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  • 08.29.09 - RCNevada opens his post, Onward To Mali, with the following, "I’ve never been to Mali, but I’ve spoken to people who have. And after hearing their stories and seeing their pictures I can’t for the life of me think of a single reason I would want to go there." And I can tell you he's dead right, at least for our first day.

    The previous evening found us traveling from Bamako airport to the city proper and trying figure out where the city proper was - a conundrum for days to follow. All along the road into town my eyelids kept flashing like the iris on a camera taking rapid-fire snapshots of a country in more disrepair than Mongolia, the 183rd poorest country on the planet. Mali is the 187th, depending on which chart you look at.

    I had spent a few months in Mongolia five years ago at the invitation of Ulaanbaatar's TV5 to write and produce a television program on the Olympics and if one needed a lesson in what happens to a country when the prevailing colonial power or political friend cuts and runs when things get tough - Mongolia was a case study.

    RCNevada continues on Mali, "According to one man who lived in Bamako for a year trying to set up a business, the country of Mali serves but one purpose: That is to serve as a shining example of what happens when the profit dries up and the colonial government packs it in and goes home, leaving the country in the hands of people who have no concept of how to run a business, much less a country."

    This echoed a hollow "ditto" as I watched unfinished building after unfinished building fly by on the road into town, inviting unfavourable comparisons to the same scenario in Mongolia, where inadequate financing and banking systems caused projects to get started and never finished because the money dried up, or never really existed in the first place. Mali spoke to me in the same language that Mongolia had, Mongolia being left in the lurch after the fall of the Soviet Union with no understanding of a market economy and no motivation to go beyond international aid agencies to even get a leg up on the brave new world before them. Although I believed it immediately, it would take me days to figure out for sure that Mali had the same disease - insufficient sociological antibodies to fight off the shit situation they had been left in by the French.

    But our invitation had come at the request of a family member of my partner and the situation we were presented was that of an open opportunity to develop businesses and even learn from the more than plentiful NGOs on the ground how to pitch marketing projects to aid organizations as well as how to acquire funds from those organizations to implement projects of our own - all in an untouched land of organic produce and absolutely beautiful music.

    Rubbish, we would find - except for the music.

    The look on my partner's face as we turned off the main blacktop onto a sand, rock and mud side road was that of horror as she eyed the fully one metre deep mud trenches that our old Mercedes would have to traverse - and this was not the sleek Mercedes of our early trip Frankfurt fame. This was a banged up more than ten year old model that had had it's make & model markings replaced by Daewoo and Toyota ornamentation to make up for the three stolen hubcaps and the missing peace symbol from the hood. A Mercedes without the markings might as well be a Chevy and in this case, it was a Chevy that kept it's parking lights on while the engine was turned off, so long as the power cables were still connected to the battery.

    Worried about the battery going dead in this state on a following day, I wondered why the driver didn't disconnect the cables at every parking stop but realized that he had already figured out just how long the car could sit with it's running lights on and still be restarted, saving him from the tedious job of screwing the cables on and off every time our version of Miss Daisy wanted to stop and buy something.

    "Where's the road?!", my partner exclaimed as we plunged deep into a muddy rut and the driver gunned the engine to slop us through, the trunk and gas tank slamming against the muddy rocks and refuse that littered this so called street, that we would soon call home - her eyes all bugged out trying to see something/anything on the ill lit pass. "Welcome to the third world," I chimed sarcastically back, knowing fully well that this was but the first of many cultural shocks that she would encounter on this slow slide from a world that delights in the exploits of Paris Hilton's new BFF.

    Home comes with an abrupt stop and we are facing the courtyard of what was once, the Cuban ambassador's residence in Mali. Now, figuring that the combined gross domestic product of both of those countries might not add up to even a hill of coffee beans in Vietnam, we are in arguably what we consider to be, a reasonably wealthy abode by local standards. It boasts a garden, two storeys, a plethora of rooms and a swimming pool.

    We had been forewarned that the pool needed cleaning, and even tacitly agreed to do so enroute to Mali, in thanks to our gracious host, but the whole idea that my partner had packed a more than cute bikini in which to do the underdescribed cleaning was now becoming just screamingly hilarious. What sort of cruel joke could this have been that our combined airfares from Vietnam to Germany, on to France and forward to Mali would be seemingly worth more than the whole of this residence and its accompanying pool?

    "Oh dear David. Shut the F up and sit the F down", my future self says to my present self. "You have no idea how whacky the finances are going to get around here" he continues. And no, at that point I didn't - but I suppose that's the beauty of being a barnacle on a ship that somebody else built and sailed. At virtually no point during the proposal, planning or purchasing of this endeavor had I been requested for more than yes or no answers to questions like, "Would you like to spend three weeks in Munich, Paris or Frankfurt before going to Mali?" It would soon become apparent that the trip was executed perfectly bass-ackwards leaving nothing but poverty and chaos as the icing on a three week Parisian holiday instead of the other way around of having three weeks in Paris, or anywhere else on the planet for that matter, as the reward for slogging through one of the most underpriveleged environments on the globe.

    Time to meet the mosquitos.

    One of the things we had been prepared to deal with was the idea that part of the house had been reapportioned to serve as a staging area for the owner's restaurant concern - so we fully expected to see things a bit of a mess downstairs. But what had failed to have been mentioned was that there would be over 20 staff living in the house and its supporting out-structures along with ourselves and our hosts. They also forgot to mention the mosquitos.

    Welcome to the third world.

    The one in which the owner and my partner would sleep in an air conditioned and hermetically sealed portion of the house and I would sleep, "soldier style", as it had been described to me, in a simple clean room just down the hall but without the aircon. And that would have been fine, had they not overlooked the need for mosquito netting, which everyone else of the many residents already had. But I was the new guy, and I should have expected some oversights in this area - the same as the owner should have expected me to have been banging on their bedroom door at four o'clock in the morning after suffering through 3 hours of mosquito coordinated dive bombing attacks because they hadn't seen white flesh since Sigourney Weaver did that film with the apes here on continent so may years ago.

    An unhappy owner and a can of bug killer was produced and I then did my best to sleep with well near 100 bites in just the space of a few hours. Rainy season. And nobody seemed to have thought that the metres worth of stale and rancid water still left in the pool would have been any cause for mosquito breeding. But then again, they were busy running a chain of restaurants and not a hotel for bitchy Americans.

    Morning comes in Mali with the priests at a nearby mosque chanting through loudspeakers around 5am during what we didn't know was going to be Ramadan and though initially jarring and somewhat annoying, after having been bitten by too many tiny F-14s, would turn out to be sort of an early morning lullaby in my first week of this new and undiscovered by me land.

    Popping up around six, I can't get dressed fast enough to hit the streets and see what had been shrouded in mosquito laden darkness just hours before - the streetlife of Mali and all it's glory.

    Drugstores are carried on heads in baskets and you just need to poke around the basket a bit to find the cure for whatever ill you might be ailing you. These are black market drugs by the way (and no, that's not a pun), but finding and Excedrin or a Motrin here can be akin to finding the toy in a box of Cracker Jacks if you didn't already know that the caramel corn already came with a toy.

    All the people are impossibly tall and if you had missed that, virtually all of the woman are gorgeous, in an Iman sort of way, you'll most certainly be impressed by the manner in which they can carry most anything ranging from food to auto parts atop their heads with perfect balance - and no, I never had any misconceptions about what I might find here. Mali was adequately described to me by my partner as remedial, and whilst I had already experienced this sort of an economy and culture in Mongolia, a sort of Jed Clampitt meets the Mario Brothers mash-up, due to the clash of century's meeting the binary code of the shiny smart-phones that even simple street merchants have, my partner could not have been more over whelmed.

    Here a close family member had assembled not just a business but a life in this tropical moonscape of a country but had asked her and myself to take a look at things and suggest ways to make the business run smoother, more efficiently and more profitably - a Ludwig Maximilian University MBA from Munich and a smart-alec advertising guy from America by way of Korea and Vietnam. The minute you think the dichotomies of a developing country are too much to handle, just take a look at the two crazies imported to try to sort some of this out and realize that our lives at this particular point in time, needed some sort of jump-start in a way that just wouldn't make any sense to the crowd who buys a Dr. Phil book or pays a couple of hundred an hour for a New York shrink. Our psyches are much more complex than that - and that is precisely the reason we felt this trip was a good idea.

    For all of our missteps along the way, the one thing I have always assured my co-conspirator was that I would absolutely go to Mali with her, just because the opportunity was there, and secretly, at least to her, because I thought she needed me there as a vote of confidence. This place will turn out to bring more that either of us ever could have dreamed it would. Now we just need to give the country time to let it's mysteries unfold - and our deeply guarded personal mysteries as well. Bring on the epiphany, Bamako. And explain to us why all the toilet paper in the country is red.
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