Dogs in Thimphu
3. Don’t live for an audience.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
I begin my first blog entry with these two quotes.
The first is from a list of ten “rules” I wrote for myself one early morning on the Heathrow Express, returning from having said goodbyes to all of my family back in Connecticut and New York, and on my way to saying goodbyes to all of my dear friends in London. Ten rules, a pep talk of sorts, reminders to shore myself up for the challenges of the coming year, the coming future.
The second, of course, is the famous closing couplet from Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” a favorite quote of mine and of many other English teachers. I begin with this because in some way I think these sentiments are the best introduction to the first anecdote of my wanderings through the internal and external world.
So, before I begin this first entry and thus this blog in general, I should offer a caveat: I don’t propose to provide a travelogue of the coming year. There are far, far better writers who have already written brilliantly about Bhutan; for me to repeat these observations would be redundant and inauthentic. I’ve confronted this truth also from behind my camera. I took plenty of photos on the hike up to Taktshang Goemba, but the fact of the matter is that there are far more accomplished photographers’ images freely available online, and unless you were behind the camera with me, my photographs won’t seem any different.
What I propose to offer in this blog, then, is a sort of compromise between my external and internal experiences, a vision of Bhutan refracted through the prism of my own particular point of view. I don’t know what draws others to Bhutan, but I know that I came here in search of Truth – and, as Keats suggests, the beauty that accompanies it.
And that leads me to this first story.
A few days ago I went down to the market area of Thimphu with the pragmatic intention of picking up the materials I’ll need to live out East, the materials it will be either difficult or impossible to find in Wamrong or Trashigang. I am lucky in that my predecessor at Tashitse HSS sold me pretty much everything I’ll need to survive; it’s all accounted for and in situ, so while my friends scramble for stoves, room heaters, rice cookers and other essentials, I get to wander around buying eccentric thermoses, the occasional plastic spoon, and other odds and ends. So my main focus in shopping is not a list of items I need, but the actual experience of shopping in such a foreign place as Bhutan.
And I must say, I was proud of how at home I felt as I went from tiny, chaotic shop to tiny, chaotic shop. I patted myself on the back, cooing to myself at just how worldly and thick-skinned I was as I rummaged through unruly piles of random items with no signage, no apparent logic to what was placed where. Shopping in Thimphu feels like shopping in a crazy flea market: one shop may sell mobile phones alongside laundry detergent and bedding. Sometimes items are stacked so high that you can’t even reach them without the assistance of the shopkeeper. But I swallowed hard and waded in, stumbled through awkward negotiations in pidgin English, and eventually managed to find a few items I could use at a price I was willing to pay.
As I left the market and headed back up the hill toward my hotel, I heard a cacophony of barking. Now, it’s important to explain the dog population in Thimphu, indeed throughout Bhutan. Dogs are nobody’s property here, for the most part; they’re not exactly wild, but they’re not exactly tame either. I’ve seen this in other countries too, most notably in Istanbul, where the dogs were a little threatening and certainly not to be approached. That’s not the case with dogs here: they’re far more numerous, and people pretty much leave them to their own devices, but the coexistence is entirely peaceful. Dogs do often approach in a friendly way, and people do often offer them little scraps of food. The Buddhist belief is that one should always treat all animals with compassion because one can never be sure the animal isn’t actually a loved one reborn. Which makes perfect sense to me.
So it’s not at all unusual to hear barking dogs. Even as I write this, I can hear a few of them out on the street, and rarely do ten minutes pass without a bark echoing from somewhere. But this time it was different: it sounded like dozens and dozens of them, frenzied and close at hand. My route took me past an abandoned, dusty lot, separated from the sidewalk by a tall, chain link fence like that behind a baseball diamond – about ten meters high, running the length of the lot. On the other side of the fence, I could see the dogs as I approached. There had to be at least fifty of them, all converging upon one spot, with more of them running in from all directions. As I got closer, I heard one dog above all the others, screaming, yelping, begging for mercy. Closer still and I was within a foot of the scene – one dog was under attack, and all of the others were diving in, lunging viciously at the poor victim, pinned on its back, barely visible through a hostile mass of snapping teeth. There was no way the dog could ever defend itself against such an onslaught.
So what did I do?
I didn’t want to be seen as the naïve foreigner, so I tried to ignore it and just keep walking. Tried and failed. This was a horrifying and sickening scene – a helpless dog within feet of me, surely on the verge of a grisly and unjust death. But in that one awful moment, I was forced to reckon with an awful truth about genuine animal nature – dog nature and my nature.
I have lived with dogs for most of my life. Boz was my companion through much of my childhood. Caddy was just about my best friend for all of her sixteen years; with weight at a premium as I packed for Bhutan, I still brought along at least ten photos of her. I took her hiking, let her sit next to me on the couch, let her sleep next to me in my bed. This is the western view of dogs. We treat them like part of the family. But we also train them carefully to remove reminders of their true nature. They are not far removed from wolves, and anyone who knows wolves knows about the pack mentality, the way wolves deal with intruders in their territory. They are noble creatures, and they make great posters, great airbrush t-shirts, but wolves can be brutal animals. We accept that because we see them as symbols of the wild. Yet we do all we can to deny the wolf-like nature of dogs.
I don’t know what set these dogs off, but clearly the victim had been identified as Different, Other, worthy of common contempt.
I could more than empathize with the dog fighting for its life. In my human view, it couldn’t possibly deserve this treatment – even if it had wronged one other dog, the countless others had surely sensed that the mob had turned against this victim, so they joined the mob and went for blood.
Humans do the same.
We may dress it up, hide it behind rituals and suggestions and business talk, but to be sure, when someone is identified as the Other, when someone is made a pariah, we join the pack and go for blood without so much as wondering why. I have witnessed this close at hand, as both victim and perpetrator, and been disgusted by it.
Yet there I was, more concerned with somehow “fitting in” to the Bhutanese way of life, appearing as unmoved by the scene as I supposed the locals would be, than with coming to the aid of another helpless being.
A few seconds after I passed, still looking over my shoulder with doubt and regret, I saw two local men run across the street, hardly even looking for traffic. They approached the fence together and started yelling as loudly and savagely as they could, kicking and shaking the fence, doing everything in their power to scare off the bloodthirsty mob. Within a minute the frenzy was over; dogs jogged away nonchalantly, and the horrible bedlam died down.
I don’t know if the victim survived or not. What I do know is that I was humbled, shamed even, by my own cowardice, my own choice to remain anonymous rather than to intervene as those two men had done. Yet somehow, there was also something True and therefore Beautiful about it.
I felt so good about myself when I vowed not to live for an audience. It was an easy vow to make in the safe, controlled environment of London. Yet here I was, far from home, in a city more foreign than any place I’d ever been, and in that setting I had done just the opposite. The seconds it took me to walk past such a terrible scene as if I saw nothing told me how far I still have to go if I’m to achieve that ideal. I, dog lover that I am, was prepared to let an innocent creature die, literally at my feet, rather than to be seen as different. I was humbled by what I saw, both from the dogs and from the men who acted where I had not.
But this is why I came to Bhutan. I may not be perfect, but I came here to encounter a world where the Truth isn’t sanitized, hidden behind layer upon layer of deception and health-and-safety regulations. I thought I had overcome many challenges in my first few days in Bhutan, but here was my first real lesson. It was hard as hell. And I’m grateful for it. I hope and expect that this is how things will go here, with truths brutal and beautiful coming upon me when I least expect them, when I’m least prepared for them.
I saw in myself my own pack mentality, my own fear of acting in a way that isn’t the norm. I was disgusted with what I saw. But I saw it; I was forced to reckon with it in a way I never had in forty years of life. And now, fully aware of it, I can confront this aspect of my human nature, work on it. If I were to encounter the same scenario tomorrow, I would yell, scream, kick at the fence, do something. And that means I’m a better man for the humbling experience of that afternoon. I’m aware that I do still live for an audience. I have a long way to go. This was an ugly truth, and an experience I wish I could forget, but it will make me stronger and better, as the truth always does.
I still love and believe in the words Keats wrote, but I would add another version thanks to this experience:
Brutal is truth, truth brutal, -- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.