Dogs of Dili

An account of the good dogs (asu diak) and the bad dogs (asu la diak) we have met.

With a caution. If you’re likely to pick up the hotline to PETA or come over all faint about the little doggies, then best skip ahead to something that doesn’t include a sentence about eating dogs.

The dogs of Dili are not your overly pampered pedigree, neutered literally, and figuratively by your desire to make them do tricks to be fed.  I suspect the dogs here are more akin to the wolves who came into the fireside, seeking warmth and companionship, than they are to your average chained up, off for walkies, shake hands and sit pooches you’ll find in New Zealand.

There’s no time for sentimental bullshit, although this may end up a love story.

When we arrived in Dili and even before we made it to our house, we’d heard about the dogs. Noisy, aggressive, roaming…. packs of wild beasts eating nappies out of the rubbish, scabby, feral. But the one we heard the most about was the dog we’d be living with. He’d left the previous tenant quaking in her lycra, they’d had plenty of falling outs and she’d called it quits and shifted down the road. I’d begun to imagine him as the dog from Stephen King’s Cujo, I’d be trapped inside while he slobbered and whined at the door waiting to eat me.

Turns out imagination is both a blessing and a curse depending on where it takes you.

I’m not sure if Melo was there for day one, it’s all a blur. Those first few days were bonkers, unpacking, shopping, sweating, not sleeping.

I imagine he was just doing his thing outside, maybe plotting my demise? We didn’t notice him.

Mark has a well perfected and often used “get away farm dog” tone, I was planning on utilising a local tip…if approached by an angry dog, remain calm (ha) and bend down, the dog will think you’re picking up a rock to throw at it. This technique seemed sort of lacking…surely, you’d be better to bend down and actually pick up a rock? Anywho, seems it works, the locals biff rocks at the dogs all the time.

I discovered Melo and his name (the kids call him, he ignores them) and set about a better constructed plan than the bending down pretend rock nonsense. I’d mostly ignore him and feed him occasionally.

He started out a pretty skinny boy. I figured he’d love to eat. Several trips to several supermarkets and I found some dog biscuits. They were eye wateringly expensive. There may be a hint to their popularity in that fact.

I shook some into a bowl and watched through the window. A very disdainful sniff and a turning of his skinny haunches said, nope, not hungry enough for THOSE.

I learnt he didn’t like cooked sausages, potato chips, potato, ALL varieties of dog biscuits, leftovers generally. I hand fed him cheese. 

I finally cracked and brought him plain pack mince from New Zealand. Trial and error led me to the perfect mix 3/5th mince, 2/5th dog biscuits and we had success.

I fed him under cover of darkness. It felt like I was having an affair. He is after all someone else’s dog. Although the concept of ownership seems unusual here. Sure the dogs live WITH people, but they’re not OWNED by them. Very very few are neutered, a trip to the vet would be almost unheard of. It seems to be a relationship built on common unspoken need…the dog says well I’ll hang around here cos there’s some food and you’re kinda alright and the human says I like having a dog round cos who doesn’t. The agreement doesn’t involve gushy displays of affection, humiliating training programmes, silly bandanas, slobbery dog kisses or chains and cages. I am dog. You are human. 

Melo’s health became an analogy of my overall outtake from the year in Timor-Leste. “Nothing is simple and just when you think you’ve got it sussed, you haven’t”. 

Skinny skinny became skinny…eating well, coming by for a pat, sleeping on the porch, skinny became sleek, following me inside to wait for food, leaning against my leg, then sleek became skinny, too many dog fights, too many wounds which led to skinny skinny and lying panting in the dust.

I’d watch him as he got over a fight, I let a sleeping dog lie. He’d take a few days and then limp over for food. Id pat him down very gently and find all the lumps and bumps of sores that began to heal.

I brought a toy and a worm and flea treatment back from New Zealand. He didn’t really like either.

He’s our good dog. He’s his own good dog.

There are other good dogs. A very sweet little ginger dog at Beachside whose hanging teats and sad face encourages me to hand feed her half my baked salmon and all the crispy skin. She sits under the table and leans on my feet. She’s curled up on my toes enough times now for me to think it’s not just accidental.

She runs along the sand, play fighting with the other dogs, she nips at them when she’s annoyed and they have a “gentlemen’s” agreement to not all come for food at once. One dog sits at my righthand, another at my left. Their tails are curled against their bodies, they appear like attentive waiters, quiet, discrete, waiting to take something from my table. Each morsel is held out and they gently gently take it from my hand with a soft mouth and hardly any teeth. 

The dog at Oe-Cusse escorted us across the road, lay beside our bags, growled at approaching strangers and walked us home. Such good dogs.

Down the road is a bad dog. Night after night he’ll pace outside our gate, barking, taunting Melo to come out for a scrap. Sometimes he brings his bully boy mates and they pounce, tooth and claw and Melo runs for home, whimpering and wounded.

Mark has made a stock whip out of broom handle and a length of rope, he runs outside in the dark in his jocks and cracks it over the bad dogs’ heads. They scarper for home but are back the next night.

The bad dog chases the kids going up to school, he snarls at scooters, he bites at feet and ankles. He made our neighbor drive into her gate. He causes havoc from dusk til dawn then sleeps in a patch of shade all day like nothing has happened.

It turns out that HE’S the dog we were warned about.

Another bad dog sits under a chair and bites the ankle of the man sitting in it. He’s flown to Darwin for a painful rabies shot. 

The dogs at Adrian’s house charge against their chain, snapping, growling, baring their teeth. At dusk they are let off their chains to prowl through the darkness guarding home. A later than normal night home sees him baled up against the gate, with the dogs roaring on the other side, barking, leaping, all teeth and terror. The homeowner beats them away and lets Adrian in.

Down the road by one of the supermarket street vendors sell puppies on the corner. Sometimes parrots. The odd piglet. Occasionally armed police arrive and sweep them away.  They’re back the next day with 2 love birds in a box, and bottles of honey.

We heard a story. When you die the family dog is killed, perhaps to escort you to heaven, your companion for life, and then is eaten at your funeral. There’s a premium on red dogs. If your family doesn’t have one, you buy one. 

I ask my Timorese friend Akito. He say’s maybe. Each village has its own traditions. He says just about everyone eats dog. I say when? For fun he replies. He means for events…gatherings, parties, ceremonial events, high days and holidays. 

He tells me that dogs are kept in villages to protect precious garden crops from pigs and goats, to protect your home from unwanted visitors, and just “because”.

He tells me that families may well love their dogs, may name them. He says the one at home is called “sacred fire” in the local dialect. This dog won’t be eaten. Naming it makes it special. I say we have the same thing with sheep in New Zealand, once you’ve named your pet lamb its unlikely to end up on the table.

We have learnt the names for meat.

Naan manu=chicken

Naan fahi =pork

Naan karoe =beef

Mark thinks we could buy the bad dog down the road and give it to a friend who specializes in meat for events. Naan asu (dog meat).

People have said won’t you bring Melo home.  He has a home. It’s not like his life would be in New Zealand. Sure he’d be fed and safe and loved but he wouldn’t be free to be the essential dog he is.  Free to choose to live with us. Free to walk the streets and lie in the dust. Free to come inside when he wants. Free to fight. Free to love.

I say he has a home. He has a family. He has a name. He is Melo. Red dog, real dog and I will miss him terribly.

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