Leaving Mali was not tough. It was excrutiating. The rain and the cramped, four people in a Mercedes plus luggage, only added to the anxiety of the speed of the trip. In just two days the decision to leave country had been made and we were off - but not before paying the airport tariff that apparently everyone needs to pay before getting out of country - the tariff of having your life flash before your eyes and realizing that if you didn't jump through the right hoops at customs, including a few well pressed Francs into the right hands, you might actually have to stay. The situation at departures at Bamako airport was sheer pandemonium, like the rush to exit country during a military coup. But no coup had been had. This was just another ordinary day in Mali with the only thing for sure - that more people wanted to leave Mali than wanted to come in. Hundreds rushed the ticket counters at check-in and at no fewer than three times were we told that the line we had been standing in was the wrong one and we needed to move to the end of a new line. This took hours.
Once inside the terminal and waiting for our flight (photo above) we were immediately confronted by sellers of all things Malian in an effort to relieve us of whatever remaining CFA Francs (Communaute Financiere Africaine) we might be in possession of as well as the hundreds who would board the plane with us. On the food chain of well connected Malians vs. poor backpacker-looking foreigners, we were on the bottom. An obviously well to do Malian family, dressed like ancient African royalty waited to board, with their twin sons in tow, outfitted with perfectly tailored African suits and matching custom made packpacks & Nikes - I lost my few remaining Francs to the purchase of a CD, a packet of chocolate and a Time magazine in English, with a cover blaring yet another flattering photo of Barack Obama, Africa's new national hero. Nevermind that Obama is not really from Africa. That's wasn't the point. The point was that a black man was now the President of the most powerful country on earth and this fact would not be lost on the still millions of Africans hungering for a better life. From dusty streetside stalls selling plastic chairs and kiddie toilets, to men brandishing cowboy style beltbuckles with photo insets, the image of Barack Obama was everywhere in Mali. When I tried to take a picture of a picture of Obama, propped up beside a streetside stand, the owner stopped me and asked for three Francs (about six dollars). I declined his price and moved along. Obama had become too expensive for me to photograph his photograph.
The flight back to Paris was the polar opposite of the flight in. Packed with flyers and not an empty seat to be had, we had paid an exorbitant fee to have changed tickets to be on this flying sardine can back into the civilized world - and the this time surly Aigle Azur staff made no attemp at concealing their contempt with us, the customers that had them on what was possibly the most unglamorous international flight on the planet. Tray tables did not stow properly, forget about video screens or a movie and whether you wanted the chicken or beef was not to have been a question. You were lucky to have gotten anything at all. It could have been Aeroflot. At one point I remarked to our dominatrix flight attendant that, "She could work a whole lot harder at being nice to people" and she glared back at me in a flood of disbelief that any passenger would even choose to question her crappy attitude. Probably she wasn't getting laid by this pilot on landing in Paris. Not my fault.
Landing at Charles Degaulle from Mali is like being deposited on the moon from earth - only in reverse. The sheer idea that you can take the metro from there to Gare De L'Est train station for a mere 10€ each and not have to pay an insane cabfare is a convenience many travellers might have chosen to have overlooked, but not us. We were now on as tight a budget as we had ever been and were willing to go through the extra bit of luggage handling to save 50€. But what we didn't account for were the turnstyles. While airports are designed to handle travelers with luggage and subways were not, we immediately understood the loss of a conveniently rolled luggage cart and began hauling our gear up and down stairs in a metro system that was designed during the time of Tolouse Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha and not much in the time of George Jetson - going through turnstyles and people passage devices a number of times - until I left a bag behind trying to get through one of them. How does one retrieve a bag after the full body-length two metal door device has closed? Well, waiting for another person to come through and then jumping in, the wrong way mind you, could do it. If you don't get your foot caught in the device mind you. Which I did. And the injury will plague me for the next number of weeks and months. Caught right above the heal and just to the right of my achilles tendon, the metal doors closed on an area that caused me to wince and pull away leaving a quarter-sized piece of skin flapping about and gushing enough blood to be used on the set of any self respecting slasher film. The blood was intense. I grabbed my partner's fine silk scarf and began wrapping the ankle, almost tournequet style so as to stop the bleeding, but to no avail. This sucker was going to bleed like a stuck pig and there was nothing I could do about it. We stood in the hallway just below street level of Gare De L'Est and tried to resolve our situation - all the while attracting the attention of all passing by. A limping bloody American and a fright-ridden Vietnamese trying desperately to do something, but what, nobody could tell.
"Get to the train dammit, get to the train", was all I could think. With my partner crying that we should go to the hostpital immediately (Vietnamese and Koreans have a habit of going to hospitals for things like splinters and the common cold), I played the brave American and vowed to soldier on - a decision I would live (thankfully) to regret later. Our window of opportunity to get the next train to Munich was narrowing and we needed to get a move on - no matter if the team leader looked to be in danger of loosing a limb. Nobody was about to care for an injured American in Paris anymore. WWII is over and now it's just the WWE all on his own.
Closing in on the ticket counter at Gare De L'Est it became immediately apparent that we weren't getting on the next train for sure - throngs of not very happy Parisians would see to that and they were already having their way with the attendants over their troubles. Little would be accomplished by an injured American trying to bully the French to get to Germany. "Sure, we let you yanks do that the last time you were here, because it was in our best interest. But now you have to wait - behind all the EU members, like all the other tourists", they seemed to say. "And nice to see you've finally made peace with the Vietnamese", I imagined them adding. Once at the counter I was informed that the next train to Munich would be a night train - and after a red-eye flight from Mali, that was just what we didn't need. But choices seemed non- existent and after a consultation with my partner it was agreed that that's exactly what we would do, provided we could get a sleeping car, which sounded perversely romantic in a European sort of way - if one had forgotten that I was sporting a legwound the size of Prussia which was becoming more and more in need of attention. So a sleeping car it was, at a small price premium, but well worth avoiding the wrath of an unhappy travel companion who had last voiced her unhappiness by leaving an entire country. Deal done. Except neither of us had ever travelled in a sleeping car and so surprises lay in store. Welcome the six berth couchette. A comfortable little rolling casket equipped with six bunks and plenty of non privacy. I, the luckiest man in car 54, would be sharing this compartment with not one, but five other attractive ladies on our way to Munich. "Orgy girls?", I imagined imagining like Tony Curtis in the film, Some Like It Hot. "Fat chance, schlub. Just pack it in and snooze, bozo - or all five of us will come clock your ass for even thinking about sex in a compartment full of five women", I imagined them not imagining but actually saying in unison. I slept like a baby. A baby in a women's prison.
Good morning, Munich. Munich's main station holds nothing over a French train station in terms of style or romance, save for a fabulous selection of food kiosks, and it was now our duty to get out of there and to the apartment we had reserved - somewhere on the outskirts of the city. But how to do that - a selection of subways, S-Bahn, U-Bahn (pronounced ooo-bahn) and trams awaited. Luckily, my partner speaks German, having been raised and educated here, so she used her impeccable language skills to get us to our intended destination. "Taxi", she bellowed- And off we went, into what, in the movie In Bruge, Colin Farrell would have described as, a fairytale town. Munich. Home of Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Löwen-Bräu and more famous beers than you can shake a stick at. Our first evening in town finds us at the Augustiner beer house enjoying what cannot be enjoyed outside the city because they simply won't export the stuff. "Why export the good stuff when you can't import better?", my Vietnamese partner explains to me. "Right", I imagined responding. I needed a Vietnamese to explain German beer to me? Well, apparently I did. So many things are left out of an American education. I need to make a note to let Obama's people know about this.
The next few days would be left trying to figure out how we had ended up in German suburbia, far away from the fairytale nature of most of the citycenter, and what exactly we would be doing for the next few months. Munich, is now our new home. And although we had originally planned to travel here first, and end up in Mali later, the exact opposite has happened. But at least we're not in Vietnam. "Life is what happens to you, when you're busy making other plans", John Lennon said. I guess we all could be learning something from that. - My friend, Hugh MacLeod, has had quite a success with his book Ignore Everybody and has just announced the publication of his second book, Evil Plans. This whole trip, I've been working on an Evil Plan of my own - but if I tell you what it is, then it wouldn't be an evil plan, would it? You'll just have to stay tuned and read the installments as the Wild Wild East embarks on his continuing adventures in WWWest Germany. Infinite Wisdom comes at a price. A price I'm willing to pay. Now it's time to get on with the plan. Hugh's chapter 11 in Evil Plans reads like this, "Treat it like an adventure, an adventure worth sharing". So that's what I'm going to keep on doing...