“The best thing about walking in Italy,” I said, as we set out from Misciani, “is that there are no snakes.”
My partner looked at me strangely, and I could tell what she was thinking: is that really the best thing about a walking holiday in Italy? Not the food or the wine or the rolling landscape of the Sabine Hills? If a snake-free environment is really the best thing about it, shouldn’t we have saved our money and just stayed at home with the doors closed?
That’s not what I meant. I meant that one of my favourite things is to walk in the great outdoors, in gentle sunshine and fresh air fragrant with spring flowers and wild sage and pine, with my arms swinging and a rucksack on my back, and I would do it a lot more if I wasn’t so scared of snakes.
I know a lot of people are scared of snakes, but I’m more scared than all of those people put together. It’s not rational. Every time I mention my snakophobia there’s always someone who wants to tell me how beautiful they are and what a valuable ecological role they play and how they’re more scared of me than I am of them. I don’t care. (And also, I doubt that last bit. Unless science has recorded a snake pirouetting and shrieking like a small girl just because it mistakenly thought it heard me in the long grass, I don’t think snakes are more scared of me than I am of them. Have you ever seen a snake’s legs tremble so much its knees knock together? Do snakes have to cover their eyes when they’re watching TV and I appear in one of the programmes? I rest my case.)
My fear comes from a deep, ancestral place, and has to do with slithering bodies and flickering tongues and glistening scales. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the fear of being bitten. If you were to give me the choice between injecting myself with snake venom or spending a night in a room with an unseen but harmless snake, I’d choose the venom-shot every time. When I go walking in nature back home, I’m a nervous wreck. I walk on tiptoes so that less of my body is in contact with the ground. I technically and clinically die for a few moments every time a leaf rustles or a blade of grass moves. I once started crying because my shoelaces came undone and I thought I was being swarmed by a pair of baby snakes. I live in the shadow of Table Mountain and never walk on it because all I can think of are puffadders and cobras and sea snakes. Why would there be sea snakes on Table Mountain? I don’t know. Snakes are crafty, they’ll find a way.
But here’s the remarkable thing: thanks to my vigilance, I’ve never once seen a snake in South Africa. I’m sure they’re everywhere – twined around tree branches and coiled beneath logs and stones, just waiting for me – but so far, as far as I know, I’ve been utterly snake-free. Still, when the idea of walking in Italy came up, I thought how wonderful it would be to walk without worry.
The Sabine Hills are about an hour by train north of Rome. Roman emperors had summer cottages there to enjoy the cool breezes and the simple rustic beauty. Every village is surrounded by olive trees and vines and in spring there’s a buzzing of bees and roosters crowing and a distant braying of donkeys. There are abbeys built from honey-coloured stone on steep hilltops and stone roman bridges over clear, cool, ancient streams, and I could enjoy all of that as I walked, because I wasn’t thinking about snakes.
“What was that?” I said on day three.
“What was what?” she said. We’d been walking along a shady track through a small wood between Mompeo and the small mountain town of Fara in Sabina. I was feeling especially cheerful because I’d replaced the water in my water bottle with a light red wine that felt like sunshine in the mouth, and I was thinking about a lunch break under a tree with some fresh crusty bread and cheese and ham. The world felt very good and very kind.
“There,” I said lazily. “Under that bush. What’s that long thing?”
She stopped and looked. “That’s a snake,” she said.
I smiled indulgently. She’s always playing practical jokes on me but this one was especially lame. Of course it’s not a snake. You only get snakes in South Africa. Once you leave South Africa, everything is safe and there are no snakes and there’s no crime and everyone is happy and no one has anything to worry about. I took a step closer to the long thin thing and when it turned its head and flickered its little forked tongue, I levitated so high in the air that I hit my head on an overhanging branch.
And looking at myself now, suspended in the air and also somehow walking backwards to get away from the snake, like a cartoon coyote who has run off the edge of a cliff, or a hologram of Michael Jackson, I realise that my fear of snakes isn’t the only irrational belief I’ve been holding. I’m a South African, and no matter how I try to resist it, I’ve imbibed the nonsense that South Africans somehow believe – that things are so much scarier here than elsewhere, that South Africa is a place of anxiety and fear and everywhere else is easier, calmer, more restful for our soul. It’s a bad and foolish belief, and if you aren’t careful, it leaves you thinking that you can breathe and live when you’re not at home.
I landed about five twenty metres from where I jumped. If there was a long-jump record for jumping backwards, I would have broken it. Then I did break the record for a normal jump because as I landed from the first jump there was a slithering at my feet because I had nearly jumped on top of a second snake. While I was still in the air from the second jump, vaguely wondering where that undignified screaming was coming from, my partner clapped her hands and a third snake slithered away.
“Strange, that,” she said, an hour later in the village, when she finally caught up with me and I was sitting on a table in the piazza with my legs crossed so that they wouldn’t dangle over the sides. “You spend your whole life without seeing a single snake in the wild, and then there are three in one place. Life is funny.”
“Yeah,” I said in a deep voice, hoping in time it would drown out the memory of that high-pitched shriek.
And she carried on talking about other things, but I wasn’t really listening, and not only because I was embarrassed. I was thinking it was time to stop being a prisoner of irrational beliefs. I was thinking it’s time to live life to the fullest, no matter where I am. I was thinking that as soon as I got back to Cape Town, I was going for a walk on Table Mountain.
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*Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a columnist, screenwriter, travel writer and author - follow him on Twitter.
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