As our yellow cab cut through the drizzly Manhattan morning, I went over the checklist that was engrained in my head.

  1. Pick up extra sunblock.
  2. Tell Wells Fargo about my travel plans.
  3. Triple check our medical paperwork.

We pulled up to the airport five-minutes-late-for-two-hours-early and Mohammed and I shot out of the taxi and into the building, eager to cross a few more proverbial T’s and get on the plane to Senegal.

Then I noticed Mohammed.

He’d slowed down a few steps into the terminal, his footsteps echoing in the early morning emptiness, taking it all in as we walked.

This was the beginning of the journey: the desk that would lead to the gate for the plane to the farthest place he had ever been from home. The moment transcended the usual headaches of travel, at least for one of us, and I smiled as he relished the moment.

“You good, man?” I asked.

He nodded, the expression on his face a mixture of excitement and nerves. The rest of the morning progressed uneventfully. We crossed shoeless through security, took turns dozing by the gate, and shuffled to our seats for the first leg of our trip.

I’d been saying for a few weeks that I’d breathe easier once the plane lifted off from JFK. Like any travel adventure, this one had taken some work to pull together. That aforementioned checklist had been my constant companion, especially given my propensity to worry and inexperience with planning excursions for more than just myself. Mohammed had been understandably nervous as our departure date drew nearer, and I’d been helping him through the emotional and logistical challenges that came with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Just get him on the plane, I kept telling myself. Then you can breathe.

But, like with so many of the other foster parent experiences I’d had, I wasn’t seeing the whole picture. The day of flights, connections, and layovers went off without a hitch but, as our crowded plane cut through the inky black night from Casablanca to Dakar, Senegal, I woke from a nap to see that Mohammed wasn’t breathing with nearly as much ease as I was. Somewhere in that tumultuous cocktail of fear and anticipation was the reason for the whole trip: the unrest and uncertainty that had come from a life lived without roots.

As our plane maintained cruising altitude, Mohammed pulled his hood over his eyes, his leg shaking and his heart, I can only assume, pounding in his chest. The moment he’d consciously and unconsciously been waiting for all his life was inching its way ever closer on the overhead journey monitor. Eight hundred kilometers to go. Seven hundred. Six hundred.

And again, like with so many of the foster parent experiences I’d had before this, I had no idea what to do.

I was quiet for a moment, Mohammed probably feeling the helpless stare of my clueless eyes for longer than was comfortable for either of us. How was I supposed to know how he was feeling, what somersaults his heart was doing? Tears came to his eyes, and, surprisingly, to mine as well.

“It’s a lot, isn’t it?” I said.

He nodded. I put a cautious hand on his shoulder.

“You’re gonna be great.”

It was a quiet moment, maybe forgotten by the time we touched down in Dakar. But it stuck in my mind as we shuffled through customs and wrestled our luggage into yet another yellow cab. It remained at the forefront of my thoughts as we settled into our hotel and turned off the lights for the night, replacing, just for a moment, the endless to-do and things-to-worry about lists.

This was no ordinary vacation, after all.

Matthew and his foster-son, Mohammed, traveled to Senegal for the first round of Passion Passports, “The Passport Project.” To learn more, click here. To read the next installment of Matthew and Mohammed’s journey, go to part two.

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