A young Lappet-faced vulture tastes freedom of the skies for a few minutes before being returned to his captive state.
This raptor is among the most fear and respected of the many species of carrion feeders that provide an invaluable service to us and nature by being one of the few living things to be able to digest all but the most foul and pestilent bacteria on earth. With their beaks hard as diamond-tips, the huge lappet-faced vulture provides the vanguard role in disposing of a corpse, being one of the only raptors to have the strength and design to tear at tendon, sinew, and even cartilage.
A great dane would be a fitting side show if he wasn’t so central to the nightlife of Pai, north Thailand. The dog, seen here with his white-haired owner, put in a command performance in the cause of receiving doggie treats. After wooing the crowds, the big fella trotted off none the wiser that he had become the local celebrity.
Bidding farewell to that little mongrel was not easy for any of we pilgrims. Those boy monks, hair all shorn, scalp dappled under the Burmese sun, cradled him like they would a baby, in the folds of those tatty robes of saffron red. Watching the eight of us trundle off, backpacks adjusted, into the cool of a highland morning, the boy monks looked more than equipped for the important job that lay before them. That in itself brought hope rising with another dawn.
For the Buddhist, love for even the smallest of things matters as much as carrying the entire weight of the world on a single fingertip. That much we saw there in their dark eyes, in their serene expression, in the oath of kindness they had taken from such a tender age to do the lion’s share of the caring that the rest of the world had given up on long ago in the pursuit of personal happiness.
A youngling may sleep easy when secure in the love that permeates the air. Now an accident-prone bundle of pup might not be the most astute of characters, but when an accident-prone bundle of adult human who has learned astuteness the hard way sees those four paws splashed across the chest of the apprentice ascetic, you just know that that dog has landed well and truly on his feet.
Yet, the creature’s journey through life did not start out with such providence. Nowhere near. When he crashed into us but a few short hours before, his destiny had appeared no different from so many other benighted souls in fur coats: born in a litter to parents who fucked but not out of enduring love, alive for no other purpose than to survive on slim pickings for a few years and then die alone on the packed earth of a litter-strewn back alley.
The solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short life envisioned in Hobbes’ state of nature looked very much on the cards for this three month-old puppy. His only salvation seemed to be his obliviousness. But life has a funny way of confounding even the most pessimistic among us. For that happy and pitiful creature the winds of fate had turned full sail in the space of one day. We all saw with moistened eyes a feat that should offer a sense of calm to all our weary souls.
We started the morning early in a traditional Shan village deep in farming country. The Shan people of Myanmar, the long-isolated nation that British rulers called Burma, are a proud and self-sufficient lot. They occupy the central-east of this vast country where it abuts northwest Thailand and southwest Laos. Farmers, tribal confederates and a people proud as the chillies growing red on blanketed hillsides, they had been our hosts for the night.
Compared to other fraught margins of the republic, their land is considered safe enough to qualify as classic trekking country. From the former British hill station of Kalaw the walk takes the walker on three days of mostly gently terrain to Inle Lake, Myanmar’s second biggest. Through open countryside, on soil tilled and loamy for maximum crop yield, from that village the trek crossed a road and settlement before ending the second day in a secluded monastery on a wooded hillside.
We pulled in at a house-cum-diner for lunch. There where the plates came thick and fast, a steady parade of fellow trekkers filled up before pressing on. The undoubted star of an otherwise nondescript event was a puppy. Plump, carpeted beige and with a short black snout he could have been half-ursine. Unlike other strays, bony, coats dull from vitamin-deficiency, their natural beauty bred out of them, this one glowed. His cuteness and his daftness captivated all who entered, all except the local family who ran the show. Ignoring the sharp rebukes he received every time he bundled through the doorway and into us, this yogi was not your average bear. All the tourists could see that. We wrestled him on the floor and generally delighted in his brazenness and total lack of the kind of wariness that sets your average stray apart from your average family dog.
Upon leaving, our group assumed that this dog came with the furniture. Any fool could see that an addition like that would bring tourists from doggie-mad countries of the west flocking. But no, one man’s meat is another’s poison. We saw the local kids kick and threaten to maim him. Sadism is as sadism does. If indeed cruelty does come on the coattails of childhood, there was no adult on hand enlightened enough to show them the virtue in compassion.
Perturbed by this turn of events (myself and a lieutenant in Dutch Armed Forces, in particular), we first politely told them no, then beseeched them to treat him well. When that policy failed and still the puppy yelped, then coming back for more because he did not know as yet of man’s dark nature, our voices took on a more menacing and authoritative tone. Here we go again, I thought, another bullshit, untutored corner of the world that misguided Westerners take to be all spiritual and the panacea to all our industrial materialism if only we could be there and breathe it in. Here we go again, I intoned, supercilious arsehole backpackers from Western countries standing on judgement with dark-skinned lesser mortals exactly as the old colonials had.
And then, after no more than a smattering of words exchanged between our wonderful local guide and the family of villagers who would steal the innocence from that bundle of joy, we had ourselves a passenger. No more than five-foot-nothing in her stocking souls, she took that little dog in her arms and walked it right out of that village. Taking turns to carry the bundle, some miles out of town, on the margins of a field where things looked safe enough, that dog was gently lowered onto the banks of a gentle, swirling river where the girls got undressed and the wappy delirium of his reaction was enough to restore the faith of the most doubting of all doubters. In that moment, I could see that the Dutchman was falling hopelessly in love, and it wasn’t with any girl in our entourage. As was I.
Other than a heart-stopping minute or two whereby the pup went AWOL in the bushes, we kept a trained eye on him throughout. Through cultivated land, over grasses concealing a whole weaponry of reptilian delights, we pressed on, him trotting along demented with excitement then in our arms overwhelmed into sleep by it. By nightfall our destination had come upon us: the monastery. Rarer sights there were few, fewer still in the rich realms of my experience.
Checking in with our newfound trek mate, our group settled in for an evening of food, drink and merriment in the longhouse where pilgrims come to exchange life stories. There the bungling little fellow did it again, crashing parties, receiving honorary VIP status quicker than an A-list Bollywood star. In the dimness over drinks the Dutchman and I conspired to wrest the little guy away from the tight grip of a German sitting at the next table.
‘Typical,’ he lamented, ‘first they invade my country, now they have the cheek to take my dog.’
‘It’s not your dog,’ I protested. ‘It’s ours. It belongs to us.’
‘Okay. Seeing that Britain did its bit in the war, you deserve a piece of him, too.’
Emboldened by our joint declaration, we invaded the neighbouring table. The kindly kidnapper in question was none other than the German who had offered me brandy in our guesthouse two nights previous. We Europeans, I mused, we should stick together. The dog might be our common interest, but I demand, like a good contrarian from Albion, nevertheless to take back control from those dastardly Europeans. All the while, the puppy curled up, stretched out, did what puppies do in other parts of the world where they are loved. Ignorance can be bliss when you stand twelve inches above the ground, where the world is for big licks and sniffing, snaffling and capers.
When finally the time came on the following morning to pack up and go, we were left with more than a minor detail. What now? Today is New Year’s Eve, the culmination of a three-day stroll in the back country of Burma, the end of a long year of trails and trials and tribulations that tried the patience of not one but a pantheon of saints. We had snatched the dog from the grip of misery. That very deed cannot, must not be sullied. Anything less than a happy ending would be a sad and treacherous affair. Not to undermine the quiet heroism of our guide – who was a gifted young woman, in every sense the inheritor of a new Myanmar reacquainted with the world at large after decades of self-imposed exile from the world at large (the new Aung San Suu Kyi in the making?) – came up trumps again.
Acceding to her request for its sanctuary, the monks agreed to take our dog and to raise him and raise him well, in a loving and trusting community where he would grow to be wise and great among dogs. Given enough time, given enough chanting of mantras, our puppy may even be born again human.
That day, as we headed out on the trail to watch the monastery become the forest, the forest become the lake and the lake become the closing of something special, we knew among us, without needing to iterate, that the experience with that little dog had made us all in the process a little more human.
Somewhere, everywhere, in the world, there’s one born every minute. Camouflaged amid rubbish heaps, squeezed under abandoned vehicles or lodged deep inside sewerage pipes – just about any place they can watch our movements without being judged too harshly – they come into this world a bundle of playful joy. To survive a few seasons, each is tasked with dodging the cars, the emaciation, the heart worm, the wardens, or if unlucky enough to be born in SE Asia, the meat traders. Paw pads worn down on the wheel of misery, the average life can be considered so hard as to be endurable for a paltry half the span of their cosseted, houseproud cousins. Set within this Hobbesian world of short-livedness, nastiness and urban decay, the epithet of man’s best friend to them does not apply.
Welcome to the world of canine caste. If coiffed Afghan hounds are the Brahman caste then these scruffy mutts roaming trash-can alley are the untouchables, drowned by weight of numbers, dealt a duff hand by the karma croupier. They might live on the fringes, but stray dogs have since moved into centre stage in the sprawling un-developments of the developing world. The homeless canine population grows unchecked, for the most part. Some estimates put their numbers at upwards of half a billion. Even the thousands of Africans and Asians who die from rabid bites each year, by comparison, won’t put a dent in human population. Like the mange that ravages their pelt, stray dogs won’t start to disappear any time soon, unless we set the trend first. Ranging from Manila to Mandalay, Lima to Lusaka, Riyadh to Rawalpindi, Bali to Bucharest, few places remain untouched by their grim determination to hang on. Fourth place in the Third World, these urban shadow puppets salvage the human wreckage. What feels worthless to us is treasure to them. These lowborn dogs suffer a form of warped dependency on what the world’s poorer quarters have to offer: in rubble and fetid foodstuff, chicken bones and dried sanitary towels; scarred, plastic-strewn urban wastelands where production of waste exceeds the national capability to capture and process it.
Another plump little alley pup was born from the skin and bones of its street mama the other week. At first it hesitated at the mouth of the sewer pipe, then coaxed by its junky single parent, emerged into the dusk. The newest addition to those born every minute had no inkling of what it was getting into: its pariah status; the incipient heat; the parched land and not forgetting the dust devils mocking them for taking a wrong turn on their long trek from wild wolves, proud and independent, to failed domesticity. Aye, it’s tough at the top of the heap.