Beware of Dogs: Mcleod Ganj, Northern India
“So, if you feel funny, you’re gonna die.”
He repeated calmly with a closed lip half smile, a little head tilt, and a slight shoulder shrug that says, “sorry about that, but there’s nothing I can do.” It’s more often seen after sentences like “We’re out of Red Stripe tonight.” or “Your flight has been delayed.” Until this incident I’d never seen it in conjunction with warning someone about their imminent death.
I was a little shaken. Randy quietly sipped his chai from his tiny clay cup, holding it with both hands, staring out of the dark hut, through the soft gray rain, and out over the mountain. A sheep ambled by with a bell on its neck. The Tibetan mountain man to my left stirred his giant cauldron of stew, brimming with ingredients of unknown origins. He hummed an aimless tune. Randy continued to gaze serenely into the abyss, giving me a moment to process my mortality.
“IM GONNA DIE!?!?!!” This is it. This is the end of my life. Right here. It’s over. I’ll never make it off this mountain. I’ll never make it back to the States. My family will completely loose their shit. I’ll never get married or have kids, which might be true anyway. I’ll never even get a dog. I’ll never have sex again or drive my car or ride my bike or skinny dip again. My roommate will live in squalor and fall into severe depression surrounded piles and piles of dirty dishes. My ex boyfriend will, hopefully, be suicidal. If only he’d loved me better I might not have fled the country on this crazy adventure. Worst of all, everyone who told me not to come to India will have been completely right! All the warnings I’d scoffed at and all the people I’d called wusses, they were right. Those American wusses were right. I’m going to die on this mountain in northern India, flanked by a hipster ex-pat doofus and an old, singing Tibetan.
These were the thoughts racing through my frantic mind, overlapping one another, shooting up and down, ricocheting from one side of my skull to the other. Weaving all around the tender of convolutions of gray matter that I imagined would soon be overtaken by vicious virus and turned into a foaming, tumultuous sea, eventually decaying into mush, followed by nothingness. I’m a complete idiot. Rabies is universally fatal?! As in always? How did I not know that? How did I not think about that after I got bit by a dog in India?
How the did I get here? Here, with a colorful blanket wrapped around my shoulders in a little valley called Triund, in a little hut that sold chai, stew, and Snickers. Being told a weathered Louisiana Buddhist that the dog bite I received yesterday in the village from a very small, yappy, but nonetheless ferocious, dog could very well kill me. He continued his ominous warning,
“Yeeeaaa-uuup, had a little German backpacker about your age die a few years back from one of those puppy bites.”
“Huh,” was the only reply I could manage, brow furrowed, jaw slack.
“No, sir, you don’t wanna mess with rabies. It’ll gitcha.”
The day before I’d been walking through the little mountain town in the foothills of the Himalaya, Mcloed Ganj. I’d been there about a month with two guy friends, Bear and Jake, from back home, New Orleans. We were hanging out and doing some volunteer work in this little town where the Dalai Lama lives. The place is beautiful and charming, draped with prayer flags and surrounded by breathtaking peaks. It is filled with chanting monks and the occasional rabid dog. The town is populated in seemingly equal parts by: resettled Tibetans, Indians, and international backpacking hippies in various stages of Buddhist experimentation.
I loved it there, with its bright little shops full of Buddha statues and fisherman’s pants. I liked seeing the monks and hearing them chant and seeing their stacks of dusty sandals outside the temples. I had gotten pretty comfortable in the town and was doing that backpacker thing where you feel like you own a place after a month and allow yourself to look down on other backpackers who’ve been there a mere week or two. I looked on the filthy cows wandering the streets and nuzzling garbage lazily like beloved pets.
Falsely feeling local, I would wander the narrow, uneven streets, even into strange alleys where I shouldn’t have been, including the one where I met a certain yappy, white dog. I was on my way back to our little apartment, deep in a valley, when I spotted some Christmas lights down a winding alley beyond a little metal gate, which was, in my defense, wide open. I had seen Christmas lights on Hindu temples (and in excess at Indian restaurants in New York) and thought this must be a little undiscovered Hindu temple. Being a natural adventurer and kind of an idiot, I ambled past the gate, barely noticing it, and fearlessly plodded toward the mysterious would-be temple.
Reaching the source of the Christmas lights, I saw my favorite Hindu god, Hanuman, the monkey god, perched on a little shrine decorated with lights and other shiny baubles. If it wasn’t a temple, it was, at least, Hindu themed. I scanned for an entrance to this admittedly smaller than average temple I’d so intrepidly discovered. There didn’t seem to be an entrance to my secret temple. I looked around and started to feel a little like I was in someone’s courtyard. Probably because I was. The sinking feeling I was about to be in trouble was exacerbated by a long repetition of quick frantic barks increasing in pitch from very high to unbearably high. As the little white blur of dog darted toward me I knew it was certain,
“That little bastard’s gonna bite me!” my inner guru screamed.
And it was right. He charged me. He towered about the size of my best friend’s beloved Pekinese, Bacchus, but came at me with the intensity of an angry pit bull. A snarling, raging, 6 pounds of fluffy white fur and sharp teeth descended upon me. The high pitched yelps came to a sudden stop as his little mouth was filled with my flesh. He delivered a series of quick bites to my left ankle. I swung my purse at him and kicked my bloodied foot towards him while high tailing it back up the winding alley steps, nearly loosing my dirty blue (and now red) flip flop in the process.
I scurried home, flustered, wounded, and feeling much more like an idiot than an intrepid adventurer. I blew off the bite, threw on some Band-Aids, and the next morning hiked 5 hours with Jake. He continued his ascent to check out another peak and I stayed where we would camp for the night at this little valley called Triund.
I peeled off my muddy, sweaty socks followed by my muddy sweaty Band-Aids. A few Tibetan guys were milling around in the little valley observing me observing my wounds. They came over to check it out.
“Dog bite,” I told them pointing to the bloody, muddy, mess on the back of my ankle. I expected them to dismiss it as nothing and waggle their heads amicably and tell me it was ‘no problem, Madame.’ I wanted to be told dog bites were as common as cow shit. I was disappointed.
They shook their heads slowly, eyes wide. No one spoke for a moment. Then gravely one of them said,
“This bad bite Madame. This from dog?!?!” he asked in disbelief, making his hand into a primitive puppet of a biting dog.
“Yes” I nodded, gravely as well, eyes wide as well. “You think it’s bad?”
“Yes! Very bad, madam! ” Each word staccato and heavily accented.
“You go hospital madam!” Another commanded in broken emphatic English.
A third simply interjected, “Rabies!”
I thanked them for their help and limped off toward the chai shop as it started to rain on me.
“Rabies?” I mused. “But I’m American. I’m invincible.”
This is where I met up with Randy. I had met Randy before back in the town and, since he was also from Louisiana, he felt bonded with us. He was in his fifties and had a full beard and long, wavy brown hair, Jesus hair. He welcomed me to sit with him and I did, hoping he would be of some comfort. I showed him the bite and explained what had happened. He shook his head and repeated what one of the Tibetans had exclaimed, only without the exclamation mark.
“Well, I don’t feel funny.” I shared earnestly.
This is when he told me if I felt funny I was going to die (“If you feel funny, you’re gonna die.”) He explained that it would be too late if I showed rabies symptoms because at that point the virus would have already gotten to my brain and I would already be dead, essentially.
This was how I’d gotten there.
“So, what happens if I get it?” Trying and failing to sound casual and collected. My voice cracked on get.
“Well, you’ll go rabid and die.”
“I guess they’d get you to the hospital, dose you up with morphine, strap you to the bed, and try to keep you as comfortable as possible ‘til you pass.”
“Huh.” I managed again, but inside screaming “HOLY SHIT!” I can’t have my family flying to Delhi to see me strapped to a bed going rabid! I’ll never see my mom again! I’m gonna die out here!” Another wave of nausea flooded me and, like the heavy rain clouds that had settled over us, it did not pass.
That night in my little hut I listened to the rain and read my pocket guide to safe travel in Asia by candlelight, reviewing rabies statistics again and again. I learned that you had 5 days to get the shots.
The next morning freaked out.
“Jake, I have rabies!” I told him. “I’m going to die!”
And a sat on a rock and began to sob. He had planned to tackle another peak that day and was apparently not in the mood for my antics.
“I’ve been bit by dogs tons of times. You’re fine.” He snorted.
“Not in India, you asshole! How many times have you been bit by a dog in India?!? Do you know how prevalent rabies is here??” I sputtered at him while waving my pocket guide to safe travel over my head like a crazed protester with a flag.
“Go to the hospital if it’ll make you feel better. But I don’t think you want to get rabies shots, those are painful.” He said with a shrug as he turned to go.
“I don’t want to go rabid and die, you jackass! I’ll see you back in town….Maybe!”
I yelled to his back to emphasize the fact that I might be tied up and foaming at the mouth by the time he sauntered back down the mountain. I dont think he even heard.
I sat on my rock crying alone for a few more minutes, trying to muster the strength to hike back to town. It started to rain again.
“I’m gonna die out here, if I don’t hike back. I’ve only got 5 days! ”
Just like in that horror movie The Ring.
Gathering my pack, I set off down the trail in the rain, fueled by a hearty fear of death and by unbridled rage at my traveling companion.
Moments later a kindly Tibetan sidled up next to me. It was my friend from town who I knew through volunteering, Kalsang! His little daughter went to the kindergarten where I taught.
“Kalsang!” I exclaimed.
I’d never been so happy to see anyone.
“Tina-la!” he replied (adding the “la,”which is a sign of respect in Tibetan.) “Are you okay??”
I told him the short form of my story and he took up my pack and gave me his umbrella, a smile, and palpable good energy that I’d felt from so many of the Tibetans I’d met there.
“I will take you to the hospital, Tina-la. No problem! We go.”
Hiking together through the rain I felt saved already. I was still being haunted by the images of my rabid self, but I did feel much steadier than I had the night before. I had started to accept the possibility never going home; believing that wild, happy, exciting life is better than a fearful, dull, angry one, even if it is cut short by a diminutive yappy dog.
We ambled down the mountain on the muddy hiking trail and onto the main road through town. It was barely wider than the trail and crowded with wet vendors and cows. Luckily there were a few rickshaws rattling by. Kalsang hailed one for us and we were at the Tashi Delek Hospital (which translates to “Hello Hospital” in Tibetan) in 10 minutes.
The Tashi Delek Hospital had a distinct World War II era feel to it. Faded curtains waved gently on warm air that floated through open windows and across the still ward full of empty metal cots. The nurses added to the effect with neatly pressed white nurses’ uniforms and matching pill box hats. Kalsang explained my situation in Tibetan while the nurses peered at me curiously.
“You. Wait. Here.” They directed and then scurried off. An Israeli backpacker hit on me while I waited. He offered to room with me at the hospital. This was the first time some one in a hospital gown had ever tried to pick me up.
Moments later, my second savior of the day appeared. An earthy looking woman in her mid fifties dressed in a brown button down and a lovely flowing skirt. She greeted me with a warm smile and a Scottish accented, “Hello dear.”
“I’m saved! I’m gonna live!” I celebrated to myself.
“It is quite a bit infected, eh?” she noted while examining my ankle.
Well, I had been soaking it in mud for two days.
A quick cleaning, some antibiotics, and a rabies shot later, and I almost believed I would survive. The rabies shot, in fact, was not in the stomach and was no more painful than any other vaccine. The vaccine record did have a humorous sketch of a ferocious looking dog on it.
Actually, it turned out Jake was right. I didn’t have rabies after all. I never foamed at the mouth or even had to be strapped to the bed. My Scottish savior told me that if I could go back and find the dog, and if the dog wasn’t dead ten days after the bite then he was never rabid and neither was I. I wondered if the dog had died painfully, writhing in agony, or if he had taken any other unsuspecting young travelers down with him. I hoped it wouldn’t be too painful for the owner to discuss it with me and wondered if she would cry and hug me.
I went back to the house of my yappy, white nemesis and knocked on the front door where I was greeted by a sweet little old, round faced, Tibetan woman. I asked in slow, enunciated English if they had a small white dog and if so, was he sick?
The old Tibetan woman looked perplexed for a moment as I pointed at my ankle and once again mimed bite.
“He bit me,” I told her, “Your small white dog.”
I did not attempt to explain that her small white dog had nearly killed me, or at least driven me to the verge of breakdown, and forced me to confront my own mortality, and caused a rift between my companions and me. I didn’t want to look like a psycho. She studied me and my pantomime, bemused, and after a moment cheerfully replied,
“Oh yes. Dog. Not sick. He have bite many people, Madame. No problem.”
And with a familiar closed lip half smile and that little head tilt and slight shoulder shrug she gently shut the door in my face.
A few days later we passed that winding alley beyond the little metal gate, which still swung wide open, only this time taped up by the a gate was flimsy, home made sign. It made us all laugh out loud, especially Jake. On the piece of white paper the following sage advice was carefully printed in black letters,
“NOTE! BEWARE OF DOGS.”