03 October, 2012

Running: a cultural education in canine-care

This one made it into the Salem News last week. Woo hoo! Pity they don't pay for Op Eds...

I've discovered that you can learn quite a bit about a country's culture when you're a runner. For example, I've recently been struck by the two extremes of dog-care: the non-interference, leave them alone, sometimes leave out scraps of food attitude of people in Thailand, and the take them to doggie-daycare, wrap up their poop in little, blue plastic bags, hire a dog-sitter/walker protectiveness of people in America.

If you're a morning runner - like me - you get to see all sorts of things that the late-risers don't. Like the people who walk their dogs on West Beach despite the "Absolutely No Dogs Year Round" sign at the entrance. In fact, I've become nodding-hello-as-we-pass friends with a brown-haired woman who walks her highly-energetic collie on the beach every morning. The collie's name is Max.

Max races up and down the beach, sniffing and panting as though each morning is his first time there, barking with ecstatic urgency at the gulls and plovers. Max doesn't find me very exciting. Thank goodness.

Dogs can be a runner's nightmare. They bite, they chase, they bark. They're unpredictable. And unlike the gulls and plovers, I can't fly away when I'm chased, an ability that would have come in very handy during the six months I lived in Thailand.

Chiang Mai, a beautiful, modern city on Northern Thailand is full of dogs and there's no pound or animal shelter to keep them in check. They roam the streets in packs, sleep inside people's doorways, live in temple grounds where monks (and tourists) won't chase them away. Unlike the dogs here in the U.S., those dogs aren't pets; they're mangy, scrawny street dogs. Some Thais do keep dogs as pets in their homes but most of the canine population lives on the streets.

I had to be on hyper-alert mode when I ran in the mornings in Thailand, crossing over to the other side of the street whenever I saw a pack of dogs ahead of me. Most of the time they were docile or sleepy and completely ignored me. But not always.

One morning just before sunrise I was running around what's known as "the old city"  - a square block in the middle of Chiang Ma that is surrounded by an ancient moat and remnants of stone walls. I turned a corner, my MP3 music pumping in my ears, sweating in the lovely Asian humidity, when a small part of my consciousness registered a faint shout somewhere (some kind soul taking pity of the poor farang girl was about to be attacked).

I took out my earphones and turned around to see a large, white dog running straight for me. And it wasn't 'oh-look-someone-to-play-with' running, it was 'I'm-gonna-bite-this-girl-in-the-leg' running.

Now, I'm certainly not brave. But I can be immensely practical, and in that moment - as this strange dog raced towards me - my practical mind pushed the cowardly, heart-racing, petrified girl inside of me aside and took control.

I ran forward towards the dog, clapped my hands hard and shouted, "EY!!"
The dog stopped, completely surprised and stared at me in confusion.
"Don't!" I yelled.

Then I did something that made the the cowardly, heart-racing, petrified girl faint inside me. I turned around, and kept running. Thank heaven the dog didn't follow.

Jogging on the beach in Beverly, watching Max yap at the gulls, I am constantly reminded of that dog-chase in Thailand. I've realized that jogging is something of a cultural education, it requires not only physical but also mental energy. You have to abide by the unspoken cultural, social, every-day  rules around you and accept that they are necessary. You have to learn the flow of the country and ride along with it in order to survive. Or avoid being bitten in the leg by dogs.

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