Man’s best friend

27 April starts like any other day. I get up, find something to eat and walk through the fields to my favourite hang out spot. I decide to relax a little and watch the locals attend to their usual jobs. Life’s not easy in Yuksom. In can get very cold at night, and for many it’s a struggle for survival. People tend to care for their family and community, in that order, and nothing else. Outsiders are scrutinized and only when there is a benefit in giving help, warmth or compassion does the community open up. This applies even stronger for animals: those who are not part of the family are chased away, sometimes violently. But at the moment there is nothing to disturb the morning peace.

After a while I notice two figures walking down the road. One is a bit taller than the other, with lots of fur on his face, the other slightly smaller and much better smelling. I get up and approach them, not sure what draws me to them. They don’t seem to mind my company and since I have nothing better to do I decide to join them on their trek, wherever it may lead.

After a few minutes walking we come to some local road construction workers. I am not part of their family or community and they have made this very clear in the past, and I walk close with my new friends, hoping they won’t notice me. When we pass them I see them cast glaring looks at me, but unlike earlier this week they don’t try to kick me or throw stones at me.

After a few kilometres my new friends leave the main road and start on the walking path to Khecheopalri Lake. I’ve never been that way, boy this is exciting! I leap up the steep stairs with the ease of having lived in this area for years. My new friends are clearly not from here struggle to get up.

We slowly make our way up the steps, going higher and higher on the path through the farms on the mountain. We stop occasionally to ask for directions, and it seems my friends have no clue where we’re going. Most farmers are helpful and patient with their directions, but at one house a large dog comes running towards us, barking and snarling, its teeth bare for maximum intimidation. It doesn’t bother with my friends but comes straight for me, stopping centimetres from my face. I’m terrified and freeze up, lowering myself onto the ground hoping it’ll go away soon. My friends are a few meters ahead, encouraging me to move on with them. As soon as I move though the dog jumps on me again. It takes me a while to get past him, and I quickly skip ahead to keep my friends between him and me. A few minutes later I’m still shivering with fright, and enemies seem to be everywhere. A small pebble hits me from behind and I utter a loud yelp. I then realise the furry one just kicked up some dirt and it wasn’t aimed at me. I make up for it by walking closely by his side for a bit, but after a while that gets boring as he keeps stopping.

Hours pass and there does not seem to be an end to their trek. I’m hungry and a little thirsty from walking so much in the sun, I hope they have a break soon. Going up those stairs and rocks is also getting increasingly difficult with my short legs, but they seem to realise this as one of them is always near me to make sure I’m not left behind. We finally stop for a short while, and we sit down on a rock in the shade, me between the two of them. It’s been a while since I’ve had such great company, I really like this adventure so far!

A few more hours pass and we are finally getting near the lake, I can smell the water. I’m also incredibly hungry, my friends unfortunately did not bring any food that’s healthy for me. At the lake are loads of other people, and many of them offer me food. I say goodbye to my friends as I really need to eat before we start the way back. After all those hours next to them I can pick them out anywhere, I just need to keep an eye out on which direction they’re heading.

Shit I think I’ve lost them. In the crowd of people they seem to have left the area. Where are they?? I search the central parking place and near the edge I can smell then again. I follow their trail and there they are!! I’m so glad I found them again! They’re taking a different route back now, one that seems a lot more flat than the way we came. Most of it is downhill anyway, and yet they continue to be so slow. I position myself behind them to make sure our pack stays intact. They seem to be getting tired, which isn’t surprising since they’ve been walking for about 6 hours now, and we still have some way to go to where we met.

The trek down goes a lot faster than up, and within an hour we’re back at the house where the dog attacked me. There doesn’t seem to be any sign of him this time, and we pass the house and its fields without incident. Then, suddenly from above us a growl, and the dog is standing on the edge of the field, teeth glimmering in the afternoon sun. It sprints down through the bush to confront us. My friends believe it’s best to ignore him and I take up a safe position between them. This time it appears it doesn’t only want me but also my friends, and the dog is growling near the furry one’s feet.

We continue down and the dog follows, skipping past the furry one and almost getting a bite out of me. I turn to confront him but he turns his attention on my other friend. Her coat is dangling to her left and he tries to sink his teeth in it. She doesn’t notice as she continues to ignore him, walking further. The furry one does notice though and kicks out with his boots. A loud yelp of surprise and shock erupts from the dog, which goes very quiet and stands still. We take the opportunity to create some distance, and after a final bark the dog turns around. I feel a great sense of pride and happiness inside me, that the three of us work together to overcome these struggles. They truly must be friends if they care so much for me!

We reach the road on which we met, and I’m keen to introduce them to some other friends. Near a few steep steps they stop going on though, debating whether they should take the shortcut up the steps towards their homestay, or whether they had enough of steep climbs and take the long way around. I know my friends are around the corner and add a little whine to the conversation. That seems to settle it, and the three of us continue on the road.

When we finally reach my friends I’ve already made up my mind: I’m staying with the furry one and his wife, we make a great team and I’m sure they can help me be safe and happy. I’m not disappointed, as in the next 2 kilometres we come across several dogs and humans that seem to have the sole objective of hurting me and shooing me away.

When a pack of 5 dogs attack me the furry one and his wife are unsure what to do though, as with their small teeth there’s not much they can help. I’m on my own for now, and am quickly driven into a ditch by the pack. I bare my teeth in response to their attack, barking and growling as loud as I can. My side is protected by a pole, whilst the ground falls away quickly behind me making an attack from behind difficult.

Their leader pins me down and tries repeatedly to bite me in my neck and belly, but I manage to fight him off and do some damage in return. One of the more cowardly smaller dogs bites me in my rear from behind. It’s looking difficult but I see my friends still standing near, just waiting for an opportunity for me to jump out and regroup with them. That opportunity comes quickly and I race towards them. The three of us form a tight pack, and the smaller dogs from the pack fall back. Only the leader keeps up and tries to bite me more, but he flinches when the furry one pretends to kick him. He knows that he can expect a real kick should he attempt another attack, and he turns back in defeat. I’m glad I made the choice to come with my friends, as I’m not sure I would have made it out of there unscathed without them.

While we continue towards Yuksom the occasional car overtakes us. The furry one keeps making a strange signal with his hand when they pass us by. Nothing seems to happen, until one grey jeep stops. What’s happening now? Are we no longer walking? My friends get in and I’m just preparing to jump in when the furry one closes the door before I can get in. That can’t be right, what’s happening now?? With despair building in the pit of my stomach I see the car pulling away as it picks up speed. “No, don’t leave me alone please!!” I bark as I run with the car.

Then the jeep turns the corner, and is out of sight. I stop running and sit by the side of the road, unsure what just happened, why they left me behind. Darkness slowly starts to fall and I smell other dogs in the area. I curl up on the shoulder, while the usual afternoon rain starts to fall, feeling utterly alone and abandoned on this world. If only I knew where they were going…..

Meanwhile in the car, Franzi looks back and sees Buddy run behind the car. She tells me about it and I feel a little lump in my throat. It’s strange how responsible for and connected to an animal you can feel after only a few hours. Even though we noticed that Buddy looks well fed and the grey hairs on his muzzle suggest he’s not a young dog and seem to have done well so far (presumably he has a local boss somewhere), we can’t help but notice that he seems to be without a pack of his own, and every dog tries (and succeeds) to dominate him.

I instantly regret leaving him alone, and nearly ask the driver to let us off. Stories of people picking up pets while travelling are not uncommon. Then reality kicks in again: how are we going to arrange veterinary checks in India if we have only a handful number of days left? How would we transport him? Can you actually take a dog on a three week high altitude trek in Nepal?

Franzi and I have dinner in muted spirit. We both feel upset for letting Buddy behind, even though we rationally know it’s not really feasible to take him on our travels. After dinner Franzi suggest to walk to the edge of the village. She saw a pack of local dogs run that way barking, and she wanted to check whether Buddy was there. I happily agree, hoping for the impossible and expecting disappointment. When we reach the edge of town reality shows it merciless face again. No sign of Buddy. We walk back to our homestay hoping that our little dog will jump from the bush, but we have no such luck.

With a strong feeling of guilt we make our bed and prepare for our 7AM departure for Darjeeling. We’re sorry Buddy, we hope you are well and made it back safely to whatever place you call home.

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