“You are crazy!” says an Aussie girl on my tour, looking at me with my arms outstretched.
“Crazy in love,” I mumble to myself. Then I look at Appu.
“Appu, I need, like, five more.”
“We will see,” Appu, the Linebacker Scorpion King, replies. “They are very active right now.”
“Active” can mean a lot of things. Active can mean you’re alive. Active can mean you keep fit. Active can mean you don a well-coordinated and/or brightly-colored Nike outfit and run around the block a few times and then call it a day when you start to think you actually hate running, why are you doing this, let’s just go home. This is one of the most common ways I stay active. But I digress. Point is, “active” is an ambiguous word.
“Appu, what the hell does ‘active’ mean?” I ask.
“It means the scorpions might strike,” Appu the Linebacker Scorpion King says. He is placing six scorpions on my arms.
He’s ok with it so I’m ok with it.
Appu the Linebacker Scorpion King is the largest “local” I’ve ever met in Malaysia. A six-foot-something, third-generation Indian living in the Cameron Highlands, he’s the guide on an excursion I do with tour groups in this interior Malaysian town.
When you meet Appu the Linebacker Scorpion King, sometimes you wonder why he is not a linebacker in the NFL, maybe a Jabaal Sheard without the dreads. Sometimes you wonder if he could benchpress a family of four whilst they sit atop a motorbike. Sometimes you wonder, if I brought this man to Chipotle and presented him with a tasting of their well-crafted burritos with all the trimmings, how many could he eat? Could I eat more than him? How many could he and I BOTH eat, if, say, the golden ratio was applied to a Chipotle burrito with “a” equaling Chipotle’s well-marinated, cubed chicken and “b” equaling sour cream and cheese combined? And would that then be the most perfect burrito ever?
All worthwhile questions. None I have answers to yet.
So, Appu the Linebacker Scorpion King tells me the most scorpions he’s placed on anyone was 10 – some German girl. I feel a spark of jealousy. To be clear, the spark is more like what you see when you give a pyro a can of gasoline and a pile of dry wood and tell him there’s not a soul in the vicinity monitoring what he does with this combination. Versus the spark of simply lighting a match.
So, I have no choice but to put 11 of these placid, sweet, little buggers all over me.
It’s like telling Takeru Kobayashi he couldn’t break a world record of eating 25 hot dogs in under 12 minutes. Kobayashi ate 50. Kobayashi set a world record.
But Appu the Linebacker Scorpion King is saying they’re too “active.”
Alas, I wasn’t allowed more than six scorpions on my arms. In my mind, I have failed. Fortunately, I come back to this place, the “Butterfly and Insect Farm,” which I like to call “Insect Palace of Love,” about once every 2-3 months, so I have a chance at redemption. Eventually, I will break that record. I just have to wait until these boys are less “active.”
But it was in these meager attempts to break a scorpion-holding record that I fell in love.
I don’t know what it is about arachnids. You know, I had always likened myself to some kind of majestic marine animal. A dolphin, a Christmas tree worm, a Free Willy. Something more aquatic, more graceful, less poisonous.
But scorpions? Silent, most of the time they barely move. They just hang out and look intensely badass. This is attractive because they are, in fact, intense and badass.
Though not as badass as say, Chuck Norris. While they’re all venomous, only 1/50 of the world’s scorpion species (2000 or so) are actually lethally poisonous with one strike. A sting by one of the ones I held would only hurt. A couple of stings would hurt a lot, and any more would probably kill you. And what kind of idiot would surround themselves with enough poisonous scorpions that could potentially sting you multiple times, and ultimately kill you?
They also do this Jackie Chan thing where if they’re sensing they have too little oxygen to live, they slow their metabolism to a point where they can live on only one insect a year.
And even when they’re like, “Shoot, not a lot of oxygen around these parts, we better stall our metabolism,” they haven’t really. If say, a predator like a venomous snake appears, they can spring into action and attack with the sort of Jackie Chan energy as if that metabolism hadn’t ever slowed. We need four cups of coffee to function on Mondays; scorpions just awoke from hibernation and KO’ed a brother.
All after one meal in 52 days! Now obviously, this creates a compatibility issue in our relationship. You’ve seen the way I talk about burritos. But opposites attract! The yin to my yang! The Kermit to Miss Piggy.
Sometimes though, Miss Piggy eats Kermit:
“The males and females will tolerate each other long enough for mating to occur. They will take part in dancing rituals that are very interesting to watch. He needs to be receptive to that or she will consume him for a meal before he has time to make an exit.”
While I haven’t yet put 11 scorpions on my body, I have ate them.
It’s never delicious. The scorpions are best fried, extra crispy. You spend a significant amount of time extracting shell from your teeth. Rarely does anything explode in your mouth, fortunately. And for the most part, the poison, stomach contents, etc. have been removed.
And on these digestive journeys, I figured I might as well try tarantulas, another requisite Southeast Asian dinner (I tell my tour groups I won’t let them leave the region until they’ve ate some kind multi-legged, crawly, arachnid species).
At Romdeng Restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, they’re on the menu, and served quite nicely. The black pepper and lime sauce is necessary. Still, take the one and done approach — while there will most likely be no explosions, you don’t want to take any chances. Like scorpions (and ant’s eggs, and locusts, and grasshoppers), they’re never delicious.
“Go to the bathroom!” says my Northern Irish tour member, Dana, returning to the table at Romdeng.
“Ok!” I say. “But why?”
“They’re just crawling around in the pot back there, by the kitchen,” Dana says.
Done. And as a scorpion love affair became a dinner, so a tarantula dinner became a love affair.
I find the pot in the back by the kitchen. And there they are, just hanging out.
The kitchen staff stops what they’re doing when I ask in my best Khmer, “Can I?!” motioning to the pot. They get excited and encourage it.
Then I allow these furry things to climb all over me. They’re large, deliberate, hairy. Everything you want in a guy. They’re slow, thoughtful. It appears as if they have only one eye. Their venom is weaker than that of a honeybee. The experience of touching what most have phobias of is phenomenal.
While I have yet to set a local record for scorpion handling – a record I’m still actively pursuing – I’m getting to know these species very well.
Still, I never trust a spider. They post things on the web.
If I Go Missing: I often find myself in scenarios where I think, “what a great way of life,” or “I could do this for a living,” or “this has retirement written all over it.” For those instances, I’ve created this series in an effort to let my loved ones know where I might be if I disappear and escape ordinary life.