Don’t fear the creeper: Snakes, shadows and a lesson in overcoming fear

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Travel has a way of teaching you skills that you’ll use for the rest of your life. It can teach you about patience, perseverance, tolerance and how to deal with boredom, and it can also teach you about overcoming fear and facing the unknown. This is what I was thinking about as we sped through the night towards a snake-infested patch of Taiwanese jungle. The lesson my kids learned might not be the one you’re expecting.

Back in late 1990’s, not long after I moved Taiwan, I went on my first motorcycle camping trip with a few new friends.

Up until this point in my life, all of my camping experience was in the United States and in tents less than a kilometer from a paved road. The scariest creature I ever encountered was an armadillo.

Now I was on the other side of the globe. My new friends and I rode our motorcycles to a natural hot spring area called Bao Lai, steering our bikes down narrow muddy paths through dense thickets of forest and bamboo. Once we found the clearing, we set up camp at the top of a cliff where hot sulphuric water flowed down a cliffside into a cold stream. Not long after sunset we saw a small bright green snake coiled near the corner of a tent.

One of the braver (crazier) members of our crew approached the snake, but before he could get closer, his boot stirred a frog, which jumped forward, and the snake struck.

I snapped the picture below as we watched it slowly consume its prey (this was 1997, and those are legs sticking out of its mouth).

It felt like the Discovery Channel was performing live, right in front of me. After watching this for about 15 minutes, we all turned our flashlights around, only to discover four or five more of these same snakes scattered around the campsite and in the tree above our tents. They were Bamboo Vipers, a poisonous breed armed with a hemotoxin that turns skin and flesh black from necrosis.

In other words: leave them alone.

I have no real fear of snakes — I even had a pet boa constrictor in my early 20’s — but wild snakes were something different entirely. And wild poisonous snakes…yeesh. Now I‘m sleeping with them right outside the tent.

Despite initial feelings of fear, my fears subsided just by being there, in that moment, and dealing with the situation (ie. watching where I walked, moving snakes with a long stick when necessary). It just became part of the camping protocol for the next three years. I never saw that many snakes in one place again, but when I did see them, I was able to deal with them without drama.

Motorcycle camping in Taiwan opened up a new world to me: no longer restricted to the gravel lots of a national park, soon I was riding alone into the mountains at night, following a small opening in the bush and going off-road to see if it led to a nice spot for my tent. Many roads in the Taiwanese countryside had no street lights, and I often had no idea where I was. Yet in spite of these circumstances and my comically bad sense of direction, I always found my way.

I can’t take all the credit — Taiwan is an extremely safe place (traffic notwithstanding) and the people are very generous and  helpful. There are no gangs or night predators roaming around unless you count the snakes.

The fear I overcame in Taiwan was not facing off against a hoard of bandits, but something more banal: navigating unfamiliar territory, and remaining relaxed on dark, faraway roads.

I remembered this fear last week when we left for Xinhua, a suburb of Tainan, where my friend Dane, a self-taught lover and observer of Taiwanese wildlife, had agreed to take me and the kids on a night hike nearby. As we rode further from town, the noodle shops and neon signs became less frequent, and soon we saw more fields and foliage than brick and mortar. I could feel my boy (then 10 years old) gripping me tighter on the back of the scooter as the darkness enveloped us. He was full of nervous questions:

“Are you sure this is the right way?”

“Wait, where’s our group? Are we lost?”

“It’s dark out here. What if I step on a snake?”

All reasonable questions, to be sure. I asked myself similar questions once, and so I answered them one after the other:

  • Yes, I’m pretty sure this is the right way. If it’s not, I’ll stop and ask someone.
  • The other guys are riding faster, but they will wait for us at any intersection where we need to turn.
  • No we’re not lost, but if we get lost, it’s ok. We can find our way.
  • No snake is going to bite you. We have powerful flashlights, we will watch where we walk and we will use caution everywhere we go.

Before we left that evening, both kids had been excited about the hike, but the further from civilization we rode, the stronger their (very understandable) fear began to rise. They were city kids, after all. They flinch at the sight of a large moth.

I knew that this was the right idea, and I was proven correct, but surprisingly, the kids’ biggest fear to overcome ended up not snakes, spiders, or the other creepy crawlies we encountered. Instead, it was isolation. Only 40 minutes from downtown Tainan, this place felt as dark and desolate as the amazon at midnight.

Once we left the main roads, the small occasional villages we passed through seemed eerily empty. And once we stepped into the forest, a post-typhoon wind made the bamboo creak ominously. We heard the croak and clumsy patter of huge toads as they scrambled out of our path — a constant reminder that other creatures lurked nearby in the dark.

We were quite literally alone in the woods. Kinda scary, right?

It was, but there were a few things I did to alleviate those fears. First, I had made the kids use the iPads to do a little research on the snakes the day before. As we rode, I calmly and comprehensively answered any question that popped into their heads.

Next, I made sure that they knew we were safe and going with someone who knew what they were doing. I also told them that if we get lost, so what? These streets were safe and we could definitely find our way back home.

Once on the trail, I reminded the kids that this was still school, and to ask as many questions as possible. They asked about the difference between frogs and toads. They asked about how to avoid snakes, and what to do if bitten. And they asked about how to tell the difference between the many different kinds of poisonous and non-poisonous snakes out there.

Dane patiently answered all their questions, all while locating and wrangling four different species of snake, including two Bamboo Vipers and two harmless Greater Green Snakes, which you see hanging off the kids in these pictures.

An additional element that made a HUGE difference in the jungle, I believe, was the last-minute purchase of a T-6 style flashlight. These throw an incredibly strong beam — search for youtube videos to see for yourself. It’s like the Bat Signal, and when you’re in the deep, dark woods, projecting a spotlight across a long expanse of black is incredibly empowering.

The T-6 flashlights are also good for photography. These images look like I used a flash, but all of the pics from this expedition were lit with the T-6. They drain batteries fast, but man-o-man, they are bright.

Once back on the scooters and riding back to town, both kids seemed like different people. Our daughter’s only concern seemed to be leaving the snakes behind. All worries about the dark or about getting lost were gone. In fact, the boy became an active participant in navigating our way back.

Dane wanted to stay out there and hike for a while longer, so we told him we could find our own way home. And we did. It became part of the adventure, and the kids ended up spotting the right place to turn when Keiko and I had missed it. I know this is just a small victory, perhaps, but to me it felt monumental: my kids had faced the unknown and they were ok with it. They wanted more of it. Overcoming fear didn’t seem as hard as before. If one night in the dark can make that big of a change, then it’s time I start stocking up on batteries.


Comments

  1. Christina says:

    I love that you are teaching your family to find courage from within themselves. Resilience is a wonderful aspect of true character.

  2. I enjoyed this post so much. Thank you for sharing your children’s accomplishments with us!

  3. lena jenkins says:

    Amazing pictures. Amazing courage. I am proud of all of you for taking on this adventure. Nana

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