Thursday, April 17, 2008

Handling snakes

I am mildly hesitant to write about yesterday’s events as they are not for the faint at heart, at least not for those who get faint of heart at the thought of me living in the wilds of Africa. However, it is the most exciting (and by exciting I mean terrifying) thing that has ever happened to me and, as such, really should be written about.

I have had the strangest feeling that something was above my head since I started working in the office near the house, since Monday. I knew that they threw mothballs up in the ceiling for rats and I had seen both birds and squirrels outside the window so I assumed that that was was I was hearing. I would occasionally go upstairs to see what was on the patio (which is the roof for the office). Sometimes there were birds. I didn’t think much more of it.

Yesterday, after Sarah had gone for the day, I had been working alone in the office for about an hour and a half. I was working at my computer, quietly and with very little movement. I was so quiet, in fact, that I could hear movement in the ceiling above my head. It was a sliding sound, as if (and this is actually what I imagined to be happening) a rat was dragging a smooth treasure across the upper side of the ceiling. I chose to ignore it and keep working. I tentatively considered getting Rob to come down and throw a few mothballs up there, just in case it was rats. I decided not to bother, a decision I am now glad of.

Around 4 PM, I heard the sliding sound again but, this time, almost directly behind my head but near the ceiling. I turned in my chair and looked at the top bookshelf. I saw, behind an open printer paper box, what looked at that brief glance to be the tail of a squirrel. I turned back around in my chair and realized that it looked far too smooth to be a squirrel tail, even though it was about the right size. I got out of my chair, turning to face the wall as I did and backing up slightly to get a better look. Suddenly, on the top shelf, I could clearly see a cobra, with its head fanned making the noise that I had been hearing all along, which I now knew to be a hiss. As soon as it registered with me what I was seeing, I turned and sprinted out of the office, up the stairs, out of the building, across the patio and into the house, closing the door behind me.

This is what it looked like, only looking at me head-on. [image from ScienceNews online, full article here]

Once safely in the house, I began calling out to Rob, saying, “There’s a cobra in the office. What do I do?” He thought that I was joking at first but realized when he saw how freaked out I was how serious I was about the whole thing. He held me for a bit until my heart rate lowered, the shaking stopped and my breathing returned to normal. Then, I called Carl, the LBT supervisor in Francistown. He advised us not to go back into the office until we had engaged someone who was an expert in cobra removal had come to deal with it. He asked about the size. I said that its head, when fanned, was as wide as my hand. He said it was a big one.

I wasn’t taking any chances so I called the landlord. He said that he would send some people up to take care of it. Sure enough, 2 young men, one of them being the guy who collects the trash, came with long poles to take care of it. The whole thing semed inadequate and wrong but, frankly, I didn’t know what else to do and so we let them into the office to try and find it. They poked arund on the shelf where I had seen it and lifted down all the boxes on that shelf to see I they could find it but found nothing. I couldn’t even stay in the building, I was so freaked out. After about 20 minutes (time is a bit fuzzy, not sure how long they were actually there), they came to the house, handed me my cellphone (which I had left on the desk) and said that they couldn’t find it. I asked if they had checked everywhere, knowing that they couldn’t possibly have in that limited period of time. They said that they couldn’t check everywhere but that they had done their best.

Well. Now I was really at a loss. I thanked them for their help and set about seeing what else to do. At about that time, Rob returned from the bus station at Gabane where he had been picking up some ELCB pastors who were coming to see his studio setup and discuss future project possibilities. When we explained what was going on, William said that Woodpecker Seminary (ironically where Rob had been teaching at a conference last weekend and where we had slept somewhat peacefully for 2 nights) had a problem with pythons and that they had a guy at Mokolodi Game Reserve who would come to take them away. Finally, a light at the end of the snaky tunnel! I thanked William for the info and immediately called Mokolodi, where I got the number for Paul, the snake handler there.

Paul said that he would come right away. This place is tricky to find so I walked out to the highway (about a 7 minute walk) to take them up the hill to the house when they got that far. I find that I’m the best (most unique to the region) landmark for visitors: “Just take the road to Kanye and stay on it until you see a white lady. You can’t miss it.” I was glad to walk away from the office and house and get to a nice road, where you can see everything around you. It was about 5 PM at this point and the sunset was lovely. Shortly, he arrived with Sue, his fellow snake handler. We went to the property and he showed me his snake book. I identified the snake I had seen; it was a spitting cobra and, from the fanned head size, an adult one. Not that that makes a difference. Carl said that a baby cobra can kill you as quick as an adult one. Because it was a spitter, Paul got out protective eyewear and sheets to cover their arms, along with their snake-handling poles (with pincher things on the ends).

We entered the office. It was reassuring to see how they approached the room with confident caution. That is to say they weren’t spazzing out but they were looking before they poked or stepped, that sort of thing. They talked to me the whole time about what they were doing and what we were actually up against. I learned a lot about spitting cobras while they searched. Cobras don’t just attack people. You really have to startle them or threaten them in some way. So, while it was smart for me to run since I had no idea what I was dealing with, I could have just backed away to the other side of the room and kept an eye on it to see where it would go. Then, I could call Paul while still watching it and he would come with Sue to retrieve it. As it is the spitting variety, it is likely to spit before rearing up and biting. It can spit without rearing up and can do so through very narrow areas, like the crack beneath a desk or between book stacks. They generally hiss, spit and strike, though they can skip one of the steps in that process. Thankfully (and I am immensely thankful to God, I assure you), it didn’t get past hissing with me before I ran. The spit is a neurotoxin. It is deadly only if it gets in your eyes or on broken skin (cut, scratched rash, popped zit, etc.) as it has to get past the skin barrier somehow. I asked what happens if one gets bitten and Paul wouldn’t say directly the effect but just for one to get to a hospital immediately. I think he was trying to avoid freaking me out any more than I already was. It was not likely that it would leave the top bookshelf unless it had a really good reason to do so. For example, those 2 young guys poking blindly around with sticks would be a good reason. They should not do that; Paul should have been called right away (I have given both the landlord and the guy who gets the trash Paul’s number, by the way, for future reference). It is more likely that it would go out the way it came in, which is one of the many gaps between the ceiling and the roof around the edge of the ceiling above the bookshelf. Still, one can’t be too careful. They can stay perfectly still for a week or more before having to move about. It could have been in the ceiling all along and we would not have known unless I had seen it.

After much searching, both floors, they couldn’t find it so Paul said it was either back in the ceiling or had gone back outdoors. As if to confirm that, there was a loud bump in the ceiling above our heads. I thought maybe one of my stacks of books had fallen onto the patio from the picnic table (while they searched for snakes, I was vacating my work materials from the office) but we discovered, upon going upstairs to check, that this was not the case. The noise had to have come from inside the ceiling. Ergo, the snake remains. And, shy of tearing out the ceiling and forcing it to come down and be handled, there was nothing Paul or Sue could do to get it out of there.

So, we all left the office and locked it up. I’m not sure what we’re going to do. I have no desire to go back to that desk and sit with my back to that wall. I’m not even sure how long it will be before I can go back in there, just to get some of our other things from the downstairs part of the office. I’m thinking we need to keep that a used space so that nothing wild moves in there with any degree of permanency over the next 6 months. On the other hand, who wants to work in an office with a spitting cobra? It was about 4 feet from my face. I’m still kind of freaked out when I think about it. It kind of hit me for real last night, when I was procesing with Rob and I just started crying. Then, I was exhausted. I slept hard last night at first but then woke up, wondering what I was feeling and hearing around me in the bedroom. I’m pleasantly surprised that I didn’t dream about it.

The only way I can describe the impact of seeing that snake all flared out and hissing at me is that I’ve never felt so close to my own death. That’s saying something, given that I’ve been in the presence of people-directed gunfire on several occasions, a major earthquake and in a number of car accidents. But, in each of those circumstances, there were a number of ways it could have played out. In a car accident, you could beat up your car, break a bone, damage your spine or bleed a lot. Dying is just one of the many things that can happen but it is not the most likely. With an adult spitting cobra rearing up and fanning at you, there are very few possible outcomes. In fact, I think that there are 3: it doesn’t get (spit at or bite) you, it gets you but you make it to the hospital in time (and I really should figure out what “in time” means in such a situation) or it gets you and you die. Now, Rob says I should focus on being thankful that God gave me what was behind “door number one”. And I am thankful, in some part of me, I’m sure. But I am, to be truthful, more feeling edgy, physically. I’m feeling physical fear things that I’m having difficulty controlling and I feel like it’s probably healthier just to let my body process, however it needs to do that. I’m talking about my feelings and the event, I’m writing about it and I’m resting when I need to. I just get choked up sometimes. And, even as I’m writing this, I’m realizing that I shouldn’t feel too bad about that. I mean, it’s not like I’m having difficulty controlling my emotions about it weeks later – it did just happen less than 24 hours ago. It’s just that it’s hard to foresee a future where I’m not constantly checking under the table or remembering that I had had a deadly snake sitting above and behind my head (possibly for days) that I just didn’t see until it was in striking position.

Now, Rob thinks that this may be a devilish attempt to ruin that beautiful office for me. Sarah and I had a perfect working space, with 2 desks across from each other and lovely view of the valley and the mountain in the distance. Now, I’m at the kitchen table with my computer and she’s in the computer room with her papers to gloss. At this stage in the project, it’s totally workable but in a few weeks will be less so. Will we be able to return to our workspace by then? Should we even attempt to do so? Paul pointed out that the office ceiling is a perfect home for vermin, given that it is a continuation of ground level. Yes, God spared me from the danger inherent in that workspace yesterday. But perhaps God allowed me to see the snake so that I would realize the inherent danger and not be so stupid as to go back and work there on a daily basis, back to the wall. Let’s just say that I have a lot to think about but I’m not rushing into any decisions at this stage.


HMCruz said...

Wow! It sounds to me as if you are handling this quite well actually. I think I would be sounding a bit irrational if it had been me. I'm thankful God protectd you even when you did not know the danger. He is awesome. This will make an excellent sermon illustration someday when you have the chance to see it all from a distance. We all love you and are thankful you got door #1. I'll update Carolina so she can pray. Heidi

Abson, Lara, Daniella & Sophie said...

Oh, Eshinee!!! I am glad you are safe. God does protect his own. We will be praying for you and your team, that a solution will be found re: your work place, and being able to get the work done in the meantime.

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