Caving in the 12th Century
I remember every face and personality I’ve encountered on this journey. The places I’ve slept are a bit harder, the most beautiful and the most frightening become the easiest to recall. Like in North Turkey, the night I heard a woman’s scream cut off by the sound of a gunshot. I remember the cadmium-red rust on the tin where I pitched my tent behind a gas-bottle storage unit. I remember the ferns. And the bright orange spider that rested on its foliage. I remember waking before the sun and tripping over a rotting pine log as I attempted to leave as quickly as possible.
Or the day I stopped for a toasted sandwich, shocked at the price for white bread and two slices of ham and was told about a secret garden just two kilometers up the road. Tucked behind a large hill was a field of poppies so full and fantastical that I lied down like Dorothy in Oz and fell asleep for over an hour. Awoke to a sunset that bled like watercolors. In the morning, I picked blackberries and mixed it with creamer to make a smoothie.
In Georgia, I can remember many camp spots. But the pups that would enter my life so effortlessly and leave too quickly saturate most of them.
They were all so different in every way imaginable. No dog was same in color or personality. Yet, the one similarity they all possessed was that they were abandoned and starving for food and attention.
Before beginning my walk in Georgia, I made a deal with myself: I will not feed a dog. I will not! With an addendum: at least not immediately.
After walking across Mongolia with Oogi, nurturing the friendship and trust between us, only to have to leave him there, was so heart wrenching that I had to make some commitment that would not put a dog in the position to be abandoned due to the nature of my walk.
Leaving Oogi in Mongolia was more difficult than anything I had encountered on this journey so far, more than the sandstorms, more than heat stroke, dehydration, or being physically attacked. The deepest wound was, and still is, walking away from Oogi as he ate his favorite meal, canned sardines in tomato sauce. A nomadic family was going to raise him on open fields and sheep he could muster. It didn’t matter that I had found him a respectable new owner. Or that it was the practical thing to do because I could barely afford to feed him or myself. Or that even if I could get him vaccinations and a doggy passport, he would be on the move for the next four years of his life, indentured to meals of sardines and white bread.
I walked away a salty-wet mess and bound to an agreement never to do that again to another dog or myself.
So to prevent a dog from following me, my plan of action was to eliminate the main cause for furry followers- food.
But like most heartbreaks, there’s more than one. And we survive. And for the sake of love itself, we endure it all over again. All the pain that makes us say never again is forgotten when love patters to our doorstep.
Tamar, who I named after a 12th century Queen of Georgia, was full grown, a pure white mane, napped and matted on every curve of her body, with large black eyes.
She came bolting out of an old railroad shelter with dripping fangs and a bark that made me hobble backwards and grab the nearest stick.
This was the first dog I had encountered that I thought might attack.
I avoided her eyes but kept a sideways gaze on her. She wasn’t coming any closer. I continued walking forward. She stepped aside and kept close to my heels but never bit me. She would not cease her bark for almost a kilometer.
Thinking boredom would set in and she’d head back to her shelter, I carried on.
But so did she.
All the way till sunset as I headed down a dirt trail to tuck behind a cornfield.
She stayed several paces behind me all day and watched me, patiently and curiously, as I pitched my tent, slipped on my dress, and cooked my noodles.
She watched from between the tall grass keeping her distance but a direct gaze on me.
I began tucking myself inside the tent.
Before zipping the door, a last gaze to meet her eyes, “Good night. You were a great walking companion. But please go home.”
I was soon going to understand that most of the canines in Georgia don’t have a home to go to.
I feel asleep, guiltily hoping she’d still be there in the morning.
As I sat up, scratching my head and stretching into a morning yawn, I see tufts of white hair poking through the bottom of the vestibule. I couldn’t contain my smile.
I was happy to see here still there. And protectively sitting at the door of my mobile home.
“Good Morning.” I respectively greeted her.
I carefully unzipped the door, reminiscing over the previous days engagement of sharp teeth and vocal aggression.
She calmly and comfortably sat up into an erect perch with soft eyes as she watched me make a cup of coffee and begin eating some bread. Holding true to my agreement, I still don’t offer her any. I feel worry. I worry for her getting attached to me. I worry that we’re so far from where I found her that she may not go back. I worry that she’s the most beautiful dog I’ve seen like a white wolf in my dreams. I worry that I’m already wanting her by my side.
As I began walking I watched her move from a few paces behind me to a few paces in front of me. She would walk that way, leading me as if she knew where I was headed, all the way to the border of Turkey.
And I would feed her; cuddle her; pull her dreadlocked hair out with my fingers to cool her off; and hold her back from attacking every passing vehicle and human.
In her time with me, she would bite the ankle of a young boy, lunge at an elderly man, fight with a dog twice her size (and lose the battle as he pinned her and bit her nose), and never, ever, let me out of her site.
She would pace the windows of the store as I perused the shelves for my instant noodles and canned sardines for her.
She wouldn’t be the only one either. There would be up to as many as five of us walking together.
Pepper, a four-week old, who rode on Athena between my saucepan and sleeping mattress, was not quite harboring a bark but a yelp that made her whole body tremble in attempt to make herself known.
I found her in a cow paddock, in the bright afternoon sun, hovering over her sibling, who had been severely injured and slowly bleeding to death. It is common for female dogs to be killed or abandoned in Georgia. The owners don’t want more dogs to feed and neutering is practically non-existent. So, keep the males and kill the females- a dishearteningly common approach throughout history.
Then Splinter joined the gang for a few days. She looked like a small pup, peering fearfully at me from behind tall blades of grass. As I shrunk down to size, kneeling on the ground and holding my hand out, with her whole body clinging the ground like spider-man scaling a high-rise, she nudged towards me, all bones and thin skin; another abandoned female. Her form reminded me of the Rat from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I so dearly loved as a youth, that I gave her the name, Splinter. She was a few years old, or at least had endured so much heat and famine that she looked older than she was.
Chupa barked at me as I paralleled a river. It was beginning to rain and I stopped to put on my parka. He made himself a home in the drainage under the road. I would come to think that he was birthed there, perhaps with others, and mom had left, no more than a month ago. In the drainage was a decaying corpse, another sibling that didn’t make it. With little to none of mom’s milk, he looked like he had a diet of grasshoppers and plastic. I sat down under a Birch tree a few feet away from him.
A steady hand and patience invited him into my lap for a snooze as we waited for the downpour to subside.
When I stood to keep walking, he tried to keep up but his little paws simply couldn’t equal my large human steps.
I fashioned my scarf into a baby-carrier and placed him next to my chest.
I carried him like that for several days until he was lured into a furry gang of professional beggars near a tourist camp.
All of them would be called to different opportunities beyond the walking tribe. Pepper would befriend a woman at the backdoor of her cabin. Splinter was fed a large loaf of bread at a petrol station where a trashcan would hopefully give him more than he had in his previous life in the bush.
But Tamar wouldn’t stop walking. Even when her paws were burnt and the rocks had cut them. She paced herself for over 200 kilometers by my side.
And it was with Tamar that I would face that heartbreak again.
Turkey didn’t allow any dogs from Georgia to enter the country without a passport, full vaccinations and accompanying a citizen. If it were even attempted, the dog would be detained and euthanized. With no funds for shelters, homeless dogs are shot with firearms. No humane needle-cocktail.
I walked the streets of Batumi talking to anyone who spoke English, asking about Vets, shelters, or if they knew anyone who could care for Tamar. One man looked interested until he brutishly lifted her hind legs to get a view of her sex. Once he saw she was female he snickered something in Georgian and walked off. One woman offered to call the local Vet for any information that could help. She hung up the phone and in broken English said, “He says only maybe city stray.”
There was something. Hope. Although very little. A minute chance she would get picked up by the city and tested to become a safe stray, where a small blue tag on the ear lets locals know they’re not harmful and are deemed safe to roam the streets. I had seen many since arriving in Batumi. They all looked fat and happy. But they only perform these tests randomly every six months (or so) and they don’t harbor strays. If it’s not testing time, it’s kill time. This is how Georgia deals with their increasing stray dog population. I could only hope that with no person or home to protect, Tamar would be less aggressive if she were lucky enough to be picked up.
I had stuck to my agreement: I didn’t feed any of them, immediately.
There was always an initial withholding, a day or several kilometers down the road. But it was enough for me to learn that no matter how hungry these homeless and starving dogs were it was the attention and love that they craved. A gentle pat on the head or scratch at the tail was just as much alluring, if not more so, than a slice of bread. They walked with me because I gave them love.
And I will never be able to withhold love and affection.
So I am doomed to heartbreak- to those wild abandoned beasts that are just as homeless as I am, who long for company as I do and will sacrifice security for the adventure of following our heart.
I took Tamar to the ocean, coffee in hand for me and canned sardines in the other for her. A new and beautiful location but a dreadful emotional landscape I have visited before.
I opened the sardines, for a moment seeing Oogi’s eager eyes as Tamar shared the same expression of excitement. I don’t doubt an animal’s ability to feel emotional distress and if they were able to sense I was about to leave them, they could never comprehend that I would only ever do it because I thought I was saving their life. They would never be able to understand that I would forever feel guilt and sorrow, constantly searching for another way that they could be with me here now.
I set the sardines down with a loaf of bread and oversized salami. I stroked her body, from head to tail, as I wept and whispered for her forgiveness. With her snout devouring the depths of the tin, I tiptoed away and then into a full sprint. I didn’t want her tracing my scent. I couldn’t abandon her twice. I only had one chance. And just to keep her from trying to cross the border doesn’t mean I could keep her from being killed.
I sat on a bench. My furtive wish that she’d find me kept me sitting there for an hour.
She did find me, in my dreams, where we still walk together.