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.

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