Travel Safety: What We Can Learn From Snake Encounters

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Lately, I have been thinking about and discussing with friends, family, and colleagues, the delicate balance we seek when managing the many aspects of travel. By that, I mean stirring the sometimes bubbling pot of risk, reward, fear, preparation, knowledge and exploration.

Perhaps our formula is different when the situation involves our children.

Perhaps not.

Travel safety

Several years ago, I was in Hawaii with my sons, Alex and Ted, when word came of Japan's devastating tsunami. We watched the tragedy unfold on television as we prepared to evacuate our hotel rooms. We would sleep in the public spaces along with other uneasy guests as we awaited the incoming swells.

We've hiked, rafted, skied, and kayaked in places where wild animals roam and sheer cliffs threaten.

I've traveled extensively through countries considered a world away from the perceived safety net provided by chain hotels and English-speaking island resorts.

All too often a deadly virus, a terrorist attack or a mosquite-borne threat gives rise to a new conversation about travel and well-being.

What's more, I am often asked if I worry about my safety as a woman traveling solo in a city or after an adventure in the backcountry.

Safe?

What really makes us feel safe?

How is it that one person's fear-inducing experience is another's source of exhiliration?

I don't have answers but believe that, in the end, it's about the personal attitudes we develop very early, layered with opportunity, choice and experience. It is among the reasons I feel so strongly about encouraging children and families to explore the world early and often.

And, the question always reminds me of a thought-provoking experience I shared with my sons Alex and Ted during and soon after, a trip to the Peruvian Amazon.

(Forewarned: this tale involves snakes!)

Peruvian Amazon

                                                                       ~ ~ ~

Eyes empty, sadness smudged her forehead. Then our guide told us the story and I understood.

We had come to her home on the secluded banks of the Peruvian Amazon to search for the elusive poison dart frog in the adjacent jungle. The woman before me, her husband and four children cooked, dined and slept beneath a thatched roof, covering a raised platform. There were no walls. 

No doubt they received a small fee from our guide’s lodge to allow us to slide our canoes on to their riverside beach and to welcome us for a short visit in their home.

But it was not our presence that veiled her eyes.  It was this: a few weeks prior, the couple’s oldest son was sent 100 yards down to the river to collect water for their cooking.

He did not return.

Soon they went searching for him and discovered he had been struck by the deadly fer-de-lance snake. This creature, deeply feared by the river people, is sometimes called the “three-step snake” – so deadly you can walk only three steps after its bite.

The family had no way to get their son to modern medical treatment. The local shaman was called, but the boy did not survive.

~ ~ ~

With this story thickening the already hot and humid air, we wandered into the jungle and located many small colorful frogs.

We were told their poison is still applied to the tips of darts used for hunting within the region. We returned on the path, crossing near the family’s home, climbed into our canoes and paddled back to our lodge.

During our stay at the jungle lodge, my sons and their friends were asked to join the local villagers in their soccer matches. The games took place at sunset. I, somewhat sheepishly, felt compelled to warn my sons not to venture into the jungle for the ball. We were told this was prime time for the deadly snakes to hunt.

Boys join jungle soccer match.

With the grieving mother’s pained expression still haunting me, I studied the natural floor during our jungle hikes, determined to spot the mottled skin of the exotic, mysterious snake. It didn't happen. Within a few days, after fishing for piranha, visiting a native village and zip-lining through the canopy, we returned home to the States.

~ ~ ~

Within weeks after our return to our Scottsdale, AZ home, we were enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Teddy was watching a movie in the study.  I was finishing some work at my desk. As my husband walked toward the hall powder room, he stopped to chat with me for just a moment. Fortunately, as he spoke, he put his hand on the door, moving it in slowly. In doing so, a loud noise erupted. Was it a water pipe? Some sort of electrical malfunction?

No.

It was the rapid tail movement of an angry Diamondback rattlesnake. Stunned, we realized that the rattler had done his part. He had warned us with a surprisingly vigorous alarm, one designed to be heard in the desert. It now echoed strangely off thick, slate floors.

My husband and son wisely stuffed towels under the bathroom door so the snake would not disappear into the house. I called the fire department.

The firefighters arrived quickly, amazed that the snake had slithered into our home. Using their cleverly designed extraction tool, they removed the Diamondback to the natural desert beyond our patio.

Later, we discussed how easy it would have been to have an unpleasant encounter with the poisonous rattler as he meandered within a few feet of each of us.  We spoke of our rigorous planning and preparation and the safety measures exercised in the wild places we explored.

And how ironic it was that our closest call came within the “safety” of our own home.

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