Ch. 6, Pt. 1: The White Boat – Xi Ming
The seat behind the steering wheel was empty. The driver stood in the sand next to an old man in a white robe. As I walked up the aisle toward the front door of the bus, I looked out the window at the two men. The white robe covering the torso, arms, and legs of the old man was a stark contrast with the black skin of his face and hands. Each time the white-robed man made a comment, he flashed a broad smile at the younger man, who not long before had brought the bus to a halt on a flat, sandy lot near Podor’s principal tourist attraction, a 19th century French fort. The trip, which had begun in St. Louis 120 miles to the south, had lasted five hours due to detours on narrow, often bumpy, sometimes unpaved roads. But it was done.
I stopped at the top of the stairwell leading down to the open door and the arid landscape. As I looked at the sandy ground, I could feel the heat rising. I glanced at my digital watch. 6:47PM. I became aware of a fatigue in my head, neck, and shoulders.
Lomax remained sitting in his seat in the fifth row of the bus, bent over his laptop. I shifted my gaze back to the open door, looking into the twilight. The last rays of a setting sun, I hoped, would give way to a cooler darkness.
The two African men standing in the sand began talking louder, making gestures with their hands. The older man was giving advice, I thought, to the younger man, who looked not only tired but also irritated.
Behind the men at the edge of the river, I could see the large boat, the Bou el Mogdad, a 200-foot-long vessel which had five levels featuring an indoor restaurant, outdoor lounge, two bars, a massage room, and a pool.
I carried my backpack in one hand and, in the other, an iPhone, with which I had just finished sending text messages to Washington, D.C., and Accra, Ghana. Macky with assistance from two crew members from the Bou el Mogdad already had moved the large luggage from bus to boat. All of the tour-group members, with the exception of Lomax, Hercule, and Delphine, had boarded the boat.
Lomax closed the laptop, stood up, and inserted his computer and camera into a large backpack. I noticed the white Styrofoam box, which now held 12 empty bottles of beer, occupying a seat in the row behind him. The Fulani man who worked as the day-shift manager at Hôtel de La Résidence had told us to leave the box with empty bottles on the bus. He would pick them up when the driver returned to Rue Blaise Diagne in the French colonial quarter.
“I just finished organizing all of the images I took on the way here,” Lomax said, adjusting the straps of his backpack. “I noticed two photos of the Chinese man at the airport and one of him at the Lampsar Lodge.”
Lomax glanced back at Hercule, who was asleep in his seat on the aisle in the fourth row. In the seat next to him, Delphine was turning the page of a paper-back book. She looked up, glancing from Lomax to me.
“I have a feeling we’ll see him again,” Lomax added, referring to the Chinese man while glancing out the open door at the two Africans standing in the twilight. The two men were staring back at us. They wanted to know what we were still doing on the bus. Only then did I realize the driver was waiting for us to leave so he himself could leave.
Suddenly, Hercule opened his eyes, jerking his head up. He looked at his wife, who closed her book and put it into a bag on the floor next to her feet.
“Shall we step down from the bus and get on the boat now?” Delphine asked in French, placing a hand on Hercule’s arm. “I wanted to let you sleep,” she said. “I knew you were tired and needed the rest.” Hercule broke into a wide grin when he noticed Lomax and me.
“Go on ahead,” Delphine said in English, looking at Lomax and me also. “We’ll join you on the boat soon.”
Outside the hot, dry air of the desert night enveloped everyone. I set my backpack down in the sand in front of the two African men, removed a 1,000-CFA-franc bill from the pouch hanging from my neck, and handed the bill to the younger man. Lomax, too, following closely, extended a bill toward the driver. It was he, not the old man, who flashed a broad smile.
“Hurry up!” a voice shouted in English. “Dinner in 45 minutes!”
I looked up. Madeleine stood on the top level of the boat, looking down. She had a cocktail in one hand. With her other hand, she grasped a white, metal railing. Next to Madeleine stood Sylvie, who also had a cocktail in one hand. Sylvie, though, was looking over her shoulder. She appeared to be talking with someone behind her I couldn’t see.
Lomax and I stepped onto the narrow ramp connecting the sandy wharf to the large boat. Macky waited, one foot on the edge of the boat, the other on the ramp.
“Follow me,” Macky said in English, turning into a passageway which was open to the desert air and extended the length of the first level of the boat. He started to go up a staircase to a second level. He paused, though, seemingly struggling to find the words he wanted. Finally, switching to French, he said, “I already placed your luggage in your room.”
“Where’s your room?” Madeline shouted, still looking down. “Come to the bar on the top deck and have a lemon and gin cocktail!”
But Lomax and I already had crossed the ramp and started following Macky up the wooden staircase. The light from the setting sun still illuminated the orange, pink, and blue pastels of the colonial buildings facing the wharf, though, revealing a stark contrast with the deep green of the river and the light green of a lone palm tree here and there along the river bank.
“Your room is on the third level overlooking the pool,” Macky said, glancing over his shoulder and smiling. It was clear he approved of our choice of accommodation. Of course, as I knew, the room was assigned to us by accident.
“It’s hot, Macky,” Lomax replied. “We’ll just put our packs down in the room, and then you can show us the bar on the top deck.” Lomax paused, looking to his left at the flat, sandy field where the bus had been parked not even a minute before. It was gone. It seemed almost impossible. The driver, apparently, had moved the bus silently away from the wharf and somewhere near the old fort, which was now a museum.
At the top of the stairs, Macky turned right onto the second level of the boat, and Lomax and I followed him down another passageway which also was open to the desert air and extended the length of the boat. When we reached the end of the passageway, we encountered another set of stairs, this one of made of steel and painted white.
“Your room is right there,” Macky said, pointing to the top of the white stairs and starting to move up them. The young man, who was no older than 20 but who could have been as young as 17, glanced over his shoulder and smiled at us again.
I took the key to the room from Macky, slipped it into the lock on the door made of beautifully polished wood, and pushed open the door. I stepped into the room. I felt Macky by my side. But Lomax was nowhere to be seen. He had disappeared down the narrow passageway in the direction of another set of stairs, which, I assumed, led to the bar on the top deck, open to the night air.
I understood immediately the reason Lomax had pushed ahead to the bar on the top deck, where Madeleine and Sylvie drank lemon and gin cocktails in the cooler night air. Inside the room, it was hotter than hell. The two beds, though, with their light red satin covers and their white sheets and pillow cases, appeared freshly laundered, almost elegant in the soft light of the dying day. The state room, called the front luxury suite by the river-boat company, was spacious and attractive, unlike the musty, run-down room at our previous resting place, Hôtel de La Résidence, in St. Louis.
No one had turned on the air conditioning, and heat from the desert sun, beating down all day long, had filled the room. I flipped a switch by the door. A whirling sound started up. It came from a large AC unit in one corner of the room. Immediately, a blast of cold air pierced the layers of hot air. Macky opened his mouth, clapped his hands, and bowed from the waist.
I put two bills in Macky’s hand, turned around, and exited the room, following in Lomax’s footsteps and leaving the room on the 3rd level of the boat under the young porter’s supervision.
Hurrying up the stairs and looking down to my right at the sandy wharf and a narrow strip of two-story, faded-yellow buildings outlined in the dim, dusty light, I slipped on the 2nd step from the top and banged my shin and nearly fell to my knees. At the top of the stairs looking down at me and standing just in front of Madeleine was a medium-sized black man with closely cropped hair and a round face who reached down and with surprising strength pulled me upright again in one motion.
Embarrassed by my mistake and shocked by a sharp pain, I hurriedly stood up on the deck, allowing myself to be distracted by the view before me: a beautifully restored, white boat on a tranquil, green river next to a golden, desert town.
“Did you hurt yourself?” Madeleine asked in a soft voice. “These metal stairs are slippery at times. They can be dangerous.”
“No, I didn’t hurt myself,” I replied, realizing I was on the verge of collapsing in pain but attempting to ignore the pain and minimize the accident to Madeleine and any other witness to the event.
I examined the face of the black man, who guided me to a chair at a table next to a bar. The entire area was lit up by small, yellow light bulbs attached at intervals to the waist-high white railing enclosing the top deck. I recognized the man who now began talking to me.
“Something cold to drink?” asked Baaba Maal, the most famous musician in West Africa. His English was not bad. “Cocktail with fruit juice and ice? Beer?”
Over Baaba Maal’s shoulder I could see Madeleine wearing a sleek white dress with patterns of crimson and gold. Behind Madeleine and towering over her, Sylvie, her dark face displaying an expression of concern, stared at my leg. When I looked down at my right leg, I saw a patch of blood expanding across the fabric of my pants below my knee. Then I felt the pain.
“Let’s take a look,” said Sylvie, a doctor in Combs-la-Ville, a suburb of Paris. She squatted in front of me and lifted the nylon fabric of my right pants’ leg up to my knee. “The cut is about half an inch deep and three inches long, causing a rather large flow of blood,” she commented, accepting a towel from the bartender, who had rushed over upon seeing Baaba Maal and Sylvie bent over me. “You need to lie down,” she added, looking into my face for a moment before glancing to one side of the deck and pointing at a couch next to the railing, “and we need to elevate your leg on that couch.”
Sylvie picked me up and carried me toward the couch on which the Chinese couple sat holding glasses of red wine. The thought occurred to me that beyond the couch on the other side of the railing lay the river 30 feet below. It would be a long drop if I accidentally rolled off the couch and tumbled through the railing. The moon, I noticed, was rising in the east over its reflection on the water.
Sylvie—her athleticism was obvious—carried me to the couch in two strides.
“Merci,” Sylvie said as the Chinese woman and Chinese man quickly stood up from the couch, stepped away from it, and stood watching. Then Sylvie, lowering me gently onto the couch, uttered a statement in Mandarin. She must have thought she was back in Beijing during her adolescence as she addressed the Chinese couple and, at the same time, a rapidly growing sense of urgency.
The Chinese woman and the Chinese man looked at each other in surprise, and the man spoke words in Mandarin to the woman. She responded with her own words in Mandarin, and then she shrugged.
“I’m a doctor,” the Chinese woman said, now lapsing into French for addressing Sylvie. The Chinese doctor had turned her head to address Sylvie. Now she turned it back to address the Chinese man. “My assistant, Mr. Huang, and I will clean your friend’s leg, and I will sew up the wound. If I give you a syringe and some morphine, can you inject him?”
Sylvie responded in Mandarin to the Chinese couple before switching to French.
“I don’t have my medical bag with me,” Sylvie said to Madeleine. “It’s in our room,” she continued, removing a key from her pocket and handing it to her friend. “Can you send Macky to bring the bag to me?”
Madeleine tossed the key to Macky, standing next to the bartender a few feet from the couch.
“There’s no time,” the Chinese woman said in English, coming close to me and looking into my face. “He is going into shock. We have our medical bag with us. You don’t need your bag.”
I was losing consciousness.
“Do you want a shot for the pain?” the Chinese woman asked, still speaking in English and looking into my face. I couldn’t focus on what she said. I didn’t reply. Although I tried to speak, I couldn’t.
The Chinese man stepped forward.
“My colleague, Xi Ming, is a surgeon,” the man said, using English. “Also a major in the People’s Liberation Army. She has performed thousands of operations and has enjoyed great success.” He repeated his words, this time speaking in French.
I felt cold. My vision grew dim.
“Here is our medical bag,” the Chinese man said in English, placing a thick leather valise into the hands of the Chinese woman. “I’m trained in trauma care as well. I carry all of our medical supplies in this bag.”
The Chinese woman, a short, slender person, took the bag, opened it, and pulled out a roll of gauze and a vial of antiseptic. She gave the items to the Chinese man, and he started to clean my leg after rolling up the pants leg above my knee. Then she took out a syringe and a vial from the leather bag and handed them to Sylvie.
“You can give him a shot of morphine,” the Chinese woman said to Sylvie, who started to fill the syringe. “I will prepare to sew up his wound,” added the Chinese doctor, who had taken a needle from the medical bag and started threading it in the dim light. Out of nowhere she produced a small but powerful light and attached it to her forehead with an elastic band. “I can work under any conditions,” she said, “even here.”
At that moment, a short, overweight woman wearing a large, floppy-brimmed hat and diamond rings, stepped into the circle of light.
“I’m a massage therapist,” the woman announced in English. “I agree the doctor from China is the best person to sew up the leg of the American. But I also suggest he should place himself under my supervision for the next few days. I’m an expert in Rolfing and other physical therapies. I guarantee the full recovery of the American. He will re-gain the use of his leg within three days under my care.”
Ricardo, standing behind Sylvie and next to Madeleine, studied the splash of bourbon in his glass for a moment and then, with mouth open, stared at the woman appearing out of nowhere.
“Jesus,” Ricardo said, “Who is she?”
Madeleine started to laugh then caught herself.
“Her dress looks like she slept in it,” Madeleine said.
Sylvie injected the morphine into my arm. My body relaxed; I unclenched my jaw, and I could see again.
A few feet from the bar stood Baaba Maal and Sofi, the apprentice designer. To one side was Raphael, his round eyeglasses glinting in the light cast by the small bulbs hanging from the canvas awning. Directly above me, in a gap between two pieces of the canvas, I could see the first stars of the night in the black sky.
But I focused my gaze on the head of the Chinese doctor, who was bent over my leg intent on sewing up the wound. She was working furiously, but I couldn’t see or feel what she was doing. I could see, though, that my right leg was bent at the knee, with my right foot planted flat on the couch.
The Chinese doctor hovered over my leg, focusing on the stitches she was inserting and periodically straightening the leg. She was confirming the stitches were secure while loosening the muscles in my leg so she could sew up the wound faster. The Chinese man bent over her, almost touching her head with his head, wiping with antiseptic the same areas on which she operated with her tools. They worked in concert, four hands together, seemingly controlled by one consciousness.
To one side of me, I was aware of Hercule, who was talking with his wife, Delphine, about the dinner menu they had seen. Also I heard Madeleine saying to Sylvie that Baaba Maal, Sofi, and her cousin would be performing after dinner. Now I was worried about how I would get down to the restaurant on the bottom deck of the boat for dinner. And afterward how could I get back up to the top deck again to hear the music? I doubted Sylvie would be able to carry me down each level of the boat and then back up again.
When the Chinese doctor finished stitching up my leg, she sat up straight and peeled off the light attached to her head. The Chinese man, standing up, took the needle, inserted it into a small pouch, and placed the pouch back inside the black leather bag.
“C’est fini,” the doctor announced. Immediately, Sylvie leaned over me, lifted me into her arms, and carried me toward the same slick, metal stairs on which I had tripped and fallen. She started down the stairs.
“Don’t worry,” Sylvie remarked. “I got you.” She paused. “I won’t stumble or trip, but you have to relax and stay still.” She paused again, looking into my face. “You know, you’re not very heavy.”
We passed the third level of the boat. Sylvie asked if I needed to stop at my cabin. I shook my head. I wanted to go to dinner. Finally, we arrived in the dining room, located on the bottom deck, a large space with polished wood paneling on all of the walls and with large windows open to the side passageways, the white rectangular railings, and the blue-green waters of the river just beyond the railings.
Sylvie placed me in a chair at a round table set with ornate silver eating utensils and large curved glasses, some filled with wine—a Burgundy from Alsace-Lorraine, according to the menu—and others filled with ice water. She took a seat to my right. We sat with our backs to a window which opened onto the wharf and, in the middle ground, a series of two-story colonial buildings.
Following Sylvie and me into the room, Madeleine settled into a chair on my left. Hercule and Delphine, also entering the room at that moment, sat down in another pair of chairs at our table.
I was in bad need of a drink. I picked up the glass of Burgundy before me and drank its contents in two gulps. Then I reached over, picked up a glass of red wine in front of Madeleine, and drained its contents too. It was obvious I was nervous. After the Chinese doctor had stitched me up and after Sylvie had carried me down the stairs to the dining room, I felt I had used up all of my luck in a matter of minutes. My leg was numb. I was afraid to reach down and run my fingers over the row of stitches. But I almost couldn’t control myself. I was upset, and I wanted to understand more clearly what had happened to me.
When the Chinese doctor and her assistant arrived in the dining room, Sylvie summoned an attendant and instructed the young African man to seat the two Chinese at our table. Lomax, who had slipped into another seat at the table unnoticed, poured two glasses of Burgundy for the Chinese doctor and her assistant before re-filling the glasses in front of Madeleine and me.
“No more wine for him,” Madeleine said, giving me a sharp look as I drank a third glass of wine just as quickly as the previous two.
I felt dizzy.
The short, chubby woman with the big hat and diamond rings entered the room, asked the attendant to bring her a chair, and instructed him to set a place for her between the Chinese doctor and her assistant, directly across the table from me.
Ricardo, who was passing behind me as he approached another, smaller table close by, laughed.
“That woman is pretty aggressive,” he said.
“Don’t talk so loud,” Madeleine said, taking a large swallow of Burgundy. Sylvie, listening, just smiled and extended her wine glass, prompting Madeleine to fill it with red wine from the bottle.
“Let’s make a toast,” Sylvie announced in French, looking at the Chinese woman. Everyone picked up a glass. “To a surgeon who can work in the dark,” Sylvie proclaimed in a raised voice.
After setting my wine glass back down on the table, I heard a noise through the open window behind me and turned to see Macky on the wharf with a zip-up dress case hanging from a baggage rack. Several silk dresses in different colors were visible through the transparent material of the suitcase.
Baaba Maal stood up from his table a few feet from ours and leaned through the open window. Holding a bottle of orange Fanta in one hand, he shouted at Macky, who was standing on the wharf, and then at Sofi, who had just appeared behind Macky. But evidently neither Macky, staring back at Baaba Maal with his mouth open, nor Sofi, shouting a question, understood what the musician wanted.
“What’s he saying to Macky and Sofi?” I asked, looking at Sylvie.
“How should I know?” Sylvie replied. “I don’t speak Pulaar. Ask Raphael.”
Raphael, who was sitting at Baaba Maal’s table, overheard my question to Sylvie.
“Baaba Maal is trying to tell Sofi what dress to wear for the performance after dinner,” Raphael said in English.
Ricardo, then, stood up from his table and leaned through the window.
“Wear the yellow dress,” Ricardo shouted in Wolof, the other principal native language spoken by the peoples of northeastern Senegal.
Sofi ducked behind the fabrics hanging from the rack.
Baaba Maal, laughing at Ricardo, sat back down in his seat, finished the orange soda in his hand, and picked up a piece of bread.
“Sofi understands,” Ricardo explained, leaning over Sylvie’s shoulder. “My language teacher at Gaston Berger University knows Sofi well.”
Now Sofi stood in front of the clothes rack and held up two yellow dresses, one in each hand. Macky, who had come to Sofi’s side, gave a thumbs-up signal in return.
Macky took the two dresses from Sofi with one hand, gestured to the ramp leading to the Bou el Mogdad with his other hand, and jumped onto the ramp. Then, with his free hand, Macky beckoned to Sofi to follow him onto the ramp, and the two of them disappeared out of sight crossing the ramp.
I gazed in the direction of the French colonial buildings about 50 feet behind the place where Macky and Sofi had been standing and noticed the buildings had become a ghostly white in the deepening darkness. The picturesque buildings, rising out of the sand behind the wharf, suggested an ancient motif. I expected a memorable performance from Baaba Maal, Sofi, and her cousin in a few minutes.