Chapter 1: Esby and Lomax in St. Louis
When a few minutes before 3:00pm, our driver, Joseph, who had said little since we left Dakar, drove us into Saint Louis, not far from the border with Mauritania, I felt my anxiety rise. The Fulani man, wearing a gold earring with a short-sleeved shirt and brown slacks, navigated his Peugeot across the bridge in silence.
The bridge, called Pont Faidherbe, in honor of a French civil servant in West Africa who almost became mayor of Saint Louis, appeared to be old, but it was not. It was roughly the same age as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, designed by Gustave Eiffel before he became famous.
I occupied the back seat of the vehicle, peering out the window to my right. Lomax, my younger brother, sat in the front seat next to the driver, scrolling through images in his Pentax 645.
The medium-format camera, fitted with a 90-millimeter lens, was big, and Lomax alternately complained about it and praised it, calling it “my baby.” He had taken only a few photos on the 165-mile trip.
“At what time did we leave Dakar this morning? 10:30?” Lomax asked. I nodded.
I kept my gaze on the landscape unfolding on the river below. On the opposite bank, I saw an assortment of buildings in washed out pastels.
The three of us moved into the heart of Saint Louis, located on an island, called N’Dar, in the middle of the Senegal River.
I knew the bridge, which was opened to the public in 1897, connected N’Dar Island to the older, more run-down parts of Saint Louis to the east where the disused railroad from Dakar came to a halt in a patch of weeds. What I knew came from information from tourist brochures, not from Senegalese people themselves or from direct experience. Lomax and I had been to Senegal once before a few years before.
Joseph, reaching the end of Pont Faidherbe, turned right into the French colonial town, moving through a series of narrow, dusty streets lined by old buildings. Finally, he turned right on Rue Blaise Diagne and brought the sedan to a halt in front of one of the buildings, a massive 4-story structure occupying half a city block on our left. Two signs, one running horizontally across the middle of the structure and the other hanging vertically from its northern edge, displayed the same words: Hotel La Residence. We had arrived at our destination.
Above us, against a brilliant blue sky, fat, billowing clouds extended upward as far as the eye could see. The sky, on that Thursday afternoon, was oppressive. I opened the back door of the Peugeot, and a man, who had been leaning against the side of the building, next to the entrance of the hotel, moved toward me. I stood in the dusty street. The black man, covered only by a ripped brown tank top and red short pants, spoke in French. Lomax, too, as he exited the vehicle, came face to face with a black man speaking French. Lomax said, “Bon jour, monsieur.”
A group of black men gathered around Lomax and me as we collected our luggage from the trunk of the car. We were surrounded. Lomax, especially, was nervous. Several of the men were 50 or 60 years old, but most were in their late teens to mid 20s. All of them spoke to us, almost casually, as if they were distracted, in a kind of French I had heard spoken before by other Africans in other places. Previously, I had lived in Europe, where I had met many French-speaking Africans, in Brussels and Paris but also in Rome. It was in Italy’s capital that I had an apartment on Via Ostiense across the street from Basilica San Paolo, the second largest Catholic Church in the world. It was there, too, I had a Congolese girlfriend who had been born in Kinshasa but who had grown up in Paris.
Joseph drove off in his car, and Lomax and I, carrying our luggage through the crowd, walked the short distance to the lobby of the hotel.
Just inside the main door of the lobby, a man, a tall African with closely cropped hair wearing an Izod cotton pull-over shirt and pressed trousers, stepped forward and smiled. Behind us, on the other side of the door made of glass panels, I could see the group of men dispersing. In front of us, the tall man handed me a card. “I will be your guide,” he said. His English sounded more like French.
“My name is Ismael,” he added. He opened the door and stepped into the street.
A mixture of dark wood and soft lighting, the lobby had a floor set in a pattern of alternating black and white tile squares. On the walls, a series of photos referred back to the 19th century. To our right, four leather chairs lined the wall. Upon closer inspection, the paint on the walls was faded and, in places, peeling. The upholstery of the chairs was coming apart at the seams. The overall impression was one of decline.
“It’s quiet,” said a man behind the front desk, speaking softly in English. “We don’t have many tourists now.” The man, who was black and about 60 years old, wore a tan linen blazer with both of the buttons buttoned and looked tired. “People here are desperate for work,” he said, looking through the glass panels of the door into the street. “Now we also have people from elsewhere, Mali and Cameroon.” The man continued, “You’re the Americans?” He handed us the key to our room. “Most of our visitors are Europeans, especially French.”
“By the way, Ismael has a special arrangement with the hotel,” the man added. “If you want, he will show you around Saint Louis for a small fee.”
Lomax and I walked through an open doorway at the end of the lobby to a wide staircase, laid with ceramic tiles. At the heart of the hotel, open to the sky above, the stairs rose up sharply into the bright sunlight. The glare was blinding. At first, we were alone on the stairs, dragging our bags up the steep incline and paying special attention to our heavy cameras. An elderly couple—a short silver-haired white man and a grey-haired woman—who were speaking French with Parisian accents appeared on the landing above us. Neither of the two spoke as they passed, but the woman smiled.
When we reached the 3rd floor, we turned left and found our room in one corner of the building. However, after inserting the key in the lock, we discovered it wouldn’t open the door. Next to the lock, the wood was scarred and slightly loose, as if someone recently had attempted to force the door. Suddenly, the door swung open.
Our room, with a view of the dusty street, Rue Blaise Diagne, was non-descript and minimally furnished. Against one wall, a small, black television set protruded into the air. No remote control was visible. I didn’t attempt to turn on the TV. Neither did Lomax. Under the TV was a table with two narrow wooden chairs. To one side of the table, attached to the wall, was a small mirror. Against the opposite wall, two twin-sized beds, each covered by a thin, red blanket, extended into the center of the room.
“All right,” I said to myself, setting down my luggage on a chair next to the window overlooking the street.
“We need cash,” I said to Lomax. “Let’s find an ATM.” Lomax looked at me. He was, I could see, not yet ready to go back outside.
At the ATM
I was opening the door when two people, two women in their 30s, appeared, moving along the hotel corridor in the direction of the stairs. I saw one of them nod at me, but I was pre-occupied and looked back over my shoulder into our room.
The room, which was neither large nor small, had a black-and-white photograph of ten fishermen in a big wooden boat setting out on a fishing expedition on the Senegal River. On the east side of the room there was a tall window, providing a view of Rue Blaise Diagne. Next to the window stood Lomax, looking down into a street of shadows. It occurred to me that Lomax was studying the desperate men who had surrounded us when we stepped out of the Peugeot sedan earlier.
“Come on,” I said, pushing the door open.
Lomax picked up his Pentax and walked past me into the corridor, bathed by a brilliant but setting sun. I looked at the digital watch strapped to my wrist—it was almost 5:30—and stepped into the sunlight too. I closed the door and tested the lock, hoping no one would force it again and make off with our computers. Following Lomax down the stairs through the lobby and out into the dusty street, I realized conditions in Senegal were worse than I had expected. From the moment my brother and I arrived in Senegal, we had been surrounded by groups of people, primarily young men, on the streets.
On Rue Blaise Diagne, he and I walked south until we reached the end of the block. At the cross street Rue Mor Ndiaye—I checked a sign on the side of a building—we turned right, scanning both sides of the short block before us for a bank. We needed to find an ATM so that we could obtain cash in the local currency, the West African CFA franc, for daily expenses.
Above, a column of white clouds in bright colors extended into the brilliant sky. Behind, black figures followed closely. We turned left at another street, called Rue Khalifa Ababacar Sy. A bank, named Compagnie Bancaire de l’Afrique Occidentale, came into a view on the west side of the street.
As Lomax and I moved toward the bank, one of the men behind us, in his mid 20s, came up to Lomax, speaking softly in French, but Lomax ignored him. I realized, at that moment, upon approaching the bank’s ATM, it was right on the street.
“Not this one,” I said, gesturing with my head in a southerly direction. Lomax moved in that direction. The man retreated a few steps. Resuming our pace, Lomax and I, with the African men not far behind, moved down Rue Khalifa Ababacar Sy toward the end of the block. We turned right on an equally narrow street, called Rue Blanchot. No cars had passed through any of the streets in the old town, but I realized that here and there cars were parked on both sides of the streets. A second bank, called Banque Internationale pour le Commerce et l’Industrie du Senegal, came into view. As we approached, I noticed its entrance was enclosed by a set of heavy steel doors.
“Here,” I said.
Behind the doors, Lomax and I found ourselves in an antechamber which contained an ATM. Alone inside the enclosed space, we were able to insert our debit cards, follow a set of instructions in English, obtain a small stack of bills, and retrieve our cards. Both of us relaxed, counting the francs and securing the money in pouches we wore tied around our necks. Previously, in Dakar, where we had stayed for two days, neither of us had been able to complete an ATM withdrawal.
In the sky, the mass of white, billowing clouds floated over the old town in the fading light. A cool breeze pushed away the warm air.
I stood on the sidewalk in front of Banque Internationale pour le Commerce et l’Industrie du Senegal, looking at my watch. It was almost 6:00. Lomax stood silently beside me, adjusting the strap of the camera on his shoulder. I stepped off the sidewalk into the narrow street, and we started to re-trace our steps through the old town toward our hotel.
Behind us, the same crowd of young men followed. One individual, appearing suddenly at my side, looked different from the others. With hair cut close to the scalp and wearing a clean polo shirt, he was not in the same class as the others. A gold ring on a finger and a gold bracelet caught my attention. Then, I realized the man was Ismael, the African guide, who had introduced himself in the lobby of Hôtel de La Résidence. “What do you want to see?” he asked, smiling. “You like photos? I take you to many good places along the river.”
I stared at Ismael, regarding him in a different light now that we were walking in the street at sunset, not standing in the hotel. Ismael was about my age, 42, and 6 feet in height, but he seemed thinner than I remembered. Also, he looked uncertain in the presence of the men standing nearby.
I noticed, at that moment, Lomax had raised his camera. To one side of the narrow street, I saw four teen-age boys playing marbles in the dirt. Three younger boys, skinny with bare feet, and one tiny girl with pig-tails had gathered around the older boys. Lomax steadied his camera and took several pictures. I waited, hoping he wouldn’t continue obsessively, taking additional photos, changing the settings on his camera again and again.
Just minutes later, though, Lomax and I were on Rue Blaise Diagne. We had covered the half block to Hôtel de La Résidence quickly. We stepped onto the concrete sidewalk at the front door. I was astonished that we had made it. Most of all, I couldn’t believe we had gotten our money without a mishap.
Ismael, once again, appeared. “I’m always available,” he reminded us, and melted back into the crowd. Lomax and I entered the building, passed through the lobby, and ascended to the 3rd floor, where I inserted the key into the lock on our door and discovered it opened the door easily.
An hour later, preparing to go downstairs to the restaurant for dinner, I heard a knock on the door and opened it. Standing in the corridor was a 65-year-old man, who looked familiar, but, also, angry.
“Do you have hot water in your room?” he asked in a French accent.
“Well, yes,” I said, “we do.” I paused, studying the elderly man. “I just finished taking a shower.”
“My wife is upset,” he stated. “We told the hotel staff an hour ago that we didn’t have hot water. Ten minutes ago, the manager told us the problem had been solved.” The man paused, staring. “But we still don’t have hot water.” With a determined, semi-angry look on his face, he continued to stand in the doorway. Then, he put his head down and walked to the stairs. I watched him retreat, thinking he was going down to the restaurant and realizing I was hungry and wanted to go downstairs too.
“Let’s eat dinner,” I shouted back into the room at Lomax, opening the door wider. Lomax stood by his bed. My gaze shifted to the opposite side of the hotel corridor, where a door of a room opened and, there, emerging, were the two young women I had seen earlier.
“Bon soir,” I uttered without thinking.
Entering the restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel, Lomax and I saw not only an interior dining room but also, through a set of floor-to-ceiling glass panels which closed off a courtyard open to the sky, a collection of tables and chairs creating an outdoor dining room.
Seated at one of the tables in the outdoor courtyard, the two 30-year-old women were drinking white wine. At an adjoining table, a 65-year-old, silver-haired man and his wife were bent over their plates. The thought crossed my mind that the older couple was dining without taking a shower. I knew the elderly man and his wife felt uncomfortable. Probably they were both still upset. It had been a hot day.
Lomax and I walked to the center of the interior dining room, where a man sat at a table set for four persons. Before him on the table was a plate of fish, rice, and some vegetables. Near the middle of the table, within arm’s reach, sat a bottle of Flag beer, and a half-full glass of alcohol. The man, who was Caucasian, took a bite of fish as a waiter ushered Lomax and me to the table next to his. “Hello,” the man said, looking up.
“It’s pretty quiet in the hotel,” Lomax said, staring at the man. “Not many guests.” Then, to the waiter, Lomax said, “Two Flag beers.” Lomax sat in a chair, directly facing the man, who wore thick-framed glasses and an expensive looking, long-sleeved purple shirt. I sat in a chair at our table opposite Lomax.
“There will be more of us arriving in the next couple of days,” the man with glasses said, looking through the floor-to-ceiling panels at the diners in the courtyard. “You’re here for the river-boat cruise, like the rest of us?”
I shifted my chair at a 90° angle to the table partially facing the man with glasses. “Yes,” I said. “But also for other things.”
“That makes at least eight of us,” the man said, raising his glass toward Lomax and me. “More members of the cruise will arrive tomorrow, I believe.” He paused. “My name is François,” he added, “from Montreal, Canada.”
“We’re from Southern California,” Lomax replied, studying the fingers on his left hand. After a moment, he looked up and, remembering what he had to do, introduced us to François.
The waiter returned, placing two bottles and glasses on the table. Lomax filled my glass, and I picked it up and drank half its contents, leaning back in my chair. Lomax contemplated the bottle of beer in front of him, looking at it as if he had decided he didn’t want it. Then, in one motion, he picked up the bottle and drained it.
“I’ve been on the cruise up to Podor once before,” François said, studying Lomax. “But this time we’re taking a bus to Podor and catching a boat back down the river to Saint Louis.” Podor, a small town on the border with the neighboring country of Mauritania at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, was about 125 miles northeast of Saint Louis. I drank the rest of my beer and looked up at the ceiling. A large fan turned slowly above my head.
Lomax said, “I thought we were taking the boat up to Podor.”
The waiter re-appeared and asked if we were ready to order. Lomax nodded. Then he glanced at François, “What’s he having? I’ll have the same.”
When the waiter turned to me, I requested a Zebu steak with pepper, flambéed in cognac, and a potato. “Put sour cream and butter on the potato,” I added. François was looking at me.
The waiter said, “Very good.”
“You can talk to Anna,” François said to Lomax. “She manages the river-boat office across the street. She’ll answer questions about the itinerary.”
Lomax was reading the label on the beer bottle still in his hand. “Why not?” Lomax said, suddenly, allowing the bottle to drop on the table. François studied Lomax again, attempting to make sense of his behavior.
Lomax removed the Pentax from his bag and placed the camera on the table. “When was the last time you were here?” he asked François.
“Two years ago,” François replied. “It was in the fall, though.” He stared at the food on his plate. “I’ve been coming to Senegal for 25 years. I’m an administrator at a private school in Montreal which has an exchange program with a school in Thies, a town not far from Dakar.” François took a sip of beer from his glass and cast a glance at Lomax. “I’ve never seen it like it is now,” he continued. “The economic devastation, I mean. The desperate people roaming the streets every day.”
François looked through the glass partition into the courtyard. I followed his gaze. The two women sitting at a table in the courtyard were looking back at us. One of them smiled and waved.
Madeline and Sylvie
“I need to get back to my hotel,” François announced. “It’s 30 minutes away on foot.” He stood up.
“You’re not staying here? At La Résidence?” Lomax asked.
The waiter appeared, placing one plate with fish in front of Lomax and a second plate with a steak and baked potato in front of me.
“No, I prefer another place in the old town,” François replied. “Maison d’Hotes au Fil du Fleuve at the southern end of the island.” He smiled. “Enjoy your dinner.” Then, as he walked away, he stopped and, looking at Lomax, said, “I’d be interested in seeing some of your work.”
“Work? Oh, you mean photography,” Lomax replied and opened a pouch on the front of his camera bag and removed a business card. “Here,” he commented, reaching toward François. “My Internet address is printed on the front.”
After François departed, I finished the meal. When Lomax finished, he started to scroll through images on his large camera.
“Let’s go outside,” I said, looking through the glass partition into the courtyard and noticing the two women also had finished their dinner.
On the sidewalk in front of the hotel, moist air from both the Atlantic Ocean less than a mile to the west and the Senegal River two streets to the east settled over the night. The two women followed Lomax and me from the lobby. We stood looking across the narrow street at a dress shop and, next door, the office of the river-boat company. I followed their gaze, recalling the suggestion of François to visit the office the next day and remembering the name of the river boat, the Bou El Mogdad.
“I’m Madeline,” the shorter of the women said. “This is Sylvie.” Madeline nodded at her companion, a tall, black woman. “We’re from Paris.” Madeline, slender with curly dark hair, and Sylvie, more filled out, but slightly overweight, were unsteady on their feet. After drinking the two bottles of chablis which I had seen the waiter place on their table, they would be asleep soon. Madeline slurred her words when she mentioned their reservation on the Bou el Mogdad on Sunday. “I’m an MRI technician,” Madeline said. “Sylvie, an anesthesiologist at the same hospital with me outside Paris, in Combs-la-Ville.” Madeline spoke English with no accent, but Sylvie didn’t utter a word. Sylvie raised her right arm, and I noticed the gold bracelet which she wore on her wrist, reflecting the light shining from the hotel lobby.
“A nice piece,” I said, pointing to the bracelet. “I like the engravings on it. Where did you get it?”
“I bought it in Mali a week ago,” Sylvie commented. “In Djenne, about 600 kilometers up the Niger River from Bamako, the capital.” I’d been to Bamako the year before and wanted to go back. Sylvie showed me her other arm, saying, “I’ll go shopping tomorrow. I need another bracelet for my other arm, as you can see.” She laughed. “I love gold.” Then she spoke quickly in French to Madeline, while an image of Ismael and his gold rings came to me.
I wondered how soon Ismael would find Sylvie.
Bertrand and Beatrice
At 9:00, on Friday morning, Lomax and I went downstairs and passed into the lobby on our way to the dining room. In the lobby, I noticed the silver-haired man and his wife, who were talking with the desk clerk and who glanced in our direction as we entered.
“My name is Bertrand,” the man said immediately. “I apologize for my behavior yesterday. I can’t believe I lost control.” Bertrand introduced his wife, Beatrice. “We’re from Montpellier, in southern France,” he said. He appeared to be in better spirits than he had been the previous day. “We live in Paris now,” Bertrand said. “My wife is a professor of economics at a small Catholic college near Notre Dame Cathedral, specializing in microfinance.” Beatrice smiled and extended her hand to me and then Lomax. Bertrand continued: “I was an executive at an insurance company, but I’m retired now. I’m a chef, not a professional one but a fanatical one who refuses to allow his wife in the kitchen or even to suggest what he should cook.” Beatrice started to laugh. Bertrand, though, looked uneasy, as if he feared what Beatrice might blurt out about him on impulse.
Bertrand peered at me and studied Lomax, who wore an oversized black baseball cap with an emblem of a raven on its front. “You’re the Americans,” he said, as if he had re-gained his confidence from the night before. But it occurred to me that everyone in the hotel—and, possibly, the town—already knew who Lomax and I were. Nevertheless, Lomax started to introduce us to the couple in an overly formal way, explaining that he worked as a software engineer for Motorola in Southern California and I worked in Washington, D.C., for a political research group. After Lomax finished, Bertrand and Beatrice excused themselves, saying they had an appointment with another chef, who was an old friend from Montpellier.
Lomax and I entered the courtyard. In the sky, I didn’t see a single cloud.