It isn't like that scene in The Beach, where Leo drinks snake blood.?It isn't like that at all.?There are no thugs, no smoky back room.?I am on a cruise ship—not glamourous, but afloat, so okay—with my wife and an Australian couple at a table set with white linens.?This isn't dangerous, isn't risky.?But like Leo, I want something more than the usual tourist experience, something to set me apart.
The trip from Guilin to Yangshuo is into its second hour, but who is counting??Everywhere along the lazy river, the lush limestone fingers of Guangxi province reach to the sky.?The mountains' organic contours seem to rise and fall, mesmeric, like the amoeboid globs of a lava lamp, the green of the trees set off against the white overcast sky.
Inside, the muggy heat and the rhythmic thrumming of the boat make me wish for a nap.?Which is why I am drinking a Coke, the easiest way to get some caffeine.?The smell of cooking seafood fills the dining area, little feasts at every table.?Every table but ours.?I am happy with my Coke.
We are passing a village.?The banks of the shore rise reluctantly from the river, an almost imperceptible slope upon which the villagers have erected their stilted bamboo homes.?An old woman?shouts curses at her disobedient brace of white ducks. Children work at setting wet clothes to dry on racks. Oxen drink and plash about in the shallow waters, while further out men in broad woven hats stand on long bamboo rafts, taxiing their cormorants in search of fish.?None looks up, or acknowledges the succession of boats.?
"No way!" It is my wife.?She is laughing with the Australians.
"Then you do it Mahk."?Australian English does not use the letter r.
A waiter has stopped by our table.?His eager grin pulls his whole face tight.?In his hand he holds a jug with a large rubber stopper on it.?There is a bright yellow liquid inside, and what is immediately recognizable as a snake.?The snake floats in the swill, swishing around lifelessly with the motion of the boat.?It reminds me of the specimens we used to dissect in Biology class.
"Thissa snake wine," the waiter says, never losing his grin.?"You try?"
It is the furthest extension of the worm in the Tequila bottle.?The Mexicans have fallen to second place.?I remember Leo, and pull out my wallet.
As he pours, the snake's body is drawn to the opening, the tease that it could just slip out into my glass.?And then he is done and snake returns to the middle of the jug.?Sorry snake.?You won't be joining us today.
No suspense.?One quick breath, and bottoms up.?It burns and cools at the same time, like whiskey.?But it is not whiskey.?And it certainly isn't wine.?It might possibly be formaldehyde.?Do they make yellow formaldehyde??But with the tears welling in my eyes, the laughter and cheers at my table are worth it.?I drink more Coke.
Outside, the fisherman is sitting on his raft.?He's working at something I can't see, oblivious to the frivolity within our boat.?Of course.?That bamboo raft is probably the only boat he's ever been on.?And now it is clear. I've drunk snake wine, I've taken a risk, but I'm still the tourist, as distant from the real world of the Li River as ever.?Exotic drinks on cruise ships can't bring me closer to the experience of his world.
A cormorant popped up from the water and slipped up onto the raft.?In its mouth, the flapping fins of a fish.?But the bird will not eat.?The collar around his neck allows him only the small morsels fed to him by the fisherman.
The bird will not eat his fish.
The snake will not drink his brine.
The Fisherman will eat for the fish.?I will drink for the snake.?Perhaps the fisherman and I have this, at least, in common.?In his honor, I take another drink.