Thursday, August 03, 2006

Of Snakes and Monkeys

When I was little, I loved Indiana Jones movies. One of my favorite movies was the uber-culturally sensitive Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, particularly the scene when Jones and Willie were served chilled monkey brains, python meat and eyeball soup, among other delicacies. While my mother would turn away in complete horror, I would gleefully watch, munching away happily on my dried seahorse chips. At times, I would lop off a piece of our hamster’s head just to play along. That was wrong—one should never “lop off”; heads should be sliced properly at an angle.

Who knew that years later, I would find myself in situations where I would be faced with eating sheep eyeballs, horse liver, bloody rooster soup, duck embryo and cobra meat? Family friends who were visiting Ho Chi Minh City were the catalyst for our latest culinary adventure. On my recent trip back to the States, I had casually mentioned at a party that in some parts of Asia, including Vietnam, it is considered very manly to eat snake’s blood and even the beating heart of a snake. A certain someone remembered that idea and brought it up when coming to visit. Toward the end of their trip, I asked a local friend to recommend a good (and, somewhat safe, but safety, of course, would be secondary) snake restaurant.

A few hours later, having text-messaged a few people, our small group turned into a party of eleven. The menu was daunting, where to begin? There was armadillo (or, as they preferred the alternative spelling “armadilla”), gorilla, rat, panda bear, and bat. Unfortunately, they were all out of Ross’s Holiday Armadillo®. We decided to go with cobra and turtle. The waiter let us choose our turtle while it was still alive, and brought the lovely little guy to our table. A member of our group thought it would be funny to tease the turtle with a wrapped packet of chopsticks. Tommy the Turtle snapped off several pieces of the paper wrapping and spit them out, as if to say, “how original, you stupid f%$king Americans.”

Then the snake handler brought out the cobra while we took turns kissing it on its head. Unfortunately, Duke got bit, but took it like a man until four hours later we had to rush him to the hospital—just didn’t seem right to continue watching his face turn bluer and bluer. After we sent him off to the hospital (joking, by the way), we continued our adventure at the restaurant and watched as several people held down the snake’s head (wrapped with tape) while the snake handler chopped it off. He carefully took out the beating heart and gall bladder and put them into mini wine glasses. Next, he held up the snake’s body and slit it down the middle, draining the blood into a bottle of very cheap vodka. Our mouths watered as the waiters poured the bright red vodka into our shot glasses. Our visiting friend (let’s call him “Kram”) seemed somewhat anxious when the still-beating heart and gall bladder were set in front of him, cameras flashing. But…after two gulps, it was done, and we all followed suit by downing our own bloody mixture of vodka. Yum—just like apple cinnamon tea.

The waiters then brought out chopped up, grilled snake meat (tastes like toddler meat, in case you’re wondering), along with grilled snake tails and grilled Tommy the Turtle. None of us were too pleased with how the turtle looked—he was pretty much just grilled sans shell, then thrown on a plate with lettuce. Tommy’s head had been cut off, but his shell was put back on (I suppose for the sake of decency) and the claws were still there—someone had even thought to give him a manicure and pedicure. I tell you: it was a night full of magic, laughter, gumdrop smiles and tears, and I was sad to see it end. The owners of the restaurant played “Turtle-flavored kisses” by Hennifer Lopez, as we left. I almost wept—I had checked off an important box on my “things to do before I die” list.

I was even lucky enough the next day to check off another box on my list—Make Friends with a Back-flipping, Chained-up Monkey. This unexpected treat came after we hit the tailor’s shop. For whatever reason, in the year that I have been traveling up and down this street to get to the tailor, I never noticed the back-flipping, chained-up monkey. Unlike the monkeys we had seen in Cambodia the week before, this little guy had a particularly volatile intensity. That monkey seriously needs some ritalin. Kram’s sister suggested the monkey should go free, but Kram and I laughed at that idea. Silly Kram’s sister, everyone knows that monkeys are for Homer's entertainment and space experiments. As if I needed it, now I have even more incentive to visit the tailor. In fact, the next time I go, I plan to slip a Vietnamese copy of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to the owner to see if I can convince him to give raw simian grey matter a chance. Viruses and anatomical similarities be damned.


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