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News of the Weird
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Cultural Diversity

Brand-new Japanese parents receiving a gift are then customarily obligated to give a lesser one in return, and the Yoshimiya rice shop in Fukuoka recently created the ideal such return: small bags of rice of the exact weight of the newborn, printed with its face and name, so that original gift-givers (relatives, friends) can experience cuddling “the baby.” Then, of course, according to Yoshimiya’s owner, they can break open the bag and eat the rice, though he admitted some people have a problem with that.

“We sleep with the snakes (meaning cobras), we eat with the snakes, we live with the snakes (but) we are not scared,” said a 14-year-old girl in a village near Calcutta, India, to a Wall Street Journal reporter in November. Said a village leader, “Whenever I lie down in my bed, a cobra will just slide on top of me, without hurting me.” In fact, more than 3,000 cobras live in one hamlet, mostly in peace, with few bite victims (though a cobra bite is often fatal because villagers initially trust the gods and spirit doctors to treat them). Cobras are so revered in the village that cobra bites are usually described as attacks by vipers or by “nonresident” cobras, based on a belief that local cobras are incapable of evil.

There is usually a well-stocked Red Cross tent when the January “corralejas” (amateur bullfights) take place in towns in the Colombian countryside, reported The New York Times in January. “This year was calm, no deaths yet,” said a newscaster in Sincelejo. Hundreds of wannabe matadors jump into makeshift rings, some sponsored by local merchants but others merely inebriated or sober and foolish, some gaudily dressed, some in bunches (with one group even picnicking). Wrote the Times, “A stream of men arrived” in the Red Cross tent, “intestines peeking out of a belly, bone protruding from a fractured shin, blood spurting from a gash in the buttocks.” Said a local, “This is about the ecstasy of escaping death.”

Latest Religious Messages

Lord Balaji was a locally popular Hindu god in Hyderabad, India, until a few years ago when a priest noticed that more of his worshippers were complaining that valuable U.S. professional “H-1B” visas were harder to get. Overnight, Balaji was transformed from a purveyor of general prosperity to the “visa god,” specializing in lucky H-1Bs, and the temple now draws 100,000 visitors a week. Said one, to a Wall Street Journal reporter in December, “I’ve never heard of anyone who’s gone to the temple whose visa (application) got rejected” (even though typical advice from priest C.S. Gopala Krishna is simply to walk around the temple “11 times”).

Questionable Judgments

In December, even after the widely reported tiger attack on a visitor at the San Francisco Zoo, the Houston Zoo was still allowing its visitors to play “tug of war” with its own lions and tigers. A 20-pound slab of meat, attached to a long rope, is tossed into the enclosure, and visitors are encouraged to toy with the cats by yanking on it as the animal lunges for it. Said a Houston zookeeper, the game keeps the animals from getting bored. Besides, a zoo official said, “(The lion or tiger) kind of lets us know when he wants to play, and we go along with that.”

Two counselors in the Denver school system proposed in December that the school board give high school girls who get pregnant at least four weeks of maternity leave, without academic penalty, so they can bond with their newborns. The counselors said the policy would encourage teen mothers to stay in school. (Meanwhile, the Department of Education of the Australian Capital Territory in Canberra granted permission for a 16-year-old student at Stromlo High School to take smoking breaks, based on a doctor’s finding that she is so “clinically addicted” to nicotine that her work suffers without it.)

A teacher at Yamata Elementary School in Yokohama, Japan, was disciplined in January after a finding that she improperly punished her class because a few students would not come to order. Officials said she lined up all students and walked down the row, slapping each one in the face.

Family Values

(1) Geraldine Magda, 44, was arrested in Austin, Minn., in January, following a nursing-home visit to hold the hand of her dying sister in her final hours. Magda was charged with stealing the wedding ring from her sister’s finger during the hand-holding. (2) A Chicago man traveled to Sheboygan, Wis., in December to finally meet the 18-year-old woman who was his biological daughter, but during the same visit, he was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting her while she was sleeping.

The Weirdo-American Community

In December, street performer John Domingue said the Huntington Beach, Calif., police have finally stopped hassling him for soliciting tips at the city’s famous Pier Plaza when he demonstrates his skill at hammering nails into his nose without serious injury. (Some bleeding results, which is why police said they stopped him in the first place.) The American Civil Liberties Union said it is watching the case, citing Domingues’ constitutional right to perform his nose-nailing, sword-swallowing and fire-eating acts for donations.

Least Competent Criminals

More Questionable Judgments: (1) David Holland, 46, gave a DNA sample last year to police in San Jose, Calif., to help resolve murder charges against his brother, but was then arrested for an until-then-unsolved 2001 rape when his DNA sample matched that left behind by the rapist. (2) Edward Debrow of San Antonio, Texas, who was sentenced to 27 years in prison for a 1992 murder conviction, appealed that sentence as too harsh. After a Texas appeals court ordered a re-sentencing in October, a judge gave him 40 years.

Recurring Themes

Awesome Capacities: Jason Panchalk, 36, was admitted to the Pima County (Arizona) jail in December, facing a charge of trafficking in stolen property, but he arrived prepared. According to a jailer, Panchalk was carrying “some syringes, matches, lighter, heroin, marijuana, and an assortment of pills,” all inside his rectum. And in October, court officials in Cork, Ireland, who were suspicious of a defendant’s demeanor, had him medically examined. According to a report in the Irish Independent, doctors found a mobile phone, SIM card and charger, all wrapped in foil and coated with lubricant, inside his rectum.

Least Justifiable Homicides

David Thomson, 49, was convicted in Edinburgh, Scotland, of smothering his mom to death after she had taunted him for his inept suicide attempt several weeks before (October). In Sydney, Australia, a man was charged with beating a neighbor to death because the neighbor was watering his lawn in violation of the city’s water restrictions (October). The boss of a factory in North Korea was executed by firing squad before 150,000 people in a South Pyongan province stadium after he was convicted of the crime of making out-of-country telephone calls (November).