The Curious Case of the Dog on the Final Day

#adventure, abandonment, animals, cruelty, dogs, environment, europe, fate, forest, kindness, Life, nature, neglect, Oddities, Spain, Travel

Going somewhere exotic to rekindle lost love can be as worthwhile as flogging a dead horse. Until, that is, a minor crisis connects you both in ways you never knew possible. Even if it’s not enough to save a relationship, a double act of kindness can prove a fitting finale to a great affair.

As befitting a relationship that bloomed then faded over two dozen countries in a dozen years, my long-term partner and I met for a showdown in Almeria, Spain. A beleaguered ‘marriage’ was at stake. The intervening years had taken their toll on our inseparability. We fought one another on many fronts in many theatres of war, but always patching up as spectacularly as we had torn each up. Love was no more in the air, though I had hoped it might start suffocating us again blissfully as it had done a decade previous. From my vantage point, this was our last crack at compatibility. And we were going to give it our best shot under the blistering Spanish sun.

To cut to the chase, the endeavour didn’t start well. The bickering picked up nicely after a couple of days. Minor irritants swelled to the point where failure to turn the key to the hotel door resulted in fits of rage the likes of which no Hollywood diva could match. When personal insults fly in the face of what are little mechanical glitches, you know the noose is tightening and the game is up. There was only one antidote to the bitterness: find a place of serene calm off the beaten track. Let nature be our balm.

At the headwaters of the Guadalquivir, lying in the Parque Natural Sierras de Cazorla, we laid down a truce. And, lo, it held. Autumn had repainted the landscape into the most beautiful hues of mustard and rust red. The poplars, standing tall and alone in the saddle of the Sierra, rattled like a thousand tambourines in the breeze. Myrtle trees dropped tiny leaves around us. Confetti for our renewed marriage vows? The portents were good until we reached the source of the once-great river, now reduced to a trickle. So this is the source of our love? The waters of the famous Guadalquivir, running dry because there was never anything upstream of any substance. Is this to be the quality of even the deepest love between two people?

On the Almerian coast we stayed on Cabo de Gatas peninsula, Spain’s southeast cape. A tremendously evocative spot – its rock walls plunging into the Med – we marvelled at the palaeontology of the place: ancient coral reefs submerged off the coast; at four hundred million years old, some of the world’s oldest recorded. A half-finished hulk of a huge hotel, intruding into the delicate coastal ecology. Abandoned before it was ever inhabited, the developers threw up the superstructure without soliciting planning permission from the municipality, as if local government would ever consent to an eyesore of a hotel in the midst of a national park. That chimed with me too. I saw parallels with my faltering love affair. We lay foundations on precious living bodies we have no right building on. That’s love for you.

By the holiday’s end, the salvage operation was about to be called off on the relationship. No amount of romantic landscape was going to inject new blood into old veins. With a couple of day remaining until our final farewell, the two of us wound our way to Baza, a forest high up in Andalusia’s very own altiplano. Elevated to nearly 900 metres, the air was rarefied and the sky cerulean blue. Night would bite. There the trees bristled in anticipation of winter as pines do. Knowing we were calling time on our amazing life journey together, a sudden calm came over us.

Driving through the forest, an animal ran out in front of us. Stopping, we saw it was a dog with big, lolloping ears and a cropped, silver-grey coat, known as a Weimaraner. How odd, we remarked. A handsome young animal with a great pedigree out here in the middle of nowhere. It was agitated, you could tell by the way it paced up and down the road as if looking out for a car that never appeared. Curious, we parked up and observed the dog, who was so distressed our presence barely merited a sniff.

Upset by the sight of this dog darting around in bewilderment, we resolved to do something. Approaching, I saw she was both a bitch and young. With swollen teats she was also a mother minus the pups. Being a Weimaraner, she was friendly and intelligent. Clearly, she had grown up in a human home. I lifted her underside to place her on the back seat and she trembled. Our drive underway, we noticed her quivering in fear and bewilderment. This dog was at best lost; at worst, cruelly abandoned.

Stopping to ask foresters we met in a nearby clearing, they explained that hunters often drive their dogs up to this remote spot where they encourage the young females, already having produced a litter or two, to hop out only to drive off leaving them there. The ones that do survive the wild are found in state of shock. No different from the global trade in trafficking west African women to the Gulf to service male needs then. Use them and abuse them then throw them away.

This news angered the pair of us. After years, we could agree on something. Determined to right this wrong, I drove down the mountain. Finding ourselves now on the plains where Sergio Leone shot the classic Spaghetti Westerns of the late 1960s, our purpose together had finally been revealed: find the dog a home before tomorrow when we go our separate ways forever.

Being a Sunday in a Catholic nation, not much commerce was going on. The streets were abandoned, probably explaining why the location was chosen for tense gunfights in A Fistful of Dollars. A curtain of golden light was falling on the day’s end and we were feeling pressured. The poor dog cowering in the back didn’t help. We called the vet, but the vet must’ve been at vespers in the local church. We called a dog shelter. That too was closed. Taking the Weimaraner back to England was out of the question at such short notice. As the day shortened, our problems lengthened. It was then that we pulled in to a ranch-style trattoria. It was vast and its interior plush in that rustic manner. Whomever owned it was a wealthy man. Again, with no sign of life the two of us wandered round the back to the kitchen where the door was opened. Popping our heads around, we asked for the manager. They sent the owner. He was a tidy-looking man without pretension. Explaining our situation he fell silent.

’Show me this dog you speak of,’ he said.

Impressed by what he saw, he backed away. ‘I have one already. I cannot take another dog,’ he lamented. ‘Even if she is such a fine animal.’

Disappointed, but understanding, we took our leave. As we were exiting his palatial roadside restaurant, a tap on the window. It was him.

‘Tell you what. Here’s the deal. I go to my Land Rover. Now, I don’t know if I left my own dog’s chain on the passenger seat. But if I have, I will take care of this dog of yours. If it’s not there, you’re on your own.’

Walking with him to his car, he swung open the passenger door. The seat was strewn with papers, but there was no chain. He slammed the door.

‘Lo siento mucho,’ he said.

Our hopes fading fast with the daylight, again we took our leave. Seeing the dog’s face forlorn against the window, my soon-to-be ex and I looked at each other with renewed vigour and certainty, for the first time in I don’t know how long. ‘We cannot just dump her by the side of the road.’

‘But I have to return to England tomorrow,’ I answered.

‘Not before we find the dog a home you don’t.’

Turning, I caught the trattoria owner out the corner of my eye. He was moving toward our car, his hands behind his back.

‘Look what I found in the footwell,’ he smiled. ‘It was under all those papers.’

In his outstretched arms he dangled exhibit 1, the dog chain.

‘Fate decided.’ He said with a warm reassurance we knew would translate into responsible ownership.

‘You will care for her? You won’t leave her abandoned a second time?’ You promise?’

Casting his hand as if to magic into existence his beautiful roadside trattoria, he replied. ‘I look after things. And I don’t give up on a promise.’

Without flinching he clicked the hasp of the chain onto her collar ring and calmly trotted off with the Weimaraner, who by now had ceased quivering. With the dying rays of the day warming an old wooden shack that could have been a stage prop in The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, we pondered the view and with it possibly the life we had shared for all those incredible years that brought us to this final day. It had all been thoroughly vale la pena. Worth the pain, as they say in Spain.

Where Lifestyle Choice Meets Economic Necessity

Britain, British Isles, counter-culture, dogs, Hippies, Lifestyle, Society, Socioeconomics, Uncategorized

I fell in to talking with a perfect stranger who was sticking his head out of the bow doors of his boat, calling on his lurcher who in spite of her XX chromosomes, he proudly paraded as an alpha dog. Greek letters, i concluded, cannot ever be accused of gender bias.

But this is quite superfluous to the point. The thrust of what we really discussed had more to do with the people living aboard narrowboats in various states of disrepair that it did the elevated status of a female lurcher. The length and breadth of the canal we both concluded was nose-to-tail rammed with boats. This, i told him, had come as quite a surprise to my unsuspecting self. I had pictured, i told him, a meandering waterway dotted with the odd canal boat. That’s the image I had in mind when, casting my mind back, I decided to make this stretch of waterway my home mooring. It would be here I would make my last stand against the encircling forces of itinerancy and deeply ingrained nomadism.

‘When i came here, oh, twenty-five years back,’ he said, ‘there were only six boats, at most, up and down this entire length, from here to Bathampton.’

For theatre, I let out a noticeable sigh of disappointment. ‘God! if only. Look at it now. Teeming with boats.’

A smile of nostalgia came over him. ‘Yip, it was fantastic. All mine and not even a path where there’s one now.’

I had to know what had happened in the intervening twenty-five years. How could it have come to this? A conscious lifestyle choice to turn one’s back on an evermore soulless mainstream society with all its fancy mains electricity and drainpipes, its accruing debts and its quiet desperation, and for what? Because those fools out there on Civvy Street work jobs they hate so they can buy shit that no one actually needs other than to release five seconds worth of serotonin before the disaffection sets in again? They buy into the 4-bedroom detached dream, living out their days in concealed panic for fear of never paying off what they never had in the first place. No, he said. But, look at those living here on the water. The way they live; how they dress. These people are a living, breathing part of a counter-culture that’s been going since Glastonbury got going in 1970. Life is about choices, i argued, and you’d better bet they’re the wise sort. And anyway, Glastonbury is just down the road. Bristol is a hippy city. This is merely the overspill, albeit in a fairly stuffy, bourgeois enclave they call Jane Austen’s Bath. No, he said. You’re wrong. The reason you see this today, this canal lined with these old boats is not for the reasons you might think.

His alpha lurcher slunk off into the galley. Midday on December 1st and the thermometer couldn’t be arsed with any of it. My canal dog for the day, clearly unimpressed with the blether that two men above him were engaging in whimpered impatiently to get his walk underway. Intrigued by the man, this veteran of a quarter century on a highway of slow-moving water, the type you’d rather avoid in your ice cubes, i let my dog go bounding off after squirrels while the man proceeded to explain the whys and wherefores of how we live today.

I went on with my pampered attitude. ‘You know, i’m fed up with these chancers playing the system. Not moving on when they should. What’s the point of me paying three hundred some quid a month to get precisely the same privilege as these fuckers who spend their days playing the system, avoiding payment, ignoring rules? For that matter, let’s all just make a mockery of it.’

He reproved me with a look of anguish. Yet again, he must’ve thought, another newbie on a flash boat judging the less-fortunate. ‘Look at some of them. Before they were on boats, clogging up this canal for you, they were in benders.’

‘Benders?’ What the hell are they?’

‘Shelters. Piece of shit tents. Rough sleeping. The woods around Bath were full of them.’

I had seen the woefulness of indigence in and around what is a beautiful civic space dating back to Roman times. Homelessness, demeaning homelessness, sharing one’s sealed eyelids with every Tom, Dick and Harriet who walks past in Italian patent leather, and this state of affairs in not just any old town, but a UNESCO World Heritage Site no less. I had clocked the state of the nation and i knew the vital statistics were not good. The contrast was so fucking ridiculous it could’ve been in a Dickens novel. But through all that doorway desperation I had not stopped to think that the litany of crappy old boats clogging up the waterways was the difference between one hundred homeless scattered around one or other of Bath’s Georgian architraves and one thousand, an intolerable number that would offend even the city fathers into finally doing something decisive about Britain’s homeless hell.

‘They might be playing the system and not moving the boat as often and as far as they should be,’ he claimed, ‘but its’s either that or having hundreds of them hiding in the woods.’

I felt the chill in the midday air penetrate deep.

He went on to say that the way things are in this country, those who have don’t want those who have not to have. Those on the right side of private assets, why would they want social housing built en masse to accommodate these burgeoning numbers of former inhabitants of down-at-heel benders made of twigs and polythene in the woods, those people you cite as living on eyesores and flouting the rules that you, on your nice little floating palace, wouldn’t dream of because you’ve never had to? Why would they? That house you paid fifty grand for thirty years ago now worth half a million. And if enough new houses are built to take the strain off the canal, because that’s where the majority would rather be, in a house over a boat any day, that equity you found yourself the lucky recipient of, what of it? It shrinks to nothing, and suddenly your half mil house, the one you got for a song under Thatcher, is worth not much more than it was to start with.

They’re flouting the rules of engagement on the canal because they can. But they’re on the canal in the first place because the alternative is to see them tramp down to the woods in shitty weather and sleep in a bivvy night after night. Out of sight, out of mind.

Life is about choices, i continued to assert. I only have this boat because i chose to compromise five prime years of my life by going out to work in one of the most sterile, dangerous regions in the world. I could have stayed at home and got nowhere. I earned danger money, and so my conscience is clear. Though, in spite of my pride, i knew in my heart of hearts, he was right. Living on a boat in the midst of nature is, on the surface, a conscious rejection of all that’s wrong in mainstream society. But that is no more, no less than the romantic interpretation. Yes, Glastonbury is nearby. No, most liveaboards are proud, self-satisfied sorts who would repudiate the chance to live at No.12 or No.65 of some bland, nondescript housing estate. What we think is purely a lifestyle choice is, when you scratch the surface, an economic necessity borne of existing in a greedy, debt-ridden, overcrowded nation. What seems unsightly in a shop doorway seems less unsightly behind the bushes, and even less unsightly, and therefore just about ignorable, inside the pitted hull of a nearly-wrecked, but nevertheless warm and dry, boat.

 

 

Barking Up the Right Tree

animals, dogs, South East Asia, Street Photography, Thailand, Travel

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.

The Accidental Pilgrim

animals, Buddhism, Burma, dogs, Life, Myanmar, People, Reflections, Shan People, South East Asia, Spiritualism, Spirituality, Travel, Travel Photography, Trekking, Tribes

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.

One Born Every Minute

abandonment, animals, Cities, conservation, cruelty, developing world, dogs, neglect, sadness, stray dogs, street dogs, streetlife, third world, Uncategorized

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.