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MAN BITES DOG
Vieng Kahm, Laos 19 Jan 12
Odometer 74,635 m 120,163 km

Dogs have long been considered man’s best friend, but the reverse hasn’t always been true. Warning: what I’m about to report, at least to Western sensibilities, may seem gruesome and even cruel. I personally wish I could simply
forget what I’m about to convey. So, if you’d prefer not to know any more--stop reading now.
For thousands of years dogs have provided people with companionship, early warning of approaching predators and enemies, help with hunting and herding, protection, work and warmth. Archaeologists widely agree that dogs were likely one of the first if not the first wild animal to be successfully domesticated. And for good reason: just as we’re better off with them, they’re generally better off with us. Generally.

When I first crossed into Laos I immediately observed that the dogs here seem uncharacteristically timid, a rather welcome trait to a motorcyclist used to being barked at and chased. Too, that the domestic felines--another creature with which humans share an ancient bond--frequently sport bobbed or crooked tails. Puzzled by these eccentricities, I inquired with a shopkeeper in the border town of Huay Xai as to why the latter, exemplified by the gnarly-tailed cat sitting cautiously on her stoop, appeared to be so prevalent. Her glib reply, “because they must have gotten away,” was more perplexing than revealing. *

“Gotten away,” I was left to wonder, from what or from whom?
wok
A Lao villager scares up what little food she has to feed a hungry rider.
Many days and miles deeper into Laos, I ducked beneath a mildew-stained tarpaulin sheltering a busy street vender’s wood-fired kitchen to evaluate her eatery with my usual degree of trepidation. I don’t like getting sick. And I especially don’t like getting sick out here, so I habitually run through a checklist to compare as much as I can the hygiene of one food vender versus another.

Is the place relatively clean? What’s the water source? Do I recognize the vegetables? Are the meats thoroughly cooked, hot and mostly fly-free? Have the sauces endured too much time out in the sun? Does the air smell fresh or rotten?

Practicing this routine, cursory inspection has more often than not kept me healthy. Sure, there’ve been exceptions: I’ve fallen ill from eating what appeared squeaky clean just as I’ve survived what should’ve killed me; but on balance, an ounce of prevention has proven to be worth a pound of cure. The trick is to employ a modicum of caution without being so picky that you deny yourself the unique smorgasbord of alien edibles that each culture has to offer.

Once the fare appears relatively safe, I’ve never been very particular about what it is I actually consume. Indeed, I’ve always looked at food as tantamount to the fuel I pour into my gas-tank: as long as it gets me down the road, even if it inspires the occasional sputter or backfire, it’s good enough. Still, there are some things I
won’t eat, like threatened or endangered species, so I stick to familiar, domestic varieties.
I’ve always looked at food as tantamount to the fuel I pour into my gas-tank: as long as it gets me down the road, even if it inspires the occasional sputter or backfire, it’s good enough.
Having passed the smell test, I ordered up the works and sat down at the cheerful cook’s makeshift wooden table to begin consuming my feast just as it started to lightly rain. Seated next to me was a young man in his early twenties already enjoying his meal and obviously curious about the foreign stranger now sitting beside him. After some furtive glances in my direction, he mustered the courage to speak.

“Do you like foods here in Laos?” he sheepishly inquired.

“I do,” I replied with a smile, thrilled to finally meet someone able to converse in my mother tongue. “And since you asked, can you answer a few questions about some of the foods I’ve seen?”

“OK,” he replied with vivid enthusiasm, “my name is Xay and I need practice my English, so what I can teach you?”
My Image
This still-live dog, strapped to a frame, is on his way to the dinner table.
“Well, for starters, I’m growing increasingly suspicious about some of the meat you eat,” trying to broach the subject with minimal offense. “I saw a Lao government worker, yesterday, with a dog strapped down on the back of his motor-scooter like livestock. And when I stopped to ask him why his puppy was bound in such a way, he implied that that the dog was on his way to dinner! So, please clue me in, do people here actually devour their pets?”

My inquiry elicited a hearty laugh while Xay’s chopsticks busily hoisted another helping of stir-fry mystery meat up to his grinning face. “
Their pets, no,” he admonished. “They only eat other people’s pets!”
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A steaming pot of sticky rice, a Lao specialty.
Cats, and especially dogs, Xay went on to explain, are considered delicacies, here. People scoop them up off the streets to take them home to barbecue for important guests of honor, like their bosses. He described their modus operandi as follows: sometime after midnight, when most people are asleep, they skulk through the village looking for loose dogs and/or cats. Once a dog is apprehended they’ll use their bare hands to break its snout, thus keeping the animal alive but preventing it from barking and biting while they make their getaway. Two to three year old dogs taste better, as do certain breeds, and they drink the blood straight-up while it’s still warm! Catching cats differs only insofar as they’re immediately dispatched with a swift twist of the neck. Either way, Xay underscored, they’re best when eaten fresh--as in the same night they’re seized.

Sensing my revulsion to his tale, Xay quickly made sure I understood that not all Laotians participate in this custom; “it’s more popular in the north.” And for himself, while he’s certainly tasted dog meat, he prefers chicken or fish.

“OK, alright, Xay, that’s really more than I needed to know,” I protested by clenching my eyes closed and waving both hands, “except perhaps, how do you say ‘dog’ in Lao?”

“Ma,” Xay instructed, “means ‘come,’ in English. But ‘maaa,’ with an extended vowel sound, means ‘dog.’”

Armed with this critical bit of Lao vocabulary, I’ve begun listening more closely to the women in the markets who often prepare my meals. I scan their choice of ingredients and carefully screen their conversations for anything that even resembles the word for dog. And to minimize confusion amid the language gap, I’ll even simulate the wing-beats of a chicken, the oink-oink of a pig and the mooing of a cow to communicate in no uncertain terms that this dog-lover will eat just about any domestic animal--
but maaa!
chicken feet
pighead
One could argue that there’s no material difference between eating a chicken and eating a dog--and they would be correct. But chickens haven’t spent millennia earning the title of Man’s Best Friend. They don’t ma to you when you call them. They don’t cuddle with you when you’re sad or defend you when you’re attacked. They don’t fetch your slippers or wait patiently at the end of the driveway in anticipation of your return. They don’t, in effect, love you back.

But beware. Local Buddhist custom, steeped in the notion of reincarnation, advises you not to love your pets
too much--lest you return as one of them.





* Tails are no doubt sometimes broken in the struggle to evade capture, just as I was told, but I later learned that many domestic cats in SE Asia have short or crooked tails due to an inherited genetic mutation that results in missing or distorted vertebrae.
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