Snake Oil Salesman
I’ve come across traditional healers in a few countries. In Benin, I met voodoo priests who used bloody ritual to cure scientifically-documented ailments. I also met a Canadian physical therapist at a hospital there who said that in at least one case since she arrived, the final diagnosis by the French-run hospital was a voodoo curse.
In Kigali, one of my housemates studied traditional healers in Rwanda. She was trying to learn about their influence in the community, their role in healing, and how they balance their beliefs with those of modern medicine. One phenomenon she described, which stood out to me, was that the healers found a common ground between their beliefs and those of doctors. So, for example, if a person came down with HIV and the healer attributed it to a curse, it was the curse that caused them to acquire the well-known virus. Since some people have risky sex and escape without HIV, their conclusion can’t easily be proven false.
In Jakarta, my friend Jefri showed me a photo he had taken of a traditional healer and suggested that we meet him.
As a traveler, I try to withhold judgment. I feel that these beliefs and traditions far outlast any influence I should have over local custom, and that there exist contentious objectors who are far more qualified to implement change in local tradition than me. So I witness, I experience, I tell the story.
Bidut runs his shop from a ramshackle shelter in adjacent to a busy road and a railroad. When we arrived, he was reclining, wearing only pants, and smoking an Indonesian kretek cigarette. His hair was pulled back in a haphazard ponytail, and his goatee was greying on the right side.
After shaking hands, I noticed that Bidut was missing a thumb. I had my own guess as to where it wound up.
Bidut has been handling lethal snakes and a variety of other wild animals for most of his life, as did his father and grandfather. The snakes are used in traditional healing rituals dating back to time immemorial. Bidut stated offhandedly that no one in his family had ever been sick. With one exception: his thumb.
In 2004, a cobra moved a bit quicker than Bidut, and took a nice bite out of his left thumb. In a moment of hubris, Bidut didn’t clean the wound, and just went on with his life. Infection set in, and the thumb began to die. Without anesthetic, or even a swig of whiskey, Bidut severed his own thumb with a knife. At nearly 60 years old, that was the one time he’d been “sick”, and even then, he relied on his own remedy.
Bidut wasn’t bashful to show that in a plastic jar in his rail-side shack was his old friend, his left thumb. Seven years of hot Jakarta air hadn’t yet fully preserved it, and when he removed it from its home, the smell of rotting flesh was apparent.
After reveling in shocking us for a few minutes, Bidut put the thumb away and told a bit more about himself. During the Suharto regime, which ended in 1998, Bidut had been the government’s official snake handler. Bidut lived a life of wealth, clearing golf courses of deadly snakes for ambassadors, and measuring out shots of cobra blood for impotent governors.
When the regime fell, so did Bidut’s standing. Since then, he’s run this little stall, doling out doses of cobra blood to about 40 customers per week. He also captures and trades other wild animals. Some are used for consumption, such as monkeys whose brains are consumed via straws in Yogyakarta. But Bidut has a more conservationist vision for the other animals. He’s saving his funds and soliciting assistance to create a zoo to house the tigers, crocodiles, eagles, and reptiles which he’s come across in his line of business.
I asked, and the tiger, which Jefri had met but which wasn’t at the house today, was the descendant of one given to an Indian dignitary from an African dignitary. The Indian had brought it to Indonesia, and since the offspring was born in Indonesia, it was a legally-traded animal.
I walked around the area adjacent to Bidut’s shack, and found an array of caged primates, as well as a collection of large pythons. In the back of his truck, Bidut had two recently-captured pythons, a small poisonous snake, and a king cobra. Bidut took each out for a few minutes, allowing them to move freely through the grass, and grabbing their tails occasionally to keep them from attacking him or us, such as when the king cobra reared up wildly hissing and flaring his hood. I previously thought that only happened in movies.
After showing off his snake collection, Bidut walked us over to his house, a block away from the railroad tracks. There, he talked of his goal to set the world record for sleeping with cobras. One thousand of them in a tank for 1 month, if he can bend the ear of Guinness.
In the house, Bidut procured a liter water bottle full of an oily liquid which had separated with a denser liquid resting on the bottom of the bottle. Snake oil. Again, I thought this was something from movies, or merely a figure of speech, yet Bidut explained that it would help with rashes, cuts, burns, blisters, eczema, and even bruises. Coincidentally an Indonesian cop with a billy club had given me a nice bruise when I refused to pull over for a traffic stop. Bidut insisted on applying a healthy slathering of snake oil to help heal my wound.
And finally, Bidut insisted on sharing one last honor with us. From behind the bench in his shack, he pulled out a wriggling sack.
“Cobras?” I asked, rhetorically.
Bidut pulled out a cobra about 4 feet long and after letting it explore the ground for a minute, picked it up, squeezed its head until the venom was in a small puddle on his workbench, and then clamped the head in a piece of bamboo. Bidut pulled out his large knife, and in one quick whack, off went its head.
Bidut took the still-writhing body and held it over two mugs, draining out the blood into a mixture of Krating Deng (Red Bull) and rice whiskey he’d poured. He then peeled off the skin in one long pull, and removed the gall bladder, squeezing that over the two cups.
“Asthma, hepatitis, paralysis, breast cancer, urinary stones, backaches, high blood pressure, impotence, HIV” Bidut listed off the ailments that cobra blood is said to cure.
“HIV?” I asked.
“Yes, one man came to me almost a skeleton, and after treatment was a strong, healthy man again,” Bidut said, via Jefri.
Me, I just had a bruise and a bit of a head cold. My best hope was that the cobra’s sacrifice would relieve some pretty trifling ailments. Bottoms up! I primarily tasted the rice wine, with a richness that did remind me of the taste of my own blood. Jefri gagged a couple times, and I wolfed down a doughnut to settle my stomach.
It’s too soon to say whether the healer’s tricks will cure either of my ailments, but when I returned to the apartment and filled my glass with Emergen-C, I chuckled, knowing that there was hardly any more science behind my megadosage of vitamin C than the cobra blood which I’d consumed earlier in the day. And when my cold dissipates and the bruise fades, it will still be impossible to conclusively say whether any of the remedies, or simply the passage of time and my own immune system resolved the issues.