This morning I woke with danger on my mind.
All night I’d tossed and turned through a long zigzagging stream of disastrous dreamscape – the hot weather no doubt to blame.
Danger and safety are inseparable themes in my travels, as they are in my dreams, a Yin and Yang that occupy both waking and sleeping mind.
Over the last thirty years, I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life living and travelling in regions of the world where safety is a notion that holds almost no solid value at all.
In a great many countries, the daily newspapers are packed with tales of terror: Buses swerved off roads into ravines, warehouse infernos, explosions ripping through factories, poison gas leaks, and all the rest.
As a child I grew up in the tranquil lime-green countryside of Kent, a place where almost nothing unsafe ever occurred.
For adults, it was blissful. For children, it was boredom beyond belief.
The way I saw it then, danger equalled real life.
Each evening, I’d sit on the sofa with my knees pushed up under my chin, and watch the world news on TV, gripped with deranged longing – a longing for danger. Everyone else had wars and accidents, natural disasters and even serial killers. But, in Langton Green, we had nothing remotely dangerous at all.
So, in my teens, I set off to Africa in search of the kind of danger I’d only ever seen in the square frame of our TV.
From the first day my pristine hiking boots touched the Dark Continent’s red clay soil, I was introduced to a lack of safety on a profound and irresistible scale. Rattling around the continent in buses without seat belts, windows or brakes, I glimpsed through a keyhole into what I imagined was the default setting of the world.
A world where life’s cheap, and where it’s lost in the blink of an eye for a myriad of reasons – most of them utterly avoidable. It was all so very different from life in Langton Green.
Africa in the 80s was a dominion overrun with famine and war. As my hiking boots turned gradually from pristine to battered, I witnessed a kaleidoscope of woe in corners of the continent.
The thing that affected me wasn’t so much the big-ticket disasters – the civil wars and mass starvation. In many ways they were just too whopping to take in. What touched me more was the stream of senseless injury, maimings and death, resulting from corners cut, backhanders paid, and a general erosion of the kind of values that were so central to life in my childhood.
On the journeys I’ve made since my first African travels, my diaries have chalked up a catalogue of misfortune: A bus upside down in the Ethiopian Highlands, the dead and dying scattered all around. A gas leak in Rajasthan that took out an entire block, cutting short so many lives. A riverboat in the Brazilian Amazon which became a death ship all because the captain was passed out from gut-rot brew.
As time has slipped by, and as I’ve aged, my own longing for danger has waned. Looking back, I shake my head at all the times I’ve diced with Death and enjoyed it because of my own short-sightedness. I think of too many friends lost to shootings, hijackings, bandits, car wrecks, and incoming fire.
But it was a single event that flipped me from being a danger-junkie to a safety-nut – an event which took place on a baking Sunday morning in Morocco.
Almost fifteen years ago, I bought a magical rambling riad in one of Casablanca’s great shantytowns, and promptly dragged my family to live there. One of the reasons for the life-shift was to give my kids a good long dose of reality – the kind never visited on my own childhood.
In the years since relocating to Morocco, I’ve witnessed every imaginable variety of accident. Moroccans believe that the future ‘is written’. They say trying to shape what will happen is largely a waste of time. It’s a mind-set that helps lessen the pain supplied by unexpected trauma. You could argue that it leads to recklessness as well.
A few years ago, on that roasting hot Sunday morning, I was just about to drive downtown with my kids, when the guardian stumbled out from the garden. His hand was almost severed, in an injury worthy of a low-budget horror flick.
The day before he’d begged me to buy an angle-grinder – not an entry-level one, but a device worthy of a man with a crazed lust for power tools. Having never used an angle-grinder before, and wild with enthusiasm for the equipment, the accident was as swift as it was absolute.
After almost bleeding to death during the high-speed race to the hospital, I tracked down the best hand surgeon in Africa. Having inspected the wound, he did a karate-chop kind of a motion at right angles to his own wrist. ‘Amputation,’ he hissed confidently. ‘Simple and economical.’ The guardian grimaced. Regarding him as a member of our family, I promised to do all I could to save his hand.
A series of complex operations followed, then months of physiotherapy. The hand was saved, and it regained almost full mobility and strength.
I often find myself wishing we could pause time, a moment before a catastrophe strikes. But, I suppose, in a way we can.
If we question how events spun from our actions will play out, we’ll see the world around us in a different way. By re-evaluating seemingly-safe situations right now, observing them from other angles, we may save ourselves – and avoid edging blindfold into the danger zone… whether it lie in the world around us, or deep inside our dreams.
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