by Daniel Opacki
Leaving work early on weekday afternoon’s anywhere in the world is a welcoming turn. In Rangoon during January, the weather, air cool enough to notice but tropically warm to my skin, which is more accustomed to single digits this time of year, is the most pleasant I have breathed in months. With no humidity and crisp white clouds flowing above me against the deep baby blue, the trees seemed to shimmer their leaves at me in smiling flirts. I was smiling back at them in admiration, noticing nothing in particular except the present. With each step the ground felt as if cushioned and I was truly meditative and delighted to still be in Burma, a land I’ve come to love more than I could ever have imagined three years ago when I first arrived here.
Even a casual walk down an unbusy road, with the occasional trishaw guy peddling by without a customer, few if any cars to avoid, quiet except a crow, or a rooster crowing without enthusiasm, can make for a week’s worth of contemplation in just a single moment.
I’ve had a remembrance in my mind for four days now, trying to put context to it but nothing comes to mind. In Rangoon, in Burma, some things just happen because it’s the way it is in Burma and nothing more. But when I get too casual with my cultural smugness, thinking I know Burma enough to say I know Burma, something usually happens to let me know that I don’t know Burma at all.
My friend Saw Saw was beside me and we were talking softly about the next day, or making some other small talk as we both enjoyed the calmness of the road and each other’s calming company. I guess that’s what I like about our friendship, there’s no pretense and being quiet is cool – simple. It was then I noticed a line of older children all with their hands and heads propped up on a wall not tall enough to keep them from looking over. Some were sitting up; others were leaning over the top. Dogs were sleeping in the road, on the side of the road in the cool taller grass, as they always do all over the country during the daytime.
Then I noticed a man clearing small brush from the entrance to the driveway of a modestly nice home of concrete and sporting a decent yard with fruit trees and a green lawn. He started across the road holding a puppy in his hand, holding it by the scruff of its neck. The puppy just dangled as if waiting for something to happen, helpless in its condition, as cute as a puppy should be, big eyes black and bulging out, wondering, probably, what the hell was going on. I stopped walking and held Saw Saw back, planning to tack right and avoid colliding with the caretaker crossing in his crisp dark blue uniform. We stepped once to the right. As I directed Saw Saw to move, the caretaker flung the puppy into the air and it quietly arched its way past my face, no more than three feet away. At first I thought the old man threw it at me. I didn’t flinch, but I stopped walking a couple of seconds and followed the little doggy to its touchdown onto a pile of about seven or eight other puppies. It hit with a hard thud and rolled over once grunting out some yelpish whimper of protest and then laid silent, on its side, its little belly rounded but not moving. Maybe it got winded, its little puppy leg twitched a second. I didn’t see it breathing.
It was then I gave more notice to all of the children quietly watching this eradication of puppies. Nearer to them, about five adult dogs all lain in death in taller grass, as if sleeping the day away like they probably had most other days. Just then two men turned the corner to the street ahead of us. As Saw Saw and I walked gingerly past, taking the whole scene in, in silence, I almost took a photo but thought it risky for Saw Saw so I put the camera in my pocket. They were carrying a dog on a bamboo pole, its legs tied to it, head bouncing dutifully with each step they took. In a forest they might have been hunters carrying home a meal for the village. In Rangoon they were just a couple of guys performing pest control. I thought aloud to Saw Saw, “So this is how they clear the streets of the thousands of wayward dogs that inhabit Rangoon.”
There are no common dogcatchers in nice white trucks with happy poochy faces on the panels in Burma. In America – do I need to say it? The sensitivities of the American people would be furious. The T.V. news would show children crying, mothers having hissy fits, PETA would declare war, and Nancy Grace would be crucifying someone on CNN. In Rangoon, where dogs compete with some people for food, dogs often starve. You can see their skeletal condition and watch them suffer before you every day in Rangoon. I guess they can also be pests as they tend to sleep all day and forage at night. They fight and howl and make a lot of noise. They breed quickly and also carry disease, especially rabies, and they bite children, even adults.
What I saw didn’t ruin my day, or that of Saw Saw’s. It was just something that happens in Burma. It was too out of my schematic zone of familiar things to even care one way or another. This is how people in Rangoon deal with the exploding wayward dog population. We went on for coffee and light conversation. Later I walked to the nearest bus stop, mindful of the dogs, not wanting to get too close to them. If I was starving I would think of dogs as meat. If I was a starving dog, well. Who knows why a dog just walks up to people and takes a taste? All I know is that it happens in Rangoon.