November 15, 2006

Tales Of Snakes

Right: The Mystic Traveller gets intimate with a python in Thailand.

On my various journeys, I have come across snakes, whether wild in the jungle, caged up at zoos, or kept in a snake charmer's basket. Here are a few of my serpent encounters.

When I visited Bombay (Mumbai) in India, I stayed at a hotel in Colaba. After a month staying at $2 a night dives, it was a pleasure to stay at somewhere a little more plush.

Outside the hotel was a snake charmer, crouching near a low wall. As soon as he saw me, dollar signs must have been popping into his line of vision. Without a second's pause, he lifted the lid of the little basket in front of him, at which point, a cobra darted up and out of its weaved home. Instead of staying magically transfixed by the pipe of the charmer, it obviously saw a good chance to escape its humiliating circumstances.

As it quickly tried to slip away, the charmer grabbed it by the tail, forcing the snake to do what it does best in such situations: BITE! Repeatedly, the snake tagged the charmer's shoulder to my horror. However, it soon became apparent that the snake had been treated in some way, perhaps having its fangs removed, because the snake charmer just remained calm and did not seem to care in the slightest.

When I visit Thailand, I feel drawn to see a snake show from time to time. I cannot explain what the attraction is, but there is something fascinating in seeing snake handlers provoke cobras to strike; if somewhat unethical and unnecessary.

In Bangkok, I have seen several times a show that involves a King Cobra - the largest venomous snake in the world. One time, while the performer was busy focusing upon one snake during the show, another cobra decided it had had enough of the camera flashes, and obviously thought it would make a swift exit. It was only when the snake started crawling up the audience's seating area, and people started to move away quickly, did the snake performer take note of his escaping reptile. To everyone's relief, the truant fanged animal was quickly brought back under control.

Unlike the cobra in India, they were clearly still very dangerous; a fact made apparent after a venom-milking demonstration. The process involves forcing the snake's mouth over a rubber bladder, which it punctures with its fangs to release poison into a glass container. This venom is then used to produce vital antivenin for neutralising snake bites. Seeing that yellow gloop did not for a second change my mind that perhaps a cobra bite would not be a whole lot of fun!

When I was night trekking in the Amazon, all I could think about was the Bushmaster, which has the dubious reputation for being highly aggressive and the owner of the largest fangs of any snake in the world. Continually, I watched my every step, carefully following the path provided by my Amazon guide. I flicked my torch light continually about, catching sight of large bull frogs. Suddenly, on the path ahead, the slithering body of a large snake came into view. In panic, thinking that it was a Bushmaster, I screamed out a warning to my guide. In all my years of travelling, I have never seen anyone jump so quickly backwards at Olympian heights, as he did.

To our relief, a biologist that was with us, quickly determined that it was a Rainbow Boa Constrictor; while not venomous, it could still provide a nasty bite with its recticular fangs. However, this did not deter our biologist from pouncing on to it and wrapping it around his shoulders to the horror of our guide.

Of course, inevitably when travelling through Asia, the adventurous gourmet will partake in consuming snakes. In China, I have eaten snake several times, in a variety of concoctions, such as snake soup, snake cutlets and fried snake skin. It is a hackneyed comparison, but once you get pass the bones, snake does taste just like a chewier chicken.

In Vietnam, they sell a ginseng wine that has a fully hooded cobra within the bottle. The snake's venom glands are obviously removed, but it makes for a pleasant drink. The Vietnamese sell souvenir bottles at the airport in Ho Chi Minh. However, any traveller who chooses to purchase one of these, should be aware that it may well get confiscated by Customs on arrival at most international airports, such as Heathrow or JFK.

When I was in Vietnam, there was government moratorium in place to stop the trapping of wild snakes for food, because the rodent populations had now got so out of control that farmers' crops were being severely damaged.

We have very good reasons to be wary of snakes, but they fear us more than we fear them. They deserve our respect, as they have always done. It comes as no surprise to find these magical reptiles being central in so many of the world's cultures, whether in the mythology of the ancient Egyptians, the Maya and Aztec, the Aborigines of Australia, the Buddhists and Hindus of Asia, or in the Edenic stories of the Jews, Christians and Muslims, alike. Snakes will continue to always be entwined into the human psyche.

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