Saturday, September 19, 2009

Snake Oil Salesman - Health Care

No, this blog is not about anyone in America and it has nothing to do with any individual involved in the Health Care debate in America. This blog is definitely not racist or about racism either.

This blog is about a event that I unexpectedly witnessed this afternoon in Tahsang Village here in Isaan. Ironically, it does involve health care but health care as is related to Isaan.

Lately I have written about health care both public and private here in Isaan. This was due to family developments as well as events both on cable television and on the Internet.

Today, Duang wanted to drive out to Tahsang Village to visit her 7 month old grandson, Peelawat, AKA "Pee - A - Lot". Duang is doing very well from her surgery on both of her ears. However she is sleeping a great deal which I suspect is due to some of the medication that she was given and instructed to take. It has been my observation, that Isaan people expect to take medicine for any and all maladies no matter the seriousness. I can sneeze twice in a row due to the bright sun and Duang will suggest that I go see a doctor or take some medicine. I believe that the doctors in Isaan cater somewhat to this mind set by over prescribing medication. Every time that we see a doctor, Duang ends up with 5 to 7 different kinds of pills no matter what her diagnosis is and they have ranged from common colds, ear infections, UTI, pulled muscles, etc. I try to determine what each medication is but often I am unable to identify them over the Internet. I can usually can identify the Tylenol type medication, and the antibiotics but the others are mysteries. I suspect that they are antihistamines and relaxants.

As I always do when travelling the highways and back roads of Isaan, I brought along my backpack containing my camera gear. There always seems to be something or some one interesting, at least to me, to photograph. Today was no exception.

The fields are flooded and the rice crop is thriving. All the rice planting has been completed and the farmers are anticipating a good harvest late next month and the following month. The sugar cane is growing well and does not require any attention for the time being. Peanuts have been harvested and finding a roadside stand to buy fresh boiled hot peanuts has become difficult. With the relative lull in farming activities, the local people have focused on fishing. The lowlands have flooded and all the rickety bamboo fishing platforms on the way to Tahsang Village were manned. The people were dipping large square mono filament nets into the flood waters in hopes of catching some small fish. In consideration of Duang's condition I did not stop and pressed on to the village.

We were not at the village long when we heard Isaan music blaring from a pick up truck that was crawling through the village. This is a common occurrence. Trucks selling vegetables, fish, clothing, prepared foods, household goods, or snack foods ply the narrow village lanes. Sometimes these vehicles are soliciting people's support for a particular politician or political party. But today was different, the truck was announcing the arrival of a "Snake Show".

The truck stopped alongside of the street across from Duang's parent's house. A man, his wife, and his 7 year old son got out of the truck. The man held a microphone and made some type of announcement. Since most people are outside of their or their neighbor's house during the day and because it was Saturday, a small group of villagers assembled almost instantly.




The man carried a good sized wood box out of the back of the truck and placed it on the bare ground. There was a hinged door that cover half of the box's top. The door was secured shut with a metal hasp and a bent u-shaped wire. He carefully removed the "lock". He backed off a little from the box and used a thin bamboo rod that had a 4 centimeter branch cantilevered from the pole to open the door. It looked like Isaan's native answer to the metal snake hooks that we see on "Animal Planet" and "National Geographic Channel" shows. Skillfully he used the rod to coax a large snake out of the box. The snake was about 4 meters (12 feet) long. It was dark green and black with a yellowish under belly. It was a cobra! In all honesty it was a very well behaved snake. It did not lash out and try to strike any of the audience, the two village mongrels that were cautiously curious, or even the two scrawny chickens that were wandering around. I believe that the snake had eaten recently. The man was very good in handling the snake - not reckless and showing a definite respect for what the reptile could do. It was a treat for me to see the reaction of the children to the snake. They were not terrified of it but they too were cautious. I asked Duang if it was the same type of cobra that had crawled into the bathroom that was occupied by her daughter a couple of months ago. Duang indicated that it wasn't.


The man seemed to be telling people about the snake and answered some questions. He used the stick to keep the snake's movements away from the children and tried to a limited success to get the snake to flare its hood. The snake moved with a calm and deliberate demeanor almost like the swagger of the town bully knowing that he was the biggest and "Baddest" MF in town. After awhile the man coaxed the snake back to the vicinity of the box and using a combination of his hand and snake stick got it back into the box. He closed the top and set the hasp with the bamboo rod before placing the bent wire with his bare hand.

After putting the box back into the back of the truck, he brought out a similar sized wood box. Using the same equipment and techniques, he eventually had a 6 foot python on the ground. This snake was not so polite. It was hissing very loudly. The snake through its movements clearly demonstrated the power contained in its body. Again the man seemed to be lecturing about the snake. His wife also came forward with a woven wood basket in her hand and started working the crowd. Inside the basket were small plastic bags of stuff - it looked like wood shavings and snakeskin. There were other bags that contained large white tablets.

It turned out that this man and his family were selling medicine. Much like the snake oil salesmen of the American west in the 1880's they put on a little show, in this case showing the snakes, to attract a crowd to extol the power and benefits of their medicine which they were selling. Their pitch was not falling upon deaf ears. I saw several villagers reaching into their pockets to pay for some of the bags of "medicine" Duang told me that the medicine was from China. The wood chips with snake skin was very good to make a tea out of for women who had just had a baby. The other medicine was good for taking care of headaches. This type of medicine is traditional in Isaan especially out in the countryside.

The show ended with a third box being opened to reveal two turtles. The little villagers came closer for a better look at them. The man also placed a small plastic crocodile next to the turtles and would press the back of the toy with his bamboo rod causing it to squeak. Everyone got a good laugh when a couple of the small children jumped back in surprise at the squeaks.

After about 30 minutes the "snake oil" salesman left Tahsang Village headed to the next village with their answer to health care for the Lao Loum people.

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