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

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.

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