I’ve taken budget bus-rides in many different countries, but nothing prepared for the journey from Dakar to Saint-Louis. When we saw that the bus was already piled high with luggage but was not slated to leave until every seat was full, we trusted Mohammed’s uncle, who told us there was another way to get to our final destination.
That “other way” turned out to be a dilapidated station wagon, driven by a man who would charge us less per seat than we would have paid for the bus. He too wanted to wait until every seat was full, so we opted to buy the entire car, an agreement that seemed to make everyone happy.
The trip to Saint-Louis was about five hours, a scenic drive, for the most part, and a chance to catch up on some of the sleep I’d been missing. The “private car” setup we’d engineered for ourselves gave us the space to spread out and snooze as the station wagon wound its way past desert towns and baobab groves.
I was stoked about the Saint-Louis hotel we’d be staying in; the photos online made it look like the set of an Indiana Jones movie, full of exotic artifacts and old-world charm. The atmosphere of the Hotel La Residence did not disappoint, but the customer service left some to be desired. Mohammed quickly discovered that he’d left his wallet in the car and we asked the woman at the check-in counter if there was a phone we could use. After she ignored our requests, a bellhop pulled us aside and let us use his cell phone to call the driver, who graciously drove back and delivered the wallet into Mohammed’s grateful hands.
The wallet saga set the tone for what would prove to be an eventful few days in Saint-Louis. The hotel was relaxing and amenable enough, but our time roaming the streets of this picturesque city was peppered with encounters that could be described as “interesting,” to say the least.
On our first morning in the city, we decided to take a walk around the narrow island that makes up Saint-Louis proper. The old colonial city was the earliest French settlement in Senegal. My white guilt was slightly assuaged to learn that the island had been uninhabited when the French arrived in the fifteenth century, but its role in the slave trade and lingering scars of colonization are undeniable. Admiring the architecture and marveling at the unique blend of African and European culture on display can feel bittersweet when you consider the human cost.
Still, a morning stroll around this gorgeous island was a particular delight, at least until we took a wrong turn. We clearly hadn’t looked too closely at a map or noticed that the streets around us were suddenly abandoned. Oblivious, we continued snapping photos and peering into courtyards trying to decipher where we were.
The answer to that question came quickly, when a military guard, assault rifle slung over his shoulder, beckoned from down the street for us to come closer. We were sufficiently spooked by this unwanted attention and waved apologetically, turning to go back the way we came. When other guards rounded the corner and still more came running toward us, guns at the ready, “spooked” turned into “terrified.”
We’d unwittingly wandered onto a military base and our behavior had sent up some red flags among the men in uniform now surrounding us. Neither of us had ever been suspected of espionage before, but there we were, frantically deleting photos and flinching as the commander of the base sped up on his four-wheeler, surveying us with steely eyes and demanding identification. It wasn’t until we told them the story of Mohammed’s family, of his pilgrimage to his homeland, that they finally let us go. The commander scanned Mohammed’s passport, nodded in recognition at his Senegalese name, and set us free with a subtle nod of his head.
We kept our brave faces on until we walked around the corner and out of sight, then dissolved into nervous laughter, unable to believe what had just happened. With another pang of bittersweet reality, I realized an encounter with the authorities back home could have ended very differently and that, unlike conditions back home, Mohammed’s was the face and name that set the uniformed men at ease. Still, we were happy to escape with our lives and our wallets and were more vigilant for the rest of our morning stroll.
More adventures found us over the next couple of days, including a drug deal perpetrated by our cab driver on the way home from a day trip, a walk across the border to Mauritania, and a charming visit to a Muslim day school in which Mohammed was mobbed by a classroom packed with children, armed with cuteness and smiles that left us grinning for the rest of the day.
This visit to the school was one of many doors that was opened to us because of the rings Mohammed had on his fingers. On the top of his shopping list for the trip was authentic Senegalese jewelry, something we set out to find in Dakar and Saint-Louis. We finally landed on a small jewelry shop where the proprietor demonstrated his technique, forging the hot metal into an ornate ring like the one Mohammed had picked out of the display case. The ring, he explained, bore the symbol of the prophet, though the price was higher than we wanted. Mohammed headed further down the road in a classic haggling move.
The jeweler held me back, eager to call after his lost customer. “What’s his name,” he asked.
“It’s Mohammed, actually,” I said with a smile, watching the man’s face light up.
“Mohammed!” he called out. “The prophet!”
I watched again as Mohammed was welcomed in, right at home, and offered the “true Senegalese price for a true Senegalese boy.” In the distance, we could hear the call to prayer as Mohammed slipped the ring on his finger.
“This will protect you,” the jeweler said with a nod. “Wherever you go.”
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 six.