I’m still a little jumpy today. I just put in a load of laundry, and as I emptied a hamper full of towels into the washing machine, something jumped out of the basket and onto my head. I nearly fell over backward before discovering it was just a small tree frog that had taken refuge in my linens. It is going to take awhile to come down from my current hyper-vigilant state.
When we first moved here, our neighbors in Punta Uva warned us repeatedly about snakes. “Don’t walk in the jungle without a machete, ” is what they told Alan. What they told me was their belief that women didn’t belong in the jungle in the first place. Just seeing a man bitten by a snake could bring bad luck to my family. They were adamant. I wasn’t keen on seeing one either, but sometimes a snake is just where it is at the very same time you are.
Although Australia tops the list with theirs, Costa Rica follows close behind with some of the deadliest snakes on the planet. There are thirteen species of pit vipers here. The Bushmaster (Lachesis muta), called Matabuey in Costa Rica, leads the group for size. The largest of the venomous snakes in the Americas, they grow up the 3.5 meters in length, are a soft tan color with a darker brown stripe running down their backs, and a V-pattern down their sides.
The Fer-de-Lance (Bothrops asperi), called Terciopelo is here. This is by far the most feared by the locals. Terciopelo are more common than the Bushmaster and grow up to 2.25 meters in length. Their telltale tan to dark brown diamond markings overlay a charcoal grey body, making them very hard to spot in the bush. This was the snake I encountered yesterday, but it sure as hell wasn’t in the bush!
We can romp with numerous Eye Lash vipers and the Coral, of course, both false and real. I have yet to meet a man who stopped to repeat the famous rhyme: “red to black, venom lack, red to yellow, dead a fellow,” before perfunctorily killing a Coral of any kind.
I’ve heard lots of stories about men being bitten by snakes, the most vulnerable being those who chop bush for a living. Choppers use a forked stick about a meter in length to assist them in their work. Assuming they are right-handed, they carry the stick in their left hand pulling the bush up and away from them while chopping with a machete, held in their right. If there should be a snake they haven’t scared away with their footsteps, or the chopping itself, they are likely to disturb it with this action. The men can be bitten anywhere, but the left side of the body, or underarm, is typical as the snake strikes out from under the disturbed camouflage.
The other frequent victims of snakebite are people walking along the road at night. Snakes will often come to the road because it radiates heat stored up from the day. They like to bask on the warm asphalt and hunt small animals doing the same. Walking here at night without a flashlight is ill advised. I know of two people who were bitten this way. One died and the other was in the hospital for about a month on antivenin and dialysis, due to complications.
We also have snakes that, while not venomous, are no less lethal. The Boa is a common resident of our world and we treat it with respect.
Our neighbor, Johnee Brown, told us a Boa story once (when we were still on friendly terms). He said had a cow that was close to calving, so he was checking on her every day. One morning he went to the potrero where he was keeping her, and found a huge Boa in the process of ingesting her newborn calf. Johnee said he killed the snake because, as he put it, “I didn’t want him to get the habit.”
I have since learned a bit about Boas. They can suffocate an adult person in a matter of minutes, squeezing tighter every time the victim tries to take a breath. The exertion of the squeeze can actually stop the heart. And, if they manage to get a wrap on the victim’s neck they can snap it with one constriction. They also fracture bones during the constriction process, so the victim becomes more pliable for eventual ingestion.
Over the years of living here, we have learned never to touch a tree trunk before looking at it first. When we are out in the jungle we use a walking stick or machete for balance rather than to rely on a low-lying limb to stabilize ourselves. We walk looking at our feet rather than gazing upwards at the many toucans, parrots, and other spectacular birds that might be flying by. We keep our property chopped short because snakes don’t like short grass, and have very few shrubs or ornamental plants close to the house. Neither of us have been bitten by a snake.
Yesterday, Alan and I went up to Bribri– the county seat–to pay the garbage bill for the year. It was the usual trip over extremely bad road. It’s been raining here so there was a lot of water standing on the road. We picked our way through the mud, potholes, and general muck in our aging, but dependable, Jeep pickup. The trip took about an hour. We got to Bribri, parked in front of the building, and I asked Alan if he wanted to go into the offices with me. I got the answer I expected. So I left him in the car and went in to pay the bill. I was probably gone about ten minutes.
I was feeling quite proud of myself for getting the chore done in such short order. Normally, bureaucratic jobs of this nature are more involved but today was just and in-and-out operation. I opened the passenger door of the truck, jumped into the seat, and, before I closed the door, started to tell him about how I’d gotten the job done. Something caught my eye.
I looked down and to my right. There, just in front of my knees, was a snake emerging from a hole where the hinges of the door meet the body of the truck. It took a split second to react, but I remember thinking: This can’t be right. How could there be a God damned snake in my car? A high, quavering voice I hardly recognized as my own said, “Oh M’God. Snake… Snake!” All of what happened next probably happened in about five or six seconds, but it was as though time had stopped for the snake and me. Our eyes locked and we were frozen together in time.
The snake’s head was about two inches around. At first it headed straight toward me suspended in mid air sliding its thick body along over the bottom hinge of the door. That was bad enough, but then it hinged back against itself as if to strike, or perhaps to slither further out into the cab of the truck. It easily had enough tension stored to strike my knees, which were now impossibly close to it. Twelve inches. No more. I could see the light brown hash marks on his side. The two pits in its face between the eyes and nostrils, and that triangular shaped head identified it for sure. No doubt about it. Terciopelo.
It looked annoyed. It was probably hot and shaken up by the trip. When I opened the door it must have sensed cooler air and came there to escape the engine heat. It waved about in mid air looking for an escape route. I sucked my stomach in and drew my chest and face as far away from it as possible. My breath was ragged. My knees were so close to it now, I was afraid it would use them as its next landing zone. I had to get out.
I began to swing my legs around to get out of the truck when it struck at me. It seemed to happen in slow motion. At that point, I was half the way out of the vehicle and turning back was not an option. Alan said as I piled out of the truck, the snake struck twice more, snapping at the air to its right and then again, to the left. It didn’t use all of its incredible force or extend itself fully. It if had I would have been struck for sure.
Once out, I slammed the door shut hoping to catch it in the hinge. No such luck. Alan said while I was getting out he watched the snake first strike, and then turn and go back inside the fender wall, rolling over the hinge in the process. He estimated the snake was about a meter in length and about ten centimeters in circumference at its thickest. It is amazing how much can happen in a short period of time. How fast a snake can move.
According to one website, the average venom injected by the Terciopelo is about 105mg, although they can deliver as much as 310mg. A fatal dose for humans is 50mg. They went on to say, however, that not all bites are envenomed. Venomous snakes are able to regulate the amount of venom depending on the age and size of their intended victim. I suppose that would mean it would have used all it could for me, being as I am just slightly larger than a rabbit, for instance.
The website also went on to say that Terciopelo venom is hemotoxic and causes havoc with the circulatory system. Unless given antivenin, the victim is very likely to die. Complications with clotting factors are the number one cause of death from these bites. As the blood becomes more and more coagulated, the body begins to throw clots to the coronary arteries causing cardiac arrest. There is also evidence that suggests pulmonary artery blockade can also occur.
In the old days there used to be bush snake specialists in this area of Costa Rica. These people knew jungles plants that could save a man’s life. One of my neighbors, Rogelio Smith, is a one of the last surviving people here who practiced the trade. He is eighty years old now, but still remembers those days. He’s told me about it but will not reveal the native plants he used. He says the government made it illegal to pass down the information after the antivenin was made more readily available.
I imagine they would use some kind of plant with an anticoagulant property. There are several likely plants that grow here. Guaco (Mikania guaco) is one, but, as I said, Rogelio won’t tell me. He is very frail these days and the lore will likely pass off with him when he goes.
So, here we were in Bribri with a Terciopelo in our car. Granted it was not in the cab, or not that we knew of, anyway. Alan gingerly opened the driver’s side door and, after a secure look around, released the hood. He then carefully raised the hood and we both peered down into the bowels of our truck motor. Not a snake to be seen. It had not slithered across the road either– I was keeping one eye on my sandaled feet. We figured it was still in there somewhere.
“I’ll go get some repellent,” I said, and ran across the street and bought a can of “Off” at the grocery store. Snakes have a strong sense of smell and, I reasoned, wouldn’t much care for mosquito repellent. I returned, and Alan cautiously opened up my side of the truck where the snake was last seen. No snake. He sprayed repellent into the space the snake was currently calling home and slammed the door shut again. We waited. No snake emerged from under the truck. We were at a stand off.
During this time we discussed the anatomy of our car. The only reasonable explanation was that, at some point, the snake crawled up the wheel well– last night? Two weeks ago?– and found an entry into the space between the exterior paneling of the truck and the inner wheel well. The only exit was either how it got in, or the way he tried to get out when I encountered it. “Well, if we keep the door shut he can’t get at us,” I offered, hopefully.
“Unless, of course, there are snake sized holes in the firewall of the dash,” Alan countered.
“Great.” I suddenly became very aware of just how much rust the old Jeep has endured after almost twenty years in the tropics.
“Well, we can’t stay here all night. I guess we’ll take a chance.” That would have been Alan speaking. I was ready to leave the keys in it and walk away forever. Maybe put a sign in the window that read, “Please steal this car, Terciopelo inside.”
“Let’s go get something to eat, ” he said. “Maybe it’ll leave while we have lunch.” I wasn’t very hungry, but I wasn’t very eager for the hour ride back home with a snake in our car either. Cautiously, I opened my side of the truck, peered into the dark hole- now a snake home-, jumped in, and slammed the door.
We ate lunch at a little café in Bribri, and after telling the proprietor about our adventures he kept a close watch on the car while we ate. I am certain the snake would have been seen if it had left the truck. During lunch we got advice about how to deal with the situation. One customer suggested we spray in there with insecticide. I explained I’d already used mosquito repellent. “It is very dangerous to have a snake in the car.” The understatement for all time. We thanked them for their concerns, though.
The drive back was uneventful. Although Alan said I rode in my seat like a nine-year-old school girl, sitting ramrod straight, my knees bent, and feet tucked as far away from the dash as I could get them. At one point the bead seat cover brushed up against the back of my calf and I just about went right out through the open window.
I kept a good eye on the floorboards the entire trip home.
We have not encountered the snake again. It may well still be in there today. Alan says, “When he gets hungry, he’ll leave.”
So, how often do snakes eat, anyway?