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.”