Ch. 5, Pt. 2: Road to Podor – Hercule
“We’re going to head east now,” Raphael announced in French as the driver turned left on a road, called Route N2, directly in front of a large gas station displaying a sign with a single word, OiLibya. Raphael bent over slightly and looked at a watch strapped to Hercule’s wrist. “We’re making good time,” Raphael added in French, now studying the expression on Hercule’s face. Hercule gave the impression he was ill or otherwise in distress and could not remain still. He glanced at Raphael but quickly directed his gaze toward the front of the small bus.
“Is that a water treatment plant?” asked Bertrand suddenly in French. He sat on the aisle next to his wife, Beatrice, in the second row, behind the Chinese couple. Bertrand turned and looked at Raphael. On the right side of the road, I saw a series of structures interspersed with large pipes and pumps occupying a plot of sandy ground extending hundreds of feet to the east and south. There were also numerous small artificial ponds divided into sectors. It appeared to be an ambitious operation. We were on the outskirts of St. Louis with no dwellings or businesses in sight.
“Oui,” Raphael replied to Bertrand after a long pause. “It’s the main water treatment facility serving the population of St. Louis,” he added in French, looking out the window at a man and a woman who were boiling water over a fire in front of a make-shift tent just beyond the edge of the highway. The tent itself was in front of a chain-link fence built around the treatment plant. “There are 300,000 people in St. Louis,” Raphael said quietly, as if he were talking to himself.
“The trees along the road are beautiful,” Beatrice interjected loudly in French. She wanted everyone to know she wasn’t interested in water treatment or reclamation. On both sides of the road, a line of gum acacia trees, their leaves rustling in a slight breeze, extended to the east as far as the eye could see.
“Gum acacia trees have been important to the economy in this area for many years,” Raphael continued. “The gum produced from the sap in the tree trunks has been used for a broad array of commercial applications, particularly in the preparation of food and beauty products.” He bent over in the aisle to adjust the strap on one of his sandals. Suddenly, Hercule stood up from his seat, accidentally hitting Raphael and causing the African man to lose his balance. Lomax reached out and steadied Raphael with two hands so he wouldn’t fall.
“Désolée,” Hercule muttered and rushed up the aisle, placing a single hand on the back of the driver’s seat and glancing at the Chinese couple with an expression of disgust on his face. He leaned over the bus driver, uttering a few words only he and the driver could hear. Immediately, the driver slowed the vehicle, pulled it to the side of the road, and brought it to a halt in the sand just beyond a small store. The driver opened the front door and motioned to Hercule, who brushed past Ismael in the stairwell and stumbled as he leaped onto the sand. Regaining his balance, Hercule broke into a run toward the line of gum acacia trees.
“He has to urinate. I saw him react in a similar manner back at the hotel after he drank a large glass of wine,” Lomax commented. “Bladder problems.”
Hercule disappeared behind a tree. When he re-emerged a few minutes later, he had zipped up his pants. He paused, brushed off his pant legs, and spun around to look at something behind him. I expected him, though, to be self-conscious as he walked back to the bus, but, on the contrary, he acted as if nothing had happened. He crawled over Ismael in the stairwell, nodded to the bus driver, and shuffled down the aisle, making a bow before taking his seat again.
“Ça va?” Raphael asked.
“Ça va,” Hercule replied almost cheerfully.
As the driver pulled the bus back onto the road, I felt my iPhone vibrate. I looked at the screen and saw a text message from a colleague in Washington, D.C., the vice president of my consulting group. He wanted to know when I was going to respond to his last e-mail message. Then I remembered. I had received the message the previous evening after dinner as Lomax and I were leaving the dining room of Hôtel de La Résidence to meet Sylvie, Madeleine, and François at the bar of the Siki Hotel. For a whole day, I had neglected to reply to one of my superiors, a mistake I needed to address quickly.
“I’m en route to Podor,” I wrote in a text message. “I’ll contact our sources in Lagos, Nigeria, and Accra, Ghana, immediately.” I pressed the white and blue icon in the WhatsApp chat window to send my message, but I didn’t receive a confirmation that the message was delivered until several minutes later.
Next, I dialed one of the telephone numbers my superior had given me, but there was no answer. I dialed another number. No answer either. I became nervous. I realized I should have made my calls early in the morning, and then I remembered it was Sunday. I relaxed slightly. I decided to leave several messages later in the evening, and make several calls at 9:30 in the morning. I would call Karim Wade at the university in Dakar as well. I knew my boss would expect a report the next day, and I had to show some progress.
In his message, the vice president of the research group presented a collection of facts about security issues in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso but also Senegal. Although Senegal, with its long history of religious and ethnic tolerance, had served as a model of stability in West Africa since its independence from France in 1960, analysts warned that terrorist activity in the Sahel soon could spill over Senegal’s borders and bring an end to the peace. I had memorized basic facts, including the number of French and U.S. troops deployed to the nations in the Sahel; the number of airplanes, helicopters, and drones conducting operations; and the number of insurgents eliminated during a previous 12-month period. Finally, I was aware of the costs associated with joint French and U.S. peace-keeping patrols in the area—nearly $1 billion.
In the interior of the bus, I heard, at the same time, a number of voices in French mixing together in the warm air. One voice, though, rose above the rest. It belonged to Hercule, I realized, as soon as I stopped reading my latest report about recent attacks of insurgents in Mali and directed my attention to the man from Lyon.
“Did you read that the Chinese have sent another flotilla of fishing vessels to the waters off the coast of Senegal?” Hercule said loudly. “They’re going to destroy the marine life in West Africa just as they did in the South China Sea.” A silence ensued, but it didn’t last long. “There will be no more fish! That’s crazy. Senegalese people will starve,” Hercule shouted.
Hercule was standing in the aisle next to his seat, bracing himself with both arms and delivering his speech toward the front of the bus and the Chinese couple. The other passengers sat, tense and silent, staring at the impassive couple. No one knew what to do or what to think: take the side of Hercule and join in the criticism of the Chinese; take the side of the Chinese and reject Hercule.
“The Chinese government,” Hercule continued, “wants to trap the Senegalese people in a spiral of debt. It’s the same strategy they’re using elsewhere across the globe, in Cambodia and in Myanmar, for example, but also in Nicaragua and in Peru.” Hercule turned, saw I was looking at him, and rested his gaze on me. He appeared to be searching for, at a minimum, a reaction to his comments or, even better, a validation of his ideas. Lomax, who had been focused on applying a new color palette with Photoshop to images on his computer but who now seemed eager to take a break because the bus was bouncing on an increasingly rough road, looked up.
“Monsieur,” I said, addressing the Frenchman while removing the lid from the Styrofoam box on the seat, “have a beer and relax a minute.” Immediately, I thought I had made a mistake. If Hercule accepted the beer, he would become more aggressive and force the driver to stop the bus again. A second idea, though, was more consoling. Hercule would reject the beer, thinking I just wanted him to shut up and sit down.
“Ah, merci,” Hercule replied without hesitation, reaching out and grabbing the bottle from my hand.
I was wrong, twice.
“My friend,” Hercule said in accented English, “I’m thirsty. Talking is hard work.” He removed the bottle cap with an effortless motion of his fist and drank the beer in three gulps. “That’s good. Very good.” He looked at me. “You’re a friend, aren’t you?” he said. “You’re brothers, no?” He looked at me and then at Lomax and raised his bottle. “We drink together.”
Unconsciously, I opened another e-mail. It was one of many newsletters which I received each week and I didn’t read. But now, as I started feeling apprehensive about what Hercule would do next, I starting reading. According to its author, the Senegalese government was going to auction off licenses for oil drilling in a series of newly mapped quadrants off shore. The discovery of an oil field deep under water off Point of Sangomar, 100 miles south of Dakar, was the largest discovery of any reserves in any location over the previous five years.
I glanced at Lomax. He removed two additional bottles from the Styrofoam box, took off the caps, and handed one to me while keeping the other.
“I’ve been traveling to Africa for more than 30 years,” Hercule now resumed in awkward English. “Things don’t change. Africans are poor. They’re trying to recover from hundreds of years of exploitation.” Hercule paused. I didn’t speak and instead looked past Hercule up the aisle of the bus. Although he spoke loudly enough to catch the attention of everyone, I could detect no reaction from anyone. The Chinese man and his wife continued to stare out the front window. It wasn’t clear, though, that they understood Hercule’s criticisms. François tilted his head toward Hercule, Lomax, and me. He approved of Hercule.
“One thing is clear,” Hercule continued, turning slightly and following my gaze toward the front of the bus. “Africans don’t want a master.” He paused again before raising his voice, “The Chinese want slaves.”
The bus driver slowed the bus, bringing it to a rolling stop as a speeding car passed in the opposite direction along Route N2. We turned left onto a narrow, very bumpy road, now heading north. Hercule seemed to lose his concentration. I looked past him again, peering up the aisle and out the front window at the road ahead. In the distance, I could see a medium-sized, twin-propeller airplane descending at a gentle angle and approaching the ground. It was landing on an abbreviated airstrip just beyond a box-like building sitting among a cluster of trees.
“Who will stop the Chinese?” Hercule asked suddenly, staring at Lomax, who was staring at the noisy airplane. Our bus driver continued in the direction of the box-like building, apparently a terminal for passengers. Behind the terminal, I could see the airplane more clearly now as it taxied and came to a stop beside another plane. From the side of the twin-propeller craft, a door burst open and a staircase dropped to the ground. In the open doorway, a figure appeared with two small cases, one in each hand. When the figure on the staircase reached the ground, a second figure, wearing a headset, appeared and went down the staircase.
“Who will stop the Chinese?” I repeated. “Well, I hear what you’re saying. I don’t know the answer.”
The bus driver passed a line of gum acacia trees and approached the box-like terminal. Hercule held his empty bottle of beer in one hand while holding onto the back of the seat in front of me with his other hand and focused on the twin-propeller plane. When the driver stopped the bus in front of a set of glass doors, Hercule looked at his wife, pointed at the plane, and smiled. Above the glass doors was a sign displaying the words, Bienvenue à Aéroport de Saint-Louis.
“What are we doing at an airport?” Hercule asked. Then he said, “That plane is wonderful. I flew one just like it. Long ago. It has big Rolls-Royce engines. It could easily cruise at 600 kph.” When Lomax extended another bottle to Hercule, the Frenchman eagerly accepted it and drank its contents in another three gulps.
The driver opened the door of the bus, and Ismael leaped down the stairwell, walked to the glass doors at the front of the terminal, and called out to someone as he entered the building. I watched Ismael disappear. I wondered when he would re-appear. Madeleine glanced at me over her shoulder from the second row of the bus, but didn’t speak. On the north side of the terminal, I saw a modest control tower rising into the air. The two structures, I realized, comprised the airport. Our driver closed the door of the bus and shifted his weight in his seat behind his steering wheel as if in preparation for a long wait. He didn’t turn off the bus’s engine. Several young men appeared from behind a cluster of palm trees and approached the bus, peering inside and smiling broadly attempting to catch the attention of the passengers.
“It looks like we’re not leaving right away,” Lomax said, standing up from his seat. “I’m going outside,” he said, picking up his big camera from an adjacent seat. “I’ll get photos of people arriving or preparing to depart.” He looked at Hercule. “Do you have to use the bathroom? There should be one in the terminal.”
Hercule met Lomax’ gaze.
“I’m with you,” Hercule said.
Lomax approached the bus driver with his camera in one hand while gesturing toward the front door of the bus with his other hand. Hercule followed. I noticed the other passengers on board the bus remained silent in their seats, looking out the windows. I assumed they were, like I was, waiting, a little confused. When the driver opened the door, François, carrying his own, much smaller camera, stood up and followed Lomax and Hercule onto the sunlit pavement.
A silence ensued. It was broken by a shrill voice belonging to a man.
“What are we doing here? What are we waiting for?” Denis exclaimed from his seat in the fourth row of the bus. Nobody answered. I looked at Raphael, but he was talking with Bertrand and Beatrice. The bus driver looked out the window toward the airstrip. He reached to one side of the steering wheel and flipped a switch. I heard a fan somewhere in the ceiling at the back of the bus turn on. Denis stood up from his seat and turned to look at Raphael, who was explaining to Bertrand and Beatrice that many species of birds from Europe had stopped migrating to Senegal because of climate change.
“In parts of Europe,” Raphael explained to the French couple, “it’s now just as warm as it is in Senegal during the winter, the time of the year birds traditionally fly south.” Raphael paused, thinking for a few moments before adding, “We’ll have an opportunity to see many of the birds which still make their homes in Senegal when we stop at a famous bird sanctuary on our way down the river. Of course, I am referring to the world-renowned Djoudj Bird Park.”
“Excusez-moi,” Denis said, entering the aisle and looking initially at Raphael and then the bus driver. He moved toward the driver, continuing to speak in French, “I asked a question.” But the Frenchman was restrained by his companion, Jean-Paul, who also had entered the aisle.
“Just relax,” Jean-Paul said, clasping the arm of his friend. “We’ll be back on the road soon.” Denis, allowing himself to be comforted by Jean-Paul, collapsed in his seat and let out a sigh. He looked like a person who had seen clearly for the first time circumstances beyond his control.
The bus driver, motionless in his seat behind the steering wheel, never shifted his gaze from the parked plane. Raphael, though, glanced at Denis before standing and going to the front of the bus and looking at the front of the terminal.
Denis’ question went unanswered. What was the purpose of the stop? At no point had Raphael made any mention of the airport.
Lomax, I noticed, as I allowed my gaze to drift across the flat desert landscape, had walked over to the twin-propeller airplane parked next to the narrow airstrip, its silver wings reflecting the glare of the sun. Ten feet from Lomax, Hercule stood looking at the cockpit of the plane as if he were imagining himself inside. Lomax turned to face our bus while pointing at an image and a series of characters on the side of the plane. I had no idea what Lomax wanted to convey. It occurred to me that the marks on the metal panel of the plane were Chinese characters.
“Money,” said a voice, which then continued speaking in French. I turned to find the African porter in the seat across the aisle from me. The young man, peering intently into my face, finished his short speech and extended his hand in the air. “15,000,” he said. He wanted the equivalent of $25. I stared back at him while reaching for cash in a pouch under my shirt.
“What’s your name?” I asked in French.
“I carry your bags,” he replied in English. “My name is Macky.”
“Macky!” shouted a voice. The porter stood up and looked toward the front of the bus. I followed his gaze.
“Allez!” said the voice. It was Raphael.
The porter moved quickly up the aisle to the front. Raphael, who stood at the top of the stairwell, shifted his gaze from the porter toward the glass doors of the terminal. In front of the doors now stood a figure holding two suitcases, one in each hand, the same man who had emerged from the twin-propeller airplane a few minutes before. The man, in his 40s, appeared to be Chinese. He met the gaze of Raphael from inside the bus. When the Chinese man started toward us, I realized it was no coincidence our bus had arrived at the terminal at the same time the airplane landed. Raphael had known all along we would pick up the Chinese man.
Bertrand and Beatrice approached my seat. They thought I had information about the appearance of the plane and its passenger.
“We have a new member,” Bertrand said to me as the driver opened the door and the porter took the bags from the Chinese man.
“You think he came from China?” Beatrice asked, stopping in the aisle while looking out the window at the newcomer from Asia.
“No,” I said.
I recalled the Chinese characters on the side of the twin-propeller aircraft, but I deduced the plane had arrived in Senegal from China at some point previously.
“Now he’s coming from Dakar,” I added. “It’s a 20-minute flight. Before departing Hôtel de La Résidence, our driver spoke to the pilot of the plane, and they arranged the rendezvous here.”
“You’re right,” Bertrand said, glancing at me before moving back to his seat. “Our new friend has been on the ground for exactly ten minutes,” he added over his shoulder. “Soon he will be on board the Bou el Mogdad. But what are his plans? Sun bathe on the deck of the boat? Watch birds on the river?”
“Definitely not,” Beatrice interjected.
Madeleine, talking with Sylvie, Anta, and Delphine about a new generation of fashion designers from Senegal and Nigeria, paused in the middle of a sentence and watched the movement of the porter. The other women turned to watch as well. After the porter took the bags from the newcomer, the two of them approached the bus. At the door to the vehicle, the porter, carrying pieces of luggage, stopped and allowed the Chinese man to go in front.
“S’il vous plaît,” Raphael said, guiding the Chinese man to the row behind the bus driver, and then turned to the driver and uttered a few words. The driver tapped lightly at the center of the steering wheel, honking the horn at a low decibel and catching the attention of Lomax, Hercule, and François, who returned to the bus. Hercule didn’t glance at the newcomer. He appeared lost in thought, undoubtedly in the memory of his days flying a twin-propeller plane.
I looked at the Chinese couple sitting in the first row across the aisle from the Chinese man. The female spoke a few words in Mandarin to the newcomer. He turned around in his seat and looked at the rest of us. It was a long, slow survey, not a quick glance. I noticed Sylvie leaned over and spoke to Madeleine sitting beside her after the Chinese woman spoke. Madeleine studied the Chinese couple for moment and, next, examined the Chinese man across the aisle. She turned and looked at me.
“Nous sommes prêts à partir,” Macky shouted from the back of the bus after storing the luggage of the newcomer. We were ready to go. The digital watch on my wrist showed 2:24. The driver set the bus in motion. But now Hercule became aware of the newcomer.
“Mon Dieu,” Hercule croaked, grimacing at the Chinese man.
“Merci,” issued a different, more dramatic voice. It belonged to Denis, leaning back in his seat and folding his hands in his lap as the driver maneuvered the bus toward the turn-off to Route N2 and the road to Podor.