When the Travel Bug Bites

IMGI was tearing up a Zambian highway on my white Honda “Dream” when it hit me.

I thought it was mud.

A convoy of trucks thundering past in the opposite direction was kicking up debris. Even after the last tanker had passed, the flak was stinging my hands and face.

What the hell—that mud?—bees! I was plastered in bees.

I’m telling you this story because I love the road and the dire straits into which a journey often leads. If you’re like me you love to hop aboard a good road story and be taken for a ride.

Bees! I was riding headlong into a swarm. They were inside my shirt. They were up my nose and in my ears and stinging my skull. How could they be biting my skull? I was wearing a helmet. I yanked the clasp and jettisoned the thing before I came to a stop.

Where they came from, I have no idea, but I was immediately surrounded by children.

They didn’t ask permission to debug me, just began pulling them out of my hair, out of my ears. They pulled one off my eye, which was swelling. These kids swatted bees off my back and off my thighs. They were inside my khaki shorts, for god’s sake. They were inside my mouth. My lips were swelling. I had to do something, and quickly.

Africans have a saying: If the snake bites you within sight of your village rooftops, you will die. The victim dashes home, I guess, pumping the venom to the heart. You get bitten far from home, however, and you have nowhere to run. You will stay put and do the right thing.

Though my heart was racing, I could feasibly ride the motorcycle without making things worse. I thanked the kids and sped back toward the city. At home I slathered calamine lotion over the worst swelling before lying on my bed. Calm down, I told myself, just breathe. I felt no panic, no sense of tragedy at the prospect of dying. No regrets.

Luangwa 2Here I was in Africa living a dream. I worked the rivers, measured their flow when hippos would allow it. For two years I crisscrossed that high dry plateau by Land Rover, camping out most nights lulled to sleep by the sounds of deep nature on the prowl. I earned my pilot’s licence flying a Cessna 172, shot my 8 mm movies, and rode that Honda almost to death. I was 22 years old.

I lay as still as death. Is this what the Sufis advocate—to die before you die?

I’ve been lucky for the “still as death” moments that life has forced upon me. I’ve learned how to cultivate such moments but back then I was dependent upon bad luck to trip me up and pin me down. I hope you know what I’m talking about.

We normally operate from a sense of being a physical-emotional-thinking entity. That’s us, the subject of our everyday lives. Then we’re brought suddenly and against our will to a full stop and an amazing thing happens. I’m lying there fully aware of “myself” in all its physical-emotional-thinking-ness. But if I can see it, then what is this subjectivity that’s aware of it?

Who am “I,” really?

The question creates a vast space in which time seems not to exist, but the clock on the wall showed that an hour had passed while my condition had not worsened, so I checked my physical self in the mirror. I would be okay. I remember starting to laugh.

I’m telling you this story because I have a vault full of road stories that might add up to a travel book one day. I was mentioning this publishing possibility to an old friend and without hesitation he instructed me to begin with the bees. It’s a short story which not only doesn’t get very far but then I hurry home. What kind of travel story is that?

Long or short, the key to a good road story is that it distances the protagonist from who he or she mistakenly thinks they are. That would be the point of a story, wouldn’t it? We leave home in the hope that we might reach closer to who we really are.

I recently riffed on “road stories” for Patrick Ross over on his The Artist’s Road website. “Road Stories—Why We Like to Be Taken for a Ride.” Check it out.

And let me know in the comments below if you’re the kind of reader who is willing to be taken for a ride. I promise you that my next story will take us miles beyond sight of our village rooftops.

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  1. says

    Wow PJ!! What a crazy story!!

    Yes, I am a reader willing to be taken for a ride; there’s nothing better than a great ride!

    There seems to me to be two extremes in which we experience “I” while the ego is kept at bay. In one extreme, as you describe above, the “I” experiences itself is awareness. The ride is at a full stop as we are “still as death”.

    And then there’s the other extreme, in the heat of the ride, where there’s no room for ego and we’re fully “I” without thinking anything of it.

    Both are gifts.

  2. says

    Tracey… Yes, you’re talking about being in the ZONE. In both cases it’s such a high to find ourselves free of our petty little selves. Thanks for that.

  3. says

    Joanna… yes, the ride is it. Thanks. Do you think it matters where we’re going, or is it enough to be swept along? I suppose a lot of readers would say they’re happy just for the ride itself. But you know me — I’m all about the deeper story — the accidental destination that we arrive at in all the best stories. Loss! Which opens our eyes to a wider world. Is this not “Good Friday” today? What better day to talk about the hero who loses everything — what a ride! His failure turns out to be a portal to a much grander “everything.” I don’t call myself a Christian, but if I did, this crucifixion business would be my entry point to the religion. He transcended the human condition. That’s where the ride is potentially headed. I think every journey presents that opportunity and compels us for that reason. Phew!

  4. yvettecarol says

    What better time of year indeed! Happy Easter, PJ, and let’s raise a toast to many more mullings over resurrection and changes of heart. Your swarm of bees story is terrifying and freeing, just as all good stories should be in some way…

  5. says

    Yvette… “Terrifying and freeing…” I like that. I have more “road stories” in store, and I’ll remember that as a guiding thought. The human condition seems to demand that we be terrified before as a precondition to finding ourselves free. Do your stories respect the same principle, Yvette?

  6. says

    Joanie… It was remarkable! And you’re right to ask about those kids — where did they come from? I suspect it was a busy road for traffic as well as pedestrians. It must have been the sight of a big white motorcycle ridden by a “mizungu,” and coming to a sudden stop. In fact, only the Zambian Police had bikes like that, mine having been acquired from the Police somehow by my boss, who sold it to me. Also, Zambian kids often hung out close to the edge of the forest as they headed homeward. They seemed to me to pour out of the woods. This was great sport for them. They were squealing and having a blast. Did the kids not get stung? Most of the bees were stunned after they hit me, and/or they got their one sting in and therefore had no more bite. I wish I could relive that event to see exactly how it all went down.

  7. says

    Thanks for fleshing out the scene for me, PJ! Relates a bit to my experience in India in the 70s; having my head groomed for (non-existent, thankfully) lice by the children in the village.

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