After you’ve been away from the developed world for a while, you forget the degree to which safety has become entrenched in our lives. Seat belts, handrails, crosswalks, disinfectants, and strict codes and regulations punctuate our experiences in every means of transport and almost all settings. Much of the world has neither the ability nor the inclination to enforce such conventions. Anything with wheels is loaded with as much cargo–human, animal, and otherwise–as it can carry and sometimes more. People ride on rooftops, hang from bumpers and siderails, and cram themselves with sweaty masses into putrid, filthy spaces in an effort to get from one place to another. Anything that can be eaten is eaten, even if spoiled or tainted, because when you’re desperately hungry, such distinctions are irrelevant. Any structure that provides protection from the elements is inhabited even if it’s in danger of toppling, collapsing, or exploding because short-term survival outweighs long-term safety.
We’ve learned to adapt to the local conditions as we’ve traveled, understanding that a certain level of risk is required to experience the world. So far we’ve stayed both safe and healthy even though we’ve gone months without seatbelts and days without clean clothes. We’ve ridden unpredictable creatures through treacherous landscapes, eaten more than a few cockroach-riddled entrees, and hurled down sand dunes on flimsy plastic mats. Somehow our combination of common sense and good fortune have carried us through everything we’ve encountered.
This is why when we arrived at our Western-styled beach resort in Tunisia we did not expect to have our closest brushes with danger in all our global wanderings. Here’s how our week played out.
We arrived off the train from Tunis eager to relax and put in some serious school time. With 16 hours of daylight, we figured there would be plenty of time to enjoy the Mediterranean, swim in the pool, and submit Geometry and Biology tests online. In addition to these activities, we discovered some unexpected diversions as well. Our first day there we heard some strange whistling come from the beach and noticed some parachutes rising from the surf. Parasailing! I’ve always wanted to do it and even hunted for a recommended spot in the north of Australia a few years ago to no avail (it was off-season). Tom rushed out to the beach where a couple of locals were blowing whistles and dangling from the harnesses in an attempt to drum up business. He worked out a deal with the boat driver for all of us to take a turn–3 sets of 2 riders–and vowed to return later that day. There was still a chill in the air and Dax was jamming through his lessons, so I told Tom we should wait for a warmer day. After all, we would be there for 5.
The next day the air was hot and the wind was strong, perfect conditions for a parasail. We scampered out to the beach discussing who would ride with whom. McKane and I were up first. Dax would take Kieran and Tom would take Asher. The whistling, playboy salesmen directed us to jump in our harnesses while they got the parachute and boat in position. As soon as both were lined up, they clipped a few carabiners into our harnesses and started shouting and barking as if our takeoff was both imminent and urgent. We expected a little instruction and a safety briefing but got only this: (to McKane) You do nothing; (to me) You hold on to these ropes. Do not let go. When I blow the whistle, pull on the left rope. When I signal, do nothing.
“But how long is our ride? Do we need to anything about steering?” My questions were in vain as I was already in the air. We had gone from standing on the beach to being suited and airborne in a period of about 90 seconds. As we rose, 100 feet, 200 feet above the water, I was exhilarated by the view and the sensation of flying. Quickly however, I realized that my thin arms were stretched to their limit. My hands were straining to keep a grip on the ropes and I wasn’t sure what dire consequence would result if I let go. Within a few minutes we began our descent. I pulled on the left rope with all my tiny might when the playboy blew the whistle and we magically landed on the sand without injury. I was eager to jump out of the harness and massage my aching hands but after a minute of shouting and pointing and being directed to move my legs into different holes in the harness, I was back in the air again, this time with Dax as my passenger. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think my hands could last much longer, but if I let go we might go whipping uncontrollably through the clouds or come crashing to the ground. I held on for dear life and wondered why I was no longer dangling from the harness but instead sitting in it. Then I noticed that one of the two carabiners–the only things keeping me attached to the parachute and from freefalling into the Mediterranean below–was wide open! I mentioned it to Dax and had him check his for good measure. Slowly, cautiously, I removed my right hand from the rope and clipped the device shut wondering how close I had come to disaster.
The rest of the ride was slightly more enjoyable than the first but my hands were still smarting. Another safe landing and I was out of harm’s way, but now it was Tom and Asher’s turn. I quickly turned and yelled to Tom, “I don’t think this is safe for her.” In their usual manner, the playboys were madly strapping the duo in, and I shouted at them to stop. By this time Asher was already crying. Her vest was choking her as the rope was pulling she and Tom out to sea. The playboys ignored me and kept repeating, “It’s safe. It’s safe.” I barked at them again to stop and Tom worked feverishly to free her from the harness. I grabbed her from his arms and 10 seconds later he was gone. “Check your carabiners,” I called as he soared into the sky.
Tom made it back to the ground in one piece, and since Kieran had decided he didn’t want to ride, we were done. Tom handed over the price he had set the day before and was met by challenges and insults from the playboys. They demanded more money, claiming the price had changed since the previous day. He laughed and walked away.
A few nights later the kids got excited for another resort activity, the infamous snake charmer show. Tom and I exchanged smirks when a pudgy, old man in a red satin suit and turban stumbled onto the makeshift stage accompanied by the soulful strains of a New Age composer. He seemed almost drunk as he wobbled and chuckled through his multilingual introduction. His first feat was to snatch a deadly scorpion by the stinger. Trusting that his grip was enough to protect them from its venom, many of the spectators allowed him to run the prehistoric beast across their arms. Some even ended up with it on their heads.
After the scorpion and some slurred jokes, the stars of the show emerged from the charmers’ trunk–not one but three king cobras. The charmer bobbed, weaved, kicked, and prodded, all the time preserving a scant distance between the audience and the toxic reptiles. At one point he swung one of them in the air and pretended to fling it into the audience. Everybody laughed, but few trusted he was really in control of his venomous charges. We wondered if the snakes had somehow been rendered harmless by the charmer or a veterinarian, but any question we had as to their deadly potential were erased when a hapless German tourist wandered across the stage. The charmer kept his cool, but the look in his eyes was panic. What if one of the snakes lunged out and bit this clueless fellow? Based on the charmer’s expression, something quite frightening.
We all breathed a lot easier when the snakes were back in the charmer’s trunk. We had survived our second brush with danger at the resort and weren’t eager for another. Perhaps that’s why Tom and I passed on the magic show a few days later when one of the volunteers ended up with a nail in his stomach. Oops! It’s moments like these that we remember just how lucky we are to live in a country where caution is cool and people who perform with reptiles are licensed.