On making impractical life choices – a personal specialty

This is something I seem to excel at on a grand scale. On a small scale I tend to be quite practical: buy the cheap car, use a hot water bottle to keep toasty rather than heat a whole room, go to bed at a reasonable hour, stop eating when full and so on. On the large scale of life choices, I have no common sense at all. I won’t go into my imprudent choices of romantic partners, or my silly, mistaken ideas about what was a good course of action in terms of career and post-secondary education (with the exception of now; I think I have finally made a good choice education-wise), but trust me when I tell you, my track record in these two arenas is deeply flawed. I could write a what-not-to-do book based on sound (im)practical experiences. 

My most recent foolishness on a grand scale is to book a trip to Greece to house-sit. The reason this is not sensible is financial.  I am a student, at the beginning of my student-hood, with 19 months ahead of me, and negligible income. But I tell myself it’ll all work out somehow. When this woman who I house sat for before on Chios asked me if I’d be willing to come back this January, I hemmed and hawed for week or two. The thought of cozying up in that little house, 5 minutes from the Aegean, olive trees outside the windows, wood-stove burning away, cup of tea in hand… How could I resist? Also, I can be mind-numbingly sentimental and prone to falling head-over-heels for most 4-legged, fur-adorned creatures, and with 7 cats and 3 dogs, well, I will be in a kind of swooning heaven. 

So, with fond memories, not yet 5 months old, of drinking my morning coffee in the garden under an olive tree, with cats and dogs gradually congregating around me and a loud, bossy, but sweet, grandfatherly Greek man wandering about tending his plants, appearing periodically with gifts of fruits to be eaten and ordering me around in Greek, I went online and bought my ticket back to Chios. 

The Aegean and the west side of the island

Big fancy Greek Orthodox church in the next village along. You can actually see it from Volissos, perched way up on a mountain… The island is littered in churches, but unlike this one, most are very small affairs, the size of a single car garage, but much prettier.

our temporary farm animals. The cats used to tear around in the field, getting underhoof, chasing each other, chasing bugs, but the horses and the goat took it all in stride

Castle ruins at the top of Volissos village

The dogs, tucked in for the night. It turned out we were famous (and I suspect in a ridiculous rather than admired way) on the island – word had even reached Chios town – for this business of putting the dogs to bed at night.

Mom, in one of the many fields of daisies blanketing hillsides in the spring.

Sofia and Yiannis. Doesn’t this sight just make you want to put on the kettle for a cup of tea and cozy up with a book?

Dogs, and Cats, and Horses, oh my!

Lest we should become complacent and begin to think we’ve got our sea legs here, Stamatis brought us another dog a couple of days ago. Like the black labrador puppy “guard dog” he acquired for us before, this dog has no discipline. In fact, it has less than the puppy. The puppy could be released and would stay with you. This new dog takes off like a shot, straight for the nearest cat or horse. The first time it happened, I was sure the dog was going to get its head kicked off, with all his barking at the heels of the horse, ignoring my calling, evading me by going under the horse and leaping at her belly. Fool dog. Hello? Have you noticed how much bigger than you that animal is? The horse showed admirable calm and poise throughout the dog’s ridiculous and ill-advised show of ferocity.

I have become slightly more trusting of horses this week after the above episode, and then furthered by my encounter with the other horse, the black one that the policeman’s wife calls Naomi (Campbell). She had become hopelessly entangled on a big chunk of wood in the field and couldn’t move very far. I brought her offerings of green grass from the part of the field she couldn’t reach and then moved on to patting her cheeks and neck. I have no idea if horses like this or if it irritates them, but I’ve seen it on tv, and she seemed all right with it. Eventually, I moved my attention to her tangled up rope problem, and in my focus, briefly forgot about her and my nerves, until I felt a soft nose and warm breath in my hair, and then I figured we were friends. So, horses and me, we’re okay with each other at the moment.

Naomi and the bane of her existence, the loose stump.

But I digress. Back to the new dog. The second time the dog’s lead was dropped, it was a madhouse in the yard for about five minutes. Cats went scattering in all directions, with a yellow streak of a dog in pursuit, and me lagging behind desperately trying to catch his rope. After that, he has had to be tied to a tree so he won’t kill all the cats and harass the horses. Sofia, one of the cats, likes to sit just inches out of reach while the dog strains on his rope, barking and lunging at her. I’ve told her it’s unkind to torment him like that, and I pick her up and remove her, but I’ve seen her do it since, so evidently she’s not taking me very seriously.

Leon, another new, small dog that was brought over from Athens while we were away seems to suffer from small-dog-syndrome, and keeps trying to show the other dogs his dominance, growling and trying to climb on top of the newest dog in that weird, mounting, I’m-the-boss way dogs have. But Leon’s smaller, so while he can kind of leap up there, he has a hard time balancing, and slips off sideways, crashing to the ground, leaping up again and yapping and growling away. The other dog barely even seems to notice. It’s all very undignified looking for Leon, I’m afraid.

Meanwhile the cats are beginning to integrate – the two indoor cats with the outdoor cats. Only Yiannis, the male, fluffy, bathroom attendant cat is having a slightly harder time. He’s got no aggression in him, and gets nervous when the other two males come near him, which of course, just sets them off into more aggressive behaviour. He just wants to sit in the sun and chase butterflies. He’s like a toy come to life, this cat. Sofia’s got more feistiness in her, and so the other cats accept her and she’s fine outside. Anyway, evening was coming and bringing a storm with it last night. We decided to put the newest dog in the shed with Hermes and Perrita to keep out of the rain. Just as I managed to get the three of them in there, I heard a call for help from Mom. This is what I saw: my mother, lying sprawled face down across the gardening bags and equipment, with her right arm extended, hand clutching a slightly alarmed looking Yiannis by the scruff. “What are you doing?!” I asked. “I’m trying to get Yiannis inside before the storm comes, but now that I’ve got him, I can’t get up without letting go of him.” I stifled the desire to sit down and laugh right then and there because I think my mother might have been a bit annoyed with me had I done that, and I helped her and Yiannis up. God, it was cute.

Yiannis – watch out butterflies, this cat’s got his eye on you!

This is the gentle horse who ignored the idiot dog barking and leaping at her. Sweet thing she is.

Sad tales(oh, sad tails indeed) from Chios

Dear little Rosy, curled up in the plantpot.

All has not been sunshine and happy dogs and loveliness since I arrived. The first two days were. I was in a state of more or less continual good cheer from Thursday until Saturday evening. And then it all went very, very badly for a while. On Saturday night, Mom had gone to sleep and I was in my bed reading, drifting close to sleep myself when the dogs set up a racket of barking up at the top of the driveway. After a couple of minutes, I opened the living room window above my bed to call them down, and they quietened down for a bit. Then I heard the barking start up again from the other side of the house. And it just sounded too urgent to ignore. I got up and went out and there was Perrita barking up a storm, and Rosy was lying just a bit further along, in the dark, on the patio. When I walked over to her, I could see she was foaming at the mouth, had had diarrhea and her whole body was spasming. I called to Mom then, in a panic, and she woke up immediately and came out. I wasn’t very calm at all. Seeing an animal in that kind of distress and feeling helpless is horrible.

Mom ran back into the house to call Fotini, a woman who is a friend of Galatea’s, the woman whose house and dogs we’re caring for, and she said she’d come soon. Meanwhile, I was wandering around looking for Hera in the garden, and I found her, in a similar state a few meters in. By the time Fotini and her boyfriend, Nick, arrived with an antidote for the poison, it was too late, and both these sweet dogs had died. I was a mess. Crying and hand-wringing and pacing and other such useful activities were my main contribution at this point. Fotini and Nick were exactly the right people in that situation. They were calm and kind, and they explained that this is a thing that happens here sometimes, dogs being poisoned, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident because the poison’s been put down for foxes. Nick told of a dog he had seen poisoned that they managed to save by forcing it to drink salt water to make it throw up, and by giving it a shot of the antidote, something I gather many dog owners here try to keep on hand. They put the two dogs’ bodies together, and said they would come back tomorrow to bury them. Fotini said she would call Galatea tonight to tell her what had happened. The fourth dog here, Hermes, was already inside because he’s a bit sick and so we brought Perrita in as well for the night.

An hour later, Galatea had spoken to Fotini and she called us to talk about it. She was understandably heartbroken and angry, and filled with regrets that she hadn’t prepared us for that horrible possibility. She also sent us to drive around to see if the lights were on at a house of a man who she suspected might be the culprit. Not really seeing the point, but willing to do anything she asked to help ease her sense of helplessness, we set out in our pyjamas at midnight to look for the house. I’m not sure if we found the right house or not, but it turned out that that little outing served another purpose in the end.

As we were coming back home, we passed a house that is our next door neighbour, 150 metres down the road. Outside the gate sat a yellow labrador. Something caught my eye about him, and when I braked the car and looked more closely, I saw a massive amount of drool coming from his mouth, and he looked trembley. We got out of the car to have a better look, and sure enough he was shaking and couldn’t walk straight, and I felt sick with dread to think that another dog was about to die in front of me. I ran up the driveway to the door and rang the bell. The man who answered spoke enough English to understand what I was on about, and he hurried down to look at his dog. He knew the signs, and I asked if he had the antidote, but he raised his hands and shook his head and said no, drew his hand over his face, and then walked over to his dog to pet his head.

But we had antidote! Fotini had left us extra. We drove back in a frantic hurry to get it. There was a problem closing the door to the house, so Mom stayed home to sort that out so that our dogs wouldn’t escape into this newly dangerous, poison-filled world, and I ran back to the neighbour’s with the antidote and the needle. Turns out, the man, whose name is Dimitri, is a doctor and he knew how to inject his dog, no problem. This was fortunate, because I couldn’t have done it – I was shaking almost as badly as the sick dog. His wife had come down by that time and her English was very good. I told her about the salt water trick to make the dog throw up, so she rushed off to the house to bring some down. Dimitri poured it down his dog’s throat, and 5 minutes later he threw up a lot of food. The next day when we looked on the driveway at the contents of the dog’s stomach more closely, we could see the signature bright blue of the poison, just like Nick had described. In the end, that dog pulled through, and he is fine and healthy and happy again, just as a dog should be.

The next morning, Perrita was walking around the yard and she showed up at the door with a piece of ground beef. Mom called me outside, and then she picked up the meat with a tissue. When she turned it over, there was a tablespoon or so of that bright blue crystalline substance again. It’s quite a shock to the system to see that – it’s so deliberately malevolent. Now, spotting small pieces of that shade of blue on the ground still makes my heart lurch – and there are a lot of water bottle lids lying discarded on the ground that are of that particular colour. Anyway, Perrita hadn’t eaten it, but we watched her closely for the next couple of hours. We also called Fotini to tell her about it, and she came over, collected me and Dimitri, and we went off to the police station. It being Sunday, we had to stop at the policeman’s house to tell him, and then he came and met us at the police station, still dressed in his sweatpants. The hour or so that followed was a wash of Greek, and I understood very little that went on. Dimitri and Fotini told the whole sad tale to the policeman, and showed him the meat with the poison that Perrita had found. The policeman hand-wrote a report on a piece of blank paper. He got Dimitri and Fotini’s full names and I feature in the report as “lady guest of Stamatis”, Stamatis being the name of Galatea’s father. There was an actual computer up on a shelf in one corner, but I don’t think anyone uses it in their day-to-day work there…

The police station. I spent a very uncomprehending hour here.

I don’t know if anything will happen. I have my doubts, but at any rate, even though this country has apparently got a real problem with this kind of callous treatment of cats and dogs, as though they’re vermin, it also has some really good-hearted people who do care and do see it as a problem.

I won’t go into the whole nightmarish next 24 hours, but will just briefly say that Perrita got poisoned as well. We injected her with the antidote, but couldn’t get the saltwater into her, so she needed more antidote, which we didn’t realize or actually even have, even if we had known, and so the whole night was touch and go, and it was a sleepless and emotional night with Perrita lying beside my bed slowly and tenuously recovering. We got some more antidote the next day and, when we saw her descend into the shaking and staggering again, gave another injection of it to her, and she improved immediately. Right as rain within 5 minutes. It’s amazing to see.

It’s been 4 days now, and no more incidents. A man came from the Forestry Services yesterday, called by the police, he told us, and said if we have a good rain, it will deactivate the poison lying around the neighbourhood. Otherwise, it will take months to lose its potency. We had a very thorough, drenching rain today. So that’s good.

Hera and Rosy will be much missed. They were sweet, lovely dogs who wanted little other than to catch stones and lean against people and cats affectionately. I think Hermes and Perrita, especially her actually, miss them still. I know I do.

Hermes, smelling the world passing by through a hole in the wheelwell of the van, and Perrita, in her basket.

3rd visit to the camel farm

Camel Farm visit – #3 at Salem’s farm

This time, Mom and I didn’t call ahead because Salem said, last time, “no need to call, just come. You are welcome any time. My farm for you.” He was pretty adamant, I swear. We arrived this time just as he was driving off in his Land Cruiser somewhere (Land Cruisers are de rigueur for any self-respecting Emirati Bedouin).  He drove over to us as we were standing there sorting out if we were in the right spot. Big smiles and greetings and welcomes, and then, “Why you no call to tell me you come now?”

I was indignant, because “you told us NOT to call last time! You insisted!”

He laughed at me, and then explained how I had missed the subtext and been over-literal: “But this because I want you understand: no problem, come any time, is like your home. But you should call to tell me, because if I am not here, then I will come, and sit with you. Anyway, no problem. Very happy you are here. I must go now for a little – I have two camels over there, and I must help to make,” pause, “married between two camels. Understand?” followed by hearty laughter.

So he sent us to wander around, take photos, visit the camels and generally entertain ourselves, until the camel wedding was done. We spent the next 20 or 30 minutes wandering accordingly, amazed at all the little flowers and grass that had sprouted up from the thunderstorms that have swept over the country the last couple of weeks.

Greenery is quick to sprout up after a good bit of rain

The three tents that were there last time – two white sleeping tents and a black wool visiting tent – were nowhere to be seen. When Salem, and his friend and helper in the above operation, Abu Ali, who turns out to be an uncle of some sort (I think – family relations can get complicated and intertwined here), returned and we were all settled down around the fire, the missing tents came up. And, yes indeed, just like our rooftop tent that was completely demolished by a storm last year, Salem’s tents were flattened by the storms we had this last month.

Last year, when he heard about our much laboured over roof-top tent’s demise, he was highly amused, teased that it was because a Bedouin hadn’t slept in it, and generally expressed no sympathy. So, you can imagine, I wasn’t exactly crying into my tea for his misfortune. In fact, the word Schadenfreude comes to mind… He was a lot less emotional about his tent disaster than I had been about mine, and actually was laughing as well. He told us there was an old Arabic saying, that if you enjoy another’s misfortune, the same, even stronger, will come to you, and then he pointed at himself, with a ‘well-I-had-it-coming, didn’t I?’ smile.

Rasheed, the young man who was there the first time we came, to make tea, coffee, etc, ran away as soon as he got his first paycheque. Off to make his fortune I guess. This seems to amuse Salem as well. Unusually, Rasheed had possession of his own passport, because Salem says he doesn’t believe in keeping his employees’ passports. So Salem was the host, and the chef and the tea and coffee maker as well.

We had tea and coffee – which is called qawa, and has cloves and cardamom in it, but not much actual coffee as far as I can tell – and then he said, “Come with me. Bring your camera. You have a flash on your camera? I have a surprise for you.” We followed him some 300 or 400 meters into the dark – no moon, only starlight, and then we saw: a small dark shape in the sand, and a much bigger one standing over it. He told us it was a two-day old baby camel with its mother, and she was out here to eat the greenery and just be alone with her baby. The baby struggled to its feet and then walked awkwardly but directly over to us. It was all very heart melting, of course. Silky soft like a new puppy or kitten, and friendly, or possibly just confused, but it kept coming to us and bumping us with its head and then just standing there while we pet it. It may have been looking for milk. The mother, Sharifa, stuck close, but she didn’t seem aggressive, though Salem was clearly concerned. He kept saying, “careful…” and calming things to her like “Hup! Hup! Ehhh, Sharifa…” and then a sort of blowing through his lips, like horses do.

Even more adorable in real life!

Mom and I were floating with the delight of it all, and went back to the fire with big, dumb smiles stuck to our faces. Salem took a phone call, and then said “Ah, my father is coming. It will be good for you to meet him!” Ten minutes later another Land Cruiser rolled up into the sand near us and two more men in kandouras (long white kind of shirt/dress) joined us round the fire. One was Salem’s father and one a business friend of his, an old man from Yemen. We all sat for a while and Salem told his father I was taking Arabic lessons and he should try talking to me, so he asked me about my father, my brothers and sisters. When he heard there were only three children in my family, he laughed and told me he had 18 children, though 3 had died. He gave me a breakdown, this many girls, that many boys and 3 dead. I said oh, hazeen, meaning sad. And he turned to Salem and asked why I was saying sad? I thought, shit, I must have said it wrong – this is always happening with my rare attempts at speaking Arabic. Salem explained that I meant that it was sad that three had died. And the father turned to me, laughing again and said, “Hamdillilah,” as in, thanks to God, we mustn’t get worked up one way or the other, He makes these decisions and we have to just go along. Then Abu Ali, told me that of his 18 children, 9 had died, which I thought pretty bad luck, but now decided I wasn’t supposed to express such unhappiness for, so I just sort of said, oh, and how many boys and how many girls?

There was lots of chatter and lots of joking, most of which went over mom’s and my head, but Salem translated some of the stories his father told into English for us, like how they used to sit out by the fire with a gun, keeping an eye and an ear out for wolves and tigers, because they would kill the baby camels. I know, you’re probably thinking, tigers, in the Arabian desert? What tigers? I don’t know, I’m just reporting; that’s what he said.

As this story closed, Ghasim, the man who takes care of the camels, was around the passenger side of the car looking for something and then he closed the door.  The thing is, none of us knew he was there, and when the door shut, everyone looked with surprise at the car. Salem’s father called out, and when there was no answer, he called out again in a more, you-better-answer kind of tone. Then Ghasim appeared and Salem’s father relaxed again. So I said, (in no doubt, very bad and broken Arabic) “maybe you thought it was a wolf or a tiger?!”  Well, this hit the man’s funny bone (not difficult, as we was a very jolly guy), and he laughed and told the other guys what I’d said, and they all had  a good laugh too, and then he told Ghasim about it, but said, I think you are a fox, and I would be the wolf! I couldn’t remember for sure if I understood the word for fox correctly and so it took me a minute to get this sorted out via Salem …

There are three loaves of bread in there – our dinner!

After some more time, Salem and Abu Ali made bread. They made it from scratch, with water and flour and salt. The process was actually started much earlier when Abu Ali started mixing it, then it was allowed to sit for a while, and then Salem rolled up his sleeves and took over kneading the dough. He separated it into three pieces, which he made into round loaves, and they were placed into the coals in the fire. After half an hour or so, a little oven was dug into the sand under the fire and the bread was baked in there.

We ate it with a kind of a bean stew and fresh camel’s milk and it was all delicious. I ate till I was stuffed. After the meal Salem took the leftover bread and put it into a bowl for the new camel mother. I said, “I’ll take it to her!” and his father told him to go with me, so I wouldn’t get lost. Her baby was resting when we got to her and she came over and ate all the bread with gusto, almost taking one of my fingers in as well once. When it was gone, and we turned back, she followed us for a bit, hoping for more, till Salem went back to her and showed her the bowl and tapped her on the neck with it to go back.

When we returned to the fire, I learned that Salem’s father had handed his phone to my mother and asked her to call Canada. She tried my brother and sister, but there was no answer. Ah well, so he called a friend of his to chat with. He is a very social, cheerful character. We left shortly thereafter, with a container of camel’s milk, two bottles of water, and a container of chewing gum from Salem’s father. It seemed he just didn’t want to see us head off with nothing from him, and that’s all he had handy…