Turn Out Blog http://www.bndyg.com FireEMS Blogs Network Tue, 07 Apr 2020 16:09:24 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.3 IAFF: Schaitberger Issues Statement http://www.bndyg.com/2020/04/07/iaff-schaitberger-issues-statement/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=iaff-schaitberger-issues-statement http://www.bndyg.com/2020/04/07/iaff-schaitberger-issues-statement/#comments Tue, 07 Apr 2020 16:09:24 +0000 http://www.bndyg.com/?p=32593 He calls for unity amidst pension scam and growing probe.
 

President-for-life

President-for-life Harold Schaitberger posted a letter on the IAFF website in the face of mounting evidence of his unethical and corrupt actions.

In it he tries to explain his on-going and unsuccessful attempt to cover up and downplay the revelations in secretary-treasurer Ed Kelly’s widely circulated memo which can be seen here.

Kelly, the chief financial officer of the IAFF, is well placed to know about financial impropriety during Schaitberger’s long tenure.

Schaitberger is desperate to maintain control of the scandal by keeping it inside his IAFF while using district vice-presidents like hostages surrounding a bank robber.

He says,

in recent weeks, our union, your Executive Board and I as your General president, have been hit with new, reckless and destructive attacks designed to rip at the very fabric of what we have built. These attacks are based on the inappropriate and unauthorized distribution of selective internal, privileged documents.

The facts and allegations against Schaitberger are far from reckless. Three separate legal counsels have all concluded that Schaitberger improperly received an IAFF pension for twenty years, over $1,000,000 is in play.

In fact, the vice-presidents have stopped that pension.

And there are many other serious problems.

From the Kelly memo:

  • Failure to consult the treasurer of this organization (IAFF) is a blatant abuse of your [Schaitberger’s] power.
  • Systematic misrepresentations in financial reporting to the Executive Board
  • Failures to adhere to dictates of convention action and internal policies regarding financial operations
  • $6 million unaccounted for in interfund balances
  • [Improperly] accessing employees email accounts
  • Your [Schaitberger’s] staff, at your direction, prohibits my [Kelly’s] ability to act as this organization’s record keeper.
  • Your [Schaitberger’s] sudden and subjective interpretation of the Constitution & ByLaws that you have the sole authority to sign all contracts is not supported by the longstanding practice in this organization.
  • Amendments to the Staff and Employee Pension Plans that were adopted in 2006, which were not approved by the Executive Board. These amendments provided unreduced early retirement benefits for certain former employees of the IAFF and have potentially added millions of dollars to the funding obligations of the Plans.
  • Two principal officers have accrued millions of dollars of benefits under a non-tax qualified retirement program covered by Internal Revenue Code Section 457(f), without the taxability of the benefits being reported to the IRS. This will require the IAFF to file multiple years of retroactive amended Form W-2s to properly report the taxable benefits, with as yet unknown exposure to the IAFF for back taxes, penalties and interest.
  • We are currently under IRS audit on our 457(b)-retirement program due to excess deferrals by certain individuals, including the General President.
  • The General President and former General Secretary-Treasurer began collecting their pension from the Staff Pension Plan when they were elected to their offices, even though they did not retire. Three separate outside law firms have advised in writing that this was not allowed under the Internal Revenue Code. This has resulted in over a million dollars of improper pension payments to these officers.
  • Millions of dollars in financial misreporting and millions of dollars in nondiscretionary funds that were utilized for purposes unrelated to their designation.

Schaitberger attempts to rewrite history when he says,

Internally, we have had many disagreements along the way, but there was never any personal hatred that sprung from it. Everyone involved acted professionally and responsibly, regardless of his or her point of view. We were all united in one thing — advancing this union on behalf of our members to the next level.

Many IAFF leaders, including vice-presidents past and present, have felt the sting of the Schaitberger whip when he used his power to crush dissent or his perceived enemies.

As just one example, Schaitberger spent $350,000 of member’s dues to hire an outside private investigator to spy on IAFF members and staff when he was caught in an earlier scandal.

Schaitberger has neither acted professionally nor responsibly and the only thing he has advanced is his own greed through conflicts of interest, lying and cheating.

Now, he’s been caught red-handed.

Not only that, but sources report that the IRS, Department of Labor and the U.S. Attorney are all aware of what is going on at the IAFF.

Schaitberger proclaims,

Sadly, there will likely be more smear attempts against me, our current Executive Board and those who have served our union in the past.

And about smearing, he once said of a local union president, Darren Bates, whom he was attempting to destroy,

I can do anything I want, he’s not an employee.

Harold Schaitberger is a master of the smear campaign.

What’s going on at the IAFF is a ray of sunshine in a very dark room and the cockroaches are skittering into the shadows.

Let the sun shine in.

 

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IAFF: Edzo Peeps Out http://www.bndyg.com/2020/04/02/iaff-edzo-peeps-out/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=iaff-edzo-peeps-out http://www.bndyg.com/2020/04/02/iaff-edzo-peeps-out/#respond Thu, 02 Apr 2020 14:35:53 +0000 http://www.bndyg.com/?p=32577

But please, let’s not get too giddy.

 

Three-(Very-White)-Guys

Ed Kelly made a (surprise) appearance on Facebook, in garb designed to drive IAFF president-for-life Harold Schaitberger right up the wall.

Schaitberger hasn’t worked a shift in 44-years, yes — you heard it right — 44; seeing Edzo on duty at Ladder 17 is yet another jarring reminder of Schaitberger’s totally bizarre longevity.

The last time Schaitberger worked as a firefighter, Kelly was still in diapers.

 

Ma, I wanna be a firefighter.

Still, Kelly can’t claim the good guy card yet; he’s just the flotsam we glom onto as the Schaitberger ship goes down.

He needs to do better with his optics and his rhetoric to be an inclusive leader truly worth following.

Speaking of rhetoric, he also needs to atone personally and with sincerity to vice-president Ricky Walsh whom Kelly publicly slandered when Kelly was still a very loyal Schaitberger lieutenant, gleefully doing the dirty work for the “boss.”

In 2017, Kelly was in the 7th district as he campaigned in the district vice president race there.

He said in his rant to IAFF members that the many folks who want an honest IAFF are engaged in a “conspiracy” and that we want Schaitberger removed in “handcuffs” and to cause “chaos.”

 

DVP Ricky Walsh

Ricky Walsh has always been a beacon of honesty and integrity and union to the very core.

In fact, if Kelly wants a mentor for leadership and inclusiveness, there would be no finer choice than Walsh.

Let’s just leave it there for now, as we say.

 

 
 
 
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FDNY’s Hagan: Schaitberger = Treason http://www.bndyg.com/2020/04/01/fdnys-hagan-schaitberger-treason/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=fdnys-hagan-schaitberger-treason http://www.bndyg.com/2020/04/01/fdnys-hagan-schaitberger-treason/#comments Wed, 01 Apr 2020 16:21:07 +0000 http://www.bndyg.com/?p=32565 Former Local 854 Leader
 

FDNY’s Hagan

Al Hagan, the respected former president of the IAFF’s New York Fire Officers 2,700-member Local 854, makes no bones about it when he asks:

“I wonder if anyone will get to spend some quality time in a Federal Correctional Institution?”

Hagan was commenting on the recent revelations concerning IAFF president-for-life Harold’s Schaitberger’s many financial and ethical misdeeds.

Hagan, a 41-year FDNY veteran during and after the “fire wars” era served in the South Bronx and Spanish Harlem retiring as a captain from Ladder 43.

Hagan also says:

“Harold’s Machiavellian maneuverings all designed to cut the legs off potential rivals so he could maintain total control, may what will prove his undoing.”

 

Schaitberger

Hagan represents the IAFF at its best: a seasoned and veteran firefighter who went on to become a successful union leader of integrity; he is the polar opposite of Schaitberger who was a firefighter for a handful of years before he began shaking down the IAFF in 1976.

Hagan predicts:

“As this unfolds, I’m sure that we will be made aware of even more disturbing information.”

He’s right, there are many more shoes to drop.

He sent the link to his listserv which contains the 105-page document spelling out Schaitberger’s scams; something IAFF vice-presidents continue to fail to do.

The only thing which will save the IAFF at this point is complete and full disclosure, a fact the vice-presidents continue to ignore at their peril.

With Hagan’s departure, Schaitberger’s remaining support continues to empty out faster than a bottle of Grey Goose at his lips.

 

 

More coverage here:

IAFF: The List of Charges

It’s not just a pension scam.

medium.com

 

IAFF: Schaitberger Cut Off

Vice-Presidents Stop Pension Pay-Out

medium.com

 

IAFF: Cat Out of the Bag

Washington Free Beacon Tells All

medium.com

 

IAFF: The Edzo Strikes Back

105-page document details Schaitberger Corruption

medium.com

 

Schaitberger Bankrupts Pension Fund

2006 Secret Amendment Cause of Massive Deficit

medium.com

 

Schaitberger Corruption: All-In-One

Harold “Shady” Schaitberger has been destroying the IAFF since day one in a non-stop drive to enrich himself and his…

medium.com

 
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IAFF: The List of Charges http://www.bndyg.com/2020/03/31/iaff-the-list-of-charges/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=iaff-the-list-of-charges http://www.bndyg.com/2020/03/31/iaff-the-list-of-charges/#respond Tue, 31 Mar 2020 15:20:16 +0000 http://www.bndyg.com/?p=32553 It’s not just a pension scam.
 

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Schaitberger Corruption: All-In-One

IAFF: The Edzo Strikes Back

IAFF: Too Lame for Shame

 

 

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Schaitberger Cut Off http://www.bndyg.com/2020/03/31/schaitberger-cut-off/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=schaitberger-cut-off http://www.bndyg.com/2020/03/31/schaitberger-cut-off/#respond Tue, 31 Mar 2020 01:54:48 +0000 http://www.bndyg.com/?p=32537

Vice-Presidents Stop Pension Pay-Out

 

Schaitberger

IAFF executive board members have stopped payment on Harold Schaitberger’s improper pension as a result of pressure from the membership, affiliate leaders and negative news coverage.

IAFF members are reported to be furious at Schaitberger’s pension scam as well as the board’s attempt to hide the details.

Schaitberger has received over $1,000,000 in benefits after he began taking monthly payments he was not eligible to receive.

Three separate legal counsels have all found that Schaitberger was not allowed to receive such a benefit according to the Internal Revenue Code.

One source indicated that Schaitberger wanted to appeal the board’s decision; the question is to whom and why?

The IRS rules are clear and three lawyers interpret them in like manner.

Only Harold Schaitberger would possess the hubris to fight for an illegal pension on top of a $400,000 annual salary plus unlimited expenses.

The board needs to maintain a tough stance as they defend the IAFF in their much belated but critical move.

 

 
 
 
 
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The Edzo Strikes Back http://www.bndyg.com/2020/03/25/the-edzo-strikes-back/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-edzo-strikes-back http://www.bndyg.com/2020/03/25/the-edzo-strikes-back/#comments Wed, 25 Mar 2020 17:01:54 +0000 http://www.bndyg.com/?p=32521 105-page document details Schaitberger Corruption
 

Ed Kelly
 

IAFF secretary-treasurer Edward Kelly has begun to publicly expose Harold Schaitberger’s long history of corruption at the IAFF.

His current foray is a 105-page memorandum containing some of Harold Schaitberger’s most flagrant abuses; along the way he amply confirms that Schaitberger’s IAFF pension, which he has been receiving since 2000, is both improper and illegal.

The memorandum, sent to district vice presidents and others, is a detailed answer to apparent accusations made by Schaitberger against Kelly and his staff.

It’s clear that the motive in accusing Kelly is to shut down the attempt by Kelly to expose Schaitberger’s rampant self-dealing and greedy excuse for leadership.

Kelly has hired outside expert counsel to plumb the abyss of Schaitberger’s dark dealings and Schaitberger is striking back by alleging that Kelly lacks such authority.

It’s a weak argument.

Caught with the goods, Schaitberger has fallen back on legal and bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo to engage in yet another cover-up.

Schaitberger should be saying, “I have nothing to hide, look all you want.” The problem is that Schaitberger has plenty to hide.

Schaitberger’s cover-up attempt likely won’t work this time because Kelly, as a principal officer, has access to damning information and even the hand-wringing and ever complacent vice-presidents have to see the writing on the wall.

Speaking of legal mumbo-jumbo, in a “dog ate my homework” moment, Schaitberger has Doug Steele, IAFF legal counsel, asserting that key documents are not available because of a flood at the Iron Mountain storage facility

This is vintage Schaitberger: just make something up to cover your latest lie. He never thought someone would verify that his tall tale was just that.

It was reported here recently that Schaitberger has been illegally double-dipping an IAFF pension for many years; the assertion was met with indignation and disbelief by many.

Not one, nor two, but three independent legal counsel affirmed that such is the case. One summary opinion from the memo is offered here.

 

Schaitberger could well owe the pension plan a million dollars or more, not counting interest for his gross and hoggish behavior.

In a moment of supreme irony, Schaitberger accuses Kelly’s staff of engaging in a conflict of interest. Schaitberger’s entire presidency is one long such conflict as he has advantaged his close friends with tens-of-millions of dollars of exclusive, no-bid contracts.

The memo has its light-hearted moments as when Kelly responds to the assertion that he has called Schaitberger a “crook.”

 

The “shake the couch” comment is both brilliant and a perfect description of Schaitberger’s swinish and greedy approach.

 

Harold Schaitberger

With annual compensation and expense reimbursements well over $500K, Schaitberger’s out-of-bounds grab for seven days pay is like you or me stealing a penny from the change dish at the local grocery.

To call Schaitberger a crook is as obvious as saying the sun shines.

With reckless abandon he has pillaged the IAFF from stem to stern and left a rotting and listing hulk in his wake, all but ready to sink.

Along the way his many mates have included

  • the hundreds of affiliate leaders he bought off with fancy dinners,
  • others given “consulting” and instructor jobs,
  • his close buddies who get the no-bid contracts,
  • still others with no-show jobs,
  • the do-nothing trustees,
  • and, last but certainly not least, his fellow pirates, the district vice-presidents, who plundered the chest for their share of gold.

Time will (shortly) tell if Ed Kelly is a John Paul Jones but Schaitberger has been unequivocally called out as the pirate-in-chief.

 

John Paul Jones

I suppose Ed Kelly should get the last word.

 

Want to see the entire document? Just ask your district vice-president, they have a copy.

If they refuse to share it, they are participating in a cover-up.

New York, New Jersey: jslevin@iaff.org

Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska: mwoolbright@iaff.org (314) 393–9755

Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont: jcolbert@iaff.org (617) 307–8076

Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia: akpantelis@iaff.org (301) 674–3448

Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin: tthornberg@iaff.org
(612) 290–8015 (Cell)

Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest Territory, Saskatchewan, Yukon:
mcarter@iaff.org

Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Washington: rwalsh@iaff.org
(509) 999–3090 (Cell)

Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio: msanders@iaff.org

(513) 260–2381 (Cell)

Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming: rrahne@iaff.org
(303) 619–2462 (Cell) (303) 988–0177 (Home)

Arizona, California, Hawaii, New Mexico, Guam: flima@iaff.org

(213) 507–6317 (Cell) (213) 485–2091 Ext 1 (Office)

Canal Zone, Oklahoma, Texas: smcghee@iaff.org (918) 855–8228 (Cell)

Caribbean Area, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina: wdix@iaff.org (954) 444–8111 (Cell)

Manitoba, Ontario: fleblanc@iaff.org (613) 328–2195 (Cell)

Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee: dtodd@iaff.org

(901) 386–3129 (Office)

New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec
dburry@iaff.org (709) 744–2709 (Home) (709) 689–7574 (Cell)

All federal fire fighters of the United States and Canada: jjohnson@iaff.org
(202) 360–1318 (Cell)

 
 

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Schaitberger Bankrupts Pension Fund http://www.bndyg.com/2020/03/06/schaitberger-bankrupts-pension-fund/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=schaitberger-bankrupts-pension-fund http://www.bndyg.com/2020/03/06/schaitberger-bankrupts-pension-fund/#comments Fri, 06 Mar 2020 00:45:42 +0000 http://www.bndyg.com/?p=32489 2006 Secret Amendment Cause of Massive Deficit

Harold “Shady” Schaitberger

The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) executive board was rocked by news at its recent meeting that their pension system requires an immediate $2 million dollar bailout; one of possibly many, in order to remain solvent.

Plan documents show that liabilities have skyrocketed from $65,000,000 to over $87,000,000, an astonishing 33% increase.

At the same time, the funding target percentage has tanked in a single year from 84.25% to just 66%.

How and why?

Auditors discovered a secret pension enhancement, known as “Amendment 6”, created by Harold Schaitberger in 2006, which allowed for the collection of benefits at age 53 without an early retirement penalty.

Sources say it was enacted without the specific approval of the executive board after it was hidden in a committee report as a no-cost technical amendment.

They also report that the secret pension enhancement was apparently made retroactive to 2002, two years after Schaitberger was elected at, you guessed it, age 53.

Those with pension experience know that enhancements are seldom if ever retroactive, except in the world of Harold Schaitberger.

Such retroactivity could have allowed Schaitberger to receive tens-of-thousands of dollars of pension benefits improperly in what can only be described as a brazen money grab.

In addition, while receiving a current salary of approximately $330,000, plus expenses, Schaitberger has been double-dipping a $100,000 pension for twenty years which the 2006 secret amendment made much more valuable.

The executive board says they were not aware that Schaitberger has been double-dipping.

Now that they know, what will they do about it?

Schaitberger’s secret shenanigans have been exposed and the bill is due.

Who pays?

Why, IAFF members, of course.

Call/text your IAFF district official or email him to demand the corruption end now before our union is completely destroyed.

New York, New Jersey: jslevin@iaff.org

Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska: mwoolbright@iaff.org (314) 393–9755

Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont: jcolbert@iaff.org (617) 307–8076

Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia: akpantelis@iaff.org (301) 674–3448

Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin: tthornberg@iaff.org
(612) 290–8015 (Cell)

Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest Territory, Saskatchewan, Yukon:
mcarter@iaff.org

Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Washington: rwalsh@iaff.org
(509) 999–3090 (Cell)

Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio: msanders@iaff.org

(513) 260–2381 (Cell)

Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming: rrahne@iaff.org
(303) 619–2462 (Cell) (303) 988–0177 (Home)

Arizona, California, Hawaii, New Mexico, Guam: flima@iaff.org

(213) 507–6317 (Cell) (213) 485–2091 Ext 1 (Office)

Canal Zone, Oklahoma, Texas: smcghee@iaff.org (918) 855–8228 (Cell)

Caribbean Area, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina: wdix@iaff.org (954) 444–8111 (Cell)

Manitoba, Ontario: fleblanc@iaff.org (613) 328–2195 (Cell)

Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee: dtodd@iaff.org

(901) 386–3129 (Office)

New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec
dburry@iaff.org (709) 744–2709 (Home) (709) 689–7574 (Cell)

All federal fire fighters of the United States and Canada: jjohnson@iaff.org
(202) 360–1318 (Cell)

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1917: “Some Men Just Want to Fight” http://www.bndyg.com/2020/01/18/1917-some-men-just-want-to-fight/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=1917-some-men-just-want-to-fight http://www.bndyg.com/2020/01/18/1917-some-men-just-want-to-fight/#respond Sat, 18 Jan 2020 15:38:39 +0000 http://www.bndyg.com/?p=32457  

1917

All wars are horrible but not equally so; WWI will always rank among the worst chiefly because of the gruesome reality of trench warfare where opposing sides faced one another for months or years in a static defense.

Enemies could be close enough to hear one another and on at least one occasion, get out and socialize during the Christmas holidays.

But static proximity meant constant artillery shelling and raids; dead soldiers rotted above ground or were repeatedly unearthed during periodic bombardments.

The Battle of Arras

Combat units rotated in and out of the forward most trenches to a series of less exposed positions in the rear, after weeks in the rotation they might receive leave where inexplicably they could take a boat and a train and be back in England for tea and the Times.

1917 is not a battle epic; it is a tightly focused film telling the story of two men on a mission where the gruesome motifs of WWI are laid before us.

Interwoven is the cynicism and fatalism of officers and men dying over a battlefield measured in yards and acres.

The plot occurs over less than 24 hours and while slightly implausible still moves right along.

It is the mix of inhumanity and humanity that war always is and by focusing on just two people it is especially powerful and tragic.

The cinematography is superb, from sweeping panoramas to tight, even cut-off close-ups: (watch especially for the scene when Mark Strong first appears; it’s brilliant.)

War is hell and 1917 proves it.

 

 

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The Bound Brook, NJ Fire http://www.bndyg.com/2020/01/17/the-bound-brook-nj-fire/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-bound-brook-nj-fire http://www.bndyg.com/2020/01/17/the-bound-brook-nj-fire/#respond Fri, 17 Jan 2020 13:57:59 +0000 http://www.bndyg.com/?p=32441

(NYP)

 
Bound Brook, NJ, experienced a devastating fire and facts are once again ignored concerning a primary community function: fire protection.
 
If there had been a serious crime event, perhaps a mass shooting, there would surely be details about the police response including the number of officers and their response times to the scene.
 
The article is totally silent about either the presence or performance of the fire department.
 
Fire grows exponentially over time, a very short time.
 
According to the National Fire Protection Association, if the fire department cannot be on scene and operating within about eight minutes at the most, the fire will expand beyond the room of origin to engulf the entire building and others adjacent.
 
That’s exactly what happened in Bound Brook.
 
An adequate response could have contained the huge fire to the building of origin.
 
Bound Brook is an entirely volunteer fire brigade without the ability to provide reasonably assured response times and firefighter staffing.
 
Bound Brook has, of course, a paid police department and in a bit of community irony, their headquarters once burned to the ground because the fire department wasn’t.
 
It’s an ongoing costly and illogical fact that many communities blithely ignore the need for basic professional fire (and EMS) services; many of them rue their lack of foresight the day after a fire like the one in Bound Brook.
 
New Jersey is not alone — virtually all of Long Island, N.Y., a heavily urban area, is an entirely volunteer fire operation due to the cushy and shadowy political relationships which encourage questionable decisions and policy making.
 
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Travel: Under the Lucky Star http://www.bndyg.com/2019/08/29/travel-under-the-lucky-star/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=travel-under-the-lucky-star http://www.bndyg.com/2019/08/29/travel-under-the-lucky-star/#comments Thu, 29 Aug 2019 13:07:06 +0000 http://www.bndyg.com/?p=32329 To the Caucasus (and Back)

Last Summer I traveled with a friend to the Central Asian countries of  Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, of the famed Silk Road, the ancient trading route stretching from China to Europe and the Middle East.

For thousands of years it was the path of commerce and a swirl of clashing titans including Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great and Tamerlane.

We went back this summer, with another friend,  to see the Caucasus, the area roughly bordered by the Black sea to the west and the Caspian to the east, a “pinch point” for the Silk Road between Russia, Iran and Turkey.

Over twenty days I was in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey; each with its own culture, geography and political relations.  The first three countries were historically part of greater Iran and Turkey, of course, was the center of the Ottoman Empire.

The route from Armenia, which borders Iran, north to Russia is studded with castles and fortresses, built hundreds of years ago to protect the trading routes from invaders and usurpers; many lie in ruins but some, like the Georgian castle called Rabati, have been fully restored.

Khertvisi Fortress standing guard in Georgia

The area is sporadically defined by its religion, being it Zoroastrian, Christian, Muslim, etc., or some combination thereof.  Some countries, such as Christian Georgia are demonstrably religious while others, such as Azerbaijan, wear their Islamic heritage quite lightly.

Tbilisi’s new Catholic Cathedral

On this trip you get seaside vistas, high plateaus, stunning mountains and everything in between; I want to go back and climb Mount Ararat, for sure.

Ararat rises in the distance

I indulged my love of dogs as strays are numerous but with a hitch:  they are generally tagged, inoculated and “fixed” and are cared for though they be on the loose.

Time for a tummy rub

Political relations are dominated by Russia and Turkey, a bit like the U.S. regarding Central America and the Caribbean, generally mucking about to its own advantage.

To wit,

Russia occupies 20% of Georgia and the Georgians (predictably) hate it.

The former Soviet Union gave part of Azerbaijan (then a Soviet Republic) to Armenia, thus poisoning relations between those two countries.

The Armenians hate the Turks because of their refusal to atone for the Genocide.

Nationalism is rife and my list of regional grievances is woefully incomplete.

People are friendly, polite and very helpful. While in rural Georgia I escaped from the obligatory wine-tasting to go for a long walk on a country road.  As I waited for my travel mates, I stopped at a tiny roadside shop and whiled away the hours with a lovely older couple who ran the operation.  It quickly became clear that it was the nerve center of the neighborhood, folks stopping to catch-up and buy necessities.   

Country road

The language barrier was total yet I was treated with kindness and even concern.  The owner gave me two of the best peaches I have ever tasted and when my ride arrived and I tried to pay him, he refused the money and kissed me on the cheek.

As for the weather, sunny is the word, though it was clouds and storms when high in the Caucasus mountains near the Russian border.

A mountain sunset near Russia

I visited Istanbul in Turkey, Tbilisi in Georgia, Yerevan in Armenia and Baku in Azerbaijan;  Baku wins the prize for the coolest place, by far.   It was very walkable with beautiful parks and the seaside close at hand.

Baku, a city by the sea

There were some humorous moments along the way:

  • A travel mate asking the Georgian guide if she had a Russian passport. (Not a good idea.)
  • Noticing the “defensive” driving of Georgian drivers: honk with left hand, raise right hand palm up as in the “what the f**k, over?” gesture.
  • Me beginning to argue with a Yerevan cop when he said he didn’t know where Republic Square was. (I caught myself.)
  • Asking guides anything other than relatively straight forward questions which then result in in-decipherable answers to unasked questions.

Our Armenian guide was a dead ringer for Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle, the cold war cartoon; she was a fervent Armenian nationalist who would begin the answer to any question with a version of “No, no, you silly boy” complete with a come-hither smile and then set you straight on the wonderfulness of all things Armenian.

Natasha

Another guide, also a woman, hated men — she picked fights with every male in sight including an Armenian gas station attendant who got the “what for” because he spoke Armenian and not English or Russian.  (We were, after all, in Armenia.) It took about two days to figure out what was going on, she pissed off a gruff old innkeeper who sent us packing after one sharp encounter.  I counseled one poor fellow to not take it personally, her disdain was gender-wide.

(Thank god I don’t share her affliction when I guide: I hate everyone equally.)

The third guide, a fellow, was knowledgeable to a fault, at one stop, while beginning to explain an old tower, he said, “There are four versions to the story.” I wanted to say, “I’ll take door number one.”  Honestly, though, does anyone care about four versions of anything?

We stayed in every type of accommodation from a four-room guest house with a shared toilet to a five-star hotel.  Fancy hotels lack personality and character, but I’m not actually complaining.

Lahic

One guest house in an Azerbaijani village called Lahic was the perfect example; it’s at about 3,000 feet above sea level without air-conditioning and you eat whatever they serve you for dinner and breakfast. Dinner was stuffed peppers, dolmas, rice with fresh saffron and more vegetables than I can remember. Breakfast?  Rice porridge, fried eggs, fruit, fresh bread, coffee, etc. I awoke to the mooing of cows and a crystal blue sky.

Restaurant-wise, in most places, a very nice lunch or dinner for four is $35, tops and the food is all fresh and healthy.

A hot dog stand in Baku

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and European agencies are helping these countries with programs to develop tourism and trade; they sing our praises, a fact which foreign aid haters would do well to remember.

One evening when we stopped at the Georgia-Russia friendship memorial I stayed back to hang with the local vendors selling roasted corn.  One fellow was quite savvy, having traveled to the Netherlands car shopping multiple times as part of his business.  He was both inquisitive and friendly as the corn roasted.  When he found out I was from America, he said, “Sir, you were born under the lucky star.”

Indeed I was, a fact which he helped me to remember.

 

 

 

 

 

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