Sipalay proved itself to be disappointing. It’s best feature – a 2km sweep of beach – was rough, grey and turbid, and adrift with half of the town’s refuse. I spent one night in a nasty, over-priced kennel of a room, listening to the drunken snoring of my neighbour through the three-ply wall. 250ml of Tanduan rhum is cheaper than a litre of petrol here, and my neighbour didn’t see any point in rationing his bottle through the week. At 1am I slipped on the wet tiles in the pantry-sized toilet/ shower/ sink and banged my kneecap hard on an exposed pipe. Very hard. Even stamping around on one leg giving large voice to my full repertoire of curses did not break my neighbour’s metronomic rhythm. The injury haunted me the next day when, after a fascinating tricycle ride, and a short trip on a Bangka, I lugged my packs up 1km of soft sand to the infinitely more pleasant Sugar Beach.
Being low season, the place is deserted, and so the morning began with the daily routine of limping in to one resort after another, trying to bargain the best room for the lowest price. After leveredging four places against each other, I scored a very nice bungalow with an homely verandah and full use of the restaurant kitchen. I’m the only person here, so the incessant noise of humanity is blissfully absent, replaced by the soft crash of waves, coconut palm fronds clacking in the breeze and the gentle drone of the occasional languid dragon-fly. The water is twenty determined strides away, and from where I sit dozing in my hammock the view of it is framed by swaying orchids, frangipanis and hibiscus. I don’t remember ever being so relaxed. It is hard to imagine ever working again.
Almost immediately on arrival I was adopted by a happy little dog called Chicco. Without any negotiation required, he decided that we were destined to be together, and never again left my side. He would happily lead the way down to the beach, pausing only to point out where he kept his best sticks with a purposeful sideways glance. There he would sit bolt upright on the sand, patient and concerned, and making sure no crabs tried to make a home in one of my size 11 flip-flops while I swam. He would turn delighted cartwheels when I came out of the water safely, reminding me again as to the location of his pile of near-perfect sticks, then carve up the pristine sand with high velocity cornering chasing after them. Back at the bungalow, he would snap at nik-niks and snooze through the heat of the day at my feet, responding to every noise I made with a long tail thumping slowly against floor boards. At night he would guard the door, his bright eyes and crooked ears vigilant in the darkness, keeping me safe from the ever present threats of gekkos and falling coconuts.
My travels through SE Asia has been full of dogs, but my interactions have mostly involved swerving around them on the road, stepping over them on footpaths, and occasionally fending them off as they snap and snarl. Chicco is the first dog that has welcomed my company. Touching him was an absolute pleasure after months of wary village dogs, aggressive to the sight and smell of Westerners. As we sat on the sand watching the sunrise, I traced my fingers around the ragged, hairless scars on his back, wondering what hardships make up his normal life and why he chose to trust me. Not keen to dwell on negatives, he lead me into the village to buy an egg for his breakfast. Then, further to sniff around the goat scats in a the local cave. When I stopped for a frantic, sweating ten minute game of basketball on the village court, he sat and watched, but kept his distance from the local boys.
He knew that I was leaving even before I started packing my bags. He sat quietly in the corner, his shiny intelligent eyes following me knowingly around the room. The locals must have thought I was crazy, kneeling on the sand hugging a dog, but at that moment I didn’t care if the whole island saw me cry. He sat sadly but bravely as I held him, his little head resting in the crook of my elbow, his tail brushing a small angel-wing into the sand. He knew that he couldn’t convince me to stay, and accepting this, sat patiently at the front of the bungalow that was ours, watching me walk my bags back towards the river. I looked back maybe a twenty times through wet, blurring eyes, until my little friend was just a dot in the distance.
Chicco reminded me of how much I love dogs and how integral they are to my regular life. He made me realise that as a vet with almost no contact with animals for four months, I feel incomplete as a man. Without knowing it, he answered one of the questions that I came away travelling to find. A question that no human has been able to help me with.