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.
Here 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.
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.