When a few minutes before 3:00pm, our driver, Joseph, who had said little since we left Dakar, drove us into Saint Louis on the border with Mauritania, I felt my anxiety rise. The Fulani man, wearing a short-sleeved, button-down dress shirt and black slacks, navigated his Peugeot across the bridge in silence.
The bridge, called Pont Faidherbe, in honor of a French civil servant who almost became mayor of Saint Louis, appeared to be quite old, but it was not. It was roughly the same age as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, designed by Gustave Eiffel before he became famous.
I occupied the back seat of the vehicle, peering out the window to my right. Lomax, my younger brother, sat in the front seat next to the driver, scrolling through images in the LCD of his Pentax 645.
The medium-format camera, fitted with a 90-millimeter lens, was big, and Lomax alternately complained about it and praised it, calling it “my baby.” He had taken only a few photos on the 165-mile trip.
“At what time did we leave Dakar this morning?” Lomax asked. He turned to look at me over his shoulder.
“10:30,” I replied.
I kept my gaze on the landscape unfolding on the river below. On the opposite bank, I saw an assortment of buildings in reds, blues, and yellows, all of them in mildly washed out pastels.
The three of us moved into the heart of Saint Louis, known as the old town, located on an island, called N’Dar, in the middle of the Senegal River.
I knew that the bridge, which was opened to the public in 1897, connected N’Dar Island to the older, more run-down, parts of Saint Louis to the east where the railroad from Dakar came to a halt in a patch of weeds.
What I knew came from information from tourist brochures, not from any Senegalese people themselves or direct experience. Neither Lomax nor I had ever been to Senegal, or any other country in Africa.
Joseph, reaching the end of Pont Faidherbe, turned right into the French colonial town, moving through a series of narrow, dusty streets lined by old buildings. Finally, he turned right on Rue Blaise Diagne and brought the sedan to a halt in front of one of the buildings, a massive 4-story structure occupying half a city block on our left-hand side.
Two signs, one running horizontally across the middle of the structure and the other hanging vertically from the structure’s northern edge, displayed the same words: Hotel La Residence.
We had arrived at 159 Rue Blaise Diagne.
Above us, against a brilliant blue sky, fat, billowing clouds extended upward as far as the eye could see. The sky, on that Thursday afternoon in a strange land, was oppressive.
I opened the back door of the Peugeot, and suddenly a man, who had been leaning against the side of the building, next to the entrance of the hotel, moved toward me. I stood in the dusty street.
The black man, covered only by a ripped brown tank top and red short pants, spoke to me in French. Lomax, too, as he exited the vehicle, came face to face with a black man speaking French. Lomax said, “Bon jour, monsieur,” mispronouncing the second word.
Soon a group of black men gathered around Lomax and me as we collected our luggage from the trunk of the car. We were surrounded, and Lomax, especially, seemed frightened.
Several of the men were 50 or 60 years old, but most were in their late teens to early 20s. All of them spoke to us, almost casually, as if they were distracted, in a kind of French I had heard spoken before by other Africans in other places. Previously, I had lived in Europe, where I had met many French-speaking Africans, in Brussels and Paris but also in Rome. It was in Italy’s capital that I had an apartment on Via Ostiense across the street from Basilica San Paolo, the second largest Catholic Church in the world. I also had a black Congolese girlfriend who spoke French.
Joseph drove off in his car, and Lomax and I, carrying our luggage through the crowd, walked the short distance into the lobby of the hotel.
The lobby had a floor set in a pattern of alternating black and white tile squares, just inside the front door. Behind us, on the other side of the door made of glass panels, the group of men began dispersing.
The lobby was small, a mixture of dark wood and soft lighting, and of several photos referring back to the 19th century. Facing us, 10 feet away, was the front desk. To our right, several dilapidated leather chairs lined a wall.
The overall impression was one of decline. Paint on the walls was faded and, in places, peeling. A door to an interior room appeared to be dislodged from one of its hinges. The chairs along the wall, upon closer inspection, were varying shades of well-worn yellow and brown.
“It’s the slow season,” said a man, looking into our faces while speaking softly in English. “We don’t have many tourists now.”
The man, who was black and about 60 years old, stood behind the front desk. He wore a tan linen blazer with both of the buttons buttoned. He was bald and appeared tired, even depressed.
“People here are desperate for work,” said the man, looking through the glass panels of the front door into the street. “Now we also have people from other parts of Africa, mainly Mali and Cameroon. They’re desperate for a way to survive at this point.”
The man continued. “You’re the Americans?” He handed us the key to our room. “Most of our visitors are Europeans, especially French.”
The desk clerk disappeared into a back office, leaving us alone.
Lomax and I walked through an open doorway at the end of the lobby to a wide staircase, laid with slick white tiles and tall railings for support. At the heart of the hotel, open to the sky above, the stairs rose up sharply into the bright sunlight and a blinding glare.
We were alone on the stairs dragging our bags up the steep incline and paying special attention to our heavy, expensive cameras and lenses.
When we reached the 3rd floor, we turned left down a corridor and found the room in one corner of the building. However, after inserting the key into the lock, we discovered that the key wouldn’t open the door. Next to the lock, the wood was scarred and slightly loose, as if someone had attempted to force open the door.
Then, suddenly, the door swung open.
Our room, with a view of the street, Rue Blaise Diagne, was non-descript and minimally furnished. Against one wall, a small, black television set protruded into the air. It was an ancient model. No remote control was visible. I didn’t attempt to turn on the TV. Neither did Lomax.
Under the TV was a table with two narrow chairs. Next to the table was a small mirror.
Against the opposite wall, two twin-sized beds, each covered by a thin, red blanket, extended into the center of the room.
“All right,” I said, setting down my luggage on a chair next to the window overlooking the street. “We need cash. Let’s go find an ATM.”
Lomax looked at me. He was, I could see, not yet ready to go back outside.