You shall know our velocity /

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Main Author: Eggers, Dave.
Format: Book
Published:San Francisco, CA : McSweeney's Pub., c2002.
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WEDNESDAY The light was screaming through the windows, intent and wild, and I opened my portal's eyelid a quick few inches and we were coming at Africa at 300 mph, the ocean below striking the coast of Dakar with desperation. The neat shadow of the plane jumbled over the city's shoreline, the buildings glowing in tan and white and standing still as the water and wind came to them with all the world's fury-and then died. We were somewhere else. What were we doing here? We had no idea. Hand was awake. "Senegal," I said. "Senegal," Hand said. We had pictured Senegal green but this was tan. "West Africa I guess is tan," he said. "I really figured on green for Senegal." There was no gangway to the terminal, just a stairway to the tarmac. The air was warm and the wind was warm; the sky was clear, blue but bleached, and the sun hung still, bored and unchallenged. The baggage handlers, with green kneepads, watched us through their goggles, hands resting on their heads. "We're in Africa," Hand said. We stepped into the airport. "This is an African airport," he said. It was tiny, and open everywhere. It looked like a minimall. We sat on the cool linoleum floor and filled out our customs forms. When I was done, Hand rested his head on the wall. "I can't believe I got to Africa," he said. "I know," I said. "How did we get to Africa?" he said. "Already I don't want to leave. Did you feel that air? It's different. It's African air. It's like mixed with the sun more. Like our air isn't mixed as well with the sun. Here they mix it perfectly. The sun's in the wind, the sun's in your breaths." "I'm glad you could come," I said. We passed customs and the cabbies didn't touch us because we had no bags. Carradine was talking to a young lacy white woman, Blanche on holiday, too fair-skinned and fragile to be both traveling alone and sane. What was she doing here? Hair like dead brown grass. A large Senegalese woman in brilliant yellow appeared before us and asked us something. "What?" we said. "Wheech otel?" "The Independent," Hand said, cribbing it from a huge backlighted ad above us. "I take you," she said, pointing to a small bus out front. We asked her if we could get some money first. "Fine," she said, with an annoyed look at her watch. We were hers already, her children, and we were holding her up. We cashed $2,000 in traveler's checks- swoop! swik! swoop! -and stopped into the bathroom to hide it. I gave half the stack to Hand, who split it five times and found pockets for each portion. I buried stacks in pockets, in my backpack, in my socks, under my soles. We stepped up into the bus. We were its only passengers. The woman sat next to the driver, and the driver never spoke. The landscape on the way into the city was dry and dusty, the color of stripped pine. The road gave way to shoulders of sand and adobe homes, condos next to shanties, the condos given ears by hundreds of small satellite dishes. Billboard PSAs featured Senegalese citizens frowning upon littering and public urination, and encouraged the drinking of milk. The road was busy with small blue buses and BMWs. Two cops rode by on matching scooters. When the minibus stopped at a light our open windows were full of faces, mothers with babies walking up and down the highway median pointing into their infants' tiny mouths. "Bebbe! Bebbe!" they yelled. Boys below them hawked candy and mobile phones. The babies were swarmed by flies. Everything was too fast. We weren't ready. "Give em something!" Hand yelled. "You!" "You!" Cars came the other way at 50 mph. We had money and wanted to give it to them- That's the point of all the traveler's checks, idiot! I know!-but I was confused, everything had been too sudden, and I was preoccupied by the traffic, the babies were too close-and so managed only to smile at them apologetically, like a locksmith who'd failed to open a door. I moved in from the window and sat on the aisle, shrinking. "Bebbe! Bebbe!" The shuttle woman was watching us struggle. Why wasn't she telling us not to give them money? She was supposed to tell us not to give them money. We expect guides to ward off their needy countrymen. Now the driver was watching, too. I smiled more and tried to look confused, flustered. I was innocent! Hand was looking flustered with me, though he was still only half-awake and his bedhead was ridiculous but finally the shuttle lurched forward and we drove on, until the highway narrowed. "Bebbe! Bebbe!" "Meester! Meester!" A gold sedan slipped in front of us, its driver on the phone and gesturing with fists. Soon the road was narrow and wound through the city, all of Dakar's citizens walking in their flat huge colors and selling small things. Men carried bike tires to repair shops. Men sold meat from carts, while others hoisted sacks of oranges to passing cars. No one was sweating, and no one was smoking. Outside a gated compound, a tousled-haired white tourist in an enormous Fubu football jersey was talking to two uniformed men with assault rifles while a group of students from Italy-Hand was sure it was Italy-in crisp white tops and black pants and skirts lightly dusted, whinnied by on mopeds. All of Dakar's residents, it seemed, were selling objects, or moving objects from one location to another-a city of small favors and short errands. The hotel, in the left-middle of Dakar, was dark inside, the lobby low and sleek and smooth with black marble, all of it cool, safe, immaculate. The reception man was tall and wiry and wore the same silver-framed glasses as the two tall and wiry reception clerks sharing his counter. He laughed at Hand's French and gave us his English. We asked for two beds and dropped our bags in the room, the view bright and facing both the city of yellows and whites and to our left the sea, all violet and sugar. "What time is it?" I asked. "Ten A.M." "How do you feel?" Hand asked. "I feel good. You ready?" "I'm dead but we should go." We walked out of the lobby and into central Dakar looking for a travel agent to book a flight out. We wanted all the information on all flights leaving Senegal; we wanted Madagascar or Rwanda, tomorrow. We'd set up the flight now, then look around Senegal today and tonight, ready to fly in the morning. On the street, immediately outside the hotel parking lot, we were besieged, men stepping up and striding with us, matching our pace, walking backward, asking "Where are you from? English?" while shaking Hand's hand. Looking at me: "Spanish?" I always get Spanish, with the dark hair, the eyelashes. "American." "AmeriKAHN, ah. Welcome to Dakar! You have accident! Your face! Need mask like Phantom! Ha ha! You like Dakar? How long you been in Dakar?" "Twenty minutes." "Oh haha. Twenty minutes! Very good. Joke! Welcome! Welcome! Do you need taxi? Tour? I-" And we ducked into the travel agency. Hand tried his French with the first agent but to little effect. We waited for one who spoke English. "I thought you said you spoke French," I said. "I do. Some." "Your dad's French, right?" "Not, like, from France . He's not from France ." "What are you wearing?" "What?" He was wearing a shirt declaring I AM PROUD OF MY BLACK HERITAGE. On a blond man with swishy pants it looked all wrong. "Where'd you get that?" "Thrift store." "No one's going to get the joke here. Or whatever it is. It's not even a joke." "No one will know. And it's not a joke. I liked the shirt. Did you see the back?" I nodded slowly, to communicate the pain it caused me. The back said ROGERS PARK WOMEN'S VOLLEYBALL. An English-speaker arrived and sat down at the desk opposite us. Hand leaned over her desk. "We want to find out what airplanes are leaving Dakar today and tomorrow," he said. "Where do you want to go?" asked the agent, a stately woman in cosmic blue. "We are not sure," Hand said, in English. "We want to see our options. Do you have that kind of in-for-ma-tion? All of the avail-a-ble flights?" This is when Hand started speaking with a Senegalese accent, without contractions and with breaks between syllables. It was almost a British accent, but then a slower version, with him nodding a lot. Some kind of caveman British accent thing? I think so. Why does he do that? Soon I will ask him. "Sir, where is it you want to go?" she asked. She too thought we were assholes. "We want to see all of the options and then to choose from them," he said. The woman stared. "You have to tell me where you want to go." Her English was good, her forehead high and tranquil. "Can you not first show us the flights out?" "No. I cannot." We thanked her and walked out- "Hello!" said a new man. "I see you at hotel. I also stay at the hotel. Mister has been in accident! [Now looking closely at me, too closely, examining like a med student] Mister is a toughman! You two party guys out for good time! So how long you in Dakar I know!" -and back to the hotel and straight to one of the two auto-rental desks. We'd go back to the airport, book a flight out, and then see basically all of Senegal, by car, this afternoon. At the counter, a round and broad-smiling man. We asked for a small car. He dispatched an assistant to get one. At the other rental desk, across the lobby delta, a man dressed for tennis was berating a different, smaller, clerk. The tennis-man was smoking and talking loudly and making a show of being amazed at the prices. He was speaking English and sounded American and looked it. His socks were white and Van Horned up around his calves. We hid behind our backpacks. With Hand watching for the car, I went into the hotel's business center to get on the web and check on flights out. A huge middle-aged Senegalese man was using the computer; there were three women around him waiting for a turn. But the man saw me and motioned me to come, that he was almost done. I smiled, trying to indicate, having no French, that he should stay and I could come back later, any time. He waved again, emphatically. I stepped over and smiled, hoping he'd give me English. He gave me French. "Sorry," I said. "No parlez pat francais. Mon frer-" I said, gesturing somewhere toward the door, in a way intended to mean that I had a friend who spoke French, an old friend-from kindergarten! from birth!-but he was out in the lobby waiting for a Taurus. I'm not sure if it came across. "English then," he said heartily. "These are my wives," he said, waving his hand over the three women surrounding him, all very pretty, all very tall. I half-laughed, in an attempt to split the difference between disbelief and courtesy. Three wives? Really? In the blush of the moment, I had to act impressed by him and respectful of them, without getting whiplash. The wives were smirking and talking to each other. They were dressed magnificently, one in the yellow of a rose, one in a rich and ancient orange, the third in a late-evening blue-three queens sitting on folding tables around an eight-year-old Macintosh SE being tapped at by their much older and heavy-sweating husband. "It will be just a moment," he said. "Where are you from? Let me guess. Texas." I lied. "Right! How'd you know?" I gave myself a slight twang. "Ah, Texas. I love Texas. I have been to Midland." "Oh," I said. "Did you meet-" "I am so sorry," he said, not having the time to get into it. "I must finish this note." He pointed to the screen. In a few minutes he finished and apologized and I apologized and thanked him and he and his wives left, the last wife, in yellow, floating around the corner in an ethereal way like a priest in his soutane. I wanted to go with the man and his wives. Would he take us into his grand and heavily guarded pink stucco home and leave us free to roam the grounds, to lounge by the pool as his wives or servants brought us beverages and lotion? Together we'd play squash. Maybe he played paddle tennis- Hand came into the room with two liters of bottled water, so cold. I held the plastic bottle and it made throaty sounds of deep satisfaction. "The car, it is coming," Hand said. "You have to stop that." "What is it you want I stop?" "I'm losing my fucking mind. Use contractions, goddammit. You sound like an alien." Online we checked planes leaving from Dakar. Nothing, almost nothing, without Paris first. We couldn't get to Rwanda without Paris. We couldn't get to Yemen without Paris. We could get to Madagascar, but only through South Africa. To get anywhere would take a full day or more. And visas. We couldn't even cross into The Gambia, the country stuck inside Senegal like a tumor, without a visa. Just getting across the continent, to Cairo, could occupy our whole week. Could we just drive from Dakar to Cairo? We couldn't. Mauritania wanted a visa, same with Mali. Neither was recommended for drivers. "Fuck," I said. "We're fucked." "Yes!" There was now a man on a computer behind us, one that had been turned off when I walked in. It was the dressed-for-tennis American man from the rental desk. It was his Yes! He had the computer up and he wanted us to be curious about why he was excited. "My friend's in the Paris to Dakar rally," he said. "The big car race thing?" Hand said. "Yeah. He's in seventh place." His accent had something in it. He was looking at a page of results. "Wow. Motorcycle or truck?" Hand said. Hand was interested. Hand apparently knew what this guy was talking about. "Motorcycle," he said. "He's very good." Hand knew things like this, and knew how many guerrilla-killed gorillas there were each year in the Congo, and how many tons of cocaine were imported weekly from Colombia, how they did it and how pure it was, and how powerful, and who ran which cartel with the help of which U.S. agencies and for how long. Continue... Excerpted from You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers Copyright (c) 2002 by Dave Eggers & McSweeney's Books Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.