Ch. 5, Pt. 3: Road to Podor – Ricardo
The barren landscape of sand and scrub brush stretching toward the horizon on both sides of the bus was interrupted by a line of steel towers, each connected to the next by three power lines. We travelled east into the desert.
“Look at the man,” Lomax said, raising his MacBook Pro toward me. “I finished downloading the photos I took at the airport,” he added. On the screen of the laptop computer, I saw a photo of the Chinese man sitting behind the driver. “Who is he?” Lomax asked. He shifted his gaze from me to the front of the bus.
“Wait,” I replied, reading a short news report about a U.S. military drone which had crashed in the desert outside the U.S. air base in Agadez, a city of about 150,000 people in central Niger. When I turned to the photo, I knew I had seen the man before. I sat staring for a few moments at the profile of the man as he sat staring out the window. I replied, “We saw the man last week in Dakar before our meeting with the professor.” I referred to a visit with Karim Wade, a social scientist studying human migration patterns at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar. On the second day of our stay in Senegal’s capital, Lomax and I had taken a taxi from our hotel in the district of Yoff to the campus next to the Atlantic. We talked with Karim Wade for 30 minutes in his office. “You remember?” I asked.
“I don’t,” Lomax said.
“Why did you ask who I thought he was?” I asked.
“I thought he might be important,” Lomax replied. “An official from the Chinese government, someone you had seen in a report.”
I looked out the window as the driver passed a white cart. The cart was being pulled slowly down the road by a brown horse. In the cart were three men, wearing t-shirts, shorts, and sneakers. They stared at us with blank expressions on their faces.
“Gentlemen,” Madeleine said, appearing in the aisle in front of Lomax and me, “Sylvie told me something interesting.” Madeleine paused, directing her gaze at me. “A few minutes ago,” she said, “after the Chinese man had boarded the bus and taken his seat, he received a warning from the Chinese woman across the aisle.” Madeleine paused, switching her gaze to Lomax. “Sylvie overheard the woman as she spoke in Chinese,” Madeleine added. “Remember,” she explained. “Sylvie lived in Beijing as a girl while her father served in Cameroon’s diplomatic mission.” Madeleine looked at me. “So Sylvie knows Mandarin.”
Madeleine stopped talking. As she stood in the aisle before Lomax and me, Madeleine became angry.
“`Don’t trust the French,’ said the Chinese woman to the Chinese man,” Madeleine said. “’The French don’t like the Chinese. They will try to stop us.’”
Neither Lomax nor I spoke. Outside, I could see gum acacia trees on both sides of the road outlined against a bright sun. To the south, a white bus was parked in the sand beside a telephone pole and several stacks of old tires in assorted sizes.
Raphael came up behind Madeleine in the aisle. He stood beside her and addressed Lomax and me.
“We are going to make another stop before proceeding to Podor,” Raphael said in his slow, disjointed English.
“But why?” Lomax replied. His tone of voice was casual yet aggressive. “You didn’t tell us about the last stop,” Lomax added in a challenging manner. “Now, you’re telling us about another stop at the last minute,” he continued. Raphael looked away. “What’s going on?” Lomax asked, suddenly.
Raphael looked uncertain. The African man not only was confused. He seemed at a loss for words to explain himself. He grinned and bowed his head almost imperceptibly.
“I made a mistake,” Raphael admitted. “I failed to inform you in advance of the detour to the airport.” He grimaced. “But now we have to make a brief stop at Senegal’s second oldest university.” The bus driver slowed the vehicle. When I looked out the window on the left side of the road, I saw an eight-foot wall at the head of a center island dividing two driveways, the first one for departing vehicles and the second one for arriving cars and buses. On the wall, lit up in the bright sunlight, were the words, Universite Gaston Burger. Lomax, too, saw the sign, and, speaking with his American accent, pronounced the name of the university incorrectly.
“Why are we at the university?” Madeleine asked in French as the driver brought the vehicle to a halt in the eastbound lane of Route N2. A large truck with heavy cargo rumbled toward us in the westbound lane. As soon as the truck had passed, our driver turned left into the second driveway. We could see the grounds of the campus opening up before us.
“We are picking up two more people,” Raphael explained in English. He paused. “One is a professor of political science, an older man. The other, a younger man, is a student of the professor.”
Madeleine looked at me, arching her eyebrows. Raphael’s statements seemed deliberately misleading. What more could we expect on the road to Podor?
“They’ll accompany us on the river expedition?” Madeleine asked in French.
“Oui,” Raphael said.
Our driver maneuvered the bus slowly, proceeding along the narrow driveway as it extended northward across the flat desert landscape in the direction of a collection of buildings, including one which appeared to be more than ten stories tall. Raphael moved back up the aisle, stopping next to the driver and uttering a few words to him while looking out the open door of the bus. The driver brought the bus to a halt on the pavement in front of a series of concrete steps leading up to a set of glass doors on the ground floor of the building. Madeleine walked back to her seat and rested her head on the shoulder of Sylvie.
In the seat in front of Madeleine and Sylvie, the recently arrived Chinese man was reading a newspaper.
“We are picking up two more people,” Raphael repeated, this time speaking in French and addressing everyone. He stepped down the staircase of the vehicle into the sunlight.
“Merde,” Denis said, muttering to Jean-Paul before rising from his seat. The bus driver’s eyes, which I could see in the rear-view mirror, shifted to Denis. He now was looking out the window, though, at a group of four young people wearing backpacks and carrying books in their arms. They were students, three Africans and one European or American. Standing in front of the set of glass doors, the students started to descend the concrete steps. Behind them, the two glass doors opened, and two figures emerged from the building. Raphael, who was standing on the pavement next to the open door of the bus, moved up the steps toward a black man and a taller but slightly built younger white man.
“Monsieur!” the bus driver exclaimed, turning slightly in his seat to look at Denis and pointing at the two figures. Denis, who had turned to look at the driver, switched his gaze back to the front of the building. At the top of the steps, Raphael shook hands with an African man in his late 50s and a white man in his mid 30s. The African man, of medium height and dressed in a blue polo shirt under a lightweight grey suit jacket with matching trousers, engaged Raphael in conversation. The white man, wearing thick-framed dark glasses, a black polo shirt, and fatigues in a desert camouflage design, gazed at the bus. A cut-out vest over his shirt revealed military decorations. Also, tan combat boots covered his feet. On the ground close by lay a large green duffel bag in the sunlight.
“An American,” Lomax said.
“Also an officer,” I added. “U.S. Air Force.”
The young man put his weight on his left leg while bending his right knee, leaned down, and grasped the strap of the duffel bag with his right hand. Lifting the bag off the ground, he started down the concrete steps toward the bus. He walked, I noticed, with a limp. Macky, who had dozed off in his seat in the last row of the bus, opened his eyes, looked out the window, and stood up. He moved quickly up the aisle and descended the stairwell onto the pavement. He extended an arm toward the young American, who had stopped at the bottom of the steps and placed his duffel bag on the ground.
“Monsieur capitaine,” Macky said in a loud voice, flashing a broad smile. He picked up the bag with an extended arm and gestured toward the open door of the bus with his other arm. The American chuckled.
“We meet again,” the American said in English. “Merci,” he added, passing through the open door of the bus. He stopped abruptly and looked back at Macky. “You want to get paid?” he continued. “Put my bag on the seat next to me inside.” He moved his gaze the length of the vehicle’s interior, from the back to the front, resting it on the Chinese couple in the first row and, next, on the Chinese man sitting across the aisle. The Chinese man, who had spread out his newspaper on his lap, glanced up, bringing the newspaper to the level of his eyes with both hands and obscuring his face. On the right page of the newspaper, I could see an image of an automobile next to a series of large Chinese characters. It was an advertisement for a new car.
“Bon jour, everybody,” the American said, mixing French and English, as he proceeded down the aisle.
“Bon jour, capitaine,” Madeleine said, smiling at the newcomer, who looked back at her for a few moments.
“S’il vous plaît,” the American man replied, stopping in the aisle next to Madeleine and sweeping his gaze from her and Sylvie to Bertrand and Beatrice before looking at Hercule and Delphine and, finally, at François and Anta. He ignored Denis and Jean-Paul. “Appelez-moi Ricardo,” he added. “Or Junior.” Then he looked toward the rear of the bus, resting his gaze on Lomax and me. His limp, as he approached us, became clear again.
“You’re Americans,” Ricardo said, nodding at me and Lomax as he eased himself into the vacant row behind Lomax’s seat. “I’ve heard good stories about the cruise down the Senegal River,” he continued. “I’m more familiar with the Niger River, which is much bigger.” He was silent, looking out the window and watching Macky, who stood to one side of the open door of the bus as Raphael and the professor descended the concrete steps, crossed the pavement, and entered the stairwell. “It’s funny,” Ricardo resumed. “I met the porter at the university on my last leave almost four months ago.”
At the head of the aisle, the professor smiled, glancing at everyone on board the bus but didn’t speak. He took a seat next to the window in the third row behind the driver. Following closely, Raphael sat in the seat next to the professor.
As soon as Macky boarded the bus, carrying Ricardo’s duffel bag, the driver closed the door and released the brake. He hesitated and peered into his over-head mirror. The driver’s eyes, which I could see in the mirror again, shifted in Denis’ direction. Denis, I noticed, now appeared lost in thought. I wondered if he had been offended by Ricardo. The driver shifted his gaze to the long, vertical mirror to his left and set the bus in motion, pulling away from the tall building. The driver entered the road leading back to the highway to Podor.
“Monsieur capitaine,” Macky said, depositing the large duffel bag on the seat next to Ricardo and standing there, waiting.
“Merci,” Ricardo said, reaching into a pocket of his vest and removing a thin wad of bills. He peeled one away from the others and handed it to Macky, who put the money into a pocket of his blue jeans and slid into the row behind Ricardo. The porter reclined in the seat next to the window, leaning his head against the glass pane, while I looked at my watch. It was 2:49PM.
Macky will go back to sleep, I thought, glancing at the young African, who, instead, had his eyes wide open. My thoughts turned to the rendezvous at the university with the professor and Ricardo. They had asked to be picked up at 2:45, I deduced. The idea of a hidden agenda occurred to me again.
“It appears the professor travels light,” Lomax said, gazing up the aisle. I looked at the African man sitting next to Raphael and realized what Lomax meant. The professor hadn’t brought any luggage. Ricardo, too, glancing at the professor, realized what Lomax implied.
“He told me we were going to stop along the way to pick up his bags,” Ricardo explained, glancing at Lomax before turning his gaze to a row of palm trees lining the west side of the narrow drive. “He always stays at the Lampsar Lodge about 15 miles up the road,” Ricardo added, “when he has to be on campus to teach classes or attend meetings.” Ricardo paused. “Otherwise he lives in Dakar,” he continued, shifting his gaze back out the window. “He has a wife and children there.”
The bus driver reached the end of the driveway and, next to the white wall with the name of the university in the bright sunlight, brought the bus to a stop at the junction with the highway. When he turned left, pulling the bus out of the driveway and turning back onto Route N2, we were traveling east into the desert again.
“How do you know the professor?” I asked.
Ricardo looked at me for a moment. I thought he was contemplating how to respond to my question. He appeared conflicted.
“He’s overseeing my coursework,” Ricardo said finally, looking out the window. On the right side of the road, a yellow and black sedan was parked in front of a two-story building. The ground floor of the structure contained a small store; its second level was a skeleton of concrete blocks and steel rods, abandoned in mid-construction. “I have to complete three more semesters at the university,” Ricardo continued, switching his gaze to the front of the bus, “to meet training requirements for my current mission.” He paused, resting his gaze on the Chinese man in the first row. “Also,” Ricardo added, “the professor directs my language tutors.” Ricardo looked back at me. I didn’t respond.
“I’m improving in French grammar but in addition learning to speak Wolof,” Ricardo resumed. “One of the professor’s graduate students is providing lessons,” he added, turning to look out the window again. “A woman,” he said in a quiet voice, “from Podor, as a matter of fact.”
Ricardo grew quiet staring out the window. He gave the impression he was seeing not the landscape opening up before us but rather an attractive woman giving instructions in a classroom.
“You’re stationed at Agadez?” I asked, referring to the city in Niger where the U.S. Air Force had a large base.
Ricardo didn’t reply immediately, as before, continuing to look out the window. We passed a series of concrete structures lining the right side of the road.
“The personnel in Agadez mainly is responsible for drone operations across the Sahel,” Ricardo said after a few moments, switching his gaze to the large duffel bag on the seat beside him. “But I fly a helicopter, not a drone,” he added, reaching over, unzipping the bag, and inserting his hand. Abruptly, he removed his hand and zipped the bag. “Of course, the helicopters have no machine guns and rockets.”
“What about you?” Ricardo asked, looking at Lomax and then me. “What are you doing in Senegal? I have the impression you’re not on vacation.”
Lomax provided a brief summary of the projects he and I were hoping to finish in West Africa. But the young captain appeared suspicious.
The bus, I noticed, was moving down the road at a high rate of speed almost due north. I looked at the driver, wondering if he was driving fast because he was behind schedule, but didn’t detect a sign he was. He appeared relaxed. I considered asking Raphael for an update on our progress to Podor but changed my mind. I thought he would make an announcement soon.