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Sunday, April 24, 2005

To The Dogs

Due to a slight change in plans (well, bad weather) I have landed on the island of Kinmen, also between the mainland and Taiwan. I am writing from an internet cafe in my hotel. More about the island soon, but for now a tale about dogs.

It was a dark night in a small town in Bali, maybe thirty or forty KM north of Kuta. That morning I had by chance met the one man in the village who could speak English. He brought me to his home to eat fried pineapple and drink black coffee. He took me to the highest hill in the area, one which provided stunning views of the surrounding jungle landscape, all the way out to the sea. He took me to see cockfights. The next day the plan was to attend a Hindi funeral, and in the evening to watch dances and plays performed in honor of the dead (the funeral would go from sunrise to sunrise). On that dark night, though, I was wondering through the village trying to find the address he had given me so that I might join his family for dinner. There were no lights on the streets and few lights coming from the houses. The street was narrow and from dark recesses I heard growling dogs. From not far enough away more dogs, barking, deep angry barks that had a very clear message: Go Away!

On a balmy evening during my freshman year in college I was told my dog had been put to sleep. He wasn't really my dog, Siggy, but I felt like he was. He was a mutt, part poodle and part a whole lot of other things. I felt like he was closer to me than anyone else in the family, despite the fact that I tried to hold onto him like a stuffed animal when I went to bed, or that once or twice I stood silently by while a neighborhood friend threw a nerf football at him. Despite the fact that his breath smelled terribly and he wasn't all that much to look at, I loved that dog. While there was occasion when I stood by and let him be hit by flying footballs, I more often came to his defense. After he had been groomed and given a haircut, I was the one who saved him his evident embarrassment by removing the pink bow tied onto his head, the one my mom would never take off.

As I grew older, and as Siggy grew older, it became harder to be with him. I had more friends and a driver's license. Siggy's breath got worse. When I pet him, his fur would feel strange in my hands, leaving them feeling dirty even if they were not. I did not try to get him to come into my room as much, and closed my door all the way when I went to sleep. Even if I hadn't, he could no longer jump onto my bed. He had cancer (I think of the mouth, though I am not sure).and my last memories are of him lying under a tree near our garage doors. I see him and he is looking up at me with sad, sleepy eyes, no longer chasing after missed basketball shots. When I pet him he looks grateful, and when I walk away, in my memory, I see that he is begging me not to, thinking each time that it will be the last.

When my mom told me that she had had him put to sleep, I was angry. I do not know if the anger was because she had put him to sleep or if it was because she had not told me. Either way, it was real. I remember I was sitting in front of the computer in my dorm room. Above me was a poster of The Brady Bunch (more on that in a future post, I'm sure) and a poster of Jim Morrison. I was still in front of the computer when my roommate came back. We had only recently begun the process of building a friendship that would leave us closer than brothers. When he walked in, he asked me what was wrong. I told him about my dog. All of the anger was gone. Instead it was sadness. Sadness and guilt. As I talked to Chad about Siggy, I could not but think of the times I had walked away. The times I had stopped petting my dog when he was so obviously begging for human contact. The next time I went home, I went to the spot where Siggy was buried and I asked his forgiveness.

Every now and then I think of Siggy. The guilt, for the most part is gone, though even now I feel a trace of it, a ghost of regret. Why do I think of him now? Was I thinking of him that dark night in Bali almost four years ago? The answer to the second quesion is no. The answer to the first I am working towards.

I think that night in Bali was the genesis, the beginning of the fear I now carry of dogs. That night I stopped in my steps countless times, unsure if I should go on, but afraid to turn back. In the end I was saved by a man who happened to be walking by. I showed him the card of the man I was trying to find, but as many men in Bali possess the same name, he was not sure who I was looking for. In the end he took me into his home and, as I drank a warm glass of Sprite, showed me picures of his graduation and of his wedding. Then he had his son drive me back to the guestroom I was staying in, an old royal home one town over.

While traveling in Europe, I was never afraid of dogs. It is only in Asia that the fear exists, no doubt because so many of the dogs are feral, street dogs wild and hungry. I am not sure if I told my brother of this fear when we were in Laos, but I know I told Natalia. She laughed.
"You can't run from them," she said. "They smell fear." I know. But if you are afraid, it is pretty hard not to want to run.

There had been more than one occasion when, alone, I changed the directiong I was walking because of a barkign dog. More than once this has happened when my intended destination was in sight. I end up lost, guessing at which street will go where, hoping that another dog will not appear to further confuse my already poor sense of navigation. Today, as I was walking around Kinmen, it occurred again.

I have spent most of the last two days walking, through small towns, along narrow roads that eventually lead to military complexes, through the countryside. Yesterday and early this morning I encountered some truly fearsome dogs, who I am convinced would have gladly torn me apart had they not been chained up. Despite the fact that they were chained, I still crossed to the opposite side of the road and quickened my pace until their screams of hatred had receded behind me. I began to contemplate this fear of dogs that I have, and made a note in my tiny notebook that this was something I should mention when I sit down to piece together the tale of this trip.

About an hour after I jotted this down, I was in a town outside of the main city of Jincheng. I had just walked by the Kaoliang Distillery (a horrible tasting alcohol the island is famous for producing), and was following a narrow path I thought would take me down to the coast. To the right was a covered stucture, in which I could make out the shape of a man working. Behind this was the read of the factory. To my left was a small pile of scrap metal, piled up almost enough to hide the two dogs who suddenly came to life upon my appoach. The dogs were German Shepherds and I immediately took notice that they were not chained. They both got up and ran around the pile of metal and onto the path behind me. I had paused for a moment when I saw them and now I started walking faster. One of the came close to me and then backed away. As I walked I noticed the man to my right had looked up. He said nothing. The other dog lunged then and sunk his front teeth into my leg, just above my ankle.

"Hey!" I yelled, swinging my bag back at the dog and walking even faster. I am sure I sounded pathetic and looked worse throughout this encounter and as I hobbled off I wondered what part me fear had to play in this drama.

My foot was numb as I speed limped up a different path, through the back grounds of the distillery (where thankfully there were no more dogs) and up to another path that eventually led me to a road. I found the bus stop and there asked a man if the bus was going to Jincheng. I also showed him the blood running down my leg and explained as best I could that I had been bit by a dog. The man took out some anti-biotic and spread some on my leg. Five or six old women looked on in curiousity.

The man stayed with me until we got to the doctor's office. As we waited for it to open, he said,
"You know, you shouldn't run away from dogs." Had he not been so kind to me I might have been angrier, more defensive when I tried to explain that I hadn't.

Once at the doctor's office, I only had to wait a few minuted to be treated. They dressed the wound, gave me a shot, and some antibiotics. The doctor and his nurses were all very nice to me. To my great surprise, they did not even charge me for any of the medicines they gave me (I don't know if the island has a different policy than Taiwan, but as they use the same health card, I doubt it). When the doctor advised me that if I was afraid of a dog, I should not run from it, I didn't even think twice. I walked back out on the street, a fresh blood-soaked gauze pad affixed to my leg, ready to walk on.

By the time I left the doctor, it was almost three, too early to return to my hotel. I decided to head to a village called Beishan in the northwest part of the island. Though a beutiful area, full of lakes and wetlands and old Fukines style Chinese houses, I could not concentrate as I had in the morning. I could not find the desire to wonder through narrow alleys. I turned away at the mere sight of a dog. And as I walked back to the bus stop a few hours later, I jumped at the sound of a man hawking up some spit as he rode by me on his bicycle. I kid you not, my heart started pounding and for several minutes I could not sit or stand still for the fear coursing through me.

I have one day left in Kinmen and tell myself that I will have no fear tomorrow. I am going to rent a bike (not a motorbike, of which I also have a terrible fear) and make the most of the day. I am not going to let any dogs stop me from seeing what I want to see, when I want to see it. I tell myself that no dogs are going to bother me when I travel alone in China and Cambodia and Burma and Laos. I am going to conquer this fear, which as I write these terribly false sentences leaves my stomach twisting.

There was another dog in our neighborhood, across the street from us. He was a German Shepherd whose bark was as fearsome as his sharp bared teeth. The neighbors kept him in a fenced in enclosure, which I was thankflu for everytime I walked or rode my bike by. Siggy was never afraid of that dog. They would carry on long-running dog arguments over who knows what, sometimes keeping us up at night. One day the dog got out of its enclosure. I will never forget the fear I felt that Siggy would be devoured whole. I remember hearing his barks and then his cries echoing across the neighborhood. I remember running to find him, and then helping him home. I remember touching the stitches bald spots surrounding the stitches that decorated his body, and applying medicine. I remember, too, how proud I was that Siggy had not only stood up to that bully of a dog but had left him with some stitches of his own.

And this is why I think of Siggy now. Once I asked him for forgiveness. Now I ask him for strength and courage.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Natalia said...

Lovely story, especially about your feelings for Siggy. Next time you encounter some wild dogs, be sure to have some food with you. Maybe you can distract their attention that way.

10:59 AM  

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