Guides poled and guests paddled,
The bare-backed crew working currents
As the rest of us stroked slowly,
Wake and water snakes trailing
Our canoe on the broad Oubangui, border
Of Congo and a former French colony,
La Republique de l’Afrique Centrale,
Five desperate degrees above the equator.
The shortwave radio crackled static:
‘Snow in the Dakotas,’ ‘Season’s Greetings,’
And on Christmas, ‘Dean Martin has Died.’
Tourists toasted with palm wine
The voice, the Rat Pack, Vegas –
A fond belief in booze and crooning,
Remote as we were, on a river in Africa.
The first morning we had pushed into mist,
Splash followed by the splash of crocodiles,
On the tributary Mboumou. Second morning,
A portage past rapids and the start
Of a week on the big river west
Of Kemba, mud and a mile wide.
Many hours passed without hailing
Another dugout, then suddenly dozens
Would appear near the next village,
Where we’d stock up on water and wine,
Either bank of the bending river –
Or if the radio warned of rebels in Congo,
The next north, hugging the Republic.
A post office and goats, gusts
Of children, chickens, a mission, a mosque.
Animated gab in the taverns, our topics
Christmas, Amore, and small arms.
The guides would buy cassava bread
And fish and bake the fish on the bank,
Saying grace by day to Le Seigneur,
By night in Sango to mahogany and the moon.