Monday, December 17, 2012

The Flying Cobra? You May Keep Him if You Wish.

A bright Pakistani morning.

Standing in the driveway of our residence in Islamabad, talking to one of the servants, Sol, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. More accurately said, I saw a brown blur. It appeared briefly in the air over the ten-foot stone wall in a far corner of the immense front yard and then disappeared into the shrubbery.

"What was that?" I asked. Sol turned but didn't see anything. The bell at the front gate began ringing.

"Sol, please answer the gate. I will go see what came over the wall."

Sol went to the gate, and an animated conversation ensued. I, meanwhile, began walking across the lawn to the bush-filled corner where I thought the blur had landed.

"Sir," Sol yelled. "Don't go there! The cobra catcher says we have a cobra in the yard!"

Few words stop me in my tracks. After years in South Asia, however, "cobra," does. I froze for a few seconds, then headed to the gate to join Sol and company. The cobra catcher and his assistant smiled.

In poor Urdu I said, "How do you know we have a cobra?"

"It is my profession."

"You threw him into the yard, didn't you?"

He replied something, and Sol said to me, "He says he does not speak Urdu well. He speaks Hindko Punjabi. It is tough for me to understand him. I think he says, however, that cobras can jump over the wall."

"I see. Now he doesn't understand. Cobras can jump over a three meter wall?"

Sol relayed my skepticism to the catcher, who smiled and replied with great equanimity in English, "Sir, they can jump to great heights, almost flying. You, sir, may keep the cobra if you wish. I do not object." He and his associate, who had a burlap bag, began to leave.

Here I stood, another of Kipling's fools "who thought he could hustle the East." Either let the cobra catcher run his scam, or have a cobra slithering in the yard where my two kids play.

I don't like getting conned, but at certain times must endure it. Taking a deep breath, debating silently whether to get the Remington 870 from the house and take care of the problem myself, I uttered the fateful words of Western surrender to pirates, words Thomas Jefferson would not have approved, "How much to get rid of the cobra?"

"Only twenty rupees," he said in now excellent Urdu. With a sum then equal to about two dollars, I just had a price put on my dignity.

"OK."  Thomas Jefferson, please forgive me. "Get the cobra."

The barefoot snake men ran without hesitation to the corner of the yard. While the head catcher shouted instructions, his assistant poked around with a short stick he had taken out of the bag. The cry of victory rang out! The assistant reached into the bushes and pulled out about three or four feet of cobra. I am no expert, but the thing did not look lively or well. He thrust the poor reptile into the bag, and they began to leave. The chief cobra catcher stopping to hold out his hand for the ransom. My inner Westerner, however, could not leave well enough alone.

"I paid you to kill the cobra. Kill it."

"We will do so outside, away from your eyes. It is not a pleasant sight."

"I can take it. Sol, get a shovel so our friends can kill the cobra here."

"No, no," the cobra catcher insisted. With a slight smile, and in a mix of English and Urdu, he added,"It is a difficult procedure. The dangerous snake might escape and pose a threat to you and your family. I do not wish to be responsible."

I paid the two bucks.

The two men walked out of the yard and down the street . . . to the next foreigner's house.

That cobra had a lot more flying to do that day.

WLA

13 comments:

  1. The "blood of patriots" and all that - I'm certain Tom forgives you.

    "How much to get rid of the cobra?" after all was originally written while Tom was serving as Ambassador to France.

    How much to get rid of the cobra? - reflects well upon yourself Diplo, reads like 18th century Enlightenment writing to me!

    Arkie

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  2. Great story! LOL Loved it.

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  3. Oddly enough they exist, "There are five recognized species of flying snake, found from western India to the Indonesian archipelago" National Geographic, and a variety of species found on the east and west coasts of the U. S.. A sub-species (Democratius Noxious) located in the Washington D. C. are known to be extremely aggressive and dangerous, though not particularly intelligent.

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    1. Bwaaa haa haaa ha...

      Thanks James for making me spew coffee all over my monitor. (And I mean that in a good way!)

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  4. The first year I taught in Taiwan, I was walking across the campus and saw a crowd of students and staff milling about in front of the administration building. Not a demonstration or anything, but definitely interested in something. I joined the crowd and saw in a two-meter square patch of unoccupied lawn, a dead banded krait draped over a mountain climbing pick. Apparently, the mountain climbing club had just returned from an outing, someone saw the krait, and hit it with his pick.

    Also, when I served in Thailand, I heard that we had barely kept "hardship" designation (plus differential) because the inspector who was about to take such designation from us got bitten by a banded krait while inspecting the spirit house the Thai employees had discretely put up in a corner of the Embassy grounds. The inspector was lucky to have survived the bite.

    BTW, Dip, everyone I ever met who had served in Pakistan had VERY disparaging things to say about that country.

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  5. 1. Simple minded, but effective scams.
    2. None of them would foll a second grader, but in that environment, they work.
    3. Remember watchnights fondly. Another continent.
    4. Think the administration has launched a number of flying cobras.
    5. The assistants are scouring the grounds and the cobra catchers are awaiting payment.
    V/R JWest

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  6. I would gladly have paid 20 Rupees (or more) for a snake catcher in Bangui. I have never served in a country with so many snakes, including one that fell out of our mosquito netting into the bed as my wife was retiring. Fortunately, he wanted to get out of the house as much she wanted him to!

    One that we saw regularly was the rhombic night adder, a snake that is said to swim proficiently. Just what we needed, living as we did no the banks of the Ubangi River. A good friend and hunting buddy was the director of the local Pasteur Institute and I asked him if it was poisonous. "Moyennement," he replied. Somewhat. What the hell does somewhat poisonous mean, I asked. Can it kill me? He laughed.

    A guest at one of our garden receptions pointed up the palm tree in the back yard. A rhombic night adder had half a large lizard hanging out of his mouth about 15 feet above our heads. I figured there was not much to do about it in the middle of a public gathering and it had disappeared later in the day. In the immortal words of Indiana Jones: "Snakes. Why'd it hafta be snakes?"

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  7. Ah yes, the old "flying cobra scam"...

    I'm still laughing (very hard) and expect to chuckle over this yarn well into the night.

    I have no Kipling to quote but perhaps he touched upon this subject?

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    1. As far as I know Rikki Tikki Tavi was his only snake endeavor. This story will make you think; A man in India who had a screen door entrance to his bathroom was in the habit of not turning on the lights when he used it at night. The door had a return spring for automatic closing. One night half asleep while going to the restroom the door didn't sound the same when it closed, but he paid no attention and went back to bed. The next morning he found a dead cobra draped over the top of the door, it's neck broken by the door on it's shutting.

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    2. I believe he has a snake in the Jungle Book: a python. I might be wrong.

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  8. Ah, your story brought back memories of South Asia... The kids around Connaught Circle in New Delhi who would surreptitiously goo the foreigner's shoe and then offer to clean it; the krait I killed as it went under the door to my bungalow in Rajasthan one evening; the 36 kraits one family killed in their Islamabad compound one year; and, as I recall, the "Margalla Hills" around Islamabad translate into something to do with snakes. Urban Americans miss a lot, I think.

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    1. I lived at the foot of the Margalla Hills. I would go out on my balcony on those bright crisp Islamabad mornings and look at those Hills . . . a fond memory.

      I got my shoe gooed at Connaught, too. The only revenge was giving the cleaning business to a kid who had not gooed the shoe.

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