Category Archives: Life

Expat Life: But What About The…?

Lockdown Twitterings #1.

I don’t often leave Southeast Asia, and now that I no longer live on Ko Yao Noi, I don’t often meet overseas tourists. But if I do talk with people who are not familiar with a tropical climate and all that that entails, I can guarantee their first question will be…

“But what about the snakes?”

Yes. Sure. In this part of the world we have snakes. But a few minutes of research will tell you that aside from Antarctica there are only four countries that don’t. You can probably guess at least two. The fairly remote and really cold islands of Iceland and Greenland. The third you might guess too. The remote and somewhat cool islands of New Zealand. The fourth country is Ireland – the whole island, including the part the Brits stole and refuse to give back. Several stickyout bits of Scotland are only about forty kilometers from Ireland. You’d think the snakes could swim that far. Or they could hitch a ride on the umpteen car ferries that make the trip daily, or hide in a container on a cargo vessel. Maybe they don’t like Guinness. But hey, this is about the tropics…

I suspect the difference with a tropical climate is that there is a higher density of snakes per human. But if you are one of those people who think I must wake every morning to find I’m sharing my bed with a cobra, let me assure you – or at least try to – that even here, snakes are rare.

Of course, it depends where you live. If you choose to pitch a tent out in the jungle, fifty kilometers from the nearest town, you may well wake to find you have “visitors.” It doesn’t bother some people. It would bother me. I don’t like snakes, nor any of the many things in a tropical climate that can kill you – like scorpions and Thai motorists. Sometimes people ask me the stupid question “Which is your favorite kind of snake?” to which I swiftly answer…

“Dead ones!”

And yes, there are “kinds,” many many kinds. Deadly, and not. Apparently you can tell the difference between venomous and non-venomous by the shape of their eyes. Venomous are oval. Non- are round. Or maybe it’s the opposite. Like you’re going to walk up to a snake and say “Here snakey-wakey, let me look into your eyes.” Yeah, right.

Now, I have to admit, you do need to be alert to the possibility of snakes. But the fact is, over time, the brain does it for you. You don’t need to inspect your whole house and garden every day to see if a snake snuck in, but if out of the corner of your eye, your brain senses an unusual movement – like something quickly slithering behind an item of furniture, it will tell you “That could be a snake.” And you investigate. Or not. Depending on how long you’ve lived here.

Mostly I see them if I’m out tootling. Regular readers will know I go to all kinds of places, and in a day trip through remote areas, it would be unusual not to see a snake of some kind. Dead ones in the middle of the road score highest. Live ones crossing the road cause me to slow down so as not to hit them. And why would I do that you’re wondering. Well, it’s possible for the tire to whip them up – alive – inside the wheel arch, from where they may find their way into a nice warm engine bay, and give you a surprise welcome next time you decide to check the oil. You do check your oil don’t you?

Reminds me: I once had a good friend in Toronto who’d owned her car for five years from new, and never once had she had it serviced, nor once popped the hood to check oil or any other vital fluid that makes a car purr. And she’s standing there saying “It’s not running too well. What do you think’s the problem?” Duh! The owner?

Of course, all expats have snake stories. Some true, some not. Some true, but embellished. Mine are all completely factual. Yes, really, trust me!

A few months after arriving in Malaysia, thirty-plus years ago, I discovered from reading the local paper there was to be an important car rally passing through the plantations only about an hour from home. Those plantations are now shopping malls and housing developments. Anyhoo, I chose a place I could watch the rally at about 4pm. I left work early and turned up in what I was sure was the correct location. There was even the ubiquitous red and white tape marking all the junctions, and telling the spectator (me) where I could stand and not stand.

By 5:30pm nothing had happened, aside from me walking impatiently up and down the plantation roads while keeping one ear cocked for the sound of rally cars, and the other ear focussing on the possible sound of snakes. Not that I had any idea what sounds snakes make. Still don’t. But there were lots of holes in the earthen banks. “Must be snakes in there” the brain said. The brain was probably right.

Then a little Suzuki jeep appeared, containing a man whose facial expression said “What the hell are you doing here?” I rapidly explained about the rally. He was the plantation manager. He knew about the rally. He asked if he could watch with me. “Hey, it’s your plantation buddy.”

By about 6:30pm, it was starting to get dark. We’d seen no rally cars. But I’d learned a hell of a lot about plantation management. As it got darker – oh, and if you’re wondering why we were still there, well, rally people don’t give up. It could have snowed and we’d still have been there. So, yes, as it got darker I had the strangest sensation the ground was moving. The manager must have noticed my head wobbling from side to side as he calmly said “That’s the rats.”

“Excuuuse me. You have rats?” “Oh yes” he said “That’s why we like the snakes.” Gulp. He went on to explain that the rats scoot up the trees and eat the oil palm fruits, so they actively breed lots of snakes to keep the rat population down. From what I could see at that moment, I’d have to think his plan wasn’t working. There were thousands of them.

I was also thinking that perhaps there was just one thing that would make a rally spectator go home early. Being surrounded by rats and snakes. (Cue Indiana Jones music.) But then just as I was planning how to make my escape, given that it was almost dark, and my car was a good one kilometer away, he helpfully said “Don’t worry, I’ll drive you to your car.” So we watched the rally in a – by now unseen – sea of rats and snakes, and he drove me back, as promised. And I arrived home about four later than predicted to a tongue lashing that was even scarier. “Where the hell…” etc.

Spot the car!
Still on the subject of rallying in Malaysia, there’s one place rally crews really love to go to compete in an event. The northern state of Perlis. You see, the plantations there are mostly sugar cane. So if you go off the road, you don’t damage the car. Unlike oil palm and rubber trees, sugar cane is soft. And no, if you hit a rubber tree you don’t go boing and bounce off! Actually there are other reasons crews like to go to Perlis. It has something to do with the proximity of the Thai border and the delights that await on the other side, but that’s best left un-discussed!

What does this have to do with snakes? Well, if a car does go off the road into the sugar cane and as a result gets stranded, crews are strongly advised to stay in their car. Sugar cane plantations are the favorite haunts of king cobras. As snakes go, they are the kings of the nasties. They can run faster than you.

Wait a minute, do snakes run? Slither? Slide? No matter. The fact is, you can’t out run them, and they are big and deadly.

Say Hi to Monty.
Talking of big, the stupidest snakes are the pythons. They’re not venomous. They can’t eat a human. But that doesn’t stop them trying.

They’re quite happy to drop onto you out of a tree, grab an arm with a viscous bite, wind themselves around you so tightly you can’t breathe, before deciding “No. Can’t eat this one.” No consolation for you. You’ve just been suffocated to death.

In the “old days,” living en famille and before moving to Thailand, we would sometimes get snakes around the house. Being the larger of the male residents, I was the designated snake killer. I should put that on my résumé. Or, if I have an unsuccessful day – on my tombstone! One day my son was outside, attempting to reach the car to go somewhere, and shouting at the top of his lungs. This caused me to have one of my “What have I told you about not shouting?” lectures, to which he almost whispered “Err, snake?” Okay, that’s worth shouting about.

These days I whoosh them away with a broom, but back then I had to do the macho thing and chop them up with the garden spade. This particular day I was lucky. It was a black cobra, and very often these are what’s known as spitting cobras. This one wasn’t, or at least, it didn’t. But, they have infrared sensors which allow them to spit venom into your eyes. I’m told this is excruciatingly painful for about a week, and then it gets a little better. Well, anyways, I was wearing glasses so no worries. Chop, chop, chop.

Now that I think of it, I have lots more snake stories, but I’m not going to tell them, otherwise you’ll think that living here is dangerous and we’re surrounded by snakes at all times. Nahhh. Total rubbish. Almost never see them. In fact the last one I saw was a long time ago. Must have been 10am yesterday when I went to pay the water bill. Or was it 10:30?…