Feb 11th, 2010 - If there was any such thing as a typical day for me yesterday would not have been it. Then again I suppose the atypical has become somewhat of a regularity. I was told by a local friend of mine (Jewel) that within a couple hours' bus ride south of Dhaka, Bangladesh resides a community of snake charmers. Naturally, my curiosity was piqued so I inquired if it were possible to meet these folks. As Jewel works for a tour company (Guide Tours) he has connections. He also spent seven days working and living in that community assisting a project undertaken by BBC television during their production of Tough Guy or Chicken.
The village patriarch with whom I eventually met can be found in a few of the photos below. He is the gentleman with the long white chin-beard, white robe, and red scarf. You can also see him in a clip from the show below. Jewel knew the man and promised to help with the arrangements. After a few phone calls I had a guide who would accompany me from Dhaka and act as liaison with the locals.
Having a guide proved to be most expedient as arranging all of this myself would have been a colossal headache and potentially even more expensive. I met my guide (Nayeem) near Dhaka University and we quickly hopped on a bus to Munshiganj, a town very close to the village of Rahmapatur (our destination). After arriving we hailed a rickshaw and made our way to the village. It was there that I met one of the most experienced snake handlers around, Shoporaj Dholu (he served as mentor to the five blokes in Tough Guy or Chicken. He spoke no English making my guide an invaluable asset).
The people of this village are known as Bedey, a caste of gypsies renowned for their proficiency with snakes, especially deadly ones. Years ago the Bedey were nomadic, living on house boats and moving from place to place via the many water routes snaking (pardon the pun) across Bangladesh. They made their living selling medicines, catching snakes for those in need, and providing entertainment in towns and villages along the way. As this way of life became more and more difficult some started to settle down. Dholu's father was one such individual and the one who built the houses where Dholu now resides with his two brothers and their families. However, their passion for snakes is alive and well within the village. The snakes provide income in a number of ways.
It is not unusual for an organization, say a film company for instance, to put in an order for different types of serpents to serve as 'actors' in a documentary or movie. They also receive requests to appear at festivals or schools (in fact Dholu's brother was visiting a school that very day in order to put on a performance for the children). They also provide a service for prospective pet owners should someone decide they want something unique to spice up the décor of their living room.
Not long after I arrived at Dholu's home boxes were brought out containing serpentine residents. The first was a species of cobra. He (or she) was not particularly stoked to come out and play. This was not my first close cobra encounter. While in Indonesia I had the honor of making one's acquaintance, although on that occasion I sort of ate one for dinner. (See Mas Mul). Not sure these folks would have appreciated that story so I kept it to myself.
After a bit of slithering and hissing Dholu took the snake in hand, grabbed it around the head, opened its mouth and put a few drops of deadly venom into his palm. Want to freak yourself out and participate in a psychosomatic experiment? Put a drop of cobra venom on the tip of your finger and then taste it. Yes, that's right, I swallowed snake venom. I was assured it was harmless to swallow but I still watched Dholu and my guide do it first. As it was explained to me there is no danger in ingesting the venom….unless you have an ulcer or a cut in your mouth or something, something, and something. The danger is somehow vitiated by the inhospitable environment of the stomach. It has something to do with the temperature. I was also told that if the venom is boiled in water it no longer poses a risk. Dholu said that if he were to mix the venom over a open cut in his skin it would be good night Irene.
Even still, for awhile afterward my inner dialogue went something like this: Am I sweating? Did my heart just skip a beat? Would I win a Darwin Award for this? Am I dizzy or just hungry? Maybe I have an ulcer. Am I an idiot? I'm an idiot. No, I'm awesome. A real badass. A badass that might start whimpering for a little girl at any moment.
After the cobra I was presented with a python which I quickly placed around my neck. No real danger here as these serpents are real teddy bears. I was also presented with a small tree snake decorated with a geometric pattern of red, black, yellow, and green. I think this was Dholu's favorite as he told us he bought it from India and that it was very rare in Bangladesh.
As always I was not entirely sure what to expect during this journey. My original plan was to spend two days and one night either in Munshiganj or in Dholu's village. I was under the impression that snake catching/handling was an everyday occurrence but this is not how it works. It appears to be entirely dependent on demand. When snakes are requested or services required Dholu and his brothers respond. So I had to ask what it would take to find a King Cobra. Dholu explained that catching the regal serpent requires ten men, mostly due to the elusive nature of the snake. He disperses his assistants throughout the countryside in a collective effort to locate the monarch. Once located the actual capture requires only two people. How much for the operation? I was told 100, 000 taka ($1400). Right. Maybe next time.
We did make a somewhat half-hearted attempt to locate any snake as we walked along the river but to no avail. The best time to find snakes is during the monsoon season, still a few months away. The best place to locate serpents is near ponds, graveyards, and crematories. Graveyards? Well, as people rarely walk through these areas snakes can find a bit of solitude. As far as crematories go I surmise that, as they are cold blooded, they may be attracted by the heat. I guess if I want to go on a snake chase I should come back in May or June and save my pennies.
I did, however, get to see a bigger version of the cobra Dholu kept at his house. He brought me to another section of the village where more boxes were presented and multiple cobras showcased. It was here I faced-off with one of the beasts. Although I knew Kaa could not do any serious harm I would be lying if I said my heart did not skip a few beats while Mr. Ornery was hissing incessantly and snapping at me like I'd insulted his mother. Dholu even let me caress my nemesis although I was unsuccessful at 'charming' my new friend.
I am often torn between relentless curiosity and a profound respect for magnificent creatures like these snakes. The reality is that every family unit keeps multiple snakes in their living areas. They are kept in small wooden boxes and who knows how often they are released (perhaps often, perhaps not). Truthfully, the dark environment of the box mimics the rat holes these snakes often use as homes but 0f course there they have freedom of movement in the wild. They are fed regularly and the folks appear to hold a distinct measure of respect for the snakes. Still, there is something a bit unnatural (if not immoral) about riling up a frightened reptile and extracting venom just so Johnny Tourist (i.e. me) can ogle. On the other hand experiences like this that can be shared and retold can have a positive impact also, perhaps helping to foster respect in those that give little thought to the natural world and all of its complexity. Rationalization I suppose but it is the way in which I justify zoos and research that inevitably place stress on animals, a greater good type rational.
After a walk through the potato/rice fields surrounding the area along the river we returned to Dholu's home for a late lunch. As usual my every action was scrutinized by all. Following a spot of tea, a flurry of photographs, and polite conversation Nayeem and I made our way to Munshiganj to catch a bus back to Dhaka. Dholu was hoping we would spend the night and although the offer was tempting I was a bit afraid that monetary expectations might skyrocket if I lingered. In order to avoid awkwardness I decided it would be best to depart. Still, the temptation to spend more time there was significant. Who knows what I may have missed?
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