Return of the Roofsnake

I was just sitting down to lunch when the call came: “Snake!”

In the juvenile fantasy in my head where I have my own TV show, this is how each episode would start. I swear, it’s my call to action. My “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” Here I am, settling down to my rice and beans when an old lady comes running up yelling about snakes. Then I grab my hat and the theme song kicks in.

Intro credits over training montage.

Yesterday’s episode began as a rerun, with the same poor old long-suffering lady who runs housekeeping on the volunteer dormitory, which has since been turned into onsite staff housing since the shutdown. She’s usually the one to bring me the news, partly because she never stops working but mostly because she is deathly afraid of snakes. Either way, I’m always happy to help, and this time she led me to the outer balcony of the third floor. Up, in the rafters of the awning, was a good sized tree boa.


Now, our building—like many in Costa Rica—has a vaulted roof of corrugated metal. It helps with air flow. However, since the material is corrugated, it doesn’t sit completely flush with the tops of the walls. There are little gaps, gaps just the right size for snakes. Snakes that tend to climb to high places and look for small spaces to sleep in. I’m surprised this doesn’t happen more often. In fact, it was almost exactly a year ago when a parrot snake dropped from the ceiling right onto a ceiling fan, whirled around several times, and was then flung across the room. Oh, and the room was full of volunteers. I was summoned by the screaming.

Anyway, since that time we put up a thin sheet of insulation beneath the corrugated metal, which keeps the animals out of the room but provides even better housing. This snake, as you can see from the photo, was just peeking his head and most of his body outside, probably waiting for the sun to go down to go hunting for small rodents and sleeping birds. Or waiting to ambush bats. Neither of which was relevant to the lady, who refused to sleep beneath a roof infested with snakes.

You’re saying you don’t want to fall asleep to this image?

But the location was complicated. The balcony didn’t go around that side of the building. There was nowhere for me to stand, and no way to grab the snake with any leverage. I could try to monkey-bar from the balcony over to the snake, but then how to grab the snake and climb back with only two hands? Grabbing it with a hook at this distance could injure it, and any way I had already packed my capture kit.

I eventually worked out my strategy: I would tie myself to the balcony with a short length of rope, vault over the rail, then wall-run up to the snake, parkour-style. At the height of my run, I would grab the snake with both hands and then just drop. After stuffing the snake into my shirt, I could then climb the rope back with both hands. Sure, it would be a little risky, but the physics checked out I had done worse.

Friends, family–if you’ve ever wondered what goes through my head, it is this. This, all the time.
I already had my belt off and was wrapping it into a makeshift harness when I was struck by something that rarely comes to me: Common sense.

What the fuck was I doing?

I had four days to go until I left Costa Rica. Four. Everything was in place. I was packed and ready to get on a plane. All I had to do was survive until then. The last thing I wanted to do was risk an injury that would take me to the hospital right before an international flight. Also, y’know, death.

Forget TV shows—I’ve seen this movie! The one with veteran cop who gets shot “three days before retirement.” Or the one with the cocky daredevil who gets his comeuppance in the worst way, at the worst time. There’s playing the odds, and then there’s tempting fate. If I had had no travel plans, or fewer commitments, or better health insurance…but no.

There may come a day where I kill or horribly maim myself catching a snake, but it is not this day!

So I gritted my teeth and swallowed my pride and did the thing I dread: told everyone I couldn’t do it. Tried and failed to catch the snake with a long stick and watched as it retreated further into the roof. Had to endure the scorn and disappointment of a old lady who will be bunking with her daughter’s family for a few nights.  That upper floor is going to be unoccupied for some time.

But at least I’m alive. My survival instinct outweighed my pride. And I can still go home.

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