I sincerely wish everyone traveling to Dakar could see it through Mohammed’s eyes.

Even while planning the trip, it became clear that this foreign land across the ocean had been calling to him since the moment he was born. He’d heard scattered stories about his family abroad and eagerly clung onto any shred of Senegalese culture available to him. He’d already helped me make playlists, prepared me for the cuisine, and guided me through putting together an itinerary.  By the time we’d arrived, it was obvious he was more prepared than I was.

So, armed with a guidebook and a phone full of apps, we ventured out on our first jet-lagged morning to take it all in. The sun wasn’t as hot as I’d feared, and the morning ritual of applying sunblock and insect repellant kept us safe and comfortable.

Dakar was as lively and bustling as any city I’ve seen; an infectious energy grabbed us as soon as we stepped out of our hotel and carried us down the busy streets. Coming from New York, we were accustomed to the crowds at every turn and the buildings stretching high and out of sight. What caught me by surprise, though, was the beauty of the place.  

A true melting pot of cultural influences and geographical wonders, Dakar is simply breathtaking. Flanked by stunning beaches, a walk through the city takes one on a journey dotted with vibrant Western African art, rustic colonial architecture, and the slick metropolitan flavor you’d expect from any city this size.

Charmed as I was by the city itself, my real focus was on my young traveling companion.  To say his eyes lit up as he took in the wonders of his homeland would be an understatement.  The look of awe never left his face and he kept repeating the same phrase almost involuntarily.

“My country is so beautiful.”

Every time I heard it, I was struck by two words: “My country.”  This wasn’t just sightseeing for Mohammed.  For the first time in his life, he was surrounded by people who looked like him, who could pronounce his last name without a hitch.  When we ambled through the outdoor markets, while I was snapping photos for Instagram, Mohammed was gazing at his heritage on display.  When we stopped to play soccer with some friendly neighborhood kids, he was right at home.

Of course, our eyes weren’t the only thing that were in for a feast.  After we set out to explore the city, our first stop was to get some authentic Senegalese food.  Mohammed walked me through the menu, drawing on what he could remember from years past.  The spicy, oniony kaldou poulet I ordered was fantastic and gone too soon, while the rich fragrant maffa I spied on Mohammed’s plate was a heavy, but hearty choice for the middle of the day.

By the end of our first day in Dakar we found ourselves on the beach, where Mohammed and I stood in the same water we’d faced when we departed a day before. New York already felt worlds away.  Still, I wasn’t seeing things in the same way he was, I knew that much for sure.

My country.

As we strolled along the beach, regrouping after a very full day, Mohammed remarked that these feelings he’d been having were bittersweet, that it was almost like something had been taken away from him.

“Actually,” he corrected himself, “not ‘almost.’ This life really was taken away from me.”

I did my best to remind Mohammed that by being here, by walking these streets, tasting this food, and hearing the music of Dakar all around him, he was proving with every step that it would be impossible to take his heritage away from him. It’s a part of him, a part he didn’t know was still there until he’d ventured so far from home.

He smiled at this and nodded in agreement. “I kinda feel like I’m home.”

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 three.