Personal essay: wendy stein
I stopped walking along the dirt motorbike path when I reached the guardians at the bridge. With ridges up, they barked aggressively. There were two of those attractive yet territorial ridgeback dogs from Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam. What to do?
I had decided to take a walk into the quiet nature area in a rural village near Tay Ninh, Vietnam, and now I wanted to change my mind. But, if I could get past those dogs, I could get deeper into nature, into an undeveloped and wild place to calm my city mind. I don’t know a more effective way than deep nature to ease this city-sickness. People on the spiritual path say that a person should be able to be at peace wherever they are. I am not quite there yet.
How could I get past these territorial rugrats?
(I was familiar with this breed of dog, as I once had an encounter with them when I tried to pet one of their cute puppies at a resort on Phu Quoc Island. A full hour later, the mama dog snuck up to me where I was in my hammock overlooking the ocean and repeatedly snarled, growled, and snapped at me. Luckily I got out of that debacle unscathed, albeit jolted up on adrenaline.)
Like a Masotho, I reached down to find a rock to throw at it, and they ran away. It worked, temporarily. Oh, sweet relief.
I walked on down the path until I saw a large white dog barking at the other end of the footbridge. Good lord, is this land infested with dogs? My anxiety levels rose into fight or flight mode. I didn’t dare risk it…there were not very many rocks lying around and what if I got stuck in a pickle, on the bridge, with barking dogs on both sides?
(If it were East Oakland I woulda had my kryptonite lock on the ready, as that is when I had dog problems in the USA, when I couldn’t outride the unchained beasts and they nipped at my ankles while I peddled. On more than one occasion, I stopped my bike, got off, and held my bike between me and the dog with my kryptonite lock in one hand, just in case).
I turned back to the homestead in search of a nice bamboo pole that would soon become a fence post, thinking that with a walking stick (to use for protection), I could continue on my walk. I told Em Uyen of my dog troubles and she responded so calmly as if it is just not a big deal at all.
“Don’t use the stick,” she said. “The dogs would be more likely to bite you if you carried it. Just go, and ignore the dogs. They will bark yet they will not bite. Don’t fear them. Don’t run. Just walk quietly and comfortably past them, as if nothing were wrong.”
She had never been bitten by a dog before. I could not say the same for myself.
I could easily spend my day at the homestead, making myself useful with raking, shoveling, and fence-building. Maybe even some cooking. Yet the adventurer in me wanted to truck on. If this is how the locals do it, I will give it a try. I have such limited time to get out of the city, and I didn’t want to blow it. Am I gonna let some dogs stand in my way, I told myself, in order to build up my courage.
Again, I set off down the path, passed the two barking Phu Quoc dogs who had returned, and encountered the big barking white dog on the other side of the bridge. My heart was pounding, my breathing was shallow and my body was stiff with fear. Don’t look at them, I reminded myself. Focus on anything but them. Ignore them. Yet how? Is this a time for “fake it ‘til you make it,” or can the dogs sniff through that facade?
I didn’t want the dogs to smell how scared I was, yet how could I hide it? I did some grounding exercises, yet rushed it a bit. It was enough to calm my breath, slightly. I continued down the trail. So far so good. I passed 3 barking dogs, and no bites yet. “Solitude, I am coming for you,” I cheered myself on.
Just as I gained some confidence, I encountered what else, but two more barking dogs at the next house and they began creeping up close behind me. Don’t turn your head, I spoke to myself. I didn’t want to lock eyes with them and challenge their authority. Focus on your steps, your feet, nothing more, I thought to myself. They were so close to me now, I could actually feel their warm breath on my legs. I braced myself for a bite. Yet they moved away from me and stopped barking as I approached the next house, where more barking dogs took over the job. Where were the humans to call them off, I wanted to know? When would it be time to turn back? I was already considering if I had gone in too deep.
It seemed every house has at least 2 barking dogs. I continued under the shade of the rubber trees, keeping myself as calm as I possibly could, under such circumstances. Yet the insistent barking made me feel like I was under the constant threat of attack. How can I remain calm, I wrestled with myself. And I just kept walking. Was it worth it, I thought to myself? Would I ever arrive at an undisturbed place? What is this craving I have for the wild, anyway? My doubts crept in.
I recalled the tale of the Israelites escaping from Egypt, in the great Passover story. It was written in Gershon Winkler’s “Magic of the Ordinary: Recovering the Shamanic in Judaism” book that they pulled their auras in so that the dogs wouldn’t bark at them as they made their escape. If it worked for my ancestors collectively, maybe it can work for me now. I focused on pulling my aura in. I cast away my doubting beliefs and went for it fully. Though these dogs still seemed to notice and bark at me, it at least gave me something different to focus on, and maybe, just maybe, the encounters weren’t getting so close anymore. (Note to self, practice this technique before I will ever need to use it.)
Finally, I got to the river just as a huge waterbird took off, possibly a crane. I decided to squat there for a while, to see if any other giant birds fancied a flight. Yet all I could hear was the rustling of the lizard in the dried tree leaves. At least I was dog-free for the moment. Finally. My break from the city. My relief from the intrusive domestic wildlife of the countryside. Here was the moment I worked so hard to get to. Now all I need to do is relax. One, two, three, slow down. It wasn’t so difficult for me. I breathed in the fresh air, listened to the geckos and birds, and watched the river flow. I squatted until I couldn’t any longer.
I gathered my nerve and turned back, and encountered the same barking dogs as before. It was easier returning. Perhaps my quiet moment was enough to alter my pheromones, and the dogs picked up a different scent and responded in kind? I was ecstatic when I saw the homestead, knowing that I faced my fears and the local methods worked.
Later that day, the neighbor’s dogs barked at me. Again. Will they get used to me before I leave? I began my Taiji exercises as planned, and decided to ignore the commotion. A couple of minutes into the routine the dogs not only stopped barking, yet laid down and watched. As I spun around, I was surprised to see that I had a reclining audience now of five quiet dogs, the sight of which made me stumble for a second as I suppressed my laughter.
Not all countries treat dogs like cute and cuddly lapdogs or indoor snuggle buddies, of the variety that I had been accustomed to in the USA. And at least I now know the secret for how to walk through the dog-infested countryside, should I choose to do it again. More importantly, I can see the need to further develop practices for cultivating inner peace, while living in a city, so that I can learn to be at peace with myself wherever I may be. It is not the dogs, not the city nor wild places, yet my own mind that determines my own levels of inner peace.
 The kryptonite lock was never used and no dogs were ever harmed while I rode a bicycle.
about the writer: wendy stein
Wendy Stein, MS, LAc, is a Saigon-based freelance writer, photographer, improviser, Toastmaster, and RPCV Lesotho (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) from the USA who writes about traditional healing and lifestyles, as well as short stories inspired by her travels. She can be found practicing tai chi / kung fu, playing badminton barefoot, planning her next motorbike adventure into the countryside, or tasting new foods with her local friends. https://wendywends.wordpress.com/