"Have you tried yesterday's flight?"

Jimmy B. Foster, P.E.
Director of Public Works
City of Plano, Texas
Member, APWA Finance Committee, House of Delegates Executive Committee, and APWA/IPWEA Task Force

Note: The following is an article written by Jimmy B. Foster concerning his travels and activities in humanitarian aid a few years ago. It is offered as an edited diary of cross-cultural dynamics that members of the American Public Works Association may face in international activities.

Well, I'm back in London, England. In the past twelve months a lot has happened. Travelling almost 80,000 miles, I have visited 18 countries and been away from home (that's wherever Dorothy is) 107 days. Here's my latest travelogue describing my trips to Russia, Turkmenistan, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I begin with a story related to me in the lounge of the domestic airport in Moscow.

Have you tried yesterday's flight?
An American in Moscow had booked a flight from that city to Chelyabinsk, approximately 800 miles to the west. On arrival at the airport in Moscow, he was told that his plane was full—no seats were available. After some discussion and considerable confusion, he was asked, "Would you like to go on yesterday's flight?" Normally one would think of tomorrow's flight, but the reservationist specifically said, "Yesterday's." It seemed that the flight scheduled to depart the previous day had not yet left. ("How can it depart? It is not yet full!") The American boarded yesterday's flight which arrived in Chelyabinsk thirty minutes later than today's flight. Aeroflot may always be full, if never on time.

Arrival in Moscow
My flight from Heathrow Airport to Moscow left on time, 9:50 a.m., November 17, and I arrived there at approximately 4:30 p.m. (Moscow time). I had no problems in immigration or customs, although the customs officer did want to see the money I had on me. I was met by Karyl, my travel guide, who took me to a waiting van. Karyl is a 22-year-old university graduate with a degree in mining engineering, but he is unable to find work in that profession in modern Russia. In reality, he is able to make more money as a tour guide and an airport greeter than he could as a mining engineer—perhaps 3,000 rubles per day, the equivalent of $7.50.

En route to the downtown hotel, we stopped by the Kremlin and the city center. Having received its first snowfall of the season, Moscow was surprisingly beautiful. The contrast of the snow and the streetlights painted an attractive picture of the city, although Moscow still has a bleak and washed-out look. The buildings are old and gray. The only modern building I saw in the town center was the new office for McDonald's. Karyl pointed to it with pride. I had a rather simple meal at the hotel, and the accommodations were basic but adequate-two twin beds per room, a small refrigerator, one clothes closet, and one TV that did not work. My room was on the 17th floor, and I have never seen a faster elevator. It took only seconds to go down to the lobby. The price is exceptionally good—$45 per night, including three meals; normally one will expect to pay well in excess of $100 for a room (meals not included).

No fuel and boarding last
After a simple breakfast of salami slices, stale bread, yoghurt, and very strong coffee (food can be scarce in Moscow), I left with Karyl for the domestic airport approximately 30 minutes away. Although I received a boarding pass in minutes, I later learned the flight was delayed. The problem: no fuel. We were promised additional information at 2:00 p.m. At 3:00 p.m. we were told to proceed through security where we waited in another lounge for 45 minutes.

Suddenly a short, solemn-faced stewardess walked though the room calling out "Ashkhabad!" and asked to see our boarding papers and tickets. There was some reasoning behind this. Minutes later, all of us foreigners (as revealed on our tickets) were directed down some metal steps to the snow-covered tarmac below where we stood in 25-degree weather for another 30 minutes. Frustratingly, we watched a large group of Soviet passengers board the Turkmenistan Air flight ahead of us. After what seemed to be an exceptionally long time, we were given the honor of boarding last. The scramble for seats began, and fortunately I found one with even a working seatbelt. Departure finally came at 5:00 p.m., six hours later than scheduled.

On arrival in Ashkhabad at 10:30 p.m., local time, I was met by Frank who took me to his flat, my home for the next three days. A city of 500,000 people, Ashkhabad gives the general impression that it is similar in appearance to that of the U.S. of 50 to 100 years ago. Turkmenistan is a country slightly larger than the state of California and has a population of less than three million.

Black hose and plumbing tied with cloth
Frank, my host in Ashkhabad, lives on the 4th floor of a relatively basic apartment building—almost no outside lighting, plumbing tied together with cloth, and most interesting, a one-inch diameter black hose traversing the kitchen floor and draining into the sink. Inasmuch as he is on the top floor, he must permit the continual flow of water, or the heating system in the entire apartment building will not work. There are no kitchen cabinets or closets and only occasionally is there hot water.

I am impressed with the friendliness of the Turkmen people. From time to time Frank is frustrated by the lack of value given to time and their seemingly lackadaisical attitude. A Turkman will state, "We have waited 75 years for progress, we can wait 75 more." The Turkmen desperately seem to desire to be understood and respected. I spoke also with the two taxi drivers in order to learn more of the Turkmen culture. Both expressed the following major values of their culture and society:

1. Culture and religion
2. Nationality and language
3. Family (parents, immediate family, and extended family, in that order)

There are reports that the air transportation options to Ashkhabad will be increasing. Turkmenistan Air is reportedly negotiating rights to fly to London and New York as well as to other central Asian cities, Tashkent, Alma-ata and Islamabad. A new airport will be finished in two years, and representatives of Lockheed will be coming to oversee construction. They are also hopeful of receiving a 20-year contract to manage the new airport. A conversation with a representative of the U.S. Embassy revealed other international businesses possibly coming to Ashkhabad, such as FMC to import pesticides and chemicals, Boeing to set up training for an aircraft that the Turkmenistan government is purchasing, and Bridas to do oil exploration.

Ashkhabad receives four television channels, two from Moscow. In fact, in the airport the morning of my departure, we watched the broadcast of a Robert Schuller service on a Moscow channel. The family with whom I visited has intentions of purchasing a satellite receiver which will give them access to English programming as well as CNN.

The return trip to London
The former Soviet Union continues to surprise me. On my return flight to Moscow on November 22, I was allowed to board first. It was nice being on the plane by myself for a few minutes, but it filled up in short order. Inasmuch as the return flight was in the early morning, I was able to see the vast Kara Kum Desert below me; it covers 85% of Turkmenistan. How anything grows I do not know. My breakfast on the flight consisted of a piece of cold chicken and some tea watered down to the point of looking like clean dishwater. My airport greeter, Karyl, was one hour late getting to the airport in Moscow, but I still had six hours before my flight left for London. I walked the streets in downtown Moscow where I bought a few souvenirs: T-shirts of Moscow, the wooden Russian dolls, some small paintings, etc.

Arriving at the airport at 4:00 p.m., I immediately went through customs, an interesting experience in Moscow. The people in front of me had a painting which customs would not allow them to export. Another man was having a problem taking out some old coins. Although I had nothing to export, I expected the worst, but was allowed to pass without question. Then the wait began. Russians do not seem to get in a hurry over anything. I waited in line, with approximately 100 others, one hour and thirty minutes to get my boarding pass. At 7:00 p.m. my flight left the snow-covered tarmac in Moscow. Three hours later I was in London.

Indochina: November 29 - December 9
One week later, on Sunday, November 29, at 11:00 a.m., I left for Indochina. My objective was to observe our operations in the countries of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam and to refine our planning for future humanitarian aid in those countries.

Anything can be bought in Bangkok
Imagine having a hotel room right on the starting line of the Indianapolis 500. That's what our canal-side room in Bangkok was like. Each boat on the canal has huge inboard engines, and do they ever make the noise! I adjusted to this disturbance which fortunately ended at approximately 9:00 p.m. each night. Bangkok is one of the most worldly and busiest cities I have ever visited. Thailand is known for its silk, its pirated-labelled shirts and watches, and other souvenirs of varying degrees of quality. It is a shopper's paradise if you have a need for those kind of things. I did not.

I left early on the morning of December 3 for Cambodia. I had received some disturbing news the night before—six UN guards had been taken hostage by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. It was cause for concern, but other information seemed to indicate relative security in Phnom Penh, the capital city. That turned out to be the case. My arrival on Bangkok Airlines was uneventful except for seeing the numerous UN planes parked on the tarmac. Hundreds of UN soldiers were lined up in the hot sun waiting to board an Aeroflot flight to go on R&R, probably in Bangkok. The temperature, humidity, and the palm trees reminded me of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. That impression was reinforced upon hearing the occasional words in French.

A group walking to the vocational school in Cambodia. Jimmy Foster is behind the man in the green shirt.

A war museum
I checked into my hotel and shortly thereafter went to a museum depicting the horrors of the occupation of Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge Communists in the late 1970s. It was formerly a school building, but Pol Pot had used it as a prison. Twenty thousand Cambodians were imprisoned there. Only seven lived through the experience. Most died of torture or starvation. When Phnom Penh was liberated, some prisoners were found several days later bludgeoned to death while strapped to their beds. The museum has photographs of that gruesome discovery. Seven "westerners," including one American, were kept there; none survived. Just outside Phnom Penh are the infamous "killing fields." Some estimate that as many as two million Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The history of Cambodia is chilling to say the least.

On December 4, I went to a village approximately 30 miles from Phnom Penh. A school there had received some support directed toward vocational activities to malnourished and underprivileged students. Upon my arrival, all the students lined the road to greet me, clapping as I and my host walked the 200 yards from the main road to the school building. It was a humbling experience. After a meal, I was taken on a tour of several Buddhist temples in the area. I also visited a memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge—a collection of several hundred skulls and bones of those killed in the area. The school campus itself was found to contain several hundred bodies in 1979.

  Jimmy Foster (center) in Vietnam

On to Vietnam
On Saturday, December 5, I left for Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) on that "well-known" airlines, Kampuchea Airlines. It was an old, twin-engine, Soviet-built aircraft that had obviously flown many miles. I hoped it had a few more left. The aerial view of Vietnam was striking—the verdant fields, the rice patties, and the Mekong River flowing southeast to our destination, Ho Chi Minh City. I couldn't help but think of the war fought here back in the 1960s. Many of my generation died in the fields over which I was flying. I had been warned of possible scrutiny in customs upon entering the country, but other than lengthy paper work, it went without a hitch. I was met at the airport by a professor from a local university who took me to a guesthouse—very adequately furnished and air-conditioned, a nice feature in the 90-degree heat of Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh City
Some impressions of Ho Chi Minh City and the portions of southern Vietnam that I visited: The city is crowded with motorbikes and a few cars, but traffic moves relatively well for a city of this size. The people are very industrious. There was always movement as the people were travelling to and from work or shopping. Surprisingly, I felt very safe as we walked about. The stores and markets are well stocked with Japanese and other Asian products. Although I saw little evidence of extreme poverty or wealth, the communistic lifestyle was very identifiable. The city is dotted with several Catholic churches but none seemed to be open. The Baptist church we attended on Sunday morning was well attended, and the choir and pianists could compete with any in the west. The style of worship was not Asian but western—traditional western hymns translated in Vietnamese. It seems that everyone in Vietnam wants to learn to speak English. Posters announcing English classes are everywhere. There is still some interest in French and none at all for Russian.

We spent one day visiting the university where we have personnel teaching English and where we also have funded a goat-raising project. Another day was spent travelling to the countryside to see two SALT (Sloping Agricultural Land Technology) projects. Considering the density of population and the amount of land devoted to rice farming, this is the topic of interest for the university. Having a population of 70 million, Vietnam is the third-largest rice exporter in the world. One thing is certain—Vietnam is really two countries, the north and the south. Their lifestyles and worldviews are dramatically different.

Jimmy B. Foster can be reached at (972) 769-4128 or at

International Infrastructure and Public Services Congress and Exhibition
July 13-16, 2005
Aguascalientes, Mexico

The historic cathedral overlooks the central plaza in downtown Aguascalientes.

APWA's International Affairs Committee invites you to become part of APWA's delegation to the International Infrastructure and Public Services Congress and Exhibition this summer in Aguascalientes, Mexico. This major international conference will be held July 13 to 16 in the historic colonial city of Aguascalientes, Mexico, capital of the namesake state of Aguascalientes.

Sponsored by the Mexican Municipalities Association (AMMAC), one of APWA's international partnership organizations, the International Infrastructure Congress will draw attendees from throughout Mexico and Latin America. Any APWA member wishing to participate in this Congress as an attendee, exhibitor or presenter should contact Julio Fuentes, chair of the APWA/AMMAC Task Force, at (619) 533-3092 or by e-mail at

Aguascalientes has a population of around 650,000, is situated in the geographic center of Mexico at an elevation of 6,100 feet, and enjoys a year-round spring-like climate. A major transportation hub, Aguascalientes enjoys easy access to many of Mexico's major tourist destinations, including San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Guadalajara, and Mexico City. Participation in this year's summer Congress could easily be combined with an extended vacation to some of these, or other, tourist destinations.

Help grow APWA's international programs

APWA's International Affairs Committee recently kicked off a major fundraising campaign for the Eisenhower/Jennings Randolph Fellowship Program. The program provides opportunities for APWA members to participate in exchange programs with the association's international partners.

In May of 1987, the Eisenhower/Jennings Randolph Fellowship Program was established by the APWA International Public Works Federation at the Eisenhower World Affairs Institute (the APWA International Public Works Federation no longer exists). The APWA Board of Directors approved a contribution to the fund and APWA chapters and branches were encouraged to make donations and sponsor fundraising luncheons, dinners, and other activities to help support the program. Private-sector contributions were also solicited and made. The fellowship endowment had an initial corpus of $25,000.

Interest income generated by the initial $25,000 supports the annual travel fellowships. The committee would like to offer more fellowships each year, but is severely hampered by the size of the endowment. The committee set a lofty goal of raising $50,000 by the 2006 APWA Congress.

The committee is reaching out to the membership and is seeking donations from corporate members, individuals, and the chapters. Donations are designated for the endowment and will be permanently restricted. Contributions to the endowment fund qualify as a charitable contribution, subject to IRS regulations.

APWA's development department is working closely with the International Affairs Committee in support of this effort. To learn more about this campaign or to make a contribution, please contact Mark Tibbetts, Senior Manager of Development, in APWA's Washington Office at (202) 218-6710 or at


Interesting facts about solid waste:

  1. Each year in the United States, we throw away enough office and writing paper to build a 12-foot-high wall from Los Angeles, CA to New York City, NY. (Source: EPA)

  2. Each year in the United States, we discard over 200 million tires—that's almost one for every person in the U.S. (Source: EPA)

  3. The U.S. is 5% of the world's population but uses 25% of its natural resources. (Source: EPA)

  4. How long does it take the following items to decompose? (a) A banana peel: 2-5 weeks; (b) A newspaper: less than one year; (c) An aluminum can: 200-500 years; (d) A glass jar: 1 million years; (e) A common petroleum-based plastic bottle: never

Cultural Proverbs

"A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in." - Greek Proverb

"We'll never know the worth of water till the well goes dry." - Scottish Proverb

"There is plenty of sound in an empty barrel." - Russian Proverb