Traveler's Tales

House Calls for Snake Doctors

by Robert Christian Malmberg
All photos by Robert Christian Malmberg.

Some people won't leave home without noise-canceling headphones and hand sanitizer. But when Robert Christian Malmberg travels, he can't part with film canisters at baggage check. The bicoastal photographer, known for resurrecting old camera formats and chemistry processes from the dead, lugs around carry-ons full of antique cameras in order to capture the sentimental quality of a place. And, occasionally, garages full of snakes. We asked him to elaborate.

I went to Sri Lanka for a couple of reasons, one of which was to direct a short silent film in the Super 8mm process. The Super 8 lends itself to the idea of tangible memories — the grain structure, the imperfections. For me, it made perfect sense to carry around a case of vintage reels, antique equipment, makeshift lighting, and audio in order to realize the essence of such a surreal, raw, gorgeous place.

There was a lot to capture. Explorations included night swimming in the Indian Ocean, roaming ruins of old army vehicles in the jungle; talking with strange monks; going to the emergency room to get sea urchin spines removed from my heel (surfing accident, not fun); getting lost in the intensely crowded market of Pettah, in the heart of Colombo; taking death rides on tuk-tuks that played games of Chicken with oncoming buses; and watching time move by slowly and deliberately.

I wanted to see some snakes, it just seemed like the right thing to do. My friends and I negotiated a flat rate with a few drivers to take us from Tangalle (on the south-west coast) all the way back to Colombo (a six-hour drive on a heavily trafficked roads stuffed with mopeds, buses, army trucks, goats, bicyclists, holy cows, and a ton of pedestrians), where we needed to catch our late-night flight back to the states. Most flights heading home leave around 4 a.m. from Colombo, which is a drag. We had the full day to get there so we asked the drivers to make some interesting stops along the way. We explained the kind of footage we wanted for the film, so they took us around to private homes and sea turtle farms down windy dirt roads in Unawatuna Bay and Galle. These places are definitely not in a guide book. Our drivers had a lot of fun with it.

At one point we stopped at a humble house in the jungle where generations of Sri Lankan snake doctors live. The drivers took off their shoes and entered the home as we lingered outside. They were in there for a few minutes and then signaled for us to follow suit. We took off our shoes and entered a very dark living room.

The snake doctor was sitting on a wooden chair wearing only a sarong (we could see tattoos and gnarly scars from years of snake bites). In the background, a '60s-era TV played fuzzy static. It was very surreal. We just sat there for a few moments. And then the man gave us an "Ayubowan" greeting with hands folded and large smile.

The snake doctor's son (who is, surprise, also a snake doctor) lead us to the garage where he started pulling out all kinds of giant colorful snakes that were in different tanks and cages: Indian cobras, Boa constrictors, vipers, tree snakes, etc.

The guys are tough as nails, truly the original gangsters. They cultivate 80 different breeds and make anti-venom to save people who are attacked by the poisonous creatures. Some of these snakes are literally the most deadly in the world: You have about 30 minutes post-bite before you go into cardiac arrest. The snake doctor is a pretty important person to have around.

It was pretty unreal and freaky. I kept my distance but my buddy Mike handled some of them (he looked a little concerned). I was drenched in sweat and shooting the whole event as giant cobras hissed and slithered around us. You'll get to see it all in the film.

The author at work.

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