Ch. 5, Pt. 1: Road to Podor – Raphael
Music drifted through the warm air. At one edge of the dining room on the threshold of an open glass door leading to the courtyard a tall floor fan turned slowly on its axis, pushing a breeze gently across the room. Two Africans, moving more resolutely among the tables, carried food and drink to the group of foreigners. Even though it was still early in the afternoon, several of them had ordered glasses of wine. Raphael looked at me.
I drank only water though as I took notes on a pad of paper and listened to the sounds of Baaba Maal, Senegal’s most famous singer, coming from the tiny speaker perched on a flower pot in the sunlit courtyard. Lomax, in contrast, already had drunk one bottle of Flag, the nation’s most popular beer, with his lunch of fish and rice and now was drinking a second.
It was another hot day in northwestern Senegal, although I hadn’t yet ventured outside, after spending the entire morning in my room on the 3rd floor of Hôtel de La Résidence and then, at noon, descending directly to the restaurant.
We were about to start a four-hour bus trip from St. Louis on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean to Podor on the edge of the Sahara Desert. From Podor, we planned to take a four-night cruise on a diesel-powered boat, called Bou el Mogdad, down the Senegal River stopping at villages on the banks. Lomax and I sat at a table at the back of the dining room.
“It looks like there are 13 of us,” Lomax commented, looking up from the screen of his laptop computer before draining the contents of his second bottle of beer.
It was the first time Lomax and I had seen the tour members together, although we had met almost half of them after arriving in St. Louis three days earlier. The members came from France, with the exception of one couple, a man and a woman in their 30s who appeared to be from China, and François, the Canadian, whom we had met on our first day, a Thursday, in the hotel.
It was Sunday. The sun was bright.
At the front of the dining room stood a middle-aged African man wearing glasses with thin, circular frames addressing us in French. The man, named Raphael, the chief guide for our group, so far had spoken only in French but had mentioned he spoke ten languages including English when he introduced himself.
I could understand only a small percentage of Raphael’s remarks in French. Lomax, I knew, could understand none. It was the reason he paid no attention. Staring at his computer screen, he tinkered with photos taken on the streets of N’Dar, adjusting colors and contrasts.
Abruptly, Lomax raised his empty bottle into the air and caught the eye of a waiter, who responded immediately, nodding and smiling before making his way to the bar.
“As you probably already know,” Raphael said in French, “it’s going to get progressively hotter the farther north and the farther east we travel.” Raphael stopped talking and looked at Lomax. “So, it’s important you drink a lot of liquids,” Raphael resumed after several moments. “Probably water would be best.”
“When are we leaving?” asked François, who although he was bilingual in English and French now spoke in French. He sat at a table with a young African woman, named Anta, who had introduced herself to the group as a masseuse saying she would be available once we were on board the Bou el Mogdad.
Departure from Hôtel de La Résidence
Raphael turned and looked over his shoulder at a clock on the wall to one side of a set of double glass doors.
“It’s a little after 1:00,” Raphael noted in French. “Let’s plan to board the bus at 1:30. Make sure your bags are on the bus before we leave.”
I glanced out the window facing the street, Rue Blaise Diagne, and saw a white vehicle parked in front of the hotel. It was not modern and neither small nor large and appeared to have about ten rows of seats. At the front of the vehicle, in the seat behind the wheel, an African man sat slumped against a window, seeming to be fast asleep. On the street next to the bus, a slight movement caught my attention, and my gaze shifted to a figure approaching the hotel. The figure stopped in front of the window and looked at me bowing his head slightly and bringing up two fingers to one eyebrow in a salute. It was Ismael.
“Esby, do you and Lomax have any questions?” Raphael asked in English.
The waiter approached and placed a full bottle of beer on the table in front of Lomax. After picking up the empty bottle from the table, the waiter walked back toward the kitchen. When I looked at Raphael across the room I noticed that Madeleine, who sat at a table by Raphael’s side, smiled at me. At her table, in addition, Sylvie talked with two French men, one in his early 30s and the other in his early 60s. They appeared to be gay.
“Do you offer Rémy Martin 1689 on board the boat?” asked the older man, named Denis, putting an emphasis on his French words and scowling at me before directing his gaze again to Raphael. Either the older man was irritated because I was too slow to respond to Raphael’s question or he was annoyed because Raphael switched to English. Raphael looked at Denis but didn’t reply.
“The cognac,” Denis added, still speaking in French. “I need a glass at night after dinner, sometimes two.” He stared at Raphael. “You don’t know the cognac?” he continued. “I would settle for Rémy Martin 1738, if you can’t provide a better version.”
Raphael stared at Denis, still not saying anything.
“Okay,” Raphael replied in French, “I’ll talk with you about it later.” He paused, a look of incomprehension still on his face. He paused again before adding, “I can assure you that every member of the crew on the boat will do everything to make you happy.”
Denis looked at his companion, named Jean-Paul, who placed a hand on the older man’s arm. Jean-Paul suggested they visit a liquor store right away.
“Better yet,” Jean-Paul added, comfortingly, “we can send someone from the hotel to buy a decanter.”
“Don’t expect to find that brand around here,” interjected Bertrand, the insurance executive from Montpellier sitting at an adjacent table with his wife and another couple.
“You don’t know,” replied his wife, Beatrice, an economics professor. “St. Louis has modernized over the years, as we have noticed.”
Next to Bertrand and Beatrice sat Hercule and Delphine, a man and woman in their late 60s from Lyon not far from Switzerland. The two couples exchanged looks. Hercule studied Denis, showing an expression of disdain.
The Chinese couple stayed silent.
Lomax raised his camera to take a photo of the group, catching the attention of Madeleine, who looked at Lomax and preened.
“All right,” Raphael announced, “make sure you have everything on the bus.”
Immediately, the young man and woman from China stood up from their chairs, picked up two small pieces of luggage, and exited the restaurant through the set of glass doors. As the French couples gathered their belongings, I looked out the window, but Ismael was nowhere to be seen. I knew he could re-appear at any moment. Lomax finished his beer. Already, the largest pieces of luggage for the group had been loaded into compartments in the back and on top of the bus. I stood up, inserted my iPhone and papers into a backpack, and placed the straps of the backpack over my shoulders. Lomax closed his computer, stood up, and inserted all of his camera equipment into a larger pack. The waiter approached us carrying a medium-sized Styrofoam box with the dozen bottles of cold beer Lomax had requested.
After Lomax handed some bills to the waiter, he picked up the Styrofoam box. I picked up his large pack. We walked across the street to the bus parked with its front pointing north on the east side of Rue Blaise Diagne at the intersection with another, equally narrow street, Rue Seydou Tall. When Lomax ascended the stairwell of the bus, I followed. We found the rest of the group already seated. In the first row, on the side of the bus opposite the driver, now fully awake and staring out the front window, the Chinese couple sat staring out the front window.
“I brought some beers for the road,” Lomax said in English as he passed the Chinese man. “You’ll be thirsty once we reach the desert in one hour.”
The Chinese man and his wife didn’t reply. They either didn’t speak English or didn’t’ like beer. Or maybe they thought the rest of us were boring.
Lomax sat in the fifth row and I sat in the sixth row behind the bus driver. As the driver was closing the door of the bus, a young African man came on board and took a seat in the last row. He was a porter hired by tour organizers to load and unload luggage for us. I had seen him handling some of the bags before.
The driver turned the key in the ignition, starting the engine, but abruptly he removed a mobile phone from one of his shirt pockets, brought it up to his face, and spoke. A few moments later, while the engine idled, the driver put the phone back in his pocket, peered into the long mirror on his left, and released the brake on the bus. We lurched forward. All of us looked out the window in front.
New St. Louis
Maneuvering the bus around the corner, the driver proceeded east on Rue Seydou Tall to Quai Roume, the final street on N’Dar Island before the island gave way to the sluggish currents of the Senegal River. After turning right on Quai Roume, the driver started south along the concrete docks toward Pont Faidherbe, the bridge which connected the French colonial quarter on N’Dar Island to the more ordinary sections of St. Louis. They sprawled to the East on the African mainland.
The bus driver, now encountering pedestrians on the road, drove slowly past the Hôtel de La Poste on our right. I saw a sudden outburst of activity near the end of the bridge on our left. Streams of vehicles and pedestrians moved in groups, either coming from or going onto the bridge through an intersection which was narrow and gave no margin for error. We had reached the place where Quai Roume merged with Rue du General de Gaulle. It was a thoroughfare for people from the island and from the mainland to cross the river. Two days earlier, I had observed this flow of vehicles and pedestrians in a dizzying array of shapes, sizes, and colors while exploring N’Dar on foot and was almost knocked over by people.
“What’s in the box?” asked a voice.
I looked up and to my left. Madeleine stood in the aisle. Her use of English and her precise pronunciation caught me off guard once again. I still wasn’t accustomed to a Parisian who possessed such skill. My ex-wife, who also had grown up in Paris, spoke English with a stereotypical French accent for a long time, although it was true that when she became a nurse some years after arriving in San Diego she spoke English with a Californian accent.
Madeleine not only spoke English well. She preferred English. The previous day, on a tour of Guet N’Dar, led by Ismael, she had quizzed me on a number of topics, from my job in the United States and my new girlfriend in Washington, D.C., to my style of dress and my plan to buy an African robe, called a boubou. Now she waited for an answer to her question.
“Well?” Madeleine said.
I looked at the white Styrofoam box containing 12 bottles of cold beer. Lomax had placed it on the seat beside me so that he could keep his large pack with all of his camera equipment close by.
“Take one,” I said, removing the lid from the box and revealing the green bottles inside. Madeleine hesitated.
“Lomax isn’t going to drink 12 beers when we reach the desert, especially considering he drank three just a few minutes ago,” I said. I thought Madeleine’s gold hoop earrings accentuated her black hair, which she had piled up on top of her head, making her face look thinner and more attractive. “Anyway, he brought the beers for people in the group,” I added.
Madeleine removed one of the bottles from the box and looked at the label for a few moments before replacing the bottle.
“Maybe later,” she said as she turned toward the window. “Can you believe it? Ismael has surfaced again.”
Ismael stood looking in our direction on the sidewalk in front of a two-story white building. It showed the city’s French colonial style and featured a large balcony with an ornate balustrade on the second level. The bus driver, carefully maneuvering through the streams of vehicles and pedestrians, avoided a collision with another bus and, next, threatened to hit a group of men as he carved a path toward Ismael. They adroitly avoided the bus. Ismael, slender and very dark, made eye contact with the bus driver but otherwise did not move from his position on the sidewalk.
“We visited the museum yesterday,” Hercule said in French, addressing Lomax but glancing out the window at the building’s white façade and its sign displaying five words printed in blue letters, Syndicat d’initiative et de Tourisme. He turned to his wife, Delphine, who nodded at her husband. Two days before, I had taken a tour of the old building and stumbled upon the museum, called Musée Jean Mermoz, which comprised a series of small rooms featuring a handful of exhibits dedicated to the achievements of pioneering French aviators, including Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. He had achieved fame for his novella, Le Petit Prince, or, in English, The Little Prince, published in 1943. Also, he’d led a much-publicized life of adventure, exploring France’s territories across Africa at a time when most Europeans rarely ventured past the Mediterranean.
“It’s an important museum,” Hercule added. “But I think it should focus on Saint-Exupéry exclusively.” He paused. “He was a true adventurer. Of course, I’m a pilot myself. Well, I was 40 years ago, when I first met Delphine and started to work for her father flying his plane.”
“Saint-Exupéry died young,” Delphine commented to no one in particular, speaking in French and referring to the airplane crash in the Mediterranean which claimed the life of the Frenchman when he was only 44 years old. “His body was never found,” she added, looking around at the other passengers. “My husband wishes, I think, he had lived the life Saint-Exupéry lived and not married me. I couldn’t get him out of the museum.”
After the driver opened the door of the bus, Ismael entered and stopped in the stairwell. He stared at the Chinese couple in the first row. When he glanced into the interior of the bus, he nodded at Sylvie sitting near the front. As he swept his gaze across the other passengers farther away, he looked at me before kneeling down in the stairwell with his back to the driver.
“What a surprise!” Madeleine exclaimed. “It looks like Ismael is going to Podor with us. By the way, did you know that in French the word, podor, means gold? How appropriate for Ismael to accompany us to Podor.” After peering into the long, vertical mirror to his left and seeing a gap in the traffic, the driver pulled the bus away from Musée Jean Mermoz and joined the stream of vehicles onto the bridge.
“Yes,” I said. “Ismael seems to turn up everywhere.” The thought occurred to me it was Ismael who had called the bus driver a few minutes earlier as the driver was about to pull away from Hôtel de La Résidence. Madeleine looked up the aisle to the second row behind the driver where Sylvie sat next to the window.
“What’s he trying to accomplish?” Madeleine asked. She was silent for a few moments. Then she said, “Sylvie should know what’s going on. She communicates with Ismael regularly.”
“Go ask her,” I said.
Madeleine scowled. She glanced at her seat next to Sylvie and hesitated. She didn’t want to give the impression she was following my order, but she soon tired of standing and returned to her seat beside Sylvie. Madeleine had seemed worried. It was possible, I thought, that the business dealings between her close friend, Sylvie, and Ismael, who had agreed to sell some gold pieces to Sylvie, were not going smoothly. But also, I knew that Sylvie, an anesthesiologist at a large hospital in a suburb of Paris, was a smart woman. She knew how to take care of herself. I didn’t think Madeleine had cause for concern.
When I looked out the window, I saw we were in traffic on Pont Faidherbe, which extended over the water below for almost 2,000 feet between N’Dar Island and the African mainland. Built in the 1890s and renovated in the early 2000s at a cost of about $30 million, the bridge had eight spans made of metal. One of the spans at the western end was shorter than the other seven and could pivot on a separate pylon, enabling the shorter span to turn and allow large boats to pass underneath the bridge. I could see some of the metal spans, formed with riveted girders, were new; they had been installed a few years before, according to François, who had provided a history of the bridge on the previous afternoon during a tour led by Ismael.
The bus driver guided the bus carefully to the end of the bridge and drove onto the African mainland. Now we were entering the more recently built neighborhoods of St. Louis and entered a roundabout. Inside the bus, sitting three rows up the aisle from me, Denis and Jean-Paul were talking loudly in French.
“What about my cognac?” Denis was saying to his companion.
“I took care of it,” Jean-Paul replied.
“The good stuff?” Denis asked.
“Yes,” Jean-Paul said.
Passing through the roundabout, we ignored the extension of Avenue General de Gaulle which went straight ahead on the other side of the roundabout toward a commercial district with a soccer stadium close by, called Stade Me Babacar Sèye. Instead the driver turned on a separate road, Route de la Corniche, running along the east side of the Senegal River. Raphael stood up from his seat in the middle of the bus, balanced himself on two sandaled feet in the aisle, and pointed out the window at a pale-yellow structure of three stories on the east side of the road. On its façade, I saw the words, Ecole de L’Elevage, printed in large letters above a mural composed of abstract designs depicting, likely, scenes of the Senegalese countryside.
“The building you see there,” Raphael announced, speaking loudly in French but addressing no one in particular, “is a national training center.” He looked around the bus, hoping to catch the eye of anyone who was interested. “It prepares young people for careers in animal husbandry,” he added. “They learn, among other things, how to raise cows, goats, and sheep for commercial purposes.”
Hercule had a strained look on his face as he sat on the edge of his seat a few inches from Raphael. Hercule mumbled something to his wife, Delphine, who sat by his side next to the window. At the same time, François, sitting across the aisle from Hercule, looked out the window and studied the school with great interest.
“Oh, yes, I have been inside the building,” François interjected, speaking in French. “I visited an old colleague on my first visit to Senegal.” He glanced to his left at Anta, sitting by his side next to the window. “It was a long time ago,” he added.
Anta smiled, revealing beautiful, white teeth, but did not speak. She looked out the window to the left of the bus as the driver approached a long curve in the road. On a few acres of a sand-covered space, I could see a collection of circular structures built with mud bricks and featuring thatched roofs spread out at wide intervals behind a low white wall. Next to these primitive structures scattered across the compound were gum acacia trees of varying sizes, most of them over 15 feet tall. A green sign with the words, Village Artisanal, loomed over the driveway at the front of the compound. Raphael remained standing in the aisle, but he didn’t offer comments about the community or the products its workers sold. When the driver rounded the curve on Route de la Corniche, we found ourselves on a new road, called Route du Cimetiere. We now were heading south.
Lomax, who had been taking photos out the windows from different seats in the back of the bus, approached and looked at his Styrofoam box, seemingly thinking about a beer. He glanced out a window as the driver slowed the bus and noticed a collection of watermelons on a narrow lot by the road. When the driver brought us to a standstill to avoid colliding with a group of three men, two women, and some children crossing Route du Cimetiere, Lomax snapped photos of the slow-moving pedestrians. On the right side of the road, he took another series of photos of an oddly shaped restaurant, called Dibiterie du Carrefour. A sign on one wall of the modernistic building had been painted in blue letters. Below the name, someone had drawn an image of a cow. The place was a steakhouse.