2.19.2007

The snake and the field mouse

As promised, here's a story from my previous travels. It takes place in November, 1999.

There's something about realizing one's own mortality in a place, or furthermore on this Earth, that liberates him to try something exotic that he otherwise wouldn't. I realized this as a neophyte Peace Corps volunteer in Benin, West Africa.

I was training in Parakou, the gateway to the Sahel region in the North of the country. For two months, I had been negotiating for my future in the country; to have the right to pray for myself first before taking the mind-boggling anti-malarial drug should I contract the disease. Ironic, I never got sick a day while I was there. Still, I would go into town every two weeks for a phone call with the country director.

On this day, I had made a final decision: to transfer from Benin to another country's program yet to be determined. After two months of wrangling, I felt at peace. Although my time in Benin would be coming to an end, I finally felt free to enjoy my time there at it's fullest. I hung up the phone at the work station and walked outside to catch a Zemidjan. "Zeh" as they are affectionately called by locals, are scooter taxis that whisk Beninois around towns. I put on my casque, helmet, but left the visor up to catch the cool breeze as my zeh picked up speed on the western road out of Parakou.

With my mind free to reflect on the back of that scooter as I rode to the compound of my host family, I thought about my time there in Benin. How it was fraught with mental struggle to understand a new culture, included brief highlights of insight, laughter with host brothers, and fear of wild creatures and voodoo religion. The closer I got to home, the more I felt free of those limitations to my experience there.

By the time I arrived at the compound, I was like a released prisoner, given a second chance on my experience in Benin. So when there was an unusual amount of activity in the common area of the compound, I wasn't surprised that it was an extension of my new attitude. François, the teenage cousin of my host brothers, Muhammed and Fatau, was turning circles around them with what looked like a thick rope. When I got closer, we exchanged bonjou's and sa va's and I got a look at what François really had: a four-foot-long snake! It was dead, thank goodness. Muhammed and Fatau had catches of their own: two field mice.

The boys had been out working in the fields when they'd come upon this snake in the middle of ingesting a field mouse. Temporarily disabled in its gorging, the snake was vulnerable. François took his cutlass and chopped off that snake's head. What would they find not too deep in that snake's belly but another mouse. A double whammy!

Now don't think that these mice were finger length. In Africa, everything wild is so much bigger than what we imagine them to be from the comforts of our TV room in USA. These field mice were a full six inches long, not including the tail. Any catch of meat in this part of Africa was a special treat. My meals consisted mostly of pounded yams and potent soup base to dip it in. Certainly filling, but lacking in protein for sure. So when we had two kinds of fresh meat to eat, you can bet that was a treat!

Muhammed and another cousin prepared the fire, while François cleaned and gutted each creature. Fatau, about six years old with a belly rounded by vitamin deficiency, carried himself with a jollyful gait as he walked around the compound with the expectation to eat well that evening. I watched carefully has each boy set about to enjoy their feast.

How do you know when snake is boiled through? You don't. You just know how to cook something safely and then you apply to whatever mystery meat you find that day. As for field mice, Muhammed gutted them, skewered them, and then singed the hairs off them with the brightest of the flames on the fire. Then they set about cooking them shish-ke-bob style.

All the while I was savoring this moment of raw excitement and embracing of the surprises that the African earth could give up. This was the boys' feast, but I would certainly take a taste. What does snake taste like? How do you eat a mouse? Like itself, one bite at a time.

The meats were cooked and we boys sat around the dwindling light of the fire sinking our teeth into our dinner. The snake didn't break down without a dogfight in my molars. The mouse was moist, oily, and rich, almost like he came from the Nigerian soil to the East. I ate them without care for tomorrow. I ate them just savoring the experience of immersing myself in something so foreign and exotic to everything I'd grown up in, that nothing could hurt me. And nothing did. My subsequent visits to the latrine were regular and routine.

It's eight years later now. I look back on that experience with great treasure. My moment of eating in what Benin had to offer. In a month, I would board a jet plane for the States. In two, I would be in Jamaica. And another eating experience would begin.

1 comment:

Pickled Eel said...

Hu Fuzz (y) - happy to have a fellow travel writer hooked up. Have done so on my blog and am happy to have that reciprocated. Cheers

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