Breaking rules

Growing up, my brothers and I were only allowed to play in the street from the end our little yellow house sat on, down to the far end at the stop sign. Here, at intersecting streets, was our boundary. Under no circumstance were we allowed to cross the street without parental supervision. We knew the consequences of breaking such a rule; all of us had felt the sting of a swift ass-whooping. As small children, we had obeyed the street crossing rule without compromise, but now, at my seven years, I was feeling pretty testy.

It was across this boundary that a strange boy stood staring at us one day.

The boy was shirtless, and had suntanned blonde hair to complement an unusually tan body. It seemed he went shirtless often. He wore cut-off jean shorts and a camo hunting cap. My two brothers and I stood sheepishly on the other end of the street- the great divide. Finally, the little boy spoke up. He hollered at us, his words barely discernible, “You boys come on over here, I got somethen to show ya.”

We stared at each other, unimpressed, and then back at the boy. My older brother, Cary spoke up. “We’re not allowed to cross the street.”

The strange boy stared at the ground, before re-calculating his words. Somehow, this boy knew what he offered was worth getting in trouble for.

“Biggest rattle snake skin you ever saw in your life, guarantee ya. Just over there in my pop’s truck,” the boy said pointing at a rusty old white ford with a camper shell, behind him. “But you gotta cross this street in order to see it,” he grinned slyly.

I looked at my brothers and they had the same curious twinkle in their eyes. Without saying a word, we ran across the street and jumped on the back of the truck, and peered through the glass of the camper shell. There, on the far end of the truck bed, hung the biggest rattle snake skin I ever saw; well, it was actually the first rattle snake skin I ever recalled seeing, but it truly was impressive. It was pinned to a large wood plank, stretched as far as it could go before drying. The brown, and sage, and olive colors and diamond patterns were still as vibrant as if the snake was alive.

“Told ya it was worth seeing,” the boy said with pride.

We hastily crossed the street and ran back home, not telling a soul of our lawless behavior. Something small happened to my psyche that afternoon. That was the day I learned, adventure might merely entail the breaking of rules.

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Sixteen years later, I stood on a large river boat down the Obangui river in the Central African Republic, staring across the water to where the border of Congo Brazzasville stood.
My Swedish companion Erik, my British friend Paul, and I, all in our early twenties, were on a boat trip down the river, with an expat French captain and his wife, along with an African crew of two, and a load of Western tourists. Erik and I were the only ones on the boat that could speak the local language, Sango. After a bit of shit-talking with the Africans, flexing our linguistic muscles, we suddenly found ourselves challenged: We were to prove our balls were as big as our mouths by taking a small dugout canoe attached to the boat, and paddle across the Obangui river, and into the Congo side of the river- or we were to forever remain cowards in the African’s eyes.

Not the bunch to give in to a wimpy challenge, It didn’t take much convincing, to get the three of us foolish whites into the small conoe; but we were instructed to hurry over and back again without lingering.

The sight of our first attempts to set toward our destination were some that had to be seen first hand to be appreciated. We succeeded early on in advancing twenty yards or so before we began spinning in tight circles, again and again, unable to stay straight, before being swept down stream a hundred feet or so. We repeated our blundrous attempts multiple times before we got a pattern down that sufficiently propelled us forward.

As we paddled furiously, struggling onward, we noticed little of the activities of the locals across the river on the Congo side. I did note, however, that every time I looked up, the crowed of them on the opposite bank began to lessen and lessen. Upon making land fall, presently I noted a few of them dashing off away from us and up the bank. I suddenly felt a sense of vulnerability and separation from the world from our side of the river on the opposite shore. When Paul and Erik egged me on to climb the bank behind them, and advance into Congo territory, I declined.

And no sooner had we made our historic landing that our two central African boatmen came frantically toward us on their own conoe, screaming some unintelligible words.
Up to this point, I wasn’t too alarmed, until I heard their words, “Those people have left to fetch the Police! Up there! The Police- the Congolese Police are coming!”

We plopped ourselves right back in the conoe, not soon after leaving it, and fought our way across the river once more. Even halfway across the Obangui, I still did not feel confident we were completely out of trouble. When we met the two Central African boatmen, they still wore concerned expressions. They hardly spoke, and instead latched on to our conoe, and with great push’s, towed us behind them and back to the safety of the CAR side of the river.

Our illegal border crossing lasted no more than five minutes.

Later that night, our happenings were reported to Charlotte, our Swedish friend in Bangui, and person in charge of our well-being. She was not amused. She gave us a firm chastising, and relayed a story to us about how a group of French tourists had made the border crossing on a similar boat tour the previous year. They, however, lingered longer than they should have on the Congo border, and were arrested and held for over two months before a ransom was granted by the French embassy for their release. After hearing the story, we decided among ourselves that, although a grand adventure it had been, it was one best not repeated. One thing I am for certain; however, is even now at 23 years old, as I had learned long ago in the old neighborhood, sometimes an ordinary activity can be much more exciting when breaking a rule.

…Although, I’m sure two months in a dirty African prison cell might change my opinion. For now, I will foolishly stick to this philosophy until I find myself on the next “street-crossing” adventure.

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