The Risky Path to Courage

How do you keep your fears from shrinking your world? And when is it time to reach for freedom? One woman takes herself deep into the jungles of Bangladesh to confront the snakes that haunt her dreams. Click here to watch behind-the-scenes footage from our photo shoot featuring live snakes

by Holly Morris
woman snakes image
Photograph: Phil Toledano

The dirt lane that passes through Porabari, a village on the Dhaleswari River, in Bangladesh,is lined with dozens of nondescript wooden crates stacked on top of one another. A waft of hot cooking oil from a nearby food stand makes its way through the sweltering air. A dozen men, women and children offer curious, placid stares as I walk past the crates. Sweat streams down my face and body, but it’s not the 98-degree heat and punishing humidity that leave me sopping. It’s raw panic. Some of the crates appear to move, ever so slightly. One jiggles. A devilish forked tongue flickers out of a slit.

Snakes, I think to myself with Indiana Jones dread. It had to be snakes.

All my life, I’ve had nightmares about snakes; in these dreams, serpents wrap around my head in a twisted tiara and across my neck in mocking threat. Awake, my fear has diminished me, limited my experience. I’ve walked miles to avoid crossing giant-rock fields (likely snake habitats) and passed up the opportunity to fish alpine lakes teeming with cutthroat trout but reputed to have rattlers, because I know an encounter will leave me an irrational mess. Of course, this fear, stuck in my craw for decades now, may not be just about snakes. Maybe it’s related to my Big Fear: a life of stagnation, of narrowed options, of arriving at the pearly gates with a rucksack of regret. More than a decade ago, when desk life felt stultifying, I looked at fear and renamed it potential. I quit my steady job to travel the globe in search of women who live by their inner compass and make change in the world. I found a professional outlet for that ethos by making these women the focus of a travel series, Adventure Divas, and sold it to PBS with me as the host. Then I hit the road to produce the program.

The crazy lady in my attic had now been released, and she had a passport. I learned that I’m my best self in motion, courting the unexpected and running not away from what I fear but toward it. Still, the snake nightmares persist.

Here in Porabari, the Bede people revere snakes. They catch hundreds of them a year to sell, trade and charm, including deadly species such as krait, viper and cobra. They milk snakes for their venom, which is used in antivenin. Charmers from all over the region shop here, where a six-foot cobra costs the equivalent of $10 and snakes for pets or culinary delicacy abound. In a town where every house has a pet snake, the love for the species is palpable. Indeed, fear of snakes is mostly a Western phenomenon. For the Hindus, the serpenty Kundalini life force that winds up and down our spines is a source of enlightenment. If you were born in the Year of the Snake, as I was, the Chinese say you will be wise, romantic and calm.

Calm? Hardly. Part of my job for Adventure Divas, and nowadays as a host of Globe Trekker, which also airs on PBS, is to hurl myself into dodgy situations, sometimes physical, sometimes political. I’ve become a student of fear, and everywhere I go, I ask people what they fear most, trying to learn from their answers. In India, I met Kiran Bedi, a police chief then in charge of training all of Delhi’s forces. In her career, she’s gone toe to toe with rioters and endured death threats from corrupt colleagues while at the same time fighting to introduce vipassana meditation to inmates and guards at the infamously brutal Tihar prison (where under her watch violence and corruption plummeted). After seeing her put hundreds of cadets through a 5 am silent meditation and later supervise their target practice at the range, I asked her, “What do you fear?” She tipped back her military hat, all the tough drained from her face, and said, “Nothing since my mother died. After that, there was nothing left to lose. I lost what I loved most. It made me realize the transience of life, and now I fear nothing.”

I tell myself that missing out on an experience because of fear is not an option (snakes notwithstanding). Once, while trekking through Niger’s Sahara, I entered a camel race. Sitting atop my leggy nine-foot mount, I feared being trampled, as a seasoned rider had been minutes before. But as we thundered off in a hail of hooves and Arabic hollers, I reached for that sweet spot where fear gets transformed, through action, into vitality—and possibility. As I held on for dear life, mine expanded.

Of course, testing myself against fear and trying to learn from it is a luxury. Many people don’t choose to tangle with danger; they’re forced to. I remember a caste-oppression activist I met in Rajas¬than who, after her unjust arrest and persecution and the torture of her colleague, said, “I don’t have any fear since this attack. It has made us stronger.” And I’ll never forget the village woman turned elite mountain climber who was buried alive in a massive night avalanche on Everest. She and her team were dug out within hours, and most of the climbers descended the mountain. She chose to continue her ascent the next morning, becoming the first Indian woman to summit Everest. “The experience of the night drained all the fear out of me,” she said. Then there was the filmmaker who was threatened by a knife-wielding john in a brothel. The prostitutes protected her by surrounding the man, changing her fear to power: “Their strength gave me strength. They trusted me, and my strength came from their trust, and so I had no fear.”

The dance with fear (be it of snakes, failure, loneliness, bad guys, death) is a tango, a process of one step forward, two steps back. And here in Bangladesh, I’ve already tangoed my heinie off. Three days ago, I joined a group of honey hunters in the fetid Sundarbans forests, where Bengal tiger attacks are common; a man had been mauled and killed only hours before we arrived. But all I could think of was snakes. My translator, Bachchu, who grew up in these forests and now is a guide with the Tiger Conservation Project, told me his father once sat down on a log to take a break and chew betel nut. When he nicked the log with his knife (a bit of wood is part of the betel-nut-chewing pastiche), it moved. “It was not a log,” said Bachchu. “It was a giant python.”

But Bachchu wasn’t afraid of snakes. He and all the honey hunters were afraid only of tigers. Of the approximately 300 foragers who will enter the forests this season, driven by economic need, about 20 will be killed by Bengal tigers. Of course they are afraid, the leader told me, but they have to support their families. Then he wrapped a multicolored woven scarf around my jugular. “Tigers like necks,” he warned. We proceeded through the soppy mangrove forests in a loose line, a dozen bare feet (and two in boots—mine) stepping around spiky roots. The hunters scanned the treetops for hives and the tangled green foliage at ground level for tigers. I was the only one who trained her eyes on the forest floor, looking for suspiciously moving logs. The men hollered in lilting Bengali, calling on God, making noise to keep track of one another, to make sure no one had been taken. It can happen silently.

The hive was about 20 feet off the ground. The hunters gathered a bundle of giant mangrove leaves, like floppy elephant ears, bound them together with bark twine and set them afire. A young man took the smoking torch, wrapped a cloth around his face and shinnied up the trunk. Amid a billow of smoke and angry bees, he hacked off a third of the dripping hive with his machete, leaving the remainder for the bees to rebuild, and for the hunters, someday, to return to. We huddled below, cloths wrapped around our heads, tense, waiting for the stings. A cloud of thousands of very angry bees blotted out the sunlight and created a viscous surround-sound buzz. But I was not scared of the bees: I had a calm, deep knowledge that all would be fine.

The thin, buttery, delicate honey was otherworldly. We were huddled together tasting it, distracted and happy, but then I scanned the forest. Tigers will stalk the hunters for hours before pouncing on one of them, often during the relaxed moment of joy after thehive has come down. “Bachchu,” I asked, “are you afraid?”

“Yes,” he said. “Every time I return from the forest safely, I feel as if I’ve been born again.” After we talked for a while, I realized that his “rebirth” was not about the relief of surviving danger but about coming very close to the thing he both fears and cares about deeply—tigers—and finding a way that those feelings can live together. When we parted, I understood better the taut, vital balance that comes from facing fear in pursuit of your passion.

Only yesterday I made a certain peace with Bangladesh’s most ferocious and cold-blooded reptile. In the town of Bagerhat, several hours south of the snake village of Porabari, crocodiles troll the ponds that surround the mausoleum of Sufi mystic Khan Jahan Ali. Pilgrims gather here to honor Khan Jahan and receive the powerful blessing that comes from touching a crocodile;I was slightly befuddled by, and envious of, their faith, which had a template,a history, a clear path. As I stepped forward to share in the ritual, the mazar, the keeper of the tomb, called out “Kalapar, dalapar!” (Come!), and a crocodile emerged. The mazar guided my hand toward the behemoth, now dead-still except for the two eyes fluttering on top of its head, the monstrous jaw jagged with prehistoric incisors. I thought of an acquaintance of mine who was snatched, lickety-split, off his canoe in Zambia and dragged under, never seen again. Crocodiles move fast when they want to. The mazar offered me encouragement in Bengali, then English. “Blessing. Blessing,” he said, pushing my arm farther down toward the croc.

I was anxious but not white-knuckle scared. The crocodiles were used to brown Bengali arms; nobody knew how they’d react to my pale one. But surely no sensible host would want his foreign guest to lose an arm? I gently grazed my fingers across the clammy, rough snout, wishing only that my bare white arm remain attached. Suddenly another bite of meat—a live chicken—was thrown from behind me toward the crocodile, and the beast exploded forward, crushing the bird in its gargantuan jaws. Feathers flew and the chicken screeched, until both creatures were submerged, silent. The reptile’s eyes went under last. I’ll never know if that sacrifice was made to honor Khan Jahan Ali or to ensure that the croc chose the right white meat.

But here in Porabari, as the snake crates jiggle, it’s not mere trepidation that I feel. Can I, without sedatives orpsychoanalysis, transform stifling, panicking fear into something else? Some say faith can be a powerful tool in facing hardship or fear, but I don’t believe in God/Allah, destiny or a cosmic order. Instead, I can only trust the path I’ve chosen, where the willingness to step outside what’s safe and known has become an article of faith. “Salvation is being on the right road,” said Martin Luther King Jr., “not having reached a destination.”

I approach a vendor who nods and slides back the wooden slats. Out they slither. A pile of small bright-green snakes wind together frenetically; a four-foot-long, lithe grayish snake strikes the vendor and draws blood from the back of his hand. The man is unfazed by the bite and after a few minutes pushes the serpent back into its crate. He carefully opens the next box, and a pair of king cobras spring out of the top, necks flared. He twists his fist in front of their lidless gaze. Arched and ready, the snakes sway and follow the movements. What looks like lilting compliance is actually their attempt to get a fix on the prey. Although the villagers are said to have magical powers that protect them from cobras, the truth is many snake charmers eventually die from bites. Thousands die of snakebites in rural Bangladesh every year.

There is one more crate. Through a slit, I see a thick shadow move. The man slides back the top and lifts the three-foot-long snake. “Around your neck, around your neck,” he says in Bengali, which I understand all too well as he gestures for the fat red sand boa to become my garland. The creature’s tail looks like a head, so it’s referred to as the two-headed snake; both heads twist my way.

I am sickened but determined. I try to channel the brave women I’ve met. The snake is not poisonous, but the real risk is that if I don’t engage this fear—if I walk around it, as I have for -decades—I will remain its hostage. When I see a wet paddy field (as I did yesterday), I will again fail to revel in the jubilant green, or in the sturdiness of villages built on stilts at its center, and will instead focus on unseen creatures, on bad things that might lie in wait. I will narrow my life.

I take a deep breath. He puts the snake around my neck. It wraps, one head cuddling my jugular, the other tentatively exploring my cleavage. My eyes are shut and my heart races.
I can’t open my eyes.

I just can’t.

Suddenly in my head I hear the words spat at me by my grandfatherly guide on a particularly sheer edge of the Matterhorn, when I was frozen in fear and exhaustion: “You are a tough girl! Action! Action!”

I open my eyes.

And the world gets bigger.

Holly Morris is a host of Globe Trekker. The series tied to her book Adventure Divas: Searching the Globe for a New Kind of Heroine is available on DVD.

Next: 7 Ways to Test Your Mettle Worldwide

Watch: Behind the Scenes of "The Risky Path to Courage"

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First Published Mon, 2012-04-02 15:45

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