Life in Indonesia is hard, especially if you’re a dog, which is what I am. It’s a little bit better in Bali where I live, but just a little bit.
Indonesia, by the way, is a country in the South Pacific made up of a whole lot of islands, large and small. Bali is one of the smallest. I don’t know how I got here. It’s just where I am. I guess it is where I was born, because I don’t remember anything else. It’s pretty much all I know.
Sometimes you hear stories about other places--places like Java and Sumatra, Sulawesi and Kalimantan, but this is just talk out of the rumor mill, if you know what I mean. A lot of stories go around, straight out of the snouts of foreign dogs, transplanted here one way or another, and if you want to know my opinion, those sources are questionable.
But anyway, I suppose that I should start from the beginning. I mean the beginning of the story I am going to tell.
My name is White Dog, as far as I can figure. It’s just a sound really--no more personal to me than Boo or Oh my God!, but it is a sound that has occurred so often in coincidence with my presence that I cannot help but figure it is the sound by which I am summed on the lips of all these upright creatures, the human beings.
White dog, they will say, stop barking. White dog sit. White dog rollover. White dog come! White dog go away!
To tell the truth, it’s a bit confusing right at first. I’m thinking, are you talking to me? And it turns out they are--because I sit and they’re happy, I go away and they’re happy, I come and they’re happy. Once you learn the ropes, these people are really pretty easy to please.
As a matter of fact, they are in some ways easier to get along with than the creatures of my own sort--dogs, that is. For, you see, dogs where I come from have a lot of rules, which every dog is supposed to know and to live by.
There is the whole idea of territory, for instance. Territory is a big, big deal with Bali dogs. You have yours, and they have theirs. And if you don’t know the boundaries--if you don’t know where your space ends and theirs begins--you’ll find yourself in serious danger of getting your butt kicked. And these other dogs don’t just run out and say Shoo!, I can tell you that.
No, if a dog from one pack trespasses on the territory belonging to another pack, she will find herself quickly pounced upon by every unfriendly hound within barking distance. Lucky if you come out of that with half a tail and two ears! I know. I’ve been there. Live and learn. That’s the life when you’re a young pup, and like I said it’s hard. If you learn, you survive. If you don’t . . . well, you don’t!
I once knew this dog named Jack--a brown and black dog--cheese for a brain, dumbest dog I ever knew. Just wouldn’t learn. And the reason he wouldn’t learn, if you want to know my opinion, is because he thought he was a human being and could walk about just as freely and as fearlessly as they. The dog knew no boundaries, you see, because he spent all his time in the company of his human family and had decided he wasn’t a dog after all, but an upright man.
So off he’d go, down to the pasar* or to this or that warung*, and next thing you know he’d come staggering home with half an ear gone or a patch of fur missing, all because he ignored the rules and stuck his nose into some other pack’s stomping grounds. Dumb as a doornail, like I said.
But it wasn’t all his fault, not really. It was partly the fault of the humans he had attached himself to, who did not themselves understand the rules, and so just ignored them, the same as Jack himself did.
Finally one day I saw Jack on what they call a leash, with a person attached to the other end. That’s what comes of a dog who doesn’t know his place, if you ask me. He loses his freedom, loses his wits, and lives thereafter to roll over for table scraps and get a pat on the head, not a lick of the sense he was born with left over.
I think about Jack sometimes. I wonder what happened to him. One day he just disappeared--he and his rope and the human being at the other end. It makes me feel sorry, even for a dumb mutt like Jack.
Never forget who you are and what you are. That’s what I say.
Then again, I’m a fine one to talk. The truth is, I’m not above making a mistake here and there, and so I shouldn’t be talking like I know so darn much. Honestly, when it comes to mistakes, I’ve made some doozies--especially this last one that landed me in so much trouble.
And that’s what I really want to tell you about--if I ever get around to it, that is.
*Pasar: Public market
**Warung: Small open front street cafe
Where does a mistake begin? Is it like an accident? Could you go back and change it? Or is it more like a decision you made without thinking first? These are questions I often ask myself, though I have not yet arrived upon any answers.
But if there is any one thing that I can put my paw on, it’s this: One day life was going along just like usual and then the next day I didn’t feel so hot.
How can I describe it? It wasn’t like a normal sort of bad stomach I might get from eating the garbage out by the gate, nor was it hunger pain from not eating the garbage by the gate. No, this was something entirely different, unusual. It felt for all the world as if I’d swallowed an old sandal or a big ball of kite string. I was nauseous and I felt weak and vaguely worried.
Don’t get me wrong. Worry itself is not so strange, and it’s usually not a bad thing at all. A dog where I live has a lot of worries, and for good reason. It is not a safe world, make no mistake. Jangan salah, is how the people here put it, and that means exactly what I just got done saying.
Jangan salah! Make no mistake. There is danger around every corner for a Bali dog. Maybe you think I’m being dramatic, but if you think so, you’re just dead wrong. Or in other words, you’re mistaken.
Why is it so dangerous? Well, let me count the ways.
First off there are the other dogs, which I have already mentioned. If you don’t have your own pack to run with, you may as well just find some soft dirt and dig your own grave.
Secondly there are the upright creatures, the human beings. It’s not that they are all bad, nor are they all good. The thing is, you just can’t tell. Most unpredictable creatures in the world, that’s what I think. One comes along and pets you, the next heaves a rock at your head. Maybe one month you find a place to sleep--someplace dry and safe, like a porch or a door stoop, and then the next thing you know some maniac is swinging a broom handle and shouting the worst kind of things.
If you ask me, it is much easier to figure out what a dog is likely to do than to unravel the riddle of human nature.
But there’s more. That’s only two. Thirdly there is the deadly threat from cars and motorbikes. Why, a dog in the road may as well be an empty bag in the breeze. As a matter of fact, that dog may as well be invisible for all the attention that is paid her by these motorists! Just come here to Bali, take a look around, and then tell me you haven’t seen more than one three-legged dog tottering about.
Another one is disease. I happen to know that a lot of dogs get what is called rabies. I’ve seen dogs like that--foaming at the mouth, gone downright crazy. You want to steer clear of dogs like that, poor critters that they are, because there is no helping them. Oh, you’ll know them when you see them, believe you me--mouths foaming, wild look in the eyes, yapping and yapping at nothing for no reason, as skinny and unsightly as a preying mantis. It just fills me with pity, because there’s nothing to do, and anyway if you get too close they’ll bite you sure as you live, and then you’ll have the rabies too.
It’s a hard world, I cannot say it enough. Sometimes you just have to turn your head.
Lastly, but certainly not the least of evils, is the constant possibility of starvation. That leads me back to the subject of eating garbage, which I mentioned before and which I’d like to say something more about, so that I won’t leave you with a bad impression of my character.
I’ll do that in the next chapter, if it’s okay with you.
What I want to say before I go on with this any further is that a dog here in Indonesia can get awfully hungry. Terribly, desperately hungry. It’s not that you just feel like having a snack, or could use a bit of something sweet or something chewy. No, the point is that a dog here can get to where she is just plain starving to death and needs to eat whatever she can get her chops on--and yes, sometimes that means garbage.
I guess I’m explaining this in my own defense, because, like I mentioned earlier, I don’t want you to think I’m nasty or gross or disgusting, or even stupid. I do know the difference between decent food and garbage, I surely do. Matter of fact, I probably know the difference better than you do--because, after all, when’s the last time you ate garbage? And I don’t mean junk food, like Twinkies or pork rinds or frosted donuts. I mean honest to God straight out low down pure and simple garbage, the kind you find lying around on the street, half in and half out of paper bags--and some of it even moving around a bit, if you get my drift.
I’m talking about smelly old fish heads, bits of chicken bone with one last little piece of meat hanging on for dear life, a clump of greenish rice the size of a hermit crab, a dribbling of grease on a palm leaf. Is it appetizing? No. Do you imagine that I wouldn’t prefer a nice big ham hock or a side of bacon? Well of course I would.
I’ve had some lean times in my life, yes I have. And don’t get me wrong--I’ve experienced abundance as well. But it’s just not a thing you can predict. People here come and go, and the food they eat comes and goes. Maybe you live one week high on the hog, tasty table scraps of all kinds flying out the back door morning, noon, and night, and then the next thing you know the source has run dry, the people are gone, you never see them again, and sure enough you find yourself nosing through that retched bag by the curb, pulling out and wolfing down God knows what sometimes, just to survive.
I’m a survivor. Every Bali dog worth her salt is. A thick-headed dog like Jacky (you remember Jacky?) depends on the upright creatures to survive, and that’s all good and fine for as long as it lasts. But if you ask me, a dog does best in the long run to depend on nothing but her own natural born senses. Those are the only things in the world that will never leave you nor forsake you. Unless you get the rabies, that is.
So I hope you understand what I just got done going out of my way to tell you. A dog has got to eat, just like a cat, just like a cow, just like a bird, just like a man. I’m not so humble that I won’t admit I’ve had a darn good steak bone in my time, with more meat on the thing that I honestly needed (but ate anyway); nor am I too proud to pretend that I haven’t eaten my share of fish eyes and toenails. If the food is there, you thank your lucky stars and by God you eat! If it’s not . . . well, I just got done saying what I had to say about that.
So this bad feeling I had in my stomach, this queasy, icky, bloated, worrisome feeling wasn’t because of eating garbage, because I hadn’t eaten any garbage lately, and it wasn’t from hunger pangs, because I had been eating pretty decent around about that time. It was, like I said, different. It was something new. And it made me feel . . . I don’t know . . . kind of scared, like you feel at nighttime when you think you hear something in the bushes but cannot see well enough to tell for sure if anything is actually there. It felt halfway like being in immediate danger, and yet halfway like an anticipation of something good just around the corner, the way you feel when you hear people coming back home, maybe a block away, talking and laughing, and it kind of perks up your ears and lifts up your nose, because you think maybe they’ve brought some food back from the pasar or the restaurant.
Maybe you know what I mean, maybe you don’t. A dog is all instinct, you see. A dog is all about scents in the air and sounds on the wind, shadows out of the corner of her eye, the way a bird sings or doesn’t sing, and what it means if that bird does or does not sing. A dog is all about listening closely, looking sharply, always putting a finger to the wind, you might say.
We live by our senses, we rely on them. And that is why this new thing, this strange development in my stomach, had me all in a kafuffle--for, you see, I did not know what to make of it. Was I in danger or not? Should I run? Should I hide? Should I just sit there like a bump on a log--like Jacky, for instance--and see what happened next?
The wind told me nothing. The sounds that traveled on the air seemed all peace and security. The Cicak and the Tokek* climbed the garden walls just as ever, the toads croaked from their holes, the sleek cats that live in the villas hunted from rooftops, roosters crowed, chickens clucked, children played, people chattered, all in the usual way. Nothing was different, and yet everything had changed. Nothing had changed on the outside, and yet everything within--within me, that is--felt somehow new, strange, perplexing, even terrifying.
In short, I did not know what to do.
And that was the one thing I was able to latch onto. In cases like this, when you don’t know what you ought to do or why you ought to do it, you have to just wing it, just totally lie back on the sea of instinct, the mysterious waters of the eons, and let nature take its course.
What did I do?
Well that’s what I’m going to tell you straightaway in the next chapter.
*Cicak and Tokek: Lizards, the first small, the second larger, which climb on walls and ceilings and bite if you get your nose too close.