MEDA staff encounter a variety of experiences during travels to countries where the agency works. As these stories show, trips can take unexpected turns.
Planes, strains and automobiles
Of all the travel MEDA president Allan Sauder has done with MEDA over the past three decades, the scariest took place on a visit to Peru 20 years ago.
Sauder and his wife, Donna, were visiting agribusiness projects in Peruvian jungles. After travelling all day to the main airport in Lima, they met a driver who would take them to a small airstrip atop the Andes. From there they would fly into the jungle to visit a palm heart project.
The Sauders, their driver and a country guide left Lima in the late evening, heading up a mountain in the dark, amid heavy rain and falling temperatures. Conditions were not ideal for travel. But their next flight would leave in the morning. A delay was impractical.
The first sign of trouble came from their driver, who was tired and falling asleep at the wheel. To stay alert, he stuck his head out of the car window. “We were in the backseat, getting cold, then he’d close it and start nodding (off) again,” Allan recalled. “This was all driving hairpin roads. Finally, Donna said — Look, if you don’t drive, I’m gonna drive. Somebody else has to drive.”
Country manager Alejandro took over as chauffeur. The car had just crested the mountaintop, headed down the other side in pouring rain. Rockfalls and mudslides were closing part of the road. “This car didn’t have great headlights, they were pointed off in some direction,” Allan said. “We hit this pile of rocks. We could feel these rocks going through, under the car, under your feet, then we could smell gas. One of the rocks had ruptured the gas tank. Then Alejandro picked up the shift lever. It was disconnected from the transmission.”
The car was still running, “but it was leaking gas, we had no transmission, and we were headed down the mountain with these (head) lights askew. There’s no place to stop and pull over. So, we kept rolling along.”
The car’s original driver was quite upset that the collision with the rockpile had taken out his transmission. “Then we hit another rock pile. You just couldn’t see these things. This one took out our front wheel — the tire was flat; the rim was bent.”
The group tried to change the damaged tire in total darkness and heavy, chilling rain on the side of the mountain. The car’s driver stripped two of the four lug nuts, so the spare tire was held on by only two nuts. “At that point, the driver insisted on taking back control of his vehicle.”
At last the group saw lights in the distance. The Sauders ordered the driver to pull over. They found motorcycle taxis to take them the last leg of the journey, leaving the original driver sitting with his ruined vehicle. The Sauders got to their hotel for an hour or two’s sleep after 12 hours going up and down the mountain. Around 7 a.m., they boarded a small Cessna plane and flew into another section of Amazon jungle.
The excitement wasn’t over yet. The village they were flying into held a market in the grass strip that doubled as the runway. The plane buzzed through to warn people to get out of the way before making a second pass and landing.
Sadly, the project they came to see didn’t accomplish its goals. Trucks full of palm hearts kept getting stuck (and spoiling) half way up the mountain due to road closures brought on by landslides.
Shattered glass and unexpected cargo
MEDA staffer Thom Dixon also had memorable experiences in Peru. He recalls landing at Lima’s airport and “treading ever so gingerly over shards of glass from a Sendero Luminoso (terrorist group) bomb that had gone off shortly before we touched down.
Later that same trip, he was bouncing along a rural road in a pickup belonging to ContraDroga, the government’s anti-drug office, when a “bitty old lady” flagged down the vehicle to ask for a ride. After the truck stopped, she said “wait a sec; I need to get three bags of coca leaf I’ve hidden in the bushes and throw them in back.”
A troublesome gift
By Jerry Quigley, MEDA’s senior vice-president operations
From 2004 to 2010, MEDA worked in Northern Tajikistan on a project called Farms to Markets. The project supported fruit farmers (mostly apricots), to grow better, grow more and waste considerably less through linkages to better-equipped processors. Tajik farmers were using outdated, worn out, rusty, Soviet-style production methods.
Travel to Northern Tajikistan was easiest through the Uzbekistan capital, Tashkent. Uzbekistan was, and still is, a first-class dictatorship propped up by a no-nonsense military. This country had the gall to evict the US military in 2005, telling them to close an airbase and leave in 180 days.
Over six or seven years, I flew into Tashkent and crossed into Khujand, a regional capital in the north, no less than eight times.
Tajik hosts are extremely gracious. Every meal with a visitor is an excuse for a feast. They would be offended to let you leave the country without a special parting gift. Tajik hospitality means that often the parting gift is a knife. That is how I found myself at a military-manned security checkpoint in the Tashkent international airport with an eight-inch knife in my carry-on bag.
With hand signals and broken English, the scanner operator angrily accused me of attempting to enter a restricted area with contraband weaponry. Not remembering the knife, I gestured back that he must be mistaken. A brief search of my bag helped my memory considerably. Sheepishly, I offered the offending item for him to dispose of as he wished. Clearly this was one gift that was unwelcome in the airport. I was even more surprised when he refused to take the knife. Perhaps he had nowhere to dispose of it. Perhaps he would have been in trouble to be caught with it himself. He seemed to say: “this is your problem now, don’t involve me!” Off I went into the airport with my hidden dagger, wondering if I should just lay low, board the British Airways flight and keep mum. I concluded that would be best. Avoid bringing any attention to myself. You never know how many cameras are following you at any given time.
Excellent plan, until I turned the corner and saw the real security line…sniffer dogs and all. The first security line was just to get into the departure area. The second was the real one before boarding the plane. How was I going to explain the knife to the second wall of security? How was it possible that I had a concealed knife between preliminary screening and the real security point? What were my options now, in one of the most repressive countries in the world? My heartbeat became audible as I turned back to consider my options. I couldn’t drop it accidentally or leave it on the floor. What if a security camera caught me stashing it somewhere? Looking around, I spotted the restroom and decided that was my best option. I went to the men’s toilet, wrapped the offending blade in an Economist magazine and dropped it in the garbage. I cleared security and boarded the plane. Just before take-off, three soldiers entered the plane and walked the aisles. I was petrified they had found the knife and tracked the owner by the address on the magazine cover. Was I that stupid? Did I leave a trail of breadcrumbs right from the knife to my seat on the plane?
I am not in an Uzbek jail, so you know how the story ends. I have no idea why the military guys entered the plane before take-off, but my over-active imagination convinced me that they were after me. I was never so happy to see the doors close and the wheels of a plane lift off.
Late flights, lost luggage
David Eagle has travelled to Africa 16 or 20 times for MEDA as associate director, Eastern, Southern & Central Africa, usually without incident.
On a recent trip to Uganda with his 18-year-old daughter Maddi, travel didn’t go quite as smoothly.
During the first flight from Toronto to Montreal, the plane was 90 minutes late departing. Their itinerary called for only a 90-minute window between landing in Montreal and leaving for Brussels, Belgium. The Eagles ran through the Montreal airport, from gates 3 to 63, arriving just as the door was closing. Safely seated on the next plane, they were greeted by an announcement of a technical delay. The plane waited on the tarmac for two hours prior to departure.
That delay forced them to make a similar dash upon landing in Brussels. Their next plane to Uganda was scheduled to depart two hours after their scheduled arrival time. Happily, there was a shuttle in the Brussels airport to get them to their gate, just in time for another long wait. The Uganda-bound plane was also held back, waiting for other flights to arrive with transferring passengers.
Their 30-hour marathon trip ended with a delayed-bag notice, the first David had ever experienced. To make matters worse, somewhere en route running through airports, he lost his baggage ticket. Five days later, at the mid-point of their trip, they received the misplaced suitcase.
Once she got over the initial stress of not having the suitcase, Maddi found travelling easier without so much stuff to worry about. “Everyone should have an experience like this,” she said in reflecting on the trip and how much easier her life is than many of the people she met.
Don’t forget the visa details
Bringing family members to visit you in a foreign country can provide memorable experiences. Without careful attention to the quirks of various nations’ visa policies, it can also lead to misunderstandings and tense moments, as Helen Loftin, MEDA’s senior vice-president of marketing and communications, learned.
Loftin, who worked in Pakistan for MEDA between 2008 and 2011, took a trip to India with her 80-year-old father during Eid, an important religious holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting.
On their return to Pakistan, they spent a tense hour in Lahore airport. Helen’s father had only obtained a single-entry visa to Pakistan, which he had already used. She had already made it through immigration when she realized there was a problem – Dad was being detained. Fortunately, he was unaware of the gravity of the situation given his unfamiliarity with Pak airport routines and the fact that he’s close to deaf.
Army officials were threatening to deport him — back to India, which also didn’t want him. Loftin endured a terse lecture from a surly colonel on Pakistan immigration protocols and a dressing-down on western privilege and elder-care.
Fortunately, MEDA had a connection with a local business owner with a military background to provide credibility with the angry colonel. He vouched for Dad and Loftin secured a Pakistan business visa for him.
Larissa Schneider’s first MEDA trip was her most memorable — for all the wrong reasons.
She and colleague Kara Klassen were in a rural community in Khatlon, the poorest region of Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic which borders Afghanistan, on a consulting assignment in November 2015.
When they returned to their hotel one night, they learned an electrical fire had caused the breaker boxes to explode, leaving the building in darkness. They had to pack up their belongings and evacuate in smoky blackness. The flashlight apps from their phones were the sole source of light to guide their way.
The only other lodging to be found was a rooming house over a bank. It was a bitterly cold, snowy evening, and the heater in the last remaining room was broken.
The bedding in their room looked like it had never been washed. The beds were rock-hard. Their refuge also doubled as a storage area. A large man whose body odor filled the area kept coming in and out of the room to get pillows, leading to some awkwardness.
There was no food available in their lodging, so they ventured out and found an outdoor restaurant serving pizza. After requesting a vegetarian pizza, they were served a pie containing wiener pieces.
Returning from the meal, they found a freezing cold room and had to try to get to sleep wearing their coats and multiple layers of clothing.
The next morning, they were invited to breakfast at a large communal table. The man who had repeatedly entered their room in the evening approached the table with a large tray of boiled eggs, yogurt and canned wieners. Before he could set down the food, he tripped, fell and dropped the tray’s contents on the floor. Assuring his guests he was fine, he put the food back on the tray and set it out for them to enjoy.
“Needless to say, we were pretty hungry that morning,” Schneider recalls. “I think we ate the hard-boiled eggs, because they were pre-cracked for us.”
Three days in Tashkent
By Wally Kroeker
Seeing countless spy movies did not prepare me for my first grilling by the KGB.
It was 1990. The world was still adapting to Gorbachev’s new Soviet Union and its language of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). MEDA was quick to catch the wave of reform. Mennonites in the USSR had reached out to us — “For 70 years we have been told business is evil. Come tell us how we can do business without losing our souls.” In consultation with them, MEDA organized a conference for emerging entrepreneurs, to be held in Kiev. Travel was handled by the state-run Intourist, whose planned itinerary took us across several republics and required a change of aircraft in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, for the final leg to Kiev. But in Tashkent, we were inexplicably escorted off the plane, taken into the city and deposited at a fortress-like Intourist hotel. We groaned to learn we could not fly to Kiev for another three days. We were stuck.
The three of us included John H. Rudy, a MEDA vice-president, and Vernon Wiebe, a retired missions executive from Kansas.
We had just checked into the hotel when I was pulled aside by a stern-faced official who reportedly was the hotel’s resident KGB agent. He led me to a stark office near the registration desk. He had identified me as the leader of the group, which, informally, I was.
“You do not have a visa for Tashkent,” he accused.
“No, I don’t. We were not told we would be stopping in Tashkent, and thus didn’t need one.”
“But you do not have a visa for Tashkent.”
We went around like this several times. Finally I said, with exasperation, “You are right. We do not have visas for Tashkent, but we have visas for Kiev. Put us back on the plane immediately and we will leave.”
He gave me a look and a line that I would encounter again. “Oh, that is not possible.”
We settled in for a three-day stay in Tashkent, at steep Intourist rates. One day we visited an outdoor market, bought a large bag of dried apricots and wandered around the stalls where vendors sold their wares. The next day we went to the ballet, which every sizeable Soviet city seemed to have.
The third night we went to the circus, also a fixture in the former Soviet Union. Afterward we had trouble finding a taxi. Every one that approached was already occupied. It grew late, and we were getting anxious. My companions looked to me for leadership.
As the next slow-moving taxi came into view I strode out into its path and gestured for the driver to stop, which he did. My colleagues immediately crawled into the back seat and I piled into the front. We knew no Russian other than nyet (no) and spasibo (thanks), but we did have a nifty little card from the Intourist hotel. I flashed it and pointed to the address. The driver frowned and shook his head. I grinned and nodded “yes.” Finally, he relented and off we went.
At the hotel I said spasibo several times and held out a generous wad of rubles. He declined. I persisted. So did he.
Finally he sped off.
When we got to Kiev for our conference I mentioned this episode to Ivan, a local who was helping with logistics and translation.
“I wonder why he wouldn’t take our money,” I mused.
“Describe the car,” Ivan said.
I did. He thought for a moment, then smiled thinly.
“Wally,” he said, “that was no taxi.”
Somewhere in Tashkent a motorist probably still tells his grandkids about being carjacked by three strange visitors from the West. ◆