As I sat eating a meal at one of the small restaurants on Khaosan Road in Bangkok, a Japanese girl of about 25 years of age passed me by. Her hair was brushed back and tied in the style that is so prevalent of young travellers there. I could not help noticing behind her ear was a tattoo of a scorpion, and I wondered what the tale was behind it, and how she could possibly conceal it enough, so as not to damage any career path back in Japan, where tattoos are a taboo.
My imagination was sparked, conjuring up a tale about the day she decided to have it done and what followed since. It goes something like this:
One year ago…
‘A scorpion. Yeah, I like this one,’ Megumi pointed out to the Thai tattooist.
‘Behind the ear?’ he replied, ‘Are you sure about that?’
‘Yes. We only live once, right?’
The body artist started up a CD of hardcore Techno, and a rush of fear and excitement pulsed through her. As the needle scraped her skin, her boyfriend continued to encourage her by telling her that what she was doing was cool, rebellious and so very Khaosan Roadesque, as he lay beside her, while having his own tattoo etched upon him. Forever, they would be part of the global backpacking cult of tattooed sun-worshippers.
‘Daijobu, Megumi-chan. Daijobu,’ he repeatedly reassured her in Japanese, wincing each time the needle touched his skin. He felt reborn, alive and transformed.
Once back at Narita airport in Japan, the idealised rebellion that seemed so very right on holiday, quickly became a nightmare, as people stared and pointed at the two travellers. On the train into Tokyo from the airport, they sat next to a mother with an infant on her lap. The woman stared them up and down disapprovingly, shielding her child’s eyes, before quickly fleeing to another seat further down the carriage.
During the time since returning, Megumi has spent most of the past year obsessively trying to conceal the scorpion image from her parents and co-workers. Her long black hair luckily curls passed her ears enough to hide it. Unfortunately, she suffers now from chronic self-consciousness, and has developed a very odd habit of continually pulling her hair forward at the side.
At night time, she uses paper glue to stick hair over the offending spot, so that it does not accidentally reveal itself to her conservative mother, who awakens her each day. She tries desperately to always lay on her left side.
Her ex-boyfriend, now long gone, has been less fortunate, as it soon became apparent that a tattoo of a bright pink Gandhi on his forehead was going to swiftly bring an end to his career as an accountant. He is now unemployed and plays a didgeridoo in Ueno Park, dreaming of when he can earn enough money to return to Thailand for an image of Bob Marley on his neck.
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. During one performance, whilst a performer was busy focusing upon another snake, a 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 bite venom in victims.
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 viper in the world. Continually, I watched my every step, carefully following the path provided by my Amazon guide. I flicked my torch light 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 the infamous 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 friend from pouncing upon 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.
Photography by El-Branden Brazil
Currently about 300 people, 68 families live in small bamboo huts on stilts at the rubbish dumpsite of Mae Sot/ Thailand. These refugees who successfully fled the brutal military regime in Burma, with hopes of leading a life free of human rights abuses, are living under dire conditions. They lack working and residency papers, they are illegal immigrants living and working in the middle of stinky dump.
Their spirit of survival is amazing, but their conditions are terribly dismal. They literally live on the garbage and their houses are constructed and built from the recycled material from the garbage dump itself. The basic essentials they need to survive and to live as human beings basically come from the garbage dump and these include food, clothing, toys for their children, pots and utensils for cooking and even the water they drink come from the lake near the dumpsite which is terribly contaminated.
Please help to make a difference and relocate these refugees to a clean and safe area. On a rented property we will build basic infrastructural facilities such as housing, toilets and a water well.
Learn more here about how you can help: www.thebestfriend.org
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