A serpent surprise when three friends reunite in Dehli, India. (2017)
Just One More Shop
A rite of passage in Asian travel for this fearless threesome is the tangential shopping excursion. Scott, Dan and I have backpacked together in past trips to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Wherever the city or whatever the tour, this outing involves a detour to a best friend’s, brother’s, mother’s or some other distant relative’s shop. All this is always fine, we’re all pretty chilled and it’s good to give a little bump to the local economy.
So no, our rickshaw tour of Old Dehli wouldn’t be complete without some more redundant shopping. I’d been wrangled into an earlier purchase, a scarf of all things, by Hussein – procurer of fine wool and kashmir. Luckily it’ll go to good use since Dehli’s January evenings are surprisingly chilly.
“What’s this, the fourth shop now?” I grumble to Dan as we negotiate the high-angle steps down to the basement and enter the showroom, its walls lined mostly with woodcarvings. A row of extravagant marble elephants – each the size of a football — catches my eye. They’re nicer than most but could do without the strings of Bedazzler rhinestone decoration.
“Looks kinda the same as the last one,” Dan chuckles. He’s right and I’ve seen enough. As the salesman locks onto him, I hightail it back up the claustrophobic stairwell, squeezing around Scott and the rickshaw driver with, “I’ll wait up in the alley.”
Sneaky Mr. C.
Minutes pass in the shadowy back street and I hope the guys resurface soon. Then I notice a man in a peach turban, sitting ten paces away who places a wicker basket on the street. He raises an eyebrow and the lid off the basket, setting it aside. At first, there’s only hot pink cloth. Oh wait, something’s moving in there. Am I seeing this right? The creature wiggles free and dances upwards until it’s nearly erect. Is that…a cobra?
“Yes!” I exclaim to no audience.
Mr. Cobra waves me over. I’m ripe for a photo op and require zero coaxing. We chat and haggle, agreeing on roughly two dollars for few snaps as Scott appears. “Whoa!” He laughs, taking in the scene with Dan right behind him (ditto the reaction).
“Yes, yes. Come,” Mr. Cobra whispers and pats the dirty concrete. His serpent pet sways as he cradles it away from me on his left side. As much as I want this Kodak moment, I crouch down on his right keeping a foot of distance because of … well, that cobra. With hand extended, I fumble with my phone’s camera function while Dan waits for the handoff. “C’mon, Klamner, you gotta be smarter than the phone,” he cracks.
Almost got it. “Here…” As Dan takes the phone, Mr. Cobra’s brown sweater brushes against me. Then I feel a flicker on my right shoulder. Please no … it can’t be. Mr. Cobra, you sneaky bastard! The snake’s tail twirls below my chin and my molars compress. Its cool, firm scales brush my neckline and as it tightens its grip, the corners of my eyes squish. I shift my gaze to the turbaned handler, only to see the cobra’s face swaying inches from mine. Its head may very well be as wide as mine and I think I can smell mice on its breath. Be cool, just don’t move!
Several uncomfortable seconds pass (for me) with Scott howling behind Dan as he pokes the phone screen and then nods.
“You get the photo?” I whisper, trying not to tremble.
“Even better. I’m switching to video!” Dan crows as Scott howls harder.
Oh, c’mon already.
The Jokes on Me
Dan continues documenting my terror as a van slows down. Its horn wails and the gaggle of locals inside shout out the windows, “Hey!”
Oh, for Christ sake!
The driver reaches out a hand, slaps the side of the white door and yells over the intermittent horn bursts, “What’s wrong, friend? You’re not looking so well!”
Dude … stop! Mr. Cobra shows empathy and guides his pet away a few inches, possibly to prevent me from crapping myself.
“What do you say, Zack?” Dan asks with a shit-eating grin.
“Ugh… Cheeeeeese?” All I wanted was a picture with Mr. Cobra but got the serpent sneak attack. This snake must be “de-venomed”? That’s got to be a thing, right? But what if…
Driving a Hard Bargain
My mind is racing, which Mr. Cobra notices. And uses as leverage. “Five dollars and I take it away,” he proposes.
“We agreed on two dollars,” I reply, my inner frugal sense obviously betting on “no venom.” Again the snake’s bobbing head is ushered closer to my face. Mr. Cobra, you crafty S.O.B.! “Alright, three dollars and if the photos are nice, I’ll leave a good tip.”
Re-negotiated deal in place. Cobra whisked away. Whew. Minutes later I swipe through the pictures. Yep, a good tip is in order.
It turns out venom can be removed from snakes. With snake charmers, this is a common practice, for obvious industry-related hazards. Extracted venom is often sold on the black market; its uses include sedatives, anti-venom and more recently “banned party drugs.” Oh, you crazy India teens and your all-night snake parties!
Don’t Be A Stranger!
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed the inaugural blog for Tacks on a Map, many more to come. Comment at will!