The muffled rant out in the hall prompted the fading in of a closed-eyes smile across my travel-worn face. It wasn’t the words of the outburst – garbled French curses for the sake of quiet – but the images from earlier that night that animated a mind’s view of what I could not see presently. I will share with you what I saw that you may smile with me but first, I hope you allow me to do my best in bringing your imagination to the Palm Beach. Should I succeed, perhaps you will have a greater appreciation from which to share my smile.
Hopping off the airport shuttle from a courtesy ride to an undesired destination late in the evening, my fellow interrupted travelers and I were warmly greeted by the staff of the Palm Beach Hotel. It wasn’t far from the airport to this downtown establishment. If there were palms, I didn’t see them in the dim glow of street lamps, and I am certain there is not a beach – as most know it – for miles. Just white walls, faux marble and a sign with each blue plastic letter lit from behind. I remembered having passed by this hotel on a previous trip when this West African capital was my intended destination. Now, this oasis was to be our nine-hour respite from an airport waiting area until a plane could take us on to the neighboring nation in the morning. We were all VIPs, according to the sign on the white bus. We were united by a common inconvenience but diverse enough to experience an undertow of short tolerance in this ocean of cultural egos, egos convinced that all others should adjust accordingly to certain and correct standards held dear.
Among the VIPs there were Africans of many countries and occupations. Most seemed to take our delay in stride. Then, there was the European businessman who had arrived for boarding in a luxury car, sporting shiny suit and tie. He had undoubtedly paid extra, along with seven other passengers, to ride in the “First Class” section of the plane, a section only distinguishable by a smidgen of leg room and a small stylized plexiglass ornamental divider hanging just above the back of the seats in Row 2. This section of eight passengers was quite visible from my seat in Row 5, so human curiosity led to my observing what might set us apart for the money spent. Beyond the special section, they had a dedicated flight attendant serving them hot towels from a tray, and drinks in champagne-style glasses several minutes before we in economy received our beverages in paper cups, minus the hot towels. Seemed that there was no other difference and so my curiosity was quickly quenched.
Much more interesting was a new friend that I had made in the airport, who then ended up being seated next to me during this flight. He is two years my elder, a father of 11 and a Police Commissionaire in the UN. He trains gendarmes and combat soldiers and was returning home after a long assignment at peacekeeping in a foreign land. After a very short rest he would be going to the front to fight Boko Haram. We talked of family and world troubles. We laughed, and talked of stuff and snuff – yes, snuff – he uses to clear his sinuses from congestion. I could smell the menthol but declined a treatment. We both stayed clear of things we might not agree upon. My hope – ongoing contact so as to build rapport that might serve a deeper conversation in the future.
Upon landing, the three of us along with perhaps 15 other transits were put together on a separate shuttle. All “tiers” were shed, proving equalizers in this world can occur most unexpectedly. After we got off the shuttle, washed our hands and filled out paperwork while they scanned our temperatures as part of Ebola prevention, I suddenly found myself in a private immigrations office receiving preferential treatment on the shirt-tails of my UN friend, and “the Suit” was outside at a visa service window, yelling in French and gesturing at the officer about things I could not understand, except that this was the second difficult time they had given him in obtaining a transit visa. Apparently sometime in the past, while “the Suit” had been building his business, my friend the commisionaire had been the training officer for the gendarme on duty in the airport entry. When offered assistance, he told the gendarme, “My friend is with me,” so I tagged along and received calm and quick entry into the country. Hot towels and champagne glasses are nice, but I am sure in this case “the Suit” would have gladly traded places with me. Don’t misunderstand; I do not mean to pass judgment on him in any way. Yet it was clear that his expectations were far higher than attainable, and he did not seem to possess the corresponding coping skills. I, too, was frustrated but let it go and was ready to roll with the adventure.
Back to the beach … We entered the hotel lobby and the flurry of form-filling began. The airlines would foot the bill but we had to pay with our ink and effort. Travel these days is full of forms and forms and more forms, all asking the same core information, creating a form-fatigue grumble. Seated on the lime-green faux-leather furniture, I soon joined in, writing slumped down at the blonde wooden coffee table. Name, passport numbers and addresses were scattered everywhere. Some questions clearly did not fit my context; would I, even at 54 years of age, be forced to enter my parents’ names on a hotel registration? The multiple languages were bouncing against the marblesque tile, ricocheting on the hard surfaces everywhere, reverberating with the patience and impatience of Africans, Europeans and an American, all adapting (or not!) to what is normal. The high-standing counter of the reception desk was covered with cards and keys chained to giant plastic dominoes with dots giving way to room numbers. I received my domino with a 114 on it from a helpful bellhop and soon opened the aluminum-framed glass door, designed to stop the reverberating sound waves from leaving the lobby and bounding up the stairway to the hallway of rooms. Every surface here was also hard tile and gloss-painted masonry with a wrought iron railing. Nothing soft, supple or absorbent to caress a bang or crash or capture the slow moan of the elevator and its loud notification upon arrival at one floor or another.
The key slipped easily into the lock on the door to 114, which opened into a narrow hallway with the bathroom entry almost immediately to the right and then three feet further broke open to the bedroom, stuffed full of furnishings. At one end, the bed – a large King-ish size, with a headboard fashioned from dark mahogany-colored plasticized woodgrain with a high gloss finish – decadent and ornate middle eastern chic to impress the weary guest, though squeezed into insufficient space. As a result, the nightstands had been placed with the drawers facing in towards the bed frame, rendering them useless. Then towards the entry end sat an easy chair, coffee table, and along the wall opposite the bed, a desk with chair and mini-fridge supporting an old-school television on top. There was very little floor space remaining, though nothing had to be crawled over. I took quick note of this, dropped my carry-ons and headed downstairs that I might purchase credits for my cellphone.
Earlier at the airport, I had slipped my Telemob SIM card into my cell phone to replace the Orange, and was delighted to find it still active after last having used it five months ago (I believe they deactivate after six months of inactivity). So, successfully navigating around the block with the help of one of the hotel employees, I came upon a young man selling credit cards for the phone. While purchasing the card, I was approached by another glassy-eyed young man wearing a dark blue oversized tee-shirt, who greeted me and began asking for money for food. Such a request I now find myself educatedly cynical towards. At least in the culture of northern Senegal where I have the most experience, rarely does anyone go completely hungry; and the look of his eyes and persistent manner made me suspect it was less about food and more about drugs. I refused him and was walking away when I realized he was following me and matching my speed. Ducking into a Chinese restaurant I had noted on the way to the vendor’s cart, I found solace from fear of attack and the cries of “Blanc, le blanc (dynamically translated “foreigner” but literally “the white”), le blanc, le blanc, s’il vous plait (please), s’il vous plait.” You see, once I passed the restaurant guardian seated at the entrance in a low plastic chair, I knew he would not come further.
It occurred to me that up until now, my experience with beggars, while disturbing to the conscience, remained benign and nonthreatening. I’ve never been chased by a common beggar. It was not a case of sheltered existence; I have walked the streets around Lamine Gueye and Blaise Diagne in Dakar. Lamin Gueye is lined with many an electronic store and restaurants, and is often bumper to bumper, pacing just a bit slower than an automatic car wash. It hugs the top edge of the city’s largest market. The Sandaga Market bustles with shops and street vendors weaving with shoppers in and through the crawling traffic of Blaise Diagne and onto sidewalks, narrowed by the multitude of tables and stands full of wares. In this context I have been accompanied by more than a few overzealous vendors, persistently walking alongside me for several blocks in hope that I would see my folly and realize I needed their product.
Several beggars frequented the sidewalk of what was fourteen years ago one of two ATMs in that city. One Ghanaian without legs would smile and with a gleam in his eye converse with me about life. I cannot recall if I ever gave him money but he never stopped smiling. However there was this one day I have not forgotten, it was the day of the challenge from a very aggressive, dread-sporting, raggedy-dressed Baye Fall (holy man), demanding an offering for his sect. There was a group of four or five Baye Falls in my path that day on Lamin Gueye, and one in particular approached me rather aggressively, telling me how desperately I wanted to give to his cause. I remember the offering basket in his hands, a half-gourd, rim thrusting towards and away from me as the Baye Fall kept his body well positioned like a guard on a basketball court, trash-talking my refusals, making every effort at blocking my dribble into the key, assuring me I would not get a clean shot at an escape. Despite incidental contact, I did a roll-off and detoured up a side street, where if he wanted to continue to go one-on-one with me, he would have to leave his team behind along with the multitude of higher potential alms-givers. I found great relief as he made my predicted choice.
However that was then, this was now. In the now, I sat contemplating this new experience while I ate my fill of cashew chicken and rice. This was my first significant meal for nearly a day and it tasted good. While the beggar had not made it past the guardian, echoes of the pleading words bounced around in my memory. If this beggar were truly hungry, I did not want to deny him. I had the healthy remainder boxed “to go,” with the intent of giving it to the teen.
As I exited into the dimly lit street, I saw someone resembling the beggar over across the way who appeared to be picking through things in the storefront area. Assuming it was the beggar, I handed the bag to the young man in a dark blue oversized smock, but before I could reason as to why he would look at me so perplexed, I glanced up only to realize the actual beggar in this encounter was now coming back on the street the other way towards me. I had mistakenly given his bounty to the guardian of a closed store – a man who was actually not picking through things as I had perceived but was rather arranging his place there for the night. As I took the container out of his hands, I attempted an apologetic explanation of my error in broken French; the rice was for the beggar who had been chasing and beckoning me – not for him. (That guardian likely told the story of a weird encounter with an American to all his friends the next day!) Flustered, I walked towards the real beggar. As we met, never coming to a complete stop, I simply held out the leftovers and said “Bon appétit” moving past him without waiting for a “thanks” or to see if he’d actually eat it or just be disappointed that he got cashews and not cash! I am well aware even as I am writing … the judgment and assumptions are all there in my heart. What a wretched man, le blanc, I am!
So once again I headed back into what now felt like an all-the-more lovely Palm Beach Hotel and made my way through the sound-barrier door and up the stairs to 114. Breathing a sigh of relief, I shut my door and decided it was time to use the restroom. Now, I’m not often given to writing about bathrooms but as this was a particularly interesting situation, I wouldn’t want to leave you out of it. It certainly helps to set the bizarre mood as context for “the Smile.” And yes, we will eventually get to that, but first, let me tell you about that unusual situation of the bathroom. It was a different kind of unusual. There was in my experience, of course, the unusual accessory of the standard kitchen sprayer and hose mounted next to the toilet in the men’s room in the airport, an upgrade from the standard-issue plastic water pot to what amounted to a sort of “poor man’s bidet.” This was more like the unusual case of our former master bath in Senegal where one could comfortably wash one’s hands while sitting on the toilet – every multi-tasker’s dream! Here in 114, the toilet was placed such that the clearance was all of about one inch between the swing edge of the door and the porcelain. You could not be seated and open or shut the door, forcing one to be quite decisive at the outset. Functional it was – and probably too harsh to call it a design failure – but certainly not planned by a student of ergonomics. Enough about that.
I had every intention of testing the shower next and was heading out into the furniture to make a plan for that when I began hearing a loud knocking on the doors outside in the hallway, with an equally incessant voice calling, “Monsieur (Mister) Monsieur, Monsieur.” I knew the knocking was not on my own door but very close and so I thought I should open the door and see what was going on. I opened it about three-quarters to see a smaller-statured elderly man, looking of Arab descent, standing feet spread and arms flapping up and down, palms facing me – a kinetic boney frame of flesh draped only in white sleeveless undershirt and manila boxers. Ranting in French, “Do you hear all the noise? I am trying to sleep and there is all this noise! Did you hear it??” All I could hear was his door-knocking and the sound of his long, wildly-strewn hair that defied gravity, jutting out at every angle around his head. I simply shook my head saying, “Sorry – no, I did not hear it,” to which he gave me no resistance, turned and began knocking again on the adjacent door. “Monsieur, Monsieur, Monsieur …” I shut and locked my door.
I took a quick shower which proved hot and well-pressured. I was headed through the path to the bed so I could try to grab as many as possible of the 5 1/2 hours left to sleep, only to realize there was no secondary light switch by the bed and the one lamp on the nightstand did not work. So I found my flashlight and, without any other choice, headed to the switch at the entry. There was no more noise out there now. All seemed calm.
Lying diagonally across the large, extra-wide, extra-firm mattress in order to keep my feet on the bed, just as I drifted to sleep, the harsh demanding ringtone of the phone on the night stand jolted me to quick consciousness and with a rapid lunge to pick up the handset and end the misery, I said calmly, “Oui, Allo (Yes, Hello)?” The desk clerk was calling to offer dinner … (dinner, I found out in the morning from the commissionaire, would have better qualified as a light snack). I declined politely while glancing at the red glow of 23:10. “A quelle heure est-ce que la transport au aéroport (What time is the shuttle to the airport)?” I asked, having already set my alarm for 4:20. The response was, “4:00; and I will call.” “Great!” I thought – as I re-set my alarm a bit before 4:00 to again lessen the dreadful ringtone – and began to go back to sleep.
I was in that in-between state when I was most aware of the distant noises, the bumps and groans of the elevator and doors opening and closing, when it started again, the rant of my wild-haired under-dressed neighbor. This time there was not so much knocking as ranting. Should I go out and look again? I thought, “No – I know all too well what I will likely see,” and then I did see, right there in my mind, and it was at that moment there came “the Smile.” Unspoken lines captioned the pictures … “Father, bless that man and help him to sleep … Bless “the Beggar” and bless “the Suit.” Thanks for the commissionaire and other traveling friends who might not have met in this world but for the voyage, and who in other contexts may not have even agreed on many things.”
“The Palm Beach is not too bad; really, it’s not,” I thought, and lost track of the smile, fading out to slumber.
Thanks for smiling with me.