Do you know what kind of snake that is in the picture? It is a Puff Adder. When I was 19 and went to Africa for the first time, I had no knowledge of the existence of puff adders. I knew about mambas (both green and black) and cobras, but I didn’t know anything about puff adders, which actually are responsible for more snake bites than the mambas and the cobras. However, because I had no idea about the sometimes nastiness of puff adders, I had no idea that I needed to be afraid of them. I never saw one in Tanzania, although I am sure they were around, as they are very well camoflauged snakes. I wasn’t looking for them, so I didn’t see them, and I didn’t need to be terrified about stepping on one.
Now, let’s fast-forward to 2011. At some point after 1998, I became aware of the existence of puff adders. That generally wouldn’t be a big deal, as I don’t live somewhere threatened daily by a puff adder ambush. But now, I am going to South Africa in a couple of weeks. Part of that time will be spent in a very lovely game reserve where a puff adder was recently responsible for killing a much beloved leopard that was in rehabilitation there. So suddenly, I have all sorts of puff adder paranoia. This paranoia is egged on by these other, not so helpful puff adder fun-facts:
1. Puff-adders are slow-moving and don’t crawl away at the first sign of humans like many other snakes do.
2. Puff adders are both diurnal and nocturnal (and some say they are even more active at night).
Fact number 2 scares me the most, because when I was 19, I didn’t have to get up to go to the bathroom ten times a night like I do now. So now, I am terrified of stepping on a puff adder one night when I get up and have to go to the bathroom. This fear could potentially be so acute as to make me not drink more than 10 ounces of water a day and risk severe dehydration instead of potentially stepping on a puff adder.
Now I know what you are thinking, only a crazy person would behave this way! You would be right. Only a crazy person would behave this way. But the crazy person who risks dehydration for fear of stepping on a puff adder would be the same person who as a child, slept with a stuffed animal and pillow on top of her every night out of fear of being stabbed in the night by some home invader. That’s right, I did that. From a young age, I had an addiction to watching the nightly news, both national and local. For those of you who were not children of the 1980s, let me tell you, it was a scary time to be a four year-old watching the news. There was lots of crime and boogeymen out there. My belief was that if someone broke into our home and saw me sleeping in my bed with a pillow and stuffed animal on top of me, they would mistake me for a fat child and the knife with which they would attempt to stab me wouldn’t make it through all of the stuffing to reach my actual body. Of course, in the case of a gun, I was defenseless, because they didn’t make bullet proof vests in size 6x. Sure the news made me a paranoid mess, but I was the only first grader that could tell you who Geraldine Ferraro was and who could find Ethiopia on the map. So, there were upsides to watching the news also.
My basic philosophy generally has been to learn as much information as possible concerning all of the dangers of what could kill you so that you can prepare for every possibility. Of course, I objectively know that preparing for every possibility is impossible, but I would like to think that a puff adder is less likely to kill me now that I am aware that it exists and is capable of killing me. After all, I am going to be prepared for puff adders, but then be optimistic that I won’t ever see one, because it will be winter in South Africa, after all. They may all be hibernating!
I am aware of odds. That is why I am more afraid of puff adders now than Cape Cobras. Cape Cobras are diurnal, and I probably wouldn’t run into one on the way to the bathroom at night. The chance of a boomslang posing a threat is even less than a Cape Cobra.
I probably am crazy, but it is also true that when I am in Africa, I like to think that some of my slightly less cautious and conservative self comes out. It did before, when I went by Annie, after my middle name, because Leslie was a very complicated name for Tanzanians to pronounce. Annie was more adventurous and less cautious than Leslie (even though Annie was still somewhat terrified of being out on the town in Nairobi after dark). I think Annie might be back again. I like some adventure. I like a little bit of wildness. But, it is still in my nature to be a little bit cautious. After all, it’s all fun and games until someone steps on a puff adder.