, pub-6663105814926378, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0 MR. AND MRS. SMITH 4289


While my second life at UQ was back on track and moving along, receiving news that my mate Luke Yeomans had been killed by one of the king cobras in his sanctuary in the United Kingdom was like being struck by lightning. He had been working with a particularly large male, using the same close proximity, high-contact approach that had given me chills down my spine when I last visited him. The inevitable had happened: he had been bitten. Despite the predictability, it was still a donkey punch to my head. His death was global news. I was not able to fly over for the funeral, so I said my goodbyes alone while taking a long walk in the rainforest of Mt. Glorious. It was very hard to deal with having lost yet another friend to snakebite, particularly so soon after having come to grips with my own mortality.
On July 22, 2011, I also learned of the atrocity that had occurred in my Norwegian homeland. Anders Behring Breivik, a member of a Christianity-infused, extreme far-right, white nationalist sect, had bombed government buildings in Oslo, killing eight people. He then gunned down sixty-nine more people, mostly children, at a fjord island camp, which was similar to the camps I had enjoyed during my childhood summers spent in Norway. I was deeply shocked and distressed. This incident really drove home to me that religious fundamentalist fuckwits come in all flavors. Not just chocolate or caramel but vanilla as well.
This all weighed heavily on my mind as I started to prepare for trips to collect Arctic venomous octopus species for my new fellowship research. I was planning on traveling across the northern hemisphere for a few months. However, shortly before I was to leave, I received the most intriguing email of my life.

Dear Bryan,
By now I have read several of your articles, then a bit of your old blog and forum. The interest arose after I had a chance encounter on the ARTE channel of a documentary about you working with taipans. The start with the close up of your back tattoos caught my eye. My conclusion is that we should have dinner. Trivial, yet the conversation can just be too interesting (and potentially amusing) to refuse.
I will try to be time efficient here, as several things should sound familiar to you.
—I grew up on military bases, mainly in the Middle East, in a mixed-marriage family. As almost any officer’s child, I have rarely lived in one country for more than three to four years. Travel was a constant.
—Addicted to adrenaline, yet safety-obsessed freak.
—I was in biochemistry branch in high school and college, but then transited to philosophy and theology. From there to sociology, and ended up in political science, where I am actually going to do a doctoral degree.
I feel like I should stop here for now. We are actually as different as similar people can be, based on what I’ve read. I am in fact truly curious about how/if you get philosophy, biology, and sociology to co-exist peacefully in your mind. The evening can be rich in productive (dis)agreements.
Finally, remembering that you don’t know me, and that aesthetics is in many cases no less important than ethics: I am, as a matter of fact, very pleasant to look at.
Let me know if you are in Europe and have a slot.
Omnis enim qui petit accipit et qui quaerit invenit et pulsanti aperietur.

In planning my upcoming travels, I had intended to be in Europe for a couple of months. This could end up being interesting. But first, I traveled far up into the Canadian Arctic and hopped onto a research vessel to net octopuses. This letter gave me much to ponder as we headed out to sea.
The vessel was a boat straight out of the most stereotypical fishing-town novel, with politically incorrect crew smoking indoors and telling dirty jokes to pass the time. This rusting heap of scrap metal had water leaking into its lower levels. Not a pretty little member of an overpriced yacht club, but functional in that ten-dollar hooker sort of way. The sleeping arrangements were equally primitive: a narrow bunk with only a threadbare blanket to cover myself with, and a packing cell full of clothes for a pillow. The weather had apparently turned at about the same time I landed. The local spirits must have sensed a Viking was in the midst of the mist and the ocean greeted us with extensive chain lightning—always a lovely sight to behold when in the only metallic object out on the water. The dark blue waves were as erratic as the bathtub of an epileptic giant. The captain reported that there was extensive flooding on the mainland and the airport I had arrived at only hours previously was now closed due to lightning strikes.
I was tagging along on a fisheries department survey of the health of the scallop beds offshore of Canada’s arctic coast. Other than liking them lightly seared and served with chilli and lime, I was supremely uninterested in scallops. What I was interested in, however, was the Arctic octopus, a small denizen of the deep whose venom I wanted to compare to that of the octopuses I had collected five years prior in Antarctica. We got straight into the benthic trawling, despite the elements putting on quite the show. Shovelling out sorting trays by hand, trying not to miss anything, was the ultimate arm workout, one that would give a male of any age the kind of forearm normally reserved for serial masturbating teenage boys. There were lots of empty scallop shells, but not a lot of live ones. There were, however, metric tons of invasive lemonweed coming up in the nets—a sure sign the marine ecosystem was extremely unhealthy. The octopuses were as scarce as an honest politician. An entire day’s work turned up only one of each sex, despite the nets being put down for benthic trawling twenty times in the 980-foot depths. They were tiny things, mantles less than one inch across, even as adults. They were, nonetheless, a cool red color.
The next day was calmer and we had whales cruising right by the boat, which got me thinking about being in Antarctica, gazing long at the whales while the whales gazed at us. Different ocean, different whales, different octopuses, different me. But the familiar steel chain clanged and clattered with a percussive, pervasive racket that vibrationally filled the entire ship. Over and over again, the nets brought up only rubble and lemonweed; hardly any scallops and no octopuses. We were in prime habitat for them, and the fishermen normally saw lots. Of course, they also used to see lots of scallops, but rampant overfishing had ruined the ecosystem.
The entire day yielded only two more octopuses, at least fourteen short of what I needed to collect in order to accomplish the research. We even kept working through another storm as lightning seared the sky above and horizontal rain lashed the deck. The next day we moved further offshore and struck pay dirt, landing eighteen octopuses in total. I had that blissful feeling of knowing I had reached the tipping point in accumulating enough samples to run this aspect of the project. On the way back, the bow spray reflected the sunlight like a million airborne diamonds. After a long voyage back, the boat dropped me off at Digby, where I arrived just in time for the annual scallop festival—the one time of year I could compliment a woman by saying, “That’s a mighty nice scallop you have,” and not get slapped. The following morning I drove down to Halifax to fly to Geneva to meet this intriguing woman who had tracked me down.
Landing in the Geneva Airport with spine intact after a comfortable Virgin Atlantic business class flight, I strode out into the arrivals hall with Rob Zombie’s “Living Dead Girl” playing on the iPod. Waiting for me was an absolute vision. Long brown hair. Half Russian, half Gagauz. Dark amber eyes. Very tall. Very elegant. Very beautiful. Sliding into her white BMW M3, we headed out into this city I knew so well and had such fond memories of. I was now, however, seeing it through new eyes. The late summer sunshine kissed Lake Geneva as we hopped into a paddleboat and made our way out into the champagne-tinged waters. After paddling around for a few hours and having a couple of swims in the warm summer waters, we came back onshore for dinner at a splendid Ethiopian restaurant that Kristina knew of, but that I had never been to in my previous stays in Geneva. It was then back out on to the water. The lights of the cigarette racing boat she had conjured up pierced the night as we headed in the general direction of Montreux. This long first day and night together provided ample opportunity for us to get acquainted.
She had rather undersold her background and resourcefulness. She had lived on her own since she was sixteen, when she moved to Moscow to work as a model in order to pay her way through Moscow University, majoring in philosophy. Finding modeling incredibly boring, she quit it a few years later, once she earned an academic scholarship from the University of Geneva to do her master’s degree in political science. She had been in Geneva for the last few years. She was, as it turned out, also the darling daughter of the retired Soviet army officer Mihail Formuzal. Her mother is a very blonde, fair-colored Russian from Orenburg, while her father is Gagauzian (from a small region that speaks Turkish but practices Christianity). In the Soviet army, he was not only a hard-nosed soldier but also a body building champion. At the beginning of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he was in the artillery, where it was discovered he had a particular talent for the use of ballistic missiles. Kristina was born in nearby Uzbekistan and spent the first part of her childhood there.
Growing up, her father’s soldiers were her babysitters, so she was taught how to fight from a very young age. Either go on a long march in the Uzbekistan desert, or let the colonel’s darling daughter do whatever she wanted. Her nickname, apparently, was “The Little General.” She became a crack shot, not surprisingly having a particular fondness for long-range rifles, being Daddy’s little tomboy after all. She described to me in detail the difference between getting a Russian tank to move and turn—apparently very different processes were involved—and how an American equivalent would differ making the same maneuver; how the controls differed and how the team of two or more moved different levers or pedals to get these awesome machines to do whatever they wanted. She used the same matter-of-fact tone in which another woman might have described to me how Gonoouka shoes differed from Gnukanuka shoes. Righto.
She told me an intriguing story about a little boy in her Uzbekistan neighborhood being killed by a large Caspian monitor lizard. It had bitten him and chewed on him for a prolonged period of time, over twenty minutes. The three-year-old died a few days later. This was the first death I had ever heard of caused by these lizards. Ironically, a report was published in the scientific literature a few months after this conversation between us, describing another venom-induced death from a monitor lizard bite, this time in Nepal. The bite was witnessed by a number of people in the village, including a local wildlife officer. The large Bengal monitor lizard hung on and gave the woman’s leg a sustained chew. Again, enough time for the delivery of whatever volume of liquid was currently in the ample lumens of the mandibular venom gland. She died three days later from cardiac failure, after suffering through kidney failure subsequent to the onset of severe symptoms nine hours after the bite. There was no accurate record about the cause of death to the child in Kristina’s village but the two species of monitor lizard from the respective regions are very closely related and it would not be unreasonable to speculate that there was a chance the child in her village died in the same way.
She told me more about her fascinating family history. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, her father seamlessly transitioned into politics and was now the governor of Gagauzia. Not to say that all was butterflies and unicorns—quite the contrary, in fact. Eastern European politics is a dog-eat-dog world, one that even involves physical altercations in parliament. This was exacerbated for a person such as her father, who was striving to inject some honesty into Moldovan politics. In addition to bugs in their houses, he had endured physical attacks, and even attempted assassinations. This included a particularly unsavory one where he was poisoned at an official dinner and was rushed to the hospital for medical treatment.
Kristina knew six languages, and was extremely well trained in the use of martial arts and weapons. She was as much of an adrenaline-junkie, Type-A personality as I was, and had spent nearly as much time in the hospital. We had a hilarious conversation comparing broken bones. We agreed that shattered ribs hurt like hell whenever the ribs moved, which was, of course, any time a breath was taken! I had her beaten twenty-three to ten on total bones broken but she had fractured her skull, which I hadn’t. It happened when she was five and tried to learn how to fly by throwing herself off her grandmother’s table, flying headfirst into the robust old TV set. Her worst accident happened when she was fourteen while reading, sitting on her windowsill. She was so into her book that she lost her balance and fell two stories, breaking numerous bones. She was also continually getting immunized against everything, however obscure. The constant hammering of the immune system produced in her a weird and unique sort of high. Getting addicted to immunizations was a funny new one to me.
The only distractions during this ethereal time were the forty messages that landed in my phone upon my arrival in Geneva. A biblical plague of crickets had appeared in the building my laboratory was in, invading that whole level. One of my students, who shall remain nameless since he is buried in an outback Northern Territory swamp, had left an untied bag containing two thousand crickets on the floor. Luckily, everyone on the floor was a biology researcher, so they took it in reasonably good spirits and just cracked out the vacuum cleaners. Apparently, a new sport was made of it. I just smiled wryly and put it out of my brain.
The next day we hopped on a flight to Russia. Moscow proved to be an alternative universe. The amusement began for me upon arrival as we were cutting over to where Kristina’s best girlfriend, Inna, had parked her Range Rover. The English translation sign said, “Welcome to Terminal 7!” Considering the emotionally dead face of the average Russian, this sign was very funny. Moscow central was best done on foot or by taxi, not by personal vehicles, because there were people like Inna behind the wheel. This tall blonde was the most lethal thing out there in heels. She drove like she was competing in a blood sport. Quentin Tarantino won’t have done a driving scene until he does one in Moscow. Just the drive from the airport to the city could be a scene. People were passing us driving on the sidewalk. In front of a school. At 3 p.m. At forty miles an hour. We saw eight accidents on the way to the city.
Russia is guided by the twin forces of inefficiency and corruption. Never before have I seen a culture that expends so much time and energy to get out of doing something that would take a fraction of the time and energy to just do! Absolutely exasperating. Or it would be if I actually had to deal with it. Kristina just handled it all while I worked on my dead face, which was easy, since I had no idea what was being said. But no one knew that. I just had to be uncommunicative in that special sort of Russian way. Relax all muscles in the face and keep the eyes alert, but at half-mast. Not Slavically surly, just deadpan, playing to the well-deserved stereotype of a Russian male. As time went on, I quite enjoyed putting on this anonymity cloak and people-watching. It was a circular black hole of the watcher being watched by the one they are watching.
The reigning oligarchs had poured in oil money at such an open tap rate that despite the low currency exchange there was an amazing array of high-end services and products. The first few days spent hanging out in Moscow were certainly of a standard exceeding that of Oslo. The real tragedy for me was the music. The best (worst) of the eighties on loop. Those songs were painful enough the first time around. Wang Chung should be called Wang Chunder, since that band is the definition of auditory illness.
Despite the music, aspects of Moscow were stunning. We dined in the rooftop restaurant of a thirty-story building, gazing over the city. The lights of the cars driving chaotically below looked like fireflies on crystal meth. I thought of my Norwegian grandparents walking through these same streets. They were posted here as part of Norway’s diplomatic contingent at the height of the Cold War. As expected, they were followed by the equivalent of the modern-day Main Intelligence Directorate. My grandparents treated their followers as their own private security service, sending them liquor and nice food while eating out every night. They actually became friends over time. Very handy, too, since the locals could see who was conspicuously behind them and they were thus spared some potential indignities.
My parallel universe with my Norwegian grandparents continued when Kristina and I dined at the very famous Pushkin restaurant, just a few blocks away from the mighty Kremlin. The ambience was new to me: red velvet curtains, old wood, clientele wearing clothes more expensive than my car, impeccably polite waiters, and caviar with champagne made me feel like a Crocodile Dundee accidentally dropped into Anna Karenina.
We then walked along the Moscow River at night. Shortly after we passed the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a massive statue came into view. It was as big as it was hideous. As I later found out, this is the tallest monument on earth. Taller than the Statue of Liberty or the statue of Christ in Rio. At 320 feet high, it was not proportional, and depicted an enormous—probably 70 percent of the whole monument—man standing on a tiny boat. I imagine it was intended as the display of might by whoever the hero was, but instead it looked like a grown man standing in a child’s paddleboat. How and why was this installed in such a central location in Moscow? Surely there must be a story. And there was.
Once I knew the background, it became even more amusing. Turns out there is a regime-favorite sculptor in Russia. He populated Moscow with his works—some good, some questionable. This particular one was a special case. It is now obscured with myths and anecdotes, but the essence of the story seems to be as follows: in 1991–92, the world was celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America. The artist decided to create a sculpture of Columbus on his ship, triumphantly gazing at the land in front of him. Ironic, since Columbus had no idea he had discovered a new continent! The attempts to sell the statue to the United States, Spain, and even the countries of Latin America fell flat. The artist then tried to present it to the United States as a gift, hoping to leave the same mark on the face of the country as the French did with the Statue of Liberty. Several times US officials politely refused to accept this awkward mass of metal. When it became clear that this Columbus was not sailing anywhere, the artist got upset and the admirers of his art high up in Russian politics decided to cheer him up. That’s how the monument for Peter the Great, one of Russia’s most progressive czars, was born. And this is how you offend three nations with just one sculpture.
Peter the Great was a six-foot-tall athletic guy of Eastern European appearance. He dressed progressively for his time (late seventeenth century) and disliked beards. Christopher Columbus was a middle-sized Italian with a belly, who lived two centuries earlier and dressed in plush, pumped-up pants. The transformation was simple: decapitate Columbus and replace his head with one resembling Peter the Great. Why Peter the Great is holding a golden paper roll in his hand, as if he is about to grandly announce something, is unknown to this day. The new statue was ready quickly and was planned for installation in Saint Petersburg—Peter’s darling. Peter the Great disliked Moscow and founded the new city—Saint Petersburg—much closer to the Europe he adored; it closely resembled Amsterdam in architecture. The only problem was that the mayor (and the population) of Saint Petersburg also kindly rejected the gift. They rightfully pointed out that a 330-foot-tall statue would overshadow all the majestic old buildings and palaces of Russia’s most beautiful city. They also already have a perfectly appropriate statue of Peter on a horse, where both Peter and the horse are life-size. After long and hard thinking, the Italian Peter was put in the middle of Moscow, on a tiny island on the river. Where he is sailing to from Moscow River is unclear, especially considering that he loathed old Moscow and deprived it of its capital city status. Needless to say, Moskovites are not big fans of the monument and only shake their heads when they have to explain to their visitors who the guy on a boat is. Kristina explained all this to me during the night-long walk through Gorky Park, as the iconic Scorpions song “Wind of Change” echoed through my brain.
But far and away the most interesting phenomenon for me was the “Moscow dogs.” These are a subpopulation of abandoned dogs that have not only become established and self-sustaining, but display a pattern of behavior that is quite astounding. They use the subway system to travel in a coordinated manner, getting off with deliberation at certain stops during particular periods of the day. They use this both to search for food and also to patrol an unusually extended home range. Intriguingly, these highly socialized and organized packs actually keep the numbers of “ordinary” feral dogs down. While watching them one day, Kristina recounted to me an event from several years prior. It was peak winter in Moscow, with temperatures plummeting to negative four degrees, without even taking into account the “lazy wind”—the kind that does not go around a body but straight through it, chilling even the marrows of the bones. She had just left McDonald’s and had half a hamburger in her hand when she saw a starving Moscow dog. She offered the hamburger to the dog, but it gave one cursory sniff, snorted dismissively, and trotted on its way in search of nourishment. She was blown away: if this starving creature refused a McDonald’s hamburger, there must be something very wrong with this “meal.”
As I was strapping myself into my seat for an internal Russian flight with Kristina, I read in the English language paper I’d picked up in the airport about the Russian hockey team that had just been killed in a plane crash. The article helpfully provided details about several other recent wrecks, all from Aeroflot—the same decrepit airline we were flying on. After take-off, they served a food-like substance. As I looked in wonder at the luridly orange carrots, which I instantly nicknamed Chernobyl carrots, Kristina told the burly stewardess that she was a vegetarian. The stewardess instantly transformed her tray into a vegetarian one by removing the container containing the meat and moved on down the aisle, leaving Kristina with no replacement—just the salad, a cracker, and dessert to enjoy. Classic Russian logic.
Our destination was Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world and containing up to 25 percent of the world’s reserves of fresh water. It is located just outside the industrial hell that is the city of Irkutsk. Before heading out to the lake, we went deep into the beehive maze of a geological building to unexpectedly drop in on a Russian Academy of Science researcher who works on the ecology of the Lake Baikal water shrew, a small venomous mammal I wished to study. With me keeping a deadpan face in a Russian sort of way, we were able to sneak me deep into a government building with restricted access for foreigners. This was a scientific institute that would have otherwise been impenetrable to me without an extreme administrative burden—a step we simply bypassed. After liaising with a local researcher and organizing the research collaboration, we drove out of the city and into the sanctuary of the evergreen tree forest. After an hour’s drive, we were at the shore of Lake Baikal.
The emerald green waters stretched out to the horizon, with the far shore hidden by the curvature of the earth. In addition to venomous water shrews, Lake Baikal was home to three unique animals, found only in this lake but usually living in the ocean. Two of those I particularly wanted to see, and one I wanted to eat. The first two were freshwater seals and freshwater amphipods. The seals were chunky little things, about half the size of the little fur seals I enjoyed watching cavorting in Antarctica. They were extremely bulky for their short length. Being so small, they had an unfavorable surface-to-volume ratio and thus would be sensitive to heat loss. They were shaped like little balloons.
The amphipods were also much smaller than the ones I had collected in Antarctica. They were lurking ghost-like on the murky bottom as I floated above in an ungainly manner. I absolutely loathe drysuit diving, due to the loss of agility. But the water was far too cold for a wetsuit, as it was currently sitting at forty-four degrees despite it being late summer. Kristina went in with a 7mm wetsuit and got extremely cold very fast. Once we had dried off, it was time to hit a restaurant and track down the third animal: the omul, a white fish found only in this lake. It is considered something of a delicacy and I agreed from the first mouthful that it was astoundingly tasty. The only downer was an adjacent business that had as one of their attractions an anemic brown bear crowded into a cage far too small for its great frame. This disturbed me greatly.
After lunch, we went on the weirdest, craziest zip-line run by two young guys who were drinking beer and “yahooing” on it when we rolled up. They had constructed it themselves and likely were drunk at all stages of the building process. They gave us helpful tips like, “Lift your feet so you don’t hit that big rock on this one,” and “You’ll finish this one going very fast since we got the angle wrong, so land feet forward to brace yourself.” My personal favorite incongruous comment came at the last stage, a very long run across a valley, where they said, “Don’t worry about that tree near the end. It’s only an optical illusion that you’ll hit it. As long as you’re not spinning, you’ll be fine.” Of course, this was the run where I went into a flat spin and had to stop it by putting my arms out wide to brake. These were not the polite, 100 percent safe zip-lines of Switzerland. This was much more fun!
Kristina had an early introduction to my family when, at 3 a.m. in a Vladivostok nightclub, I happened to glance up at the sixteen-foot screen to see what I thought was my cousin Haakon’s face flash across it. I told Kristina, and we watched the entire twenty-minute loop. It was Red Bull filming in Australia, footage ranging from surfing to the nightlife. While at university in Melbourne, Haakon had spent far more time in nightclubs than in the library, so it was hardly surprising that random footage would include him. And sure enough, it was him. He was putting his face right into the camera and making the classic two-finger, devil’s-horns, rock party signal. Obviously he had listened when, years prior, I had said, “Come to the dark side, my young cousin. We have brownies.”
After several weeks of traveling across Siberia, it was time to return to Moscow to attend Kristina’s former-intelligence-officer cousin’s wedding (name withheld upon request). This was a fascinating event, full of scary but cool people, including my first meeting with Kristina’s father, who was easily the most formidable person I have ever met in my adventurous life. The following day Kristina and I decamped with the bride, groom, and their friends to dachas deep in the woods. One night, while playing various strategy-based board games in between sessions in the sauna, Kristina and I were huddled in discussion about our next move when one of her cousin’s colleagues started laughing and said, “Remember … we are spies. We can actually hear you better when you whisper!” This was followed up in the next sauna session when the intelligence officers had a quick conversation in cryptic Russian after I told them all about my venom research and where it had taken me. One of them announced, “We have decided we like you and we would do anything to help you at any time.” To which I replied in a smart-ass way, “Even help me hide a body?” I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not when the hairy guy from Armenia gave a huge grin and said, “That is my specialty!”
After such a mind-blowing trip, it was time for us to head back to Geneva. It had been late summer when we departed Geneva, but now it was well into autumn. The approaching winter was heralded by a heavy snowfall. I hadn’t seen snow since Antarctica years before, so I immensely enjoyed the snowball fights with Kristina, who has a bullet-accurate right arm that was testament to her military upbringing. While she was the most capable woman I had ever met, she was also the worst cook on the planet. This was brought into particularly sharp relief one night when I was preparing dinner and gave her a seemingly unscrewable-up task: to wash the salad. Twenty minutes later she presented me with a bowl of what looked like seaweed washed up onshore after a violent storm. Once I stopped laughing and could speak, I asked her what she’d done to it. She said she’d washed it. As in running hot water on it full blast for about ten minutes, followed by vigorous rubbing between her hands. It was washed, all right!
We spent the next month traveling around Western Europe, including Kristina accompanying me to Oxford University, where I was giving a seminar. After that, we headed over to the reptile expo in Houten, Holland. She was able to meet those of my European friends who were in attendance, including Iwan Hendrikx. She was fascinated and intrigued by this rogues’ gallery and also smitten with some of the animals in the collection Iwan and I share at his residence in Holland. The mambas the color of high-quality emeralds in particular drew her attention—one beautiful and lethal creature being drawn to another.
It was time for me to return to Australia without her, but with plans to meet up again as soon as possible. I was scheduled to do another documentary on Komodo dragons six weeks later, so we arranged for her to join me on set and on-screen. I was taking my princess to meet my dragons. The expedition doctor turned out to be the one from my emergency surgery during the Komodo dragon filming trip with Kevin Grevioux. She took one look at me and said, “You won’t remember me because you were unconscious, but I removed a pebble from your rotting knee!” I certainly didn’t remember her, but I liked her already, and it wasn’t long before her services were needed again.
Things quickly went pear-shaped in Flores when an ice cream Kristina was eating was found to have broken glass in it. She had felt several little bits while eating it but thought they were just pieces of ice, so swallowed them. A shard of glass could open her intestines like a zipper, resulting in a painful death. I knew all too well, after my knee debacle several years prior, that the medical facilities on Flores were primitive at best, and the nearest equipped hospital was in Singapore, six hours away by plane. We had two options: to cancel the shoot and make a run for Bali, or to continue on. The first flight out was not until midday the next day—at which time she would either be fine or dead. In order to increase the odds of the favorable outcome, I had the idea of Kristina eating massive amounts of dried mango. The sticky fibres would trap any object, even something as sharp and deadly as glass. To everyone’s great relief, it worked and she passed the glass out of her system without incurring an injury. My kind of woman—one so tough she can eat glass and survive! My great relief was followed by deep contemplation about her and our respective futures, something I had already been deep in thought about before leaving Australia.
The following day, we dropped anchor offshore of Rinca Island, ready to commence filming in the morning. While Kristina and I were at the tip of the bow, watching the fiery red sunset reflect off the water and bleed all over the beach, I held her in my arms, looked deep into her amber eyes, asked her to marry me, and slid onto her finger a ring with an emerald centerpiece and diamond satellites. She replied with an enthusiastic “Da!” Love is the ultimate drug. The chemical reaction of falling in love is the most exquisite high that there is. Nothing can top it. I could not believe how quickly the tide had turned and life had bloomed anew. And so concluded the ultimate Hollywood clich? moment of my life.
The last time I had been filming Komodo dragons, I was with the BBC and was a shambling wreck due to my undiagnosed broken back and associated rampant consumption of opioids and benzodiazepams. This time, however, I was clean and healthy. My feet did not even touch the ground. It was the cruisiest, least stressful, most enjoyable film shoot I had ever been on. Great crew, and freshly engaged to be married. With Kristina’s own unconventional upbringing and her past animal experience, she was adept at working with the venomous animals despite not having any experience with these particular creatures. She was also extremely protective of her “Zaya,” as she had taken to calling me. I almost burst out laughing one time at the death stares she was giving a Russell’s viper one night after we caught it in a ranger’s hut. If looks could kill, that snake’s mortal existence would have been snuffed out like a candle flame in a cyclone. The only minor mishap was when I was filming a dive sequence and my bare chest scraped across a big patch of fire coral, which quickly lived up to its name.
After the film shoot was over, we flew back to Geneva to pick out the wedding rings. We took the train to Zurich to go to Tiffany’s, where we selected simple platinum bands. By this point, winter was well upon Europe, so we decided to travel up to Norway to spend Christmas skiing with my cousins Haakon and Wilhelm and my aunt Vivian and uncle Hans at the mountain cabin, and then to join Kristina’s parents in Prague for New Year’s. My family, of course, took delight in getting to know her and I discovered her parents were welcoming and warm. Despite his fearsome background, her father turned out to be a thoroughly decent person.
After that, Kristina came to Australia. Upon arrival, she took one look at my unconventional home decorating and announced that it would all be changed. She immediately took charge. This was also when I was able to experience the legendary possessiveness of a Russian woman. “Has this been touched by a whore?” was her subtle way of asking if something in my house had been used by, or given to me by, any woman previously. She played “Possession” by Sarah McLachlan on the iTunes, remarked coldly, “That sounds like whore music,” and then dragged all the songs by that artist into the trash. To be fair, it was music contaminating my playlist that had been left behind by one ex-girlfriend or another. It was pretty obvious it was not my choice—Kristina was familiar enough with my musical proclivities to know that my tastes ran to a steady diet of heavy metal. The steel shelves were moved out of the rooms and the rooms used for living rather than as gear depots. I could tell that all I would ultimately be left with would be my books and a few select items of clothing.
Watching all this unfold with a wry smile, Tim Jackson said that my house had definitely needed a woman’s touch. This was fine by me, since I had zero interest in domestic affairs—a fact made evident by the thick layer of dust over everything, which Kristina was now cleaning off with the kind of industrial application of potent disinfectant usually reserved for an Ebola outbreak hot zone. “When was this last cleaned?!” she asked. I thought back to how long it had been since I moved in and almost answered with the exact number of months (in two digits) before wisely realizing this was a rhetorical question.
During this cleanout and organization of the house, she noticed that I had a recently received a Christmas card from an ex-girlfriend. “Why is Vampirella sending you a card?” she interrogated. Even though I am a pretty clueless guy when it comes to the workings of the minds of women and rarely pick up on even the most obvious of signs, this one registered. “How did you know her nickname was Vampirella?” I enquired. She gave me the most wicked grin I had ever seen and said, “When I first saw the taipan documentary on you, the one that opened with a close-up of the abstract snake tattoo on your back and then cut to you singing loudly along to ‘Highway to Hell,’ I was extremely interested. But before I committed myself to anything, I obtained more information.” It turned out that she had pulled some strings and hacked my email accounts with the same effort it takes to open a letter, while her equally trained-up girlfriends Facebook-stalked me. All of this was compiled into a proper dossier that was named—I kid you not—Operation Jungleboy. While I should have been scared, I was instead even more intrigued by this amazing woman. Basically, I had met a Russian Bond girl. Or, should I say, I had been selected by one, since women like this aren’t picked up. They choose. Kristina was far and away the most dangerous creature I had ever encountered, and I was enthralled.
We went out for road cruises around Mt. Glorious, encountering many snakes each night. Kristina took great delight in moving big carpet pythons off the road with supreme confidence. She spurned the use of a snake hook, instead enjoying the feel of the muscular bodies as she used just her hands. This changed one day when a very small baby python turned and bit her on the finger. She was shocked to discover that carpet pythons are usually quite snappy, and that all the big ones she had been blithely moving off previously were being unusually quiet.
One particularly amusing toxic encounter occurred when she stepped on a stinging nettle. The Australian varieties are particularly potent, causing first blinding pain, and then radiating numbness. She was quite offended. “Why would a plant do this to me?! I love plants. I’m a vegetarian.” Once I stopped laughing I pointed out that to plants she was the enemy as they’d evolved this toxic defense specifically against grazing mammals! I added that I didn’t get stung because I was a carnivore so the plant did not consider me a threat.
A few weeks later we went up to Weipa with my mate Nick Casewell, who had come over from the United Kingdom for our fish venom project. Kristina loved catching the stingrays and catfish and was always very put out when she reeled in a shark instead, referring to them as “jerk-faces.” During the night-time snake catching, she proved herself a quick study in the capture of sea snakes, including pulling in a new specimen of the rough-scaled sea snake, only the fourteenth ever found and the first one not captured by me.
Next up was starting our little family, with the arrival of two British Staffordshire Bull Terrier puppy brothers—one black with a little bit of white, one white with a little bit of black, in moo-cow small polka dots. We named them Salt and Pepper. Kristina, having only had military-trained Dobermans, didn’t even know what a Staffy was, let alone how weird they can be. As Kristina was planning on renovating anyway, it was of no great concern when they started chewing on the cupboards. I put chilli paste on the outside of the cupboard doors. They gave me looks of “Thanks for the sauce, Dad!” as they tore into the cupboards. We came home to them one day, not long after they were neutered. They still had the cones on their heads, but that had not stopped them from destroying the cupboards, drywall, and everything else they could sink their teeth into. Everything and everywhere those small but powerful jaws could reach, they had attacked. I took a photo, gave it the caption “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated. Love, Salt & Pepper,” and posted it on the Dogshaming site. It went viral. Friends of mine come across it on totally unrelated sites. It even showed up on the Russian search engine
Kristina finally came to the inevitable, evidence-based, rational conclusion: these were aliens from another planet pretending to be dogs. And getting it so very wrong. They had read the manuals on how to be a dog, but then mixed things up because of their extreme attention deficit disorder. They have no idea what is going on, but they think it is awesome. Salt, the white one, appears to be going through life completely ripped twenty-four hours a day; there is a special sort of chemical imbalance going on in that little airhead. He and I shared a special bond immediately.
Our wedding was to be held in Moldova later that year. To get there I first flew up to Hong Kong to stay with Paolo Martelli from my Singapore days, as he was now a vet at the iconic Ocean Park. This was primarily in order to get a tuxedo for the wedding hand-fitted at the excellent Noble House tailors. However, while there I spent time at the live fish markets getting additional octopus and cuttlefish specimens for that research, and then at night wandered the storm drains catching cobras with Anne Devan-Song as she radio-tracked her transmitter-implanted green tree vipers. I also took advantage of the opportunity to go over to the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in the New Territories to milk some slow lorises for that venom research.
The day before I was to leave, I was speaking on the phone with Kristina. “Since my connecting flight to Moldova from Istanbul is only an hour, it shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours to drive over. Can you come and pick me up instead, rather than me waiting in the airport for thirteen hours, as I’m scheduled to do now?” She gave a very amused snort and replied, “You will never shake certain parts of your American heritage: the love of donuts and geographical unawareness! You obviously have not even looked on a map as to where you are flying. Otherwise you would have noticed the Black Sea in between Turkey and Moldova!” I had nothing to say in reply to this! As always, she had more information than I did.
Landing in Turkey, I checked into the very nice hotel located inside the transfer lounge, caught up on some sleep and emails (though me being the obsessively linked-in me, it was not in that order) and then flew on. I landed in Moldova with Zucchero’s “Baila Morena” playing on the iPod and was met by my darling girl.
Once in Moldova, Kristina and I took her much younger brother Egor out snake catching. He had never seen any of the local snakes. Her father’s number two driver/bodyguard drove us—a very fit guy in his mid-twenties, fresh out of several years in the army, where apparently he was quite the boxer. We compared stories of our noses being broken in boxing and agreed that the potential hit to the pride exceeds even the pain of the break itself. Disfigurement is never cool!
I suspected vipers would be found in the areas with intact old forest, but that the abundant lakes should hold some sort of harmless water snake. So I had us taken to the latter type of habitat. The first lake we went to was full of life. Black geese and dusky ducks littered the water. We also saw several frogs leap acrobatically into the water—an excellent sign, since such creatures are the preferred prey of water snakes. Our first reptile was not a snake, but something I hadn’t even thought of finding here: bright green larcertid lizards. I caught one of these living jewels and Kristina and Egor marvelled over it, never having seen the like. We continued on for another 330 feet before I noticed an erratic zigzag carved out of the grass. Despite not being able to see it, I knew it for what it was: a snake. I jumped forward and got it by the tail, lifting it up for inspection before getting my hand anywhere near the head. The blotch-covered body and orange cheek markings identified it as a water snake. I controlled the head while Egor held the rest for close examination. He then discovered the true joy of water snakes, something I had discovered so very long ago as a child—the cloacal secretions of death. Later on, he said that he had washed his hands three times, but they still stank of water snake shit. Yup, water snakes can be that way. But it was not as bad as a viper bite. Though a neat freak like Egor would actually consider taking the venom over the smell!
All weddings require a spectacle in the form of the big first dance between bride and groom. Kristina had sold me on the idea by saying that learning a dance would give us some relaxing time together in the two weeks leading up to the wedding. At the first meeting with our dance instructors, they asked what style we wanted. With utter naivet?, we said that we wanted to do a waltz, being as we were beautiful and elegant people. They asked if we’d had any prior training, to which we replied “Nyet.” But, being a pair of blithe spirits, we thought to ourselves, “How hard could it be?”
In our first lesson, it was acutely apparent that we were quite simply incapable of keeping a beat or following a melody. We danced like a pair of automatons. At one point the instructor said I was meant to be pulling Kristina back to me as if she were a graceful swan, not like I was yanking a crocodile out of a pond! Knowing that we would be having our wedding in front of several hundred guests, including diplomats from various corners of the world, Kristina was now understandably completely freaked out. She went running for the shelter of the bride’s little helper: valium.
Every day we practiced to the wedding dance song, “Until” by Sting. Being a pair of intellectuals, we finally gave up on the idea of flowing with the music and instead approached it analytically, memorizing that when this sound occurred, we would do that. The big lift number caused a few twinges in my back, but I worked through it. Slowly and painfully we ended up making a serviceable job of the wedding dance and felt that we would not be complete embarrassments on the big day. I did, however, develop a loathing for that bloody song. Particularly the opening instrumental part, since we often did not even make it to the vocals before we’d screw up and have to start all over again. If I could put that song in a bottle, I’d happily borrow a sniper rifle from one of my in-laws and put a bullet in it. Or perhaps use an RPG, since Kristina had remarked offhandedly one time that she loved the way they sounded when you fired them.
On the day of the wedding, while Kristina and her bridesmaids were getting their hair and make-up done for what seemed like an eternity, I headed out with my mates who had shown up for the wedding. First we went bowling, during which Howie McKinney—who’d been one of the original group of scientists in Berkeley self-experimenting on LSD after it was first synthesized in the 1960s—came out with an absolutely priceless comment: “The only problem with no longer taking acid is that I can’t tell the pins to fall over.” Despite this communication breakdown, he seemed to effortlessly get strike after strike without, apparently, having touched a ball in decades. While I had told my friends about Kristina’s family background, any lingering doubts that may have existed were erased when her cousin displayed a prowess at the shooting range that was like something out of a James Bond movie. There was but a frayed hole in the middle of the target’s forehead; he even put shot after shot in the same position while the target was in motion, being moved further and further back. When he first started dating his wife, he took her to a Moscow carnival and she went home with the giant stuffed teddy bear that no one ever gets. Rumor has it that he is still a student in comparison to her father, though!
It was then time for the wedding, which took on a spy thriller tone the instant the first bodyguard appeared with a submachine gun concealed within an oversized coat. He was merely one of many. Some of them were wedding-party-specific; others accompanied various Eastern European diplomats who had graced us with their presence. In the midst of this was the ambassador from the United States, William Moser, a refined gentleman with impeccable manners. I had a very congenial conversation with him, and he took great delight as I detailed the Byzantine pathway by which I had ended up in this corner of the world, under such unusual circumstances.
It did not take long for the first diplomatic incident to occur, when the group from Cyprus, one of the first arrivals, sat at the table reserved for the Greek guests. These two countries have a long and acrimonious history, so our wedding became an opportunity to foster the conflict. This caused a complete reshuffling of the seating arrangements, not only for the Greeks, but requiring careful consideration of the surrounding tables too. The seating tags for various allies were moved with chess-like precision around the room in a five-minute frenzy handled with great aplomb by Kristina’s lovely mother and the unflappable wedding planner. As an impartial observer and avid people-watcher, I viewed this with fascination and concealed hilarity. It was great spectator sport.
The attendees included a diverse who’s who of Eastern European society, ranging from farmers, to military, to presidents, through to some who would not look out of place in the Russian version of The Godfather. One particularly scary guy came up to me; he had scars down his face and neck. He said in a very friendly voice, while shaking my hand and with a big smile on his face, “I am so happy for you! Kristina has been great friends with my daughter since they were three. I love her like a daughter. Take good care of her!” He then gave me the classic, chilling Russian dead-face and added in a flat tone that spoke volumes, “Or else.” It turns out this was her father’s best mate and they had survived the military together. I was under no illusions as to the fate implied by “Or else.”
My mates Mickey Bhoite, Chris Clemente, Iwan Hendrikx, Anna Nekaris, and Holger Scheib were there, as were other friends and, of course, my family, including my cousin and great friend Haakon. My father made a particularly priceless joke that perhaps there was a time when he was stationed in Europe that he and Kristina’s father had spied on each other. He and her father dissolved into laughter, though this joke was probably not far off the mark!
My best man was Iwan and the two of us were in fundamental agreement that this was easily the most dangerous situation we had ever been in, together or at any time. Pakistan was a walk in the park compared to my own wedding! There arose the philosophical question: how does one impress a room full of trained killers? By showing footage on a large screen of the groom and best man in Malaysia with the king cobras we filmed for the Asia’s Deadliest Snakes nature documentary. We agreed that the only way not to go insane during a wedding ceremony such as this was to go into it already insane!
Men always want to be a woman’s first love, while women like to be a man’s last romance. It is motivating to know that if we ever have a marriage breakdown, rather than sleeping on the couch, there is a shallow grave in Siberia with my name on it. This was brought into sharp relief seconds after the marriage vows, while we were still up on the podium. After sliding the ring on to my right index finger in the proper Russian way, Kristina told me that the start of our honeymoon was a gift from her father in the form of VIP center-line seats to the Euro 2012 football finals: Spain versus Italy in Kiev, Ukraine. Close enough to see the grass fly from the golden boot of Fernando Torres as he scored another winning goal. Also close enough to see Mario Balotelli do his imitation of the dying swan dance in a shameless attempt to earn a penalty kick.
She then leaned over and whispered lovingly in my ear, “Whatever you do, never forget one thing. Being married to me is like being in a submarine at ten thousand feet. There is no way out alive.”

japanese urban legends korean urban legends british urban legends
american urban legends chinese urban legends russian urban legends
mexican urban legends canadian urban legends irish urban legends
jack the ripper urban legends british urban legends 2 hospitol urban legends
bloody mary urban legends indian urban legends disney urban legends
swedish urban legends cemetery urban legends american urban legends 2
mcdonald urban legends french urban legends chinese urban legends 2
pakistani urban legends australian urban legends haunted train urban legends
viking urban legends russian urban legends 2 filipino urban legends
creepiest urban legends most urban legends scary cursed objects
mysterious photos top bone chilling mysterious ancient creatures
ancient serial killers terrifying kidnappings fortnite creepypastas
scary cursed objects paranormal mysteries urban legends real crimes
the most evil kids mysteriously vanished unsolved mysteries
most bizarre curses top horror movies pets ate owners
real horror stories scariest animated scariest horror games
insane true crime scariest deaths scary ghost sightings
horrible serial killers creepiest websites murders blamed video games
world urban legends mysterious people identify toxic ghost towns

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts