Escape From Mali

This blog entry about the events of Friday, March 31, 2006 was originally posted on April 04, 2006.

DAY 15:  As soon as I starting feeling suspicious of Van with his comment over the phone about being robbed, I decided that I’d fight mind games with mind games.  Van and the other “guides” of Mali had an advantage over me, sharing secret information amongst each other in another language via cell phones — but they did not know the secrets and scams that could be conducted over the internet.  (In fact, Van almost fell for an email spam scam promising him a bachelor’s degree in just two weeks.)

And so, in one period when Hama had left me at the house in Timbuktu to “rest,” I had snuck over to the internet cafe to email my brother markyt, instructing him to send an email explaining that I should get back to New York as soon as possible because my aunt was to undergo an operation and the blood banks were running low.  This was not a complete fallacy — more like a “half-truth” — since my aunt was in fact scheduled to have an operation:  a routine hysterectomy, a fairly common procedure of a third of the U.S. female population.  It was in fact true that she needed blood, and I banked on the fact that Van wouldn’t know that anyone spending time in Africa was ineligible to give blood for a year.

For the clincher, I had markyt call Van’s cell phone to at least attempt make the situation more grim than it was — my family had Van’s cell phone number anyway.  I couldn’t help but think that perhaps the loftier reason of me skipping Djenné to go through the whole Western Union bank ordeal was for them to justifiably have Van’s number for this other purpose.

With my brother’s phone call and the emails — and the convincing act I had performed the night before in front of Coloumby making a concerned phone call back to him — Van fell for it, hook, line and sinker, just like he had when I told them that people at home called me “Doug.”  (Only two friends of mine called me by that name, and they’ve both left New York.)  If Van spent the rest of his days wondering if I was pulling a fast one on him or not, then so be it — I’d be content with a stalemate in the mind games.  For the time being, Van was convinced that I had to take the express bus back to Bamako for the “family emergency,” and it couldn’t have been more fitting that I’d take the bus under the fabricated half-truth on the first of April:  April Fool’s Day.

IT WAS DARK when I woke up from a restless night of sleep in Mopti.  In my dreary room at the Hotel Campement I felt like a prisoner behind the windows covered with hard aluminum immovable metal blinds (picture above).  I had only one desire that morning: to escape the city of Mopti, and if possible, the country of Mali altogether if I could get an early flight.

I aimed to be up by 5:30 in order to get to the Bani bus station by six; the night before, no one could give me a consistent answer as to when Bani left (6 or 7) and I erred on the earlier to be safe.  The pre-dawn streets were a lot less hostile with no one around, but that all changed when the donkeys squealed and the cocks crowed at day break.  Soon the town was alive with its usual characters, particularly around the Bani station.

Luckily I wasn’t alone as I befriended two young Italian couples, students who had been visiting their friend working at an NGO in the eastern Malian city of Gao.  Francesca, Andrea, Lapo, and Cecilia had spent the night in Mopti as their layover before taking the express to Bamako like me.  It was a chaotic scene getting our bags on the bus; Andrea argued with the conductor that we did not have to pay the $8 baggage fee since no one else was.  In the end, he lost the argument, telling the guy in French that he’ll “pay it, but it’s not right.”

The long ride to Bamako wasn’t as hectic, just really warm.  Bani Transport boasted being the “luxury” bus company of Mali with air conditioning and TV monitors that played movies.  However, the monitors didn’t work and the A/C went out about thirty minutes into the ride — it was worse than the public bus since we couldn’t open the windows, but at least we didn’t stop in all the little villages on the way.

The bus gunned down the road to Bamako, the same road I’d taken before.  As we rode passed the junction to Djenné, I didn’t regret not seeing it’s famous mosque, Mali’s iconic building, it’s Eiffel Tower if you will.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the mosque at Djenné is the world’s largest mud-built building — although Coloumby who was supposed to be my guide there, barely made it sound exciting or worthwhile at all.  He told me that it was just a mosque and that the city was small, “not much to see.”  (Great guide, huh?)  I didn’t regret not seeing the famous mosque because, from what I’d gathered, it was just like the dozens of mud-built mosques I’d seen all over, only bigger.  And just like the cathedrals of Europe, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

THE HALFWAY POINT lunch break of our bus journey was ironically in Segou, Van’s town where I initially met him just two weeks prior.  I expected him to show up and track me down, but that wasn’t the case.  Instead I had a peaceful lunch (albeit a few hawkers) while sitting with the young Italians at a local food stall.

“Ha, African fish and chips!” Andrea commented, looking at my lunch.

The rest of the way to Bamako was bearable.  The two young Italian couples smooched as Italians do, and I just did the trite backpacker thing of reading a Dan Brown novel (Deception Point).  There was a momentary period of laughter when some older Malian woman started making jokes to the rest of the bus and everyone laughed, but we couldn’t figure out what she was talking about.  We smiled anyway.

By four in the afternoon, just nine hours after leaving Mopti, we arrived to a chaotic scene at the bus station.  There was safety in numbers as I split a cab into town with the Italians.  Andrea was pretty fluent in French, which was a great help.  I saw that he was still young and open to the world of travel, chatting up the taxi driver as best he could.  I reminisced about those golden days when I wasn’t so “traveled out.”

They dropped me off at the Air France office so that I could try and see if there were spaces open for the night flight to Paris.  “Grazie!” I said to the four young Italians“Ciao!”  They reciprocated the farewell and took off to places unknown to me.

THE AIR FRANCE OFFICE was small but it had actual working air-conditioning.  Its central city office was a place were one could drop bags off so as not to lug them all the way to the airport.  In broken French I had to explain that I wasn’t checking in since I didn’t have a flight just yet, but wanted to see if there was one for that night.  A confused Malian man at the desk scrambled on the computer and told me there were just four seats left on the plane.

“Oh! YES!” I shouted in relief like I’d found out I hadn’t been eliminated from The Amazing Race.  The bad news was that he couldn’t book it then and there and that I’d have to try at the office at the airport that wouldn’t open until 7:30.  It was only 4:45.

I grabbed my bags out of the comfort of Air France’s A/C and into the hot dusty heat of Bamako with time to kill.  Thankfully I was just down the street from the five-star Kempinski Hotel El Farouk, the place I’d stopped for directions when I got lost my first day in Bamako.

“Is Diarra here?” I asked at the front desk, asking for the porter I’d befriended.  The guy there said he’d left for the day, but perhaps it was the name drop that gave me credibility for being there to just hangout for a couple of hours.  I definitely was out of place — a grungy, smelly, dirty “Japanese” backpacker amidst a room of rich French, Malian, and Middle Eastern business types.  I was even more grungy when I took off my shoes to put socks over my vinegar-smelling feet.

I sat at a table in the restaurant area, pretending to be interested in the soccer game on the TV while I ordered Western food at Western prices.  After a long bus journey from Mopti, nothing felt better than a hamburger, fries, Coke and beer.

I freshened up and paid my tab and had a hotel guy drive me to the airport.  His name was Niara and he gave me his contact info on a makeshift handwritten business card in case I needed his services sometime in the future.  “[Are you coming back to Mali?]” he asked.

“[Maybe,]” I said, knowing inside that it was the last thing on my mind; at that moment, I just wanted to get out of Mali no matter what the cost.

I was the first person on line at the Air France check-in desk, confident I’d get one of the four last seats.  Who else could possibly be trying to leave the country today unexpectedly?  And then I met Hiro, a University of Pittsburgh-schooled Japanese man from the suburbs of Tokyo, who was also trying to snag a seat since he’d missed his flight the night before.  He’d been in Bamako for ten days visited an ex-pat friend of his, trying to start a business if he could — there were many Mali-Japan projects going on in the country.  Hiro’s told me his stay was much less hectic than mine, particularly because he had an inside contact in Mali to help him since he was at a loss for words when it came to French.

“It’s hard to get around without French,” I told him.  It was for that reason that I had found value in Van in the first place, which was his biggest selling point to me.  Little did I know at the time that I would lead me down another round of mind games.

The desk opened at 7:40 and I was redirected to another counter on the other side of the terminal.  It was the only professional-looking window in the otherwise fly-by-night-looking airport (no pun intended).  The Air France guy at the window fortunately understood enough English for me to plea that I wanted to leave the country that night.  He worked some magic on the computer and then told me it could be done, at a steep penalty of $200.  I didn’t care.  “C’est bon.  That’s fine.”

He tickled the keyboard again and gave me the news.  “[There is no flight, Paris to New York until Tuesday.]”

“That’s fine,” I said.  The man told me there were four flights a day from Paris to New York and I told him I might just wait for a standby.  The important thing was to get to Paris first.

“But there are no flights until Tuesday.  You have to be in Paris, two days.”

“[That’s fine.]”

“But do you have a visa?”

I flashed my U.S. passport with a bit of pride.  “I have a passport.”

He booked both flights and gave me my reservation ticket.  Hiro was right behind me, but for some reason he wasn’t so lucky.  I got a boarding pass while he still had to go through the anguish of the Waiting List.

TWO HOURS LATER I saw Hiro had good luck after all when I regrouped with him at the gate.  The plane was delayed by an hour, but I was happy to know I’d eventually get out of there.

“This morning I was in Mopti,” I realized vocally.  “And now I’m headed to Paris.”  Hiro laughed.  If he only knew how much of a prisoner I’d felt just that morning at 5:30.

The plane finally boarded and it would seem that I was scott free after a long, exhausting day — until there was a problem with my boarding pass and they had to issue me another one on the spot.  I didn’t realize it until I got on the plane that the new boarding pass reassigned my seat.

5J… 5J… I thought as I read the letters and numbers above me in the cabin aisle.  Wait a minute, 5J.  But that would mean…

A flight attendant held out a coat hanger for me.  “Monsieur?”

...first class!

If there was any fool that April First it was me, confused and bumbling around like an idiot with the workings of first class for the first time in my life.  Like a deprived t-shirt clad kid amongst older, more serious and well-dressed French and Malian businessmen, I played with my fully-reclinable massaging chair up and down, up and down, and I fumbled when trying to get the robotic TV retractable arm from coming out of its case.  I had my smelly feet covered by another layer of Air France socks while I sipped champagne and freshened up with a hot towel.  When the food service came around, the flight attendant chuckled and gave me a look when I ordered the beef when — silly me — it was only hors d’oeuvre time.

I could have cared less about what people thought of me and my naiveté that night.  I was just happy and relieved that I was off the ground and airborne after being in such a depressing divey hotel room in Mopti just eighteen hours before.  Escaping in the lap of commercial airline luxury was just an ironic twist — one of Life’s little bonuses they say.

Air France flight AF 791 flew over the sands of the Sahara Desert that night, finally taking me away from the heat, the dryness, the adventure, the awe-inspiring landscapes, the people — good, bad, ugly and everything in between — and above all, the mind games of Mali.

Next entry: Epilogue

Previous entry: Change of Heart, Change of Mind

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “Escape From Mali”

  • Well folks, that’s “All He Wrote.” Hope you enjoyed.

    I will say that after everything I’d been through in Mali, the bright
    side as that this Mali blog isn’t just a random collection of events,
    but more of a /story,/ with characters, character development, and plot
    twists. You just don’t get that on a regular “vacation.”

    I’ll post an Epilogue entry soon about my two days in Paris and
    reflections coming back home to New York.

    Hope you enjoyed the ride! Oh, what a ride it’s been…

    Posted by Erik TGT

  • Hey Erik- I’m sad to see this blog come to an end so soon, though
    fortunately I still have many weeks left in Asia (from 2004) to occupy
    me on these wanderlusting cube days…Sounds like quite an adventure in
    Mali that provided loads of good writing material (and some amazing
    photos) at the very least! Avoid those riots in glorious Paris and
    welcome back to the US East Coast!
    ~Corinne (formerly posted as ‘C’)

    Posted by Anonymous  on  04/04  at  10:02 PM

  • i like this story…with a happy ending. but i didn’t like how you
    described your vinegar-smelling feet! gross, doug!!

    Posted by Les Morceaux de Reese

  • Hey Erik,
    I’m going to catch up on the last 4 entries tonight…but I wanted to
    leave a comment. SO HAPPY to see your blog back..if even for a short
    time. (good thing i check on your ‘old’ blog every noew & then)

    Posted by Kay  on  04/05  at  12:47 AM

  • First class? Wow! Next time you fly economy you’ll feel like you’re
    “slackpacking”. So, what’s next? The Amazing Race? Aw c’mon Doug, you
    can do it!

    Posted by Janice  on  04/05  at  12:59 AM

  • Hey Erik,
    Great blog. I’m on BnA, and while I’ve checked out some (not all) of
    your Global Trip entries in the past, just wanted to say I really
    enjoyed this trip.

    Well done!



    Posted by Anonymous  on  04/05  at  01:13 AM

  • dude you have to prank call van!

    Posted by scott  on  04/05  at  02:53 AM

  • Hey Erik,
    Welcome back to the US. The only thing this adventure lacked was a
    picture of your poo.


    Posted by Tom M  on  04/05  at  02:56 PM

  • Erik, what a great story. I’m glad that I was able to read it live from
    the beginning.

    I now have zero desire to visit Mali!!

    Posted by Lisa  on  04/05  at  04:28 PM

  • Already over? At least I had a short distraction from work. Welcome back…

    Posted by Dan 3  on  04/05  at  04:51 PM

  • Great story - thanks for sharing your experience and all those cool pics
    with us! I’m sorry to hear about all the troubles on your trip. What an
    experience though!

    Posted by Yvette  on  04/05  at  04:55 PM

  • I have never had the experience of flying 1st class like Liz & Janice,
    but Erik you really deserved to be upgraded after all the hassles you
    had been thru!
    I have no desire to ever visit that place! Really enjoyed reading these
    entries. Hopefully you will travel again soon!

    Posted by Rose  on  04/05  at  05:47 PM

  • Hey Erik, have you decided on your next destination? Now that you’re
    corporate again are you going to be able to do more than one trip a year?

    Posted by Dan 3  on  04/05  at  05:51 PM

  • I love the idea of prank calling Van, haha.

    Posted by sara  on  04/05  at  06:26 PM

  • who thinks that i haven’t already pranked called van?

    ok i haven’t…but the number is on the table…van is on the next
    drunken phone call list!

    “hello van, this is jay-z. i heard you said if you met me, you would
    cry…start tearing!”

    Posted by markyt  on  04/05  at  08:19 PM

  • Thanks for taking the time to entertain us all again - love these breaks
    from working! When is your next trip wink
    Congrats on getting 1st class - the only way to fly. Unfortunately, I
    think my next flights will all be in cattle class *cry*

    Posted by Liz  on  04/06  at  09:58 AM

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This blog post is one of eighteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Trippin' To Timbuktu" (originally hosted by, which chronicled a trip through the West African nation of Mali in March-April 2006.

Next entry:

Previous entry:
Change of Heart, Change of Mind


Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:

BFFN: acronym for "Best Friend For Now"; a friend made on the road, who will share travel experiences for the time being, only to part ways and lose touch with

The Big Trip: the original sixteen month around-the-world trip that started it all, spanning 37 countries in 5 continents over 503 days (October 2003–March 2005)

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1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year — I guess you could call them "1991ers" in 2013 — young, entitled millennials on the road these days, essentially.

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