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

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.

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