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Mike Reali’s Holiday Vacay: Driving an Ambulance to Mali

While many of us will spend the holidays wearing ugly sweaters and eating the feast of a thousand starches until we can no longer be contained by button or belt, Philadelphia artist and photographer Mike Reali will be driving a 1989 Ford Ambulance about 4500 miles, through six countries, over three weeks from Devon, England to Bamako, Mali. Yes, the Mali in Africa.

Why? For the adventure of course! Adventure, raise money for the Mali Health Organizing Project, and to help people with albinism, who are persecuted in Mali and in much of Africa.

I met Mike Reali through a group of mutual friends a little less than a year ago. He is affable enough but in a crowd full of attention seekers, Mike comes off as the quiet, thoughtful guy. However, when I recently asked him about his plans for the holidays, his answer was so fascinating and wanderlust-inducing, that I asked if I could interview him for a Tumblr blog featuring artists serving the world and their communities.

Hey Mike, good to see you again. What on earth are you thinking?
I’m thinking that I’m going to get to visit a lot of places I never thought I’d ever see, and see them from a rather unique perspective, ya know, driving cross countries in an ambulance. To be able to do that and contribute to charities and the Malian community was an opportunity I couldn’t justify passing up on.

So you pretty much just met this guy and now you guys are going to spend 3 weeks driving an ambulance through the Sahara together?  Talk about friendship by fire.
Yeah, I met Stephen at a lecture at The Union League. This explorer adventurer, Charles Brewer-Carias was speaking, and it was all organized by this group called The Adventurists. They organize rallies like the one we’re doing. I’m on their mailing list because I was always into The Rickshaw Run, where you drive a motorized rickshaw across India. So this thing at The Union League was a great opportunity to actually meet some of the people who had done these crazy rallies. Stephen was one of them, he’d come down from New York City, and this other guy Eric came from Chicago. So I hung out with them, we went for drinks afterwards, and they had a ton of interesting stories from last year’s Mongol Rally. Stephen invited me to join his team on his next rally, and I really had no good reason not to. Sure, I guess I could go to Africa someday if I really wanted to, but who’s gonna invite me to join The Timbuktu Challenge ever again? But yeah, by the time I actually agreed to do it I still hadn’t met Dennis, and Kunal I’d only met briefly once. 

Why an ambulance, and how on earth did you find one suitable for a 4000+ mile journey?
Well Stephen had taken an ambulance from London to Mongolia. Most teams just take any piece of shit car, but some take rescue vehicles because they’re useful to donate in the end. We talked about taking something different, like a Toyota Hiace or something, but in the end we came back to the ambulance. Mostly because it’s the most useful vehicle to donate to a developing country, but also it has a ton of room inside, and we will be in it for three weeks. We could actually sleep five in it if we had to since we put up the hammock. 

Ambulances are made to last, they’re tough. It’s like a tank. It’s really in great shape, we really lucked out! This thing was a hell of a deal. We found it up in Agawam, Massachusetts. It didn’t meet its reserve on eBay so we called the place up and made a deal. Then the seller came back and said all of a sudden it was having trouble starting on occasion, and he actually recommended against buying it! Imagine a car salesman recommending you don’t buy his car! He knocked a few hundred off the price if we did still want it but we decided to keep looking. After we couldn’t find anything else we could realistically afford we went back to the Agawam Ambulance, or the Agawambulance as I liked to call it, and we tried to get it looked at by a mechanic, but we couldn’t find a diesel mechanic on a Saturday. So we took the gamble and bought it. This thing could’ve had anything wrong with it, but it turns out it’s in relatively amazing shape. Except that we did drive it back from Massachusetts on only three brakes. That was the biggest thing our mechanic found.

Turns out the only reason it wasn’t starting properly was because the guy we bought it from didn’t know you had to warm up the glow plugs first – it has glow plugs instead of spark plugs. So his ignorance saved us $300 on what was already a great find! You have to imagine, this thing had to cost $100,000 when it was new, only 22 years ago. It’s really an amazing vehicle. It’s cool. We’re all like, man I wish we could keep it.

You were the last of your crew to join up. Have you gotten to know your fellow adventurers better? Are you looking forward to driving across the Sahara with them?
Yes! Since I got involved I’ve been spending a lot of time with these guys, I’ve gone up to New York like four of the past five weekends to help work on the ambulance with them.

They’re all cool guys, I’m not worried about traveling with them. It’s lucky really. We all get along.

We’ve been documenting the whole process, blogging and posting pictures and videos, and we’ll be doing so throughout the entire journey so our friends, family, and sponsors can keep up with us at home. You’ll be able to follow us by GPS in real time.

Your three other team-mates all have technical backgrounds.  You’re the only artist in the group. How have you been able to put you skills to work in service of the mission?

Well, the biggest thing was painting the ambulance. They said, we have to paint the ambulance, what’re we gonna paint it? And I thought, ooo a bad paint job could really hurt this thing. So the design I made is really just a subtle alteration of what it already had. It had this big red band running around it, so we painted the bottom two thirds of it yellow and green. Red, yellow and green are the colors of Mali’s flag, and that’s where it’s going, and likely will stay for a long time, so I think it’s something that’ll be appreciated.

Mike putting the finishing touches on the yellow stripe

Before that though the first order of business was to create a team identity, the idea being the more substantive we looked the more likely we are to garner sponsorship. This was another reason for buying the ambulance here rather than overseas, so we had something tangible, we could say, “look, here it is. This is the thing we taking”. We came up with a team name, Last Responders, and I designed a logo, business card, and t-shirts we could sell to help raise money. Shipping a 10,000 lb ambulance across the Atlantic isn’t cheap!

How do you think you might use your arts background on the road?
Well, artists think differently, we have a different perspective on the world than programmers or engineers. I imagine I’ll be able to offer a different outlook on our surroundings as we pass through bazaars and deserts and backwater towns. I guess that’s one of the things I’ll find out along the way.

But really, I think the trip will broaden my horizons as an artist. I’m a photographer, so this is a great opportunity for me to develop and expand my body of work. That’s one of the main reasons I decided to take the trip. No doubt I’ll be able to capture things I otherwise would never encounter. We won’t have a set itinerary; it’s not a race to the finish. We’ll be able to stop places, and take detours, stuff like that. What I’m doing now is researching, finding interesting places. I usually start at UNESCO’s website. We’ll see though. Part of the journey for me is definitely the unknown.

As you said, the Timbuktu Challenge is not a round trip adventure. Getting back sounds like another adventure all on its own.
Yeah, the other guys have to fly straight home, they only have three weeks vacation. I have a bit more flexibility, so I’m planning to keep going, do some additional traveling. I figure it takes so much just to get there, I really should take advantage of the opportunity. We’ve all been concentrating on just getting to the starting line, I haven’t yet figured out where I’ll be going afterward and how I’ll get back. My original plan was to go to India. I’ve wanted to get there for a long time, and I have a friend there who I’d love to visit, but it’s actually more expensive to get to India from Mali than it is from the U.S.! So now I’m exploring my options in Africa. It’s a big continent after all.

When we first spoke about this, you said you were having some trouble finding a hospital to accept the ambulance?  What’s going on with that?
Yes, luckily we’ve found a really great recipient for the ambulance. Originally it was going to the Bandiagara Malaria Project, but they wrote us saying that some high Malian official declared that they couldn’t have it. Internal politics? They said in their email, “These problems will arise when dealing with developing countries.” I’m sure it’s corrupt as all get out over there. But I’m really excited about where the ambulance is going now because they’re going to turn it into a mobile clinic. So much better than just occasionally transporting someone, it’ll  really affect a lot of people. It’s going to The Salif Keita Global Foundation which raises awareness about and helps people with albinism. Here people with albinism have to worry about getting teased in school. In Mali, they grow up in danger of being killed. Because of all the superstition surrounding the disorder, many Malians grow up thinking albinos are evil, and in the past, albinos were killed at birth. In other parts of Africa, they are killed for their body parts, which people think will bring them good luck, or they’re used in rituals, for witchcraft. Albinos are also at a high risk of getting skin cancer because of the low melanin in their skin. Or they may just have difficulty in finding someone who will treat an ordinary illness like malaria because of discrimination.

Salif Keita, who is a famous musician from Mali and also has albinism, is working to open a health and community center. Many doctors and nurses in Mali won’t help or work on persons with albinism, so this would be a safe place for them to come socialize and get medical treatment. Until they can build the center, they’ll be able to use our ambulance as a mobile health center. So, it is going to be reaching a lot of people and really maximizing its potential to do good.

We’re also raising money for the Mali Health Organizing Project, a US based NGO that provides health care and other services to women and children in Mali.

So, you’ve been raising money with Sponsors? Had any luck?
Some. Stephen and Dennis are fencers, so we have Brooklyn Fencing sponsoring us. A Best Western. Possibly Barnes & Noble, we’re looking into that. (Both Stephen and Kunal work for Barnes & Noble.) There are a few others that had sponsored Stephen’s Mongol Rally trip as well.

Recently I’ve been concentrating on getting donations from businesses and restaurants of things we could include in a raffle at our benefit show at Connie’s Ric Rac this Friday. Gift cards mostly, to great places like Triumph Brewery and North Bowl. I managed to get a few trays of food donated from Sabrina’s Cafe, and 943, in the Italian Market. And of course my mother is making 30 lbs of her famous sausage scaloppini. The ambulance will be there, parked right outside Connie’s. It’ll be Philadelphia’s last chance to see the ambulance in person before it ships! We have to get it to the port in Baltimore on Monday in order to make it to the December 16th starting line in Devon! It’s all gonna happen very fast from here on out. Doogie Horner, of The Ministry of Secret Jokes and America’s Got Talent fame will be hosting and doing a set of stand-up. We’ll have a bunch of other comedians and three bands will be playing as well. We’ll probably raffle off ambulance rides too.

Your teammates are fencers, like with swords? That could come in handy.
Yeah! Though they probably wouldn’t get them through customs, unfortunately. They can just buy em when we get there I guess, maybe in the Medina Market in Morocco. But seriously, getting robbed is my biggest concern more than anything, since I’ll be carrying a lot of valuable camera equipment. I’ve invested in a very nice point and shoot for times when I don’t want my big camera to be seen. I’ve talked to people from Mali and Mauritania and they say it’s a real threat. They’ll rob you in broad daylight they say.

For More Information:

Last Responders Website:

The Timbuktu Challenge:

Salif Keita Global Foundation:

Mali Health Organizing Project:

Our fundraising page for MHOP at First Giving:

Friday (11/4) Benefit show event page at Eventbrite:

Last Responders Facebook page:

Friday (11/4) Benefit show page on Facebook:!/event.php?eid=137680596332651 

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