Saturday, September 27, 2008

Snake/Rat Story

So while I'm overwhelmed with work--one long news piece and one food review due Monday for my regular Alternative Weekly gig; my column and a feature due Oct 13 for Skunk Magazine, a cover story due Nov 1 for Cannabis Canada, the finish of my book project, the organization of an 8-day trip to Peru (14 days for me) starting on Oct 28, and preparations for two trips in Peru in Jan and Feb of '09, a friend wrote Thursday night asking if I had a few minutes. Seems he's got a friend who's written a lot of books and for one reason or another she needs short bits about adventure for her new book.
Well, I was flattered, as I always am when someone wants to include me in their books--happened twice last week, and though they pay little or nothing, it's generally a reprint so what the heck. Well, I'd had a bad dream Thursday night, one in which I was excellently prepared to take care of a dangerous situation in public, but subsequently found myself allowing my Madeleina to be in the presence of Hannibal Lecter--just like real life, I'm okay for everybody but worried I'm not capable of caring for my own family--and so I was awake at 2 AM when the first note arrived asking for a short jungle piece. I found one, cut and copied it, framed it to work as a stand-alone and sent it off. A couple of hours later, me still not sleeping, I was asked for another. I found another and did the rest. Then another note asking for more until I'd sent seven pieces out. Two, Lengua and Catering an Amazon Party I sent whole; the others, about the first time I met the Matses, about Sapo, the marvelous Matses' medicine, about the river pirates on the Yivari when I was plant collecting for Shaman Pharmaceuticals in the early 1990s all got worked on. And then there was this very short bit that I don't know if I've ever written. If I did I couldn't remember, so wrote it.
Which was a lot of work for a guy with three hours sleep who'd just woken from an awful nightmare. But it made yesterday sweet because I felt like I'd already done a full day's work by the time the sun rose. And even better, the author wrote to say she'd like to include a number of them. Cool.
So here's the bit I think is new:

I was interviewing the great herpetologist Rom Whitaker for a big magazine and so was spending a month at his compound in Tamil Nadu. One of the things Rom was doing was working with the Irula tribals, the famed snake catchers. As Rom had been instrumental in getting a ban on the snake skin trade--ban is a strong word in India, but at least in slowing it considerably--he felt a responsibility to the Irula whose stock in trade he'd cut back drastically. So he taught them to extract venom from snakes, and paid them well. That way they could still do what they loved--which was to catch snakes--but instead of killing them for their skins, they had begun collecting and selling venom, then releasing the snakes back into the wild.
One of the other things the Irula loved to do was catch rats. And in Tamil Nadu, where there are a lot of rice farms, there are a lot of rats. But the owners of those fields generally disliked the Irula just tromping through them. So Rom Whitaker began making deals with those owners: He explained that since the rats were capable of eating their own weight in grain daily, they ought to let teams of Irula come in periodically and eliminate all of the rats in a given paddy. Being organized like that, the owners went for the idea. Rom, in turn, bought the rats from the Irula to feed the several thousand crocodilians he was raising in a dozen huge pits on his property. The crocs were a gene pool and they were being studied by several university students. They were also a tourist draw and thousands of people would stop by in busses daily to gawk at them as well as to watch the Irula deftly handle poisonous snakes as they extracted their venom.
But if you wanted to be a student and work at Whitaker's place, he had one condition: You had to eat bar-be-cued rat. He'd make a big party of it when a new bunch of students came to study for a week or two, organizing a huge rat bar-be-cue. He also insisted that I eat if I wanted to finish the interview we'd started days earlier. Well, rats being the only thing at Whitaker's place that flat-out scared me--the crocs and the cobras were not nearly as frightening--I almost gave up the interview. And when three of the creatures were placed on a plate for me I nearly died. So I made a deal: If he'd eat his with a magic mushroom sauce I could make in minutes (I had wonderful mushrooms from the area) and I could do the same, I'd eat them. He said okay and I made the sauce and poured the magic over the monsters.
"Bon appetit," he said, tearing at the haunches of one of the rodents with verve.
I looked at the animal, bits of blackened fur still attached to the carcass showing from under the layer of 'shrooms, shut my eyes, picked one up and took a bite.
"Bon appetit yourself," I said, chewing the thing.

Have a great Saturday night everybody! Drive safe! And don't forget to hug the people you love and tell them you think they're swell, okay? Everybody likes to hear that sometimes.


Jorge Villacorta Santamato said...

You are a swell man Mr. Gorman...

Fascinating story!

Tons of good (positive) luck for your loved ones...

Arbol said...

Shrooms and Rats...Oh Boy, what a journey that must have been. How did Rom do that night?
I've always loved your stories, and this is another that tops the list of my favorites. Just like your story about drinking water with fingers in the Ganges. I can't imagine...

Your the Best Peter!