Once upon a time I fancied myself a snake man. Have you ever met a snake man? A dude slightly obsessed with the scaly, legless, sometimes venomous reptiles of the suborder Serpentes? Snakes on the brain, like male Medusas. They’re out there. And I know a few good ones, this being the tale in part of why I no longer consider myself an honored member of their ranks. But first let’s go back to the beginning, the place where the snake, right from the get go, caught a notorious rep. In my own life, as far back as I can remember, the gold-red ribbon of a Garter Snake or the flash of a Blue Racer’s sapphire sheen always warmed my blood. The first decent story I ever wrote was all about time spent on the hardpan of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, licensed by the state to remove rattlesnakes from people’s yards. Like a self-dubbed Snake Sheriff, I kept the peace between the local snake population and local female people population. The sub-title of that story Snakecharmer was originally How My Love for Rattlesnakes Cured Me of My Fear of Women - a black and white tail of somewhat creative non-fiction, as I really did live with a Diamondback Rattlesnake that hibernated in my fireplace one Southwest Winter.
That old story hints at one of the reasons snakes first made my tail rattle: because they gave me the power to make girls shriek. Later I loved them because they’re nature’s pirates, outcasts from the start. Today I identify with snakes as symbols of transformation, recognizing the animal’s extraordinary ability to shed its skin, as the moon sheds its shadow, points the way to the power of life and the now. Emerging an entirely new creature, throwing off the past and living on, the snake regenerates itself on average two to four times a year, varying with age and species, with young snakes actively growing shedding their skin every two weeks. The human being, however, through spiritual purification practice, can renew its own identity in every moment. Knowing the deepest teachings are unspoken, let’s sum it by saying that having a complete experience watching a high-altitude Black-tailed Rattlesnake in the mountains of northern Arizona once helped me better understood my meditation teacher Shinzen Young’s claim for the miracle of mindfulness: “In the beginning every retreat changes you. Then every sit changes you. Until eventually when every moment changes you.”
Regardless of why I personally love and identify with them, the snake, with its many distinctive and in some ways contrary attributes, has been worshipped, feared, puzzled over, hated, loved, exploited, exterminated, studied and even petted. Snakes have been used in magic, witchcraft, religion, medicine, war, torture, sport, science, commerce and entertainment. On the one hand, snakes are a symbol of procreation, health, longevity, immortality, and wisdom; on the other, they represent death, disease, sin, lechery, duplicity, and temptation. Snakes are living, breathing paradoxes. Say what you will about them, Mankind has seldom ignored the great snake. In her poem on snakes, to quote Margaret Atwood: “Those who can explain them can explain anything.”
As a Snake man then (or former one) you can understand my disappointment in traveling for the first time to India - King Cobra Country - and returning without having seen a single Shape (Snake in Hindi). That first tour of the Hindu world was a TRIP in the truest sense, an odyssey organized by Vedic Astrologer James Kelleher - incredibly learned in the ancient art of mapping a soul’s journey by the light of the stars. The trip was lead by Rajiv Tomar of Mystical Journeys, from The Taj Mahal to the Holy, Crazy city of Varanassi and down to temples all over the country’s southern tip. Mystical Journeys, with their emphasis on spiritual, cultural and adventure travel in the country, in their own words, “Leads the traveler to a new horizon where astrology, culture and adventure meet.” Their mind-blowing network of educationalists, spiritualists, Saints & holy people, guides and other teachers comes down to Rajiv’s connectedness. the man, along with his son Caran and second-in-command Sarjan Kumar and other trusted foot soldiers. On that first trip, I watched Rajiv confront a police officer on the streets of Chennai - some altercation that was effecting our group’s safe passage - that earned him the nickname The Bengal Tiger. As to impressions of the man, I’ll borrow George Bernard Shaw’s take on Gandhi - you might as well ask for someone’s impression of the Himalayas.
It was in conversation with Rajiv on the bus after a particularly intensely joyful experience at Rameswaram’s Arulmigu Ramanathaswamy Temple that a Cobra Tour was first concocted. “That was !ncredible !ndeed,” I beamed. “And I can’t wait to see the cobra.” His face fell - he explained we had passed the places to see the traditional basket-cobras dance to the flute. I could hardly express disappointment, the trip was so extraordinary, and so responded “I just love seeing wildlife and especially shapes.”. And of course Rajiv’s twinkle was back minutes later, as he offered, “Then you’ll just have to come back to India!” And although it was a comical, creative idea between two new friends then, a year later, this February, I was back, to attend Kumbh Mela, the mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith in which saints and sadhus all gather in millions to bathe in the Holy Ganges River along with a Southern India Cobra Hunt on the itinerary. Slither back soon for How To Catch A Cobra (Part 2) - The Tale - to come.