as travel agents, wanted to go across the Caspian Sea from Baku to Aktau, where would you start? What would you do?” I asked.

“Oh, we would never want to go to Aktau!”

“Could I take a boat? Is there a ferry from Baku to Aktau?”

“We wouldn’t have any way of knowing that, but you might check with Azerbaijan Airlines. They schedule things like that sometimes.”

“But Azerbaijan Airlines is closed today, you said. So how would I ask?”

“Well, there is a ticket office in an office building, but you would have to go several kilometers there to find out.”

“Could I take a taxi and get there?”

“Yes.”

“Would you please write down on a piece of paper the name of the hotel so I could give it to a taxi driver, and he could take us there?”

“Oh yes. We would be glad to go outside the hotel and tell the taxi driver where he should take you.”

It was a slim lead, but I had to figure out some way to get two tickets for us, or we would spend the rest of our lives in Baku.

The taxi driver took us to the office where the tickets were supposed to be purchased … Wrong place. In all, we went to four different locations before we located the right spot in a downtown hotel where they sold Azerbaijan Airline tickets. At a little cage in the hotel, where the ticket office was located, I asked if Azerbaijan Airlines flew to Aktau.

“Yes, but only on Mondays and Thursday.”

“Okay, I need two tickets.”

“Let me see your passport,” the woman replied. “And if you want two tickets, you will need to present two passports. Oh, I don’t see a visa for Kazakhstan in your passport. I can’t sell you a ticket into Kazakhstan unless you have a visa to get in.”

“No,” I countered, “it is not required that I have a visa to Kazakhstan. I was instructed that if I have a Russian visa into Moscow, I can travel into Kazakhstan for three days without a Kazakhstan visa—and, as you see in my passport, I have my stamps for entering and exiting Moscow.”

“But I don’t see a visa pasted in your passport for Russia.”

I then tried to explain to her not only about the instructions from the Kazakhstan and Russian embassies in the USA but also about how the woman at the Moscow passport control had kept our Russian visas when we exited—over my sincere protests.

To no avail … to no avail. I finally conceded and asked where, on a Saturday morning, I could get a Kazakhstan visa. The woman in the cage wrote down the name of another building in downtown Baku, and I took it hoping she knew what she was talking about. Fortunately I had asked the taxi driver to wait for me while I was in the hotel.

On the way back out to the taxi, I realized that we would also need Anna Marie’s passport. So I had the driver take us all the way back to our hotel to fetch her passport. Then it was back downtown to find the Kazakhstan visa building.

After finding the right floor and the right cubbyhole office, I stated my case to two short men who could hardly speak any English. They both agreed that I needed a new Kazakhstan visa, because even though Russia told us it was not necessary, Kazakhstan was not a part of the Russian Federation, even though they had been a part of the old Soviet Union. The Russians just don’t like the Kazakhs, and they weren’t going to be helpful in any way.

“So,” the men said, “we don’t like the Russians, and we won’t honor what they told you. Besides, it will cost you sixty US dollars in cash for each visa.”

By that time I figured I had already spent too much time and energy on the procedures and their petty country arguments, so I pulled out my wallet and started to take out $120 to pay them.

Then they announced, “But we cannot issue a visa to you without the original copy of a letter of personal invitation from someone in Kazakhstan for you to come to visit on these requested dates.”

“But I sent that letter to your embassy in Washington, D.C., and they informed me that I did not need a visa, so they kept the letter.”

“Too bad—we must have a letter, or no visa.”

Now when the laundry has your clothes, and they say, “No tickie, no laundry.” Then you better find the “tickie.” So back to the taxi and back across town to our hotel for something we could use as a letter of invitation. We were running out of time, as all the government offices would close at 2:00 p.m. I was beginning to think that perhaps we would spend the rest of our lives in Azerbaijan as “missionaries by entrapment.”

Back at the hotel, I dumped all my paperwork for the trip out on the bed and began frantically scrambling through it. Fortunately I had brought the Request for Assistance forms from the three hospitals I would be visiting in Aktau. Somehow I had to get the Kazakh people to allow me to use those forms as letters of personal invitation.

It worked. “No tickie, no laundry … no visa, no medical supplies.” I plainly told the men at the visa office that if I didn’t get my visas, I would see to it that their country would not get my medical supplies. I got the visas and, after another episode, also secured our tickets to Aktau. We will have to work on getting tickets from Aktau to Almaty, Kazakhstan; from Almaty to Tashkent, Uzbekistan; and from Tashkent to Andijon, Uzbekistan, and back to Tashkent another day.

We had tied up the little taxi driver for what seemed to be forever, but he just kept rubbing his fingertips together, smiling a lot about our misfortune and his new fortune. On the way back to our hotel, I had him swing by one last place. I figured that by now we had pretty much purchased his taxi, so it wouldn’t be a whole lot more for one more stop. I wanted to visit the ship that was docked in the harbor downtown where our eye surgeries were being performed.

Project C.U.R.E. had sent two containers of medical supplies to Baku in January. They had already arrived, and much of the supply inventory was already being used. The supplies were to be divided up between a hospital in Baku, an orphanage outside Baku, and the Caspian Sea Vision International project.

The vision clinic had been set up in a rented portion of a big white ship that was docked in Baku.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 2a.jpg

Word spread throughout the two and a half million citizens of Baku that Christian eye doctors would be performing free eye surgeries on about one hundred people from Baku and the surrounding area. The patients would be examined first to see if their conditions qualified them for surgery. Project C.U.R.E.’s donated medical supplies and equipment were utilized in the operating room in the hold of the ship.

When the taxi dropped us off at the ship, I was amazed at the number of people who had shown up for the preexamination.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 2b.jpg

Long lines of people were waiting outside the doorway into the ship. The doctors were averaging about twenty intraocular lens transplants per day. Monday will be the last day that the surgeries will be performed for the present time.

The operations only take place when teams of eye surgeons come from the USA or some other country to donate their services to the area people. The doctors bring along nurses and really set up an assembly-line surgery procedure.

It really is hard to describe the emotions and excitement of the people who are operated on to have their cataracts removed or some other lens correction done and come out of the operation able to see for the first time in years—or in some cases, for the first time ever.

I was really pleased to see that there in the hold of the ship, which had been converted into an operating room, were stacks of disposable supplies that were once in our warehouse in Denver. All our efforts and all our goofy episodes with bureaucratic ninnies finally made sense. Those people in a Muslim world receiving their sight by the healing hands of Christian doctors is what Project C.U.R.E. is all about.

At the ship I talked to Jay Randall, who apologized and said that they were expecting us to arrive tonight at the airport, not last night, and that he had made arrangements for us to be moved from the Hyatt hotel to an oil-company-consortium guesthouse for the rest of our stay.

Anna Marie and I left the ship and made the transfer. Then we ate dinner at the guesthouse and wearily hit the bed.

Sunday, June 16

An oil-company car was waiting for us after breakfast at the guesthouse to take us to church this morning. It was a newly formed church, of course, and they were allowed to meet in a performing-arts theater in the Aeroflot airlines building in downtown Baku. I was quite surprised at the size of the crowd in attendance. The theater was nearly full of mostly young people in their twenties or thirties, and they clapped a lot as they sang with the local praise and worship group.

Following the morning service, Anna Marie and I were invited to go with a group of the church people for an outing at the beach north of Baku. They had rented an old city bus to take us. The driver proceeded to try to get as close to the water as possible upon our arrival. You guessed it … He stuck the bus up to its frame in the soft sand.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 2c.jpg

So while we ate our picnic, and the majority of the group went swimming in the skuzzy Caspian Sea, the hired bus driver and several others had to dig the big bus out of the sand and get it back on the road. It was terribly hot at the beach—probably about 110 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Even though the beach was very dirty and the water was slimy, the beach was crowded with families in junky old cars they would drive up to the water’s edge.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996 2d.jpg

We returned to the city about 5:00 p.m., and then Anna Marie and I went with the eye surgeons, Dr. Carlos from Toronto, Canada, and Dr. Howard Harper of Vision International, to the flat of an American couple in Baku from Houston, Texas—Mr. and Mrs. Lelan Callaway. He is the manager of the Azerbaijan International Operating Company, an oil-conglomerate service company. They are very fine Christian people, and we had first met them at the morning church service.

The oil company had taken some of the old Soviet flats and totally remodeled them for housing of the expatriates. The Callaway’s flat was very lovely and had a grand view of the Caspian Sea, the parks, and the buildings of the old city. Their flat was on the top floor and was directly across from where the large white eye-clinic ship was harbored. Lelan Callaway had an oil-company car come to take us back to the guesthouse in time to eat dinner.

We met a good group of oil people who are staying at the guesthouse. Most of them are on a twenty-nine-day rotation system with their companies. They come to Baku for twenty-nine days, return to the US or England for another twenty-nine days, and then return again to Baku. Apparently the money is very good, and the program attracts some top-quality people.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the European and Central Asian countries come in and put money up to develop their resources. This land is particularly rich in oil, and countries like Azerbaijan are already feeling the effects of the influx of money that is being poured in from the West for development.

Jay Randall stopped by our room later this evening to strategize activities for tomorrow and Tuesday.

Next Week: Blind People See Again 


HOW TO FIX A BROKEN SOVIET? TravelJournal- 1996:Azerbaijan,Kazakhstan,UzbekistanBelarus

Author’s Note: At the beginning of this holiday season I want to share this multi-part episode of Project C.U.R.E.’s historic involvement in the early days of the collapsed Soviet Union. I will forever be grateful that we had the unique opportunity of helping to save thousands and thousands lives through significant medical intervention at a very critical period of history. A great big “Thank You” to all those who were involved with Project C.U.R.E. to make it happen.
 
Thursday June 13, 1996: Moscow, Russia: It still amazes me when I step back a few paces from my immersive involvement in Project C.U.R.E. and just look at what has happened in the past few years. In 1995 we were all astounded that in that year alone, Project C.U.R.E. had shipped out of its inventory medical supplies and equipment to eighteen different countries around the world. The wholesale value of the items shipped was in excess of ten million dollars. It really wasn’t that long ago when Anna Marie and I were sorting goods and packing them for shipping while standing in the cold shop at the end of our garage. I would take my trusty pickup truck and go to hospitals and local clinics and laugh and joke around with the supply managers, trying to successfully talk them out of their overstock.

Then I would get on the telephone and try to locate drug-company representatives and vendors and manufacturers of medical goods to plead my humanitarian case in an effort to persuade them to trust their excess supplies to me so that I could take them somewhere around the world and save some mom’s or dad’s or kid’s life. I would ask them if they really wouldn’t rather have me take those excess supplies off their hands and save lives with them than just have them thrown in a Dumpster where they would be buried in some landfill.

And now, many of those same people are calling our office on a regular basis and wanting to know when we will be by with a truck to pick up their donated supplies.

On Tuesday—June 11, 1996—I spoke at another Rotary International service club meeting and told them the story of Project C.U.R.E. I really had to admit to the audience that I was not smart enough make happen what has taken place over the past few years with Project C.U.R.E. It had been God directing things on this end and God working in the hearts and minds of the medical-supply donors on the other end of the equation that brought about an absolute miracle.

We at Project C.U.R.E. thought that 1995 was a high-water-mark miracle. But so far this year, we have already shipped to nineteen different countries around the world, and the year is not yet half over. This week the warehouse buildings are more full than they have ever been. Almost daily we have volunteers come in and help pick up donated supplies or work in the warehouse sorting and packing the medical goods. Now, different church groups and civic organizations have come alongside to help us.

I have never taken any kind of salary from Project C.U.R.E as long as it has been in existence. It has been a volunteer effort from a heart of praise and worship to God and an experiment of obedience to see what God can do with just a little if he has all there is of it.

I challenged the Rotary group to realize how special they are and accept the fact that they are very successful in the community, or else they would not have been accepted into that organization. But then I challenged them to move from success to “significance.” Even as successful as they are in their lives or careers, they need to now move into a position where they can dedicate their lives to something of greatness and significance. “Endeavor to do something so great,” I said, “that unless God intervenes, you will fail.”

Well, I am convinced that if for some reason Project C.U.R.E. has to cease its efforts, fold its tents, and move into oblivion today, that which has already been accomplished has been well worth the effort and, more important, has brought a smile to the face of God. Lots of his children are healthier today because of Project C.U.R.E. However, it doesn’t look, at this point, like we will be folding our tents very soon. There must be more work for us to do.

Thursday, June 13–Friday, June 14
This morning Anna Marie and I left Evergreen, Colorado, to climb onto another airplane to see if we can take a little help and hope to some other hurting people in some other faraway place—this time Central Asia.

Earlier this year we had shipped two cargo containers of donated medical goods to Baku, Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea. It is now time to do a follow-up study on the effectiveness of our shipments and to evaluate our efforts in Azerbaijan.

Anna Marie had already agreed with Colorado Christian University (CCU) to teach throughout the summer session, but I stepped in with some paternal authority and said, “No way! It’s time you take a break. I’m going to kidnap you and take you to some places in this world where you have never been.”

Not only are we scheduled to go to Azerbaijan, but our itinerary calls for us to travel to Aktau, Almaty, and Dzhambul in Kazakhstan; Tashkent and Andijon in Uzbekistan; and Minsk, Belarus.

We left Denver at 10:45 a.m. on a Delta flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Mary Gibson took us to the airport so that we will not have to pay an exorbitant amount of money for airport parking for the twenty-three days we are gone. But what are Vern and Mary Gibson doing in Denver? They are supposed to be running the Project C.U.R.E. warehouse and office in Phoenix, Arizona.

Vern and Mary had come to Denver with Stan and Kay Schirm. Stan is vice president of Food for the Hungry International and works out of the Food for the Hungry office in Phoenix. Since Project C.U.R.E. and Food for the Hungry are now doing so many projects together, Stan wanted to come to Denver and observe our operation. He had invited Vern and Mary to come with Kay and him.

We all got together for dinner in Evergreen on Monday evening, and Vern and Mary stayed at our guesthouse. They had planned to return to Phoenix on Tuesday, but when the Gibsons saw the details we were trying to take care of before leaving for Central Asia today, they called their boys in Phoenix and told them that they were going to stay in Denver for several more days. 

I’m not sure Anna Marie and I would have been able to leave today if the Gibsons had not had compassion on us and stayed to help. Dr. Rich Sweeney, our director of operations in Denver, had gone to Los Angeles, California, to oversee the setup and opening of Project C.U.R.E.’s two new warehouse locations in Southern California. So Vern pitched in with the warehouse details in Denver that were about to overtake us. Mary pitched in at the office and helped my executive assistant, Ruth Bittle, who was about to max out taking care of all her regular duties as well as coordinating the details of our trip.

Our flight to New York went well, except for our not being able to get aisle seats. On long trips, if I am not able to stretch my long legs into the aisle, I’m in big trouble.

Anna Marie and I switched planes in New York but stayed on Delta to Moscow. But in Moscow the trip began to go awry. Before we left Denver, we had experienced great difficulty getting all the needed visa permits to the different Central Asian countries. Actually, we left Denver without visas into either Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, and we had been informed by the authorities that if we had Russian visas, we could actually pass through Kazakhstan (since it was a part of the old Soviet Union) as long as we didn’t stay over three days. So we obtained our Russian visas and thought we were all set. But indeed, we were not all set. 

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996  1a.jpg

We flew into the Moscow international airport and then had to transfer across town to the airport that handles flights into Asia and parts of the old Soviet Union. Our taxi driver wanted to charge us sixty-five dollars for the ride to the other airport. I diplomatically (well, maybe not so diplomatically) told him to take a long walk off a short dock. I finally paid him twenty-five dollars.

Once inside the airport, Anna Marie and I learned that our flight was being delayed for at least one hour. Ultimately, it was delayed for over five hours, but the most frustrating occurrence at the airport, besides the pushing and shoving crowds on other domestic flights, was the fact that the woman at passport control stamped my passport and then kept the Russian visa. I explained to her that she was not to keep the visa, because I needed it for two reasons: (1) I was going to be coming back through Moscow from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on my way to Frankfurt, Germany, and I was sure that they would require the visa for that; and (2) I would need the Russian visa in lieu of the Kazakhstan visa when traveling from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Aktau, Kazakhstan.

The agent and I went round and round with the encounter. She was in a booth and had my visa. She felt very certain that she was to keep my visa, and if I needed another visa in order to come back through Moscow on my way to Frankfurt, that was my problem. I could apply and pay for another Russian visa in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. She wouldn’t even waste her breath arguing about my needing a Russian visa to get into Kazakhstan. If you can believe it, I even went back to her booth later and tried again to plead my case … to no avail.

When Anna Marie and I finally arrived in Baku, Azerbaijan, a city of two and a half million, we were the last folk at the airport. It was still light outside, but it was well after 10:00 p.m. I was really ready to see Mr. Jay Randall, the head of the Caspian Project, with whom we had worked when sending our two cargo containers to Baku last year. But upon getting off the plane and checking through customs, we saw no one there at all to meet us. Since we were the last flight and the last remaining passengers of the night, lots of taxi drivers wanted to take us to the city, which was about twenty-five miles away. I told them, “Thanks,” but I was sure that my friend would be there soon to take us into the city.

However, no friend showed up. The airport cleared out, and it was getting real late. One taxi driver asked if he could help me phone my friend, who might have forgotten. I later found out that the phone number I had was for an office, and of course, the office was closed.

I asked the taxi driver if there were any phones at the airport where I could call for an international phone line. He even went to the manager of the airport, and they both said that the only international line was at an office in the city center, but by now it would be closed. I had determined that I could call Ruth in Denver and try to get some other local phone numbers. I knew that if we left the airport and Jay Randall came to pick us up, we would never find each other, because I had no helpful phone number.

Finally the taxi driver, who could speak a few sentences of English, remembered that there was an international phone at the Hyatt Regency hotel in town. The hotel was newly rebuilt, and they had installed such a line. My options were dwindling. There was a real possibility that Anna Marie and I would be staying in the dark airport all night. So I opted to have the taxi driver deliver us to the Hyatt. Even if they did not have a room for us, I could still phone the USA and try to get some valid phone numbers.

We arrived at the hotel, and the taxi driver actually came in to see if we would be all right. They happened to have a room available, so we took it and went to our room. Then I began trying to call the office. If we had not paid for a room, the hotel would not have allowed us to use the international line.

Saturday, June 15

After many attempts to get through to Ruth Bittle in Denver, I was finally able to reach her and ask her to send a fax to me including all the numbers she could dig up for Baku. Then Anna Marie and I went to bed. We had started out on Thursday morning, and now it was early Saturday morning, and we were still in our same clothes.

Azerb, Kazak, Uzbek, Bel. 1996  1b .jpg

At breakfast I determined that the best course of action for us was to try to secure some plane tickets in Baku and get to Aktau, Kazakhstan, as soon as possible. Our schedule called for us to leave Baku for Aktau on Tuesday June 18. But if what we were encountering was any indication of what we might expect for the next few days, our time would probably be better spent in Aktau.

None of our Central Asia flights could be booked or even verbally confirmed before we left Denver. The rule in Central Asia and Eastern Europe is that if you want to go somewhere, you go stand in line and see if that line helps you get there. If it doesn’t, you go stand in another line. Another problem is that the domestic airlines like Azerbaijan Airlines, Air Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan Airways don’t even know their own flight schedules. They might fly to a location once a week, or maybe, if things are going well and there are additional passengers, they will fly three times to that location a particular week.

Next Week: “Oh, no – you can’t get to Aktau from here.”


COST VS VALUE

Economic concepts and economic systems matter. We are individually better off when we slow down and begin to recognize the subtle signals of the economic structure and learn what they are telling us. A signal from the pricing system reveals to us dependable information that will help us make better decisions. Signals tell the producers what the consumer thinks something is worth. Signals tell me where to go to get the best deal. There is always a healthy friction of discontent between the producer who thinks he is receiving too little for the gallon of milk he produced and the mom who just knows the price is too high. That’s good.

While traveling around the world, I am intrigued as I observe various economic signals. I have seen with my own eyes that if you raise the cost of doing something, people will do less of it. There is no behavior that is not affected by cost. Higher income, for example, becomes one of the greatest controllers of the birth rate. When people become richer they have fewer babies (one of the cardinal factors of the occurrence of genocide in Rwanda—the Hutus were outbirthing the wealthier Tutsis nine to one).

45.png

But there is another set of signals that I have been trying to process lately. There seems to be a direct and positive correlation between cost and value. Something that comes to you without cost will more than likely be regarded as having little or no value to you. You assign a higher value to something if it has cost you something. Studies have shown that a college student who has earned the money for his or her tuition will do better than the student who is on a free ride. A bike that is earned is treated better than a freebie.

An interesting thing happened to me in the early days of Project C.U.R.E. People who were preparing to travel to a foreign country and desired to take some donated medical goods with them to present to a foreign hospital or clinic or medical group needing clinical supplies for their mission would come to our warehouse and ask us to furnish them with the goods. We began to assemble boxes of about $1,500 worth of donated medical goods and just let them walk out the door with our blessing. Later, however, I discovered that should those well-intentioned people run into difficulties getting those boxes on the airplane as luggage, or should they encounter aggressive border or customs people upon entrance into the country, they would simply turn their backs and walk away from the donated goods, saying, “Oh, well, they were free to us, and when we need more we can go back to Dr. Jackson, and Project C.U.R.E. will always give us more.”

When I learned what was happening, I started charging a fee of $100 for the $1,500 worth of donated goods. That simple personal investment changed everything. From that date forward, we never lost a box. And now, even when we donate a huge ocean-going cargo container of medical goods valued at close to half a million dollars, we require the recipient country or sponsoring group to pay the cost of shipping and handling of the container as their buy-in requirement. That guarantees that the recipients will be at the customs building to protect their investment and see to it that the container is received by the hospital or clinic.

In my mental processing of this positive correlation between cost and value, I have come to this conclusion: as a rule of thumb, you can determine the true value to you of something by deciding how much of your personal life you would be willing to exchange for that object or service—because there is no behavior that is not affected by cost.


FIRST IN LINE

I always chortle a bit at the homespun wisdom of this saying: “The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese!”

In our culture we have been fed the breakfast of champions and coached in the necessity of being first in line. It’s really important to always be first in line—or is it?

Recently I was in the quaint Balkan country of Bulgaria. I loved it enough that I wanted to go back at the first opportunity. I had agreed to travel from Colorado to Sofia, Bulgaria, to work with Carl Hammerdorfer, the country’s Peace Corps director. With the Peace Corps and Project C.U.R.E. working together as a team, we were able to accomplish some very ambitious projects of rebuilding and refurnishing some strategic medical facilities in Bulgaria.

The curious history of Bulgaria dates back to the fifth and sixth centuries BC. Genghis Khan had traipsed through the region with his bloody band and left his influence everywhere. The severity of the subsequent Roman occupation altered the social fabric as well as the landscape. The remains of Roman walls, forts, ports, and coliseums are abundant. The Ottoman Turks later raped the women, pillaged the economy, and defaced the real estate, as did the Communists more recently. While visiting the thriving cities of Plovdiv, Sofia, and Bourgas, I pledged that I would one day return on my own time and purchase some antiques.

One Tuesday was spent assessing a medical facility in the area of Starosel. Near the site was an ancient ruin that had recently been unearthed. It dated back to the sixth century B.C., and consisted of some cult temples and wine-making operations of the Thracian sect. The Bulgarian landscape in that district was punctuated with earthen mounds that the farmers had plowed around for many centuries.

Their curiosity had recently driven them to dig up some of the mounds and explore the contents. Consequently they discovered evidence of rumored traditions from past centuries.

Tradition held that the Turks had multiple wives. But when a husband was killed, or died of natural causes, his favorite wife would be buried with him. Since it was a great honor for a wife to be buried with her husband and thereby seal her place of honor and importance in history, disputes would often break out among the surviving wives as to who was the favorite and who would be first in line to be buried with the husband.

So, to settle disputes in a terminal way, the two top contenders would be bound together by leather straps at one ankle and one wrist. There was no way to get away from each other. Then they would each be given a dagger and be allowed to settle the dispute by death. The one successful survivor would then be killed as well and placed in the tomb with the husband in perpetuity as the most honored wife. 

Many of the earthen mounds have been excavated now, and scientists indeed have found such fatal wounds as knife punctures to the skull in the wives’ skeletons.

21.png

When I heard of this morbid tradition, I thought to myself, There surely must have been a diplomatic way for a wife to defer all that posterity and glory to the other jealous contender by simply acknowledging that she was definitely not the most favored, and even share some anecdotal stories of how she had messed up along the way and not fully satisfied the husband at some point!

Demanding to always be first in line seems to me to be pretty costly and may deserve the consideration of at least another thirty-minute rethink. Sometimes it just might be more prudent to be the second mouse and keep the cheese.


STRANGE AND UNACCUSTOMED PATHS

One of the most satisfying episodes in my life was when the US Department of State awarded my efforts with one of their highest humanitarian recognitions: the Florence Nightingale Award.

In the fall of 2002, congressman Cass Ballenger in Washington, D.C., and ambassador Martin Silverstein from Uruguay called me and asked, “How fast can you get away and travel to Uruguay to do your Needs Assessment Study and get some donated medical goods to that country before its economic crisis deepens into a political crisis that would be hard to reverse?” The congressman served on the International Relations Committee, where he was chairman of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.

I agreed to drop what I was doing and immediately travel to Montevideo, Uruguay. Thanks to the help of the embassy staff and the office of the congressman, the project turned out very successfully, and for that I was given the coveted award. But the thrill of the ordeal was greatly enhanced by the fact that from my childhood I had been a great admirer of Florence Nightingale. When she was a little girl, she wanted to be a nurse, but her family thought it to be less than dignified, considering the deplorable practices and facilities where nurses had to work at that time. But during the Crimean War in 1854, soldiers from England were sent to the front to fight. Many were wounded and had no access to hospital care.

Florence Nightingale offered to go to the front. She was given the opportunity to gather up some nurses and travel to a battlefield hospital near Constantinople in Turkey. There she discovered a most dreadful scene, where nearly 2,500 British combat men lay helpless and unattended in the very worst of surroundings. The unsanitary conditions were deplorable, with open sewers and filthy clothing and blankets. There were no medical procedures or provisions available to the men, and many were dying, not from their original wounds, but from rampant disease and infection spawned from the filthy conditions.

The calm but forceful nurse used her leadership skills not only to attack the problems of the immediate situation but to change the British health-care system altogether. The new female recruits organized themselves into a cleaning brigade. They cleaned out the rats’ nests, washed down the facilities, and scrubbed down the patients, even to their fleainfested scalps. Nothing escaped the cleanliness of the new brush brigade. Immediately there was a dramatic drop in the death rate in the field hospitals. The wounded soldiers began to respond well to the medical treatment. The morale jumped by leaps and bounds. The nurses’ approach had consisted of hard work and cleanliness. Even when there was no money available from the British government, Florence Nightingale went personally to donors and raised money for medical supplies and bedclothes.

20.png

Some believed that she was able to reduce the mortality rate of the wounded soldiers by as much as seventy-five percent.

All of Britain declared her a heroine upon her return to London. But Florence Nightingale’s own health was in shambles. Following the war she was pretty much homebound for the remainder of her life. Yet she never gave up the successful fight to radically reform Great Britain’s health-care delivery system. From her bed she continued to put the pressure on health officials and parliament to implement reform. As one person she was able to leverage her position and influence. She became an agent of change for the entire philosophy and protocol of the British health-care system.

But the part of Florence Nightingale’s story that so intrigued me, and made the State Department’s award so special to me, was the nurse’s own quote when questioned about her accomplishments:

           If I could give you information of my life, it would be to show how a woman of very ordinary ability has been led of God in strange and unaccustomed paths to do in His service what He has done in her. And if I could tell you all, you would see how God has done all and I nothing. I have worked hard, very hard, that is all; and I have never refused God anything.