Going back to New Zealand I’ve worked out that one word scares the bejesus out of my compatriots more than any other.
I can mumble on about political insurrection, about corruption, about insane traffic the likes of which Auckland never sees — nobody believes that one — and a thousand other things, but none matches that one word: snake.
New Zealanders hate snakes. New Zealanders are terrified of snakes. New Zealanders are fascinated by snakes.
When I returned to Auckland shortly after the second Bali bombings — 20 or so poor souls ripped to pieces — I was at a party and was asked what Bali was like as a place to live. I began to explain that the bombings, as awful as they were, did not necessarily make the place more dangerous than New Zealand (the driving does that — but that’s another story) day to day. I was cut off mid sentence by an anxious woman:
‘But, don’t you have snakes?’
‘Yes,’ someone else said, ‘what about the snakes?’
I looked around — everyone was nodding with some sort of wide-eyed fearful curiosity.
I understand. We don’t have snakes in New Zealand — aside from property developers and politicians — and they both terrify and fascinate the — awful two words — average kiwi. Indeed, in New Zealand, the idea that any wild beast — aside from a shark, and that is very, very rare — can seriously hurt, let alone kill, is quite alien.
When I first went to Bali, many years back now, I asked — also anxiously — if there were many snakes on the island. ‘Not many — no poisonous snakes.’ I was reassured with a smile by the local guide as we rattled along the seemingly more dangerous quarries they call roads.
It was, of course, a complete lie. Brazen. But one they tell all tourists.
The island is full of deadly snakes — from the thin, quite beautiful, green things that hang from trees to the aggressive cobras, some of which spit in your face from a distance — which seem to be more common than any other reptile you encounter aside from the ubiquitous small lizards that are everywhere.
Indeed, I encountered many, many snakes over the years I was there and only one, a huge python up in hills — you could have your photo taken with it for a price — was unable to inject my body with lethal toxins at whim.
Whilst still on holiday, one of those green harmless vipers slithered into the pool at the hotel in Sanur and swam over Bella — who was but 7 at the time — resting briefly on her shoulder. She was mostly oblivious, I screamed and dragged her from the pool. The pool boy took a large stick and killed it.
Why, I thought, if the thing is so harmless, do we need to kill it?
A couple of weeks after we moved there, a friend told us a story of a person in bed — watching telly — when the roof fell in and a family of vipers landed on the bed in front of her. She saved herself by tossing the sheet over the nest and running screaming.
Ah — so there are deadly snakes on paradise isle.….
Despite my kiwi-instinctive horror at all things long and slithery, I quickly got over it. You have to — you encounter the bloody things everywhere. Brigid almost stood on a cobra by the front door. It slid away, into a hole under the new garage floor. The gardener and the driver quickly mixed some instant concrete and cemented the thing into its new tomb.
For all, I know it’s still there. The staff, however, were terrified that they had offended or killed a god and stepped clear of the space thereafter.
We killed a snake — another cobra — in the garden after the dachshund had chased it into a corner. They both sat there taunting each other before the gardener swooped with a stick.
It was put outside in the trash. The old Chinese guy who owned the benkel sepeda motor (motorbike repair shop) across the road came over, took it out of the bin, cut the head off with a knife and ate the snake raw on the spot.
The dachshund, not having learned anything much — as is her way in life — cornered another cobra. It spat in her eye and she ran to us, yelping in extreme pain. She survived but still, years later, has a blue glow in that eye.
The same dog, with the more streetwise Bali dog as backup, tried, in front of me, outside, by my office, to herd a light brown cobra — one dog coming from the back, one from the front. In retrospect — which came a few seconds later — stupidly I ran over and grabbed both by their necks and threw them into the house. The snake headed into the garden.
It wasn’t uncommon, sitting in the office which had no walls and foliage around, to watch a brown or green snake slide past on the wall or grass. I was almost expert at working out what brand it was, but always conscious of the fact that there was/is no snakebite antidote to speak of on Bali — since there were no nasties on the island.
And so on.
We moved to Bangkok.
There are no snakes in Bangkok we were told when we arrived.