Saving Vegas

Born in 1988, Vegas – a Lincoln Town Car limousine sporting a five foot stretch – frolicked through her youthful years at the beck and call of various celebrities in the most desirable neighborhoods of Hollywood.

She then spent some 15 years in Las Vegas, plying the strip as a limo for hire.

For most cars, that would have been the end of the road. But not for Vegas.

In 2008, a Kiwi – Turkish – Canadian – American team from San Francisco bought her and prepared her for the excursion of a lifetime: the Plymouth-Bamako Challenge. This 3,600 mile route from Plymouth, England to Bamako, Mali raises funds for charitable causes in developing countries. It was an amazing journey – winding through the tiniest of alleys in the Medina of Marrakech, off-roading through the soft Sarahan sands and along the beaches of Mauritania, ferrying across the Niger river. Fifteen vehicles left London, and most of them – twelve to be exact – made it to Bamako (the losses included one rather hurried abandonment in the Sahara under pressure from Algerian nomads).

More pictures here.

Vegas had relatively few problems, and turned out to be an excellent global travelling vehicle. With seating for a maximum of nine passengers, or (more often) five passengers with lots of gear, the limousine combines the carrying capacity of a pickup truck with a luxurious air-conditioned interior including tv and minibar. And despite tipping the scale at over 8,000lbs fully loaded, gas mileage is better than your average SUV due to the low frontal area. Of course this assumes that you can keep that right foot under control – as the big 5.0l V8 creates ample power to pull away from most everything on the road in these parts.

The team was within a few hundred miles of completing a triumphal return from Timbuktu when a much abused wheel bearing gave out, stranding poor Vegas in Djenne, an ancient town in Mali.

Despite bringing a complete set of tools and many many spare parts, that particular $6 rear wheel bearing was not to be found. After returning to the States the team shipped the bearing, and in mid-2008 Vegas limped into Bamako to lie peacefully in a friendly family’s yard. The long term view for the limo’s future looked bleak … but the story does not end there.

In July 2010, team members Mark Sinclair and Brian Dunn mobilized to resolve the Vegas situation. They packed one small bag of clothing and two large bags of parts apiece, and departed for Bamako via Accra, Ghana. If all went well, they would arrive in Mali 48 hours later with a scant six days to resolve the situation. Because Mali is 7 hours ahead of San Francisco, the team would work in the field from 12 noon to 6 pm local time, and work from their laptops from 12 noon to 6 pm Pacific Daylight Time, entailing an additional shift from 7 pm – 1 am local time, to keep up with their duties at work.

Installment One 7/22/2010 – 7/24/2010

Thursday 22nd

Departed San Francisco
Visa problem at counter
Visa problem at D.C counter.
Get on departure for Accra, 11pm, we’re off!

Friday 23rd

Fly though the night and land in Accra. Boom – we’re here. Hot, humid, fighting with porters…usual adjustment.
Expected to spend the day at the airport in Accra since we didn’t have a Ghana visa.
Our visa officer warms up to us after a while, issues us a $20 transit visa and a somewhat confusing
message to call her when we were coming back through the border. Little did we know …

Adventure in Accra: even getting the wireless connection figured out in Hotel Paloma took some doing. From there, research into shipping Vegas from Accra to anywhere, maintaining patience through the inevitable language difficulties and delays in finding the appropriate person to speak to. Eventually met with success, maybe – someone who promised to get back to us with a quote (and never did). Spent the evening with two teenage Dutch girls who had been volunteering as nurses in rural Mali. Back to Palomina, killing time by trying strange shot combinations and learning the rules of cricket, starting to feel the burn of the 36 hours we had been traveling. At last the time arrived to go to the airport, only to find the flight had been delayed….

Saturday 24th

Flight delayed, waiting at Accra airport. Exhausted. Sleep on plastic seats. They give us a credit for dinner – a tuna sandwich…. We are so tired, bored and hungry we eat it and hope that Ghanaian tuna is healthier than it sounds. We find refuge in the airport Internet Café, nurturing a decent web connection through the whooping tintinnabulations of the owner’s Christian music.

Our scheduled itinerary is on Ethiopian Airlines flight 0012

Leave Accra, Ghana 01:35 am
Arrive Freetown Lungi, Sierra Leone 04:10 am

Leave Freetown Lungi, Sierra Leone 04:50 am
Arrive Conakry, Guinea 05:20 am

Leave Conakry, Guinea 06:05 am
Arrive Banjul, Gambia 07:05 am

Leave Banjul, Gambia 07:50 am
Arrive Bamako, Mali 09:20 am

Clearly this is what the French meant by “Airbus.” The flight eventually leaves at about 4 am, hopping maddeningly to 38,000 feet for even the shortest of hops, with a fair amount of gyration en route. In fact, we can’t even land in Conakry due to the weather … the pilot extols Ethiopian Airlines’ enviable safety record as he makes the announcement. As we circle, it emerges that there are some bigwigs on the flight, so when we make it to the next stop (Banjul), they insist we turn the plane around and try again. Fortunately, ground control in Addis Ababa won’t have it.

We stand out. Not only are we the only tubabu (Caucasians), but everyone is super well-dressed, chatty, definitely upper-class … whereas we look like shit.

Land finally in Bamako. Work our way through customs and meet Dagno, who has been taking care of Vegas for over two years. We get a taxi and head to our hotel with all the gear, staying at Hotel Sleeping Camel. Have some trouble getting there: directions and addresses work differently here, or don’t. Street signs are few and far between. No one knows what roads are called, more often using landmarks. So you go over a lot of road twice.

And the road is rough. The local soil doesn’t drain well, there’s lots of puddles everywhere, we’re all over the road trying to dodge the ones that threaten to swallow the car. The musky, humid scent of Africa rises to greet us with every slosh through the mud.

The hotel is perhaps idyllic for those who enjoy sorting through the varied rubbish delivered by the river Niger, the “Dead Camel” has rooms that are, shall we say, basic. Most important, the wi-fi is not working, which is the go / no-go decision. And AC would be most welcome too.

So the voyage continues – fortunately we find a good businessman’s hotel on the second attempt. Hotel Le Loft in the Quinzambougou (happening neighborhood) quartier: for $50 per night, we are equipped with power, A.C. and wifi, in clean rooms with ample amenities, good desks for working, and the modern African adventure: one that paradoxically allows you to remain integrated with your real world.

It’s been 48 hours in transit, yet we press on regarding our quest for information. Over dinner we learn that Vegas is in Lafiobougou, not Quinzambougou and not really that close. Apparently she’s stationed in a family compound next to Terain Belier (which turns out to be a soccer field), just off Rue Frou Frou, 3rd house in from the corner of a street with a name that nobody uses or will know. On the plus side, we establish that no African family has established squatter’s rights by living inside the car during our absence.

With a mere six days to get this sorted, we discuss our options.

1. See if Mark can get her running. Beyond the normal wear and tear befitting of a grand dame with 22 years of age and significant life experience, a local mechanic may or may not have delivered too much power through her frame, frying her innards with a well-intentioned electro-magnetic shot.

2. Assuming #1, have Vegas continue her journey; drive her to Ghana for shipping to Brazil. The route from Bamako to Accra, 1200 miles across three countries in as many days, beckoned to your correspondents as worthy of adventure. In addition, Brian longed to re-visit Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, where he had lived as a young man. Mark wanted to see Vegas delivered, shipped, and cruising the playas of Brazil, continuing to live the dream.

3. Assuming #1, give her to Dagnon to use as a micro-business: a limousine transport service – at a level unheard of in Bamako. We imagine Dagnon as the driver dressed in immaculate white, opening the door for a bride or an important visitor.

4. Assuming #1, roll around Bamako like rock stars and sell her for cash to one of the local high rollers. Donate the money to charity ourselves, without the middlemen. But we needed to act fast to find a buyer, and such desperate measures meant we would be forced to visit the most expensive bars and nightclubs until ungodly hours, with only our wits and an expense budget to sustain us.

5. Our fallback plan: give the car to a representative of Rotary International to sell on auction. But we were pretty sure we would lose visibility into the process, and didn’t want to see Vegas scrapped out for parts after all of our efforts. Would Vegas, after all this, be destined for the scrapyard?

Go back to hotel and really crash this time. Didn’t move until around midday.

Installment Two

Monday the 26th

A key day to gather information. Will Vegas come to life? How much would she cost to register and run? Did it still make sense to ship her to Brazil to continue her adventure? By the time the sun went down, we hoped to be well advanced on these topics. Mark mobilizes at the crack of 2 pm, bringing his best game. He reports slow and steady progress: Arrive at Dagnon’s place to start work on limo. The family, for once, is not there – even Dagnon has gone to get batteries and more fuel. Change into overalls, very nearly get locked into limo as the door-handles have seized up and the locks and electric windows also don’t work, and the privacy screen is stuck in the up-position. Manage to force way out, hope I didn’t break anything. Getting despondent about fuel pump situation. Can’t get it to go. I feel like it’s electrical, but I can’t get a peep out of the pump anymore. Stupid relay wiring is a mess. Decided to clean everything up and label it all – ignition relays, three different fuel system relays, horn relay etc. Worked very late trying to fix the problem, midnight, under lights. Moussa and family helping with lights and listening for the pump.

Right when I was about to give up for the night, jumpered around the inertia switch and direct wired battery to pump – it works! So at least the pump is good. Head home with wiring diagram of relays to study manual and redo the wiring tomorrow. Interior and trunk of limo now a mess due to me trying to trace wires and fuel lines everwhere.

Meanwhile, Brian uses his blunt, reasonably correct French with a hint of Bambara to solicit information on Malian registration, licensure and state taxes. The news is bleak. Apparently a new tax regime went into effect a few months ago whereby outside vehicles are charged considerable douane (customs tax), unless you know a douanier (customs official) who can get this tax waived. In the absence of such a buddy, Vegas would need some $6000 to be appropriately registered, with another $2000 needed for aesthetic upkeep and operating costs. It quickly becomes clear why Dagnon’s family has not done anything with the limo during our absence.

Monday is a tough day in the field, as might have been expected. And the working day is far from over in San Francisco. A quick dinner and then the laptops flip open, your faithful correspondents working deep into the night to maintain work flow in that “other” life. It makes for a long day, but one that ends well: Brian reaches his family with a skype video call at 3 am local time, 8 pm San Francisco time, for a birthday greeting.

Tuesday the 27th

It’s Brian’s 42nd birthday – and as a good Leo, he is not one to waste it. The team convenes around noon and finds a good restaurant option – Broadway Café on Koulikoro – very clean and food is good. Quite a few foreigners. A busload of young American kids arrives, and Brian immediately pegs them as newly arrived Peace Corp trainees. Under a half-formed theory that Peace Corps volunteers might have the time and contacts to unload a limo, Brian chats for a while with Veronique, the veteran in the bunch. When we tell her the story and show her the limo information, she suggests we come to the local “Trivia Night” at the US Embassy: it is tonight, which is great timing. Maybe we can find some State person who would be interested in buying Vegas, or knows somebody who would be.

Mark works on the limo and Brian works on the laptop until 5pm or so. Then the dynamic duo gets ready for a big night at the American Embassy, showering and shaving and finding a cab direct to the Embassy. Unfortunately, we got a bum steer: trivia night is not at the Embassy, it is at the American Club, two unnavigable miles away.

We ask an American expat, dressed in khakis and leaving work at 7 pm, for assistance in figuring out the trivia club location. We entertain fantasies that he will provide detailed explanations and realizing that they are insufficient, he will drive us there. Instead, he jots down a truly useless map and beats a swift retreat, avoiding our obvious need for details. We know there is a party going on, but our odds of finding it are low.

Once again, technology comes to the rescue. Mark pulls up a neighborhood map of Bamako on his phone (Cingular, not AT&T) and uses it to navigate to the American club through sheer grit and inutition, over some truly horrible roads and unpredictable surfaces. We are all so thrilled with this accomplishment that the taximan gets a fat $4 tip.

Unfortunately trivia night turns out to be a waste of time. Despite hooking up with the sharpest trivia team, and providing the sharpest trivia team with the game-winning answer (the ANC won the first post-apartheid election in 1994), we find no one who wants to buy a limousine. They love the story, and are not the slightest interested in the transaction: the closest we come is the Ambassador’s right hand man who confesses he might have been interested if only the interior were bulletproof. We work the tables, eat bad hamburgers, and chat up anyone we can find, with little to show for it at the end of the night.

Despondent, we head for a Frenchman’s restaurant: we have been advised he is a car buff and responds well to automotive adulation. We prepare our story carefully, using some French vocabulary to complement our quarry that is beyond the basic pitch … but he is not there. The restaurant is dead, and we wonder whether to call it quits at 11 pm on Tuesday. It certainly appears that the town is dead, and we would do better to wait until morning.

Mark will have none of it. It is Brian’s birthday after all. We decide to look up Jess, an American correspondent on Lonely Planet’s Trip Advisor who works at a local bar and may know something about customs policies for foreign automobiles.

And our luck changes … by the end of the night, it has been a big night. Jessica is excellent company, as is her Togolese husband Nassir. The birthday voyage that started so unpromisingly at the US Embassy has evolved into a thick pastiche of restaurants, bars, a boite across the river, a midnight bribe. By the time the night is done, Brian has talked his way into the VIP booth, providing new music to the hard dancing crowd. It is at least 5 am by the time we return to our hotel, and Brian and Mark celebrate the madrugada with a nightcap, local whiskey in plastic cups with some ice we have commandeered from the kitchen downstairs.

And as always, what we discuss is the limousine.

Our options are dwindling. We have abandoned the idea of giving Vegas to the family that has been taking care of her. We had hoped that Vegas’s last stint could have been as a special occasion limousine in Mali, the soul of a self-sustaining micro-enterprise business . The African family is more practical: they didn’t want her. If she were a taxicab, say a Peugeot 505, and maybe 10 years younger, she would make sense from their cost benefit perspective.

We also give up on the idea of driving her to Accra, finding an appropriate freight forwarder and shipping her to Brazil. For one thing, she probably wouldn’t have been able to drive to Ghana on the schedule we needed, and we might have had to abandon her in a field. For another (particularly difficult for a pair of 40 year old males to accept), our ultimate “International Limo” adventure didn’t make any sense. To keep her rolling around the world, shipped from Africa to South America and then beyond, would be a great thing to do, a piquantly romantic dream perhaps, but not at all practical. The unknown headaches of remote transport, shipping schedules, port fees and future vacation plans indicated that Vegas had completed her last big run, and would be more comfortable settling down in Bamako for a while.

A number of alternatives still appeared promising: the good folks at the Sahel Vert and the Bla Bla, perhaps the Americans or the weird French dude, or if all else failed, Sunny of the Rotary Association. Someone would want the car. But our top choices were disappearing.

As we discuss the day’s events, we realize we have been trying to sell the car to the wrong crowd. Whether US Foreign Service administrators or Lafiabougou realists, we had been talking to conservative buyers – while Vegas is a not a conventional car. We need to find someone who will appreciate her, such as those playboy businessmen and politicians we met during the early hours.

Just find someone who wants the car and has the cash, and close the deal before they sober up. Work in the cool of night time, and avoid daylight whenever possible. A fiendishly difficult proposition, requiring intense participation in African nightlife: were we up for the challenge?

Installment Three

Saturday the 31st

As the dawn comes up on Saturday morning, we are in a cab to the airport, passing through terrain that has now become more familiar. There has been no sleep for some time. We have been burning both ends of the stick, African style: working on the car by day, trying to sell it by night, and using our remaining time to stay connected with jobs and families. We have become local fixtures at the Bla Bla for the closing shift at midnight, which we use as the first foray into the night’s adventures. It turns out that a lot of people stay up all night in Bamako – you just have to know where to look.

Over the course of the week, Mark has managed to revive Vegas. Her motor is purring like a kitten, and the interior challenges are resolving one by one. She made it across town on Thursday night, and is now parked at the hotel. Still, it would be difficult to call her “fixed”: there are too many things that can and do go wrong.

The registration issue has been a puzzler. You need one type of registration (“laissez-passer”) to go from one side of town to the other, and if you don’t have it, there are lots of policemen hoping to catch you out. To bring Vegas to our hotel, we hired an off-duty policeman to escort us, using his badge to warn off the roadside cops. While we did not get stopped by the cops, he came in very handy when we got a flat tire.

More complicated than the laissez-passer is the enregistrement, which is what would allow Vegas to stay in her adopted Bamako. The older the car, the more it costs, and Vegas is no spring chicken. Almost everyone we talk to thinks he has a solution, or knows someone who can fix it for us, but nothing has materialized. We visit the Bamako equivalent of the DMV, a joyless bureaucracy if ever there was one. It’s pretty obvious that you have to know someone to get anything done here.

We run through our options again. Get the car running – yes, check, more or less. Drive her to Ghana, and ship her from there to Brazil? Um, no. Turn her into a micro-business? Not likely, although you never can tell. Party like rock stars and sell it to the locals? Yes, and no. The fallback position – donating it to the Rotary Association – is starting to be the only position.

In the meantime it dawns on us that we had better start thinking about getting out of here: Bamako is 720 miles from Accra and there are no direct flights. Which is to say, no flights at all. Dreams of languid bus travel through Ouagadougou to Accra are not realistic given the time we have. Brian’s wife, acting as ground control, buys tickets for a flight for Friday from Bamako to Lome, the capital of Togo. It is a short bus ride from Lome to Accra, we are told.

Nasser has a friend who works at the Togolese consulate, which is not otherwise open most of the time, and we get visas there instead of the border. We figure we will go through the same $20 transit visa routine at the Ghana border and then take a taxi direct to the airport.

Vegas is running by Thursday night, and we have a lot of people who want to meet her. We push the flight from Bamako – Accra back a day (again with the invaluable help of ground control). Now we are looking at a long Saturday: a morning flight to Lome, time for lunch and then push across the border, with all the time in the world before our 11 pm flight to Washington DC, from which we catch a connection to San Francisco.

Arriving at the airport, we ignore the porters and head for the counter – only to find twenty minutes later that we have been standing in the wrong line. We cause a bit of drama when someone champions our cause and tries to get us in at the front of the correct line, but he is shouted down by the others and disappears. The setback offers an excellent opportunity to marvel at how good people look in their local duds, especially when compared to us.

The flight to Lome is uneventful, but the arrival in Togo marks a milestone: Brian has set foot on his 100th country. We find a taxi driver and ask him to take us to the best restaurant in town.

The fornicating turtles make for an interesting show.

Our taxi takes us to the border, and we hit a snag. The transit visa that we obtained at the Accra airport one week ago is not available at the border. Neither is any other visa. As in, we can’t go into Ghana, which means we can’t catch our flight back to the States tonight. We prepare an envelope with some freshly minted bills and try to find a higher ranking official to fix the problem. Our approach is met sternly: no visas issued “meme si vous etes le President.”

We chase back to the airport, hoping there is a flight to Accra. There is one, but it is too late.

We ask about private airplane hire. Not available. We do the math on what it would cost to miss our flight to the States: not pretty. We go back to the border to try our luck again.

Meantime, our taxi guy has been dialing his cell phone madly, and tells us he has a solution.
He is going to introduce us to some guys who are going to get us across the border. By this time, it’s about 3 pm, and that 11 pm flight suddenly seems pretty imminent. And then we find that the main road is under construction, and it will take six hours to get to Accra at the least.

We have to get going. We meet the taxi guy’s contacts and they talk a while. Then they talk a while more. And talk, yelling and gesticulating about something we will never understand.
Time is a-wasting, yet we are moved into someone’s yard while another car is obtained. The children look at us with nonplussed eyes. The chickens run between our bags. Eventually we are told to go. We hoist our bags and walk quickly up to a chain link fence, as several guards in military uniforms pretend not to notice. The bottom portion of the chain has been pried up, and we crawl underneath, with just a quick walk to another car where we deposit our gear.

The signs look just the same, but they are in English.
Which means, we are in Ghana.

Our new driver is upset, practically jumping out of his skin. “Where did you find that taximan? He does not know his business!” He is driving quickly through the crowded streets, barely comprehensible from the back seat. “Don’t worry, now you are with people who know how to move.” He swivels around to reassure us directly. “You see, we are cocaine smugglers. We know what we are doing. That man, he knows nothing!”

The car stops and another man gets in. He is more low-key than his friend, and gives us what turns out to be an accurate assessment of the road ahead: distance, time, bribes. They want us to get in separate cars, which we do not do. They want us to put our luggage in another car, which we do not do. They ask us for a big fare to rush us direct to the Accra airport, which we do.

Speeding down an African road at night, with a flight to be caught and no time to waste, we hunkered down in the back seat and hoped for the best. Yet again, we had active text communication, and we were able to text our ladies the blow by blow – leaving out some details that would have been worrisome. Like the cocaine smuggler part.

Though amped, the driver is good, and we make it to the airport just in time to board. Only one obstacle remains … immigration. There are two immigration officials in the hall, and as we are the last passengers, they call us over together.

When you don’t have an entry stamp in your passport, it doesn’t much matter what story you come up with. None of them will work. We don’t put much effort into it, quickly moving on to the cost to buy a “new” visa. $100 each. We push the money across the counter, get the stamps and walk away quickly, not asking for a receipt. In a surreal state, we stagger through the security checks and slump down in the plane. Homeward bound.

But what about Vegas? Watch this space for the fourth and final installment