My final day in Belize…

snake.jpg… was as ridiculously hot, vibrant, lazy, and as unpredictable as any other day I’d ever spent in this strange, tranquilo, tucked-away little corner of the continent. It began in Gales Point, at the tip of a snake-skinny peninsula that juts into the vast brackish Southern Lagoon. It was the morning after a full moon and Easter Sunday sambai fertility dance. On this day, I was traveling with a television producer and a cameraman, in search of the bizarre. A green snake slithered across the red road just as we reached the mainland. It was a slow, easy day, especially compared the the previous week, working up to 19 hours inside caves, in remote Maya villages, underwater, from the air. Nope, today was a simple drive with only one mission: talk with Gilly the Snake Man and take his picture.

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Two hours later, we approached the village of Lucky Strike and pulled over to ask a family sitting on their porch where Gilly the Snake Man lived. The family pointed us onward. Eight miles more, they said. We had only seen photos of Gilly’s leaning shack and bald head, but we had no trouble spotting him, muscular, sweating, and draped in a 70-pound thigh-thick boa. His rotting, wooden home leaned behind him and half the stairs were missing; Gilly cat-footed up to the top floor anyway, up and down, each time returning with a different creature. We were surrounded by forest, thick with cohune palms and greenery; he’d caught these animals, the snakes and anteater, in the surrounding forest. He loved them. It was a sign of affection, he said, that caused him to stuff their heads into his mouth.
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Gilly had given up a woman to live here with these animals, he said. We weren’t the first tourists passing by on the way to the nearby archeological site, but his act was alluring and the scene was striking, even when he thrust newspaper articles into our hands with photos of his bleeding head after being bitten by a fer de lance. He had woken up in Belize City after five days in a coma, transported there by the same journalist that had shot the grizzly photo in the article, “Tommy Goff takes down Lucky Strike Snake Man” (the journalist was in town to investigate a double-homicide). It was no small miracle that Gilly was still alive.

Things got really weird, however, when Gilly took out the fer de lance he’d caught the week before, a Godly act, he said, so that we could come and film it. Yes, he had a pet fer de lance, as in barba amarilla (yellow beard) or “Tommy Goff” in Belizean kriol. This snake was, I knew, the “ultimate pit viper,” one of the deadliest snakes in the world which, Gilly explained in a highly articulate, knowledgeable speech, could strike at 90 miles per hour, delivering multiple strikes in a couple of seconds. “You’d be dead in five minutes,” he said matter-of-factly. Gilly wrapped his hand with a long rag, like a boxer, as he told us his story. He was a miracle, touched by God, he explained. The scars on his nose and top of his head from last year’s attack were very visible. Hand wrapped, he donned a single rough leather glove and thrust it into the fer de lance’s cage, the snake thumping around as Gilly searched for the head.

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Gilly held it out as the cameraman zoomed in, looking only through his lens and getting sickeningly close when the snake’s head popped free and squirted bright yellow venom as it tried to strike, just as Gilly regained his hold around the snake’s neck. Adrenaline squirted as the three of us jumped back. We finally turned off the camera and got out of Dodge, speeding north on the dirt road and skidding to a stop as a fantastical, long-tailed animal darted across our path—a coatimundi. Farther down the Maskall Road, at Maruba Resort, the owner, Nicky, offered us a shot of Viper Rum, “to increase the motility of your sperm,” he said. I accepted, my throat on fire as I gagged, then choked down the goodness of decayed fer de lance snake scales, diluted venom, and God-awful grain alcohol.

Ah, Belize, I’ll see you again soon.

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