Another major part of our work was traveling to visit IMI workers. This entailed meeting with every worker in each of the locations we visited.
In a place like our country of service, we would do more than thirty interviews in two weeks. This took a lot of time and energy, since each interview was at least two hours long and included delving into the couple’s or single’s life and ministry. We were pretty drained by the end of our visits.
Most of the places we visited were not where tourists normally go. Just getting a visa for some destinations was difficult, and the travel to and from was a challenge.
On one trip to Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, we first flew into Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Three planes came in at the same time, so along with hundreds of other passengers we were crowded into a long, narrow hall for processing
At the far end were just three passport booths. There were no lines, so we all pressed forward toward the booths. Many people lit up cigarettes and soon the place was full of smoke.
Barbara had not been feeling well on the trip and now weary and overcome by smoke and lack of oxygen, she fainted. I caught her and lowered her to the floor.
People around us immediately opened up a space, women patted her hands and she began to come around. A doctor was called and she took us up to the front of the room and right through the passport booths.
She spoke none of our languages, so we had to communicate through pantomime. After examining Barbara, the doctor determined that she was ok, and then took us through the baggage check. This was the reverse experience of most places, where things are x-rayed and checked when you leave. Here everything coming in had to be x-rayed and all contents listed, a process that normally took three hours. But with Barbara’s fainting, we were out in about thirty minutes!
I told Barbara she should faint every time we had to make these trips! She, however, was greatly embarrassed by all the attention and declined to do a repeat
We were met at the airport by our team leader from Kazakhstan, who took us to a guesthouse for the night. The next day we drove into Kazakhstan and were waved through by the guards at the border. On later visits, this border crossing would become a complex, two-hour ordeal.
We were hosted by the leader in his small apartment. Heating fuel was scarce, so the average temperature in the apartment during our visit was about forty-five degrees Fahrenheit.
The city looked like something out of a pre-World War II film. The buses, filled to the gills with passengers, were ancient and decrepit, belching out great clouds of diesel smoke. The cars all looked like they’d been made in the 1940s and were in poor shape.
The buildings were dilapidated, unpainted, and unsightly. The Soviets had a penchant for building unattractive concrete structures, and the break-up of the Soviet Empire had left the new little countries impoverished so no maintenance had been done in years.
All along the streets were huge rusting pipes, some five feet in diameter, all part of a central heating system that no longer worked. Everything was ugly.
After our visit, we went back to Tashkent where some one helped us hire a taxi to take us the three hours to the Tajik border. There we hoped to get onto a plane headed to the capital.
Our driver spoke none of the languages we knew, but he was a friendly fellow and tried to communicate anyway. Pointing to boys selling jars full of gasoline beside the road, he said, “Kuwait.” When we came to the destination and saw the big river there, he said, “Mississippi.”
Our plane was an old Soviet one. There were no frills: no seat belts, no heat, no stewardess. We sat on board, waiting in the cold. Pretty soon someone knocked on the door and somehow a passenger managed to open it. An unshaven man in a black leather jacket got on; he looked like a mafia hit man. He was our pilot.
As we flew over rugged snow-covered mountains, I thought, “If we crashed here, even if we survived, what would be the possibility of getting to some kind of civilization?” The plane, however, did not crash and made it safely to the capital, Dushanbe.
This former Soviet city was the same as the others we’d seen: drab, decrepit and depressing. We spent the night in a guesthouse. It was built around a courtyard with all the rooms opening onto it. We had our own room with a mattress on the floor.
At this point I began to feel sick, probably from something I’d eaten along the way. During the night I got the chills and had to go to the bathroom. I crept out of bed, eased out our door and ran across the cold courtyard to the little bathroom. After using the toilet, I found there was a big hot water tank in the next room, so I spent some time with my arms wrapped around it in order to garner some warmth; that helped and I felt better. Because of my illness, I made that trip several times during the night and each time had a pleasant reunion with the water heater.
Another nice touch about those night trips to the bathroom was the house owner’s dog, which greeted me joyously each time I ran across the courtyard. I couldn’t resist stopping to pet him.
The next morning, the team leader drove us for several hours through the mountains to reach the town just north of the Afghan border where he was working.
Here, we stayed in an empty apartment. The temperatures were cold, below freezing. Our only heat source was one small electric heater, but with the electricity being off eighteen hours a day, it didn’t do much to heat the cement-walled rooms. We slept under so many blankets that we could hardly turn over. It was quite an adventure.
Our workers there lived and worked under these conditions all the time, uncomplaining and diligent. It was a privilege to visit, advise and encourage them in this work.
Our return trip was well-timed. The day before we were to leave there’d been a bombing at the airport. We missed it all and were not a bit sorry about it. When we arrived at the airport the next day, all the damage had been cleaned up and the extra security made the situation very safe.
When we checked in, the baggage worker put our new suitcase with wheels on his little truck. We walked out and got on the plane, the same one we’d come in on. I watched from the plane window as the baggage worker started his little truck toward the plane. The truck moved, but our suitcase remained stationary and fell off the back, hit the pavement and popped open. The worker hopped off and put it back on the truck, laying it flat because the latches were broken.
I asked Barbara for her belt. Grabbing it along with mine, I jumped up and ran off the plane, meeting the baggage truck as it arrived. After attaching our belts together, I was able to tie them around our suitcase; this arrangement held it closed for the rest of the trip.
After stops in Uzbekistan and Istan.bul, we arrived at JFK airport 35 hours later, thoroughly exhausted. There was no one there to meet, so we called the transportation service to find that they had forgotten we were coming that day! So we got to wait three more hours for them to pick us up! Another chance give thanks in all things. Our trip was, to say the least, a most interesting experience and representative of what we often experienced in our new job.
Pictures: Barbara having her quiet time in Tajikistan at below freezing temperatures. Me with our Russian driver