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  • Tara B. Vasi

Choosing me. While also choosing dogs.

Updated: Jun 18

I am a light sleeper, and I don't mean that I sleep with the light on, though I do. I mean, falling asleep has never come easily to me, even as a girl, and staying asleep throughout the entire night just doesn't happen. #scoliosis


As I laid in bed that night, diagonally, with one leg partially dangling off the bed that I barely fit into, I was forced into self-reflection and self-assessment.


I discovered the bodies of the kittens earlier that morning and I had not had running water all day, ALL DAY, and I couldn't help but fume about it.


I had tried to track down Romeo, my landlord, on numerous occasions, but when I went to his home to look for him, his wife yelled at me in their language that I do not understand and her body language said, "Get the fuck out of my sight, white girl".


The grief, helplessness, and frustration of the day mounted, filling my body, my heart, and my head, and was starting to come out my ears.

The day's worth of excrements sat in my toilet and the stench was so putrid, my nose burned.


My guard kitty must have been on a smoke break or something because a rat scurried along the wooden beam at the top of the wall, where the ceiling would have started, had they chosen to build one.


My brain flashed images, like crackling, spotty, black, and white horror movies from before my time. I see the dead kitties that I couldn't save, the depressing oil strewn shoreline, the starving dogs looking to me for help, the dark skies with the pouring rain, COVID-19 numbers continuing to rise, the violence of police officers killing whoever they chose, the racism and inequality all over the world, and the reel just kept going and there was no way to stop watching... then, just as I was about to sweat through my Elephant Nature Park cut off Volunteer T-shirt in a full-blown panic attack… the lights go out… leaving me in complete darkness... There's nothing I dislike more than being left in the dark.


That. Is. It.


I sat up, found my phone that was wrapped up in my sheet, turned on my torch, and decided, I am not doing this anymore. Tara Bailey Vasi does not settle for deflating situations anymore. Something needs to change.


I looked on my desk for my essential oils and dabbed some ylang-ylang, my favorite scent, on my upper lip. It told my nose, Smell this, and only this. I learned this trick from an ashtanga yogi friend, who suggested that I always bring some essential oil with me when I practice in a studio, just in case my yoga mat is positioned next to someone with poor hygiene, or, even more specifically, a shirtless man during a rigorous ashtanga practice.


It's amazing how aromas, both pleasant and rancid have a way of distracting and overpowering the other senses.


I took the miniature oil bottle in my hand and flung some around my room, carving a figure-eight shape in the air, as an artist splatters paint from her paintbrush creating the perfect splashes of color on her abstract art.


I took some deep breaths in through my nose and out through my mouth and considered the things happening in my life that are within my control, and how much of myself am I willing to sacrifice for the stray dogs of Agonda and why I have this tendency to stew in struggle too long before making a change...


It's true, the reason I stayed so long at the restaurant wasn't because of the cheap cost of the room, it was the love and companionship of the stray dogs that had been seeking refuge there from the cold and rain. They were alone, hungry, just trying to survive, and I was too, so, I figured we could survive together.


Caring and feeding the animals was not just helping them, but was hugely rewarding to me, giving me a sense of purpose, without being arduous or all consuming. I never felt alone when they were around, even during COVID lockdown and isolation when I had very little human interaction. I could tell that I mattered to them, that they appreciated my kindness, not being so naive to recognize that they mostly appreciated my food.

For much of my life, I believed neglecting my own needs was a sign of being a good person. I was secretly convinced that more selflessness meant more emotional development for me, and meant I was doing my part to spread kindness and compassion to the world. But, like all aspects of life, I had to find the right balance. Ignoring your own needs doesn't really support your growth towards becoming the best version of yourself at all.


I have always so deeply valued my relationships with the animals in my life. My first love and childhood best friend was Poochie, the family dog, a black lab we welcomed into our lives in 1989. I remember his first ride home in the station wagon, all three kids in the backseat, me, most likely in the middle seat, passing him around in our laps, the metal wire sticking out from the seat cushion, and jabbing into my leg.

I loved how delicate and innocent he was, curious and trusting.

I struggled to make deep connections with the girls in my neighborhood, or the kids at school, but I felt a deep connection with him right away. As we grew together over the years, he showed me the purest form of love, attention, comfort, and acceptance, that I didn't always receive from my parents, who, with all due respect, were often preoccupied and arguing with each other.


My ultimate love, Cooper, was my adulthood best friend for the ten years after my college graduation. He loved me when I didn't love myself. He loved me through my failed relationships, my failed career moves, my failed attempts at sobriety. I didn't have to do anything spectacular or be anything spectacular, to be worthy of his love or attention.


This small decision to choose a little more me, calmed my nighttime anxieties and I eventually fell asleep. I could still be a good person, a sensitive, compassionate, brave person, in a nicer room. The strays and I could still be friends and survive together, just with a different dynamic.



---

I woke up the following morning with a level of self-actualization and focus that I haven’t felt in weeks.


Instead of the sound of pounding rain, I heard the little green birds chirping, and motorbikes riding down the street. I heard the honking of the man on the bicycle, that rode up and down the street selling samosas for ten rupees a pop. The sun was bright and the energy in the air, inspiring, flowing with the positivity and love I was already feeling. in my heart.


Jazzy and Ned were the only dogs in the restaurant, which was unusual. I walked through the restaurant to the kitchen to boil water for my coffee, returned to the dogs, and guiltily fed them extra-large portions of rice and sardines. I wondered if they could sense my next move.


You are probably like, who the fuck is Ned?


Ned, in a brown and white pug-nosed stray that used to come around the restaurant a lot about a month back and then disappeared. He showed up a few days ago with a bummed back leg and has stuck around, often laying underneath the table I use as a desk, chewing at his foot, and crying. Ned also has gigantic swollen nipples and whenever he walks up the stairs to the restaurant and looks at me like the dufus that he is, all I hear is, Hidy Hiddly Ho, Neighbor!


I sat on the bar top and had my coffee, mentally revisiting my epiphany from the night before and looking past the mesh covering the balcony to the beach.

I hunted down Romeo, who is arguing with his wife, and without apologizing for my lack of running water the entire day before, turns my water on with the flip of a switch.

I flush my toilet and say, Hallelujah. He allows me to change rooms, even encourages it, and says it will be ready to move into later in the afternoon. Well, that settles it, I think, even though, at this point, I wonder if it would be ultimately better for me to leave Romeo's property altogether. Baby steps.

As the morning progressed, I practiced yoga via a YoutTube video, read "the Hindu" or the local online newspaper, and waited for each of my girls to show up, so I could dish out their breakfast. The orange kitty meows from the top of the fridge and I pour her a cup of milk, because I love her, and because I want her to shut up.


There is no rush to pack my belongings, as I don't have much to pack anyway, and since I don't know how long this freak blast of sunshine will last, I grab my headphones, lock the door, and head down the stairs towards the beach, my loyal lady dog pack, and Ned, at my heel.


I expect Sally to stop in her spot past the road, but she continues with the squad all the way to the beach. As we enter the sand, the dogs bolt towards the water, splashing and playing, like kids on the first day of summer.



I immediately think of Cooper and how he would run towards the ocean at Dog Beach in San Diego, find a spot to post up and bark at waves. I dont remember if Poochie liked the ocean, but I remember him attacking the water shooting out from the sprinkler in the front lawn of the house on 4 Amy Lane.


There is something so special about us all being at the beach together, playing in the sun, yet it felt like the end of an era.


----


I got the OK to move my stuff at 4:30 pm. I went over to the new room. The path to get there took me passed the mango tree, in between buildings, and over a hose connecting a water tank to the house. I carried just a few things, to assess the state of the room before I completely moving my small world our of the restaurant.


The new room is on the second floor, above the landlord and his family. The front balcony that usually looks out over a small courtyard-like area, is covered with a white tarp for monsoon season.


I door is ajar, so I push it open. The bright yellow painted room is somewhat obnoxious. I look at where the walls and ceilings meet and notice there is no open space for rats to scurry. There is no netting, no kitty hammock.


A waft of stale cigarette smoke tickles my nose and its apparent the previous guest smoked cigarettes inside, however, there were fewer bugs and mosquitos, so there would be no reason to light a mosquito coil each night, so my lungs still rejoiced with what I considered progress.


The bed is massive, definitely star-fish-able with no possible way that I will be squished in between the head and footboards each night.


There's a wardrobe, with multiple shelves and hangers for my clothes, so I will not have to live out of a suitcase on the floor. The refrigerator and the hot plate are in the same room, so cooking a meal won't be such a juggling act.


The bathroom is spacious. There is a ledge for my toiletries, so they don't have to hang from a nail in a plastic bag, and the toilet even flushes without having to pour a bucket of water on top each time.


I open the back door off my kitchen that usually faces out towards the mango tree, but it's covered with a white tarp for monsoon season. I question my decision to relocated and I am starting to feel suffocated inside a body bag, but eternally grateful at the same time.





The dogs were playing at the beach all day, and I was grateful that they didnt see me move my belongings.


At 6:30 pm Romeo knocked on my door and asked me if I needed any help moving, conveniently two hours after I had begun, an hour after I finished. The truth is, I probably would have declined his help regardless.


Romeo noticed Ned was sitting outside the door of my new room, before I even noticed him there, and flew his arms in the air in a fit. He told me if the dogs come up to my room, "bringing all this dirt and sand (he points to sand on the tile floor that Ned must have tracked up) that you will have to go!" He says, "They are street dogs and they belong on the street. Why do foreigners always do this? They feed the dogs and then just leave, and then whose problem is it? It becomes my problem. I don't want any more dogs hanging around. They belong on the street. Someone else can care for them."


I understand his argument. He doesn't give me any space to respond, as usual, so I don't, as usual. I wanted to explain to him that this was one of the reasons that I wanted to move. That I respect him. That I didn't want them to follow me to my new room.


I make my final trip to the restaurant to scan for any belongings left behind, and I notice that Romeo has already removed the bowls of water I had set out for the dogs, and the bread, I had intentionally left in the refrigerator, was gone.



-----

Its been a few days now, that I have spent in my new room. Even though I enjoy a bigger bed, running water, and fewer bugs, each time I open the door in the morning and my squad isn't there, my heart feels shallow. In my previous arrangement, most of my time was allotted to interacting with the dogs and observing the wildlife from the balcony, that now, I just sit in my windowless room unsure as to how to pass the time.


I go out for walks even more now, though, when it's not raining, and have been blowing through podcasts.


When I see my dogs on the street or at the beach, they light up with joy and a look that says, "Oh, there you are, lady!". They follow me wherever I go, to the beach, to the store, and when I head back to the new room, they want to follow me there too.


I do my best to respect Romeo's wishes, so as I make my way back to my room, I yell at them to back off, to go, saying, "You cant follow me anymore" and it breaks my heart each time being so cruel., even though I love them so much.


I have tried to trick them by throwing a handful of food in one direction and running in the other, but they always catch up to me. There's a gate to enter the property from the street, and even when I close it, they crawl under to follow me, not wanting to lose me again.


There is another gate at the bottom of the stairs that leads up to my second-story room and I close that each time, blocking their love, severing our ties, turning my back...


They hang out at the bottom by the gate for a while but eventually go back to the streets.


----

Yesterday, I walked to the beach armed with a bag of water, bread, and biscuits, excited to see my friends.


I saw Sally girl. She was laying in the middle of the street like she had given up on life. When she saw me she wagged her tail and when I got close enough, rolled to her side for a belly rub. I gave her a few quick pats and then coaxed her out of the road with some bread.


We hung out for a little while, and then I headed to the beach, knowing she would most likely not follow. I was expecting to see the other girls, sunbathing, in a triangle but none of them were there.


I walked the shoreline alone and listened to my podcast, though only partially paying attention. I rarely walked the beach without the company of Stinky Sweetie. Where was she? Was she ok?


I cut through the school parking lot, put on my mask, and headed to the fruit stand for bananas, but they were closed. I shrugged, unscathed, and started to walk back on the beach. Sometimes the waves would come as high as my shins, and instead of trying to lift up my pant legs so they didn't get wet, I just let the water drench them.


As I got closer to where I usually exit the beach, I saw Stinky Sweetie, her ears erect, unlike Sally's, which was the main way I could tell them apart from afar. Part of me wanted to run to her and give her some of the bread I had carried in my backpack, but I knew she would follow me back to my room and I would have to shun her love and close the gate in her face.


I didn't want to have to do that to either of us again, so I veered off and exited the beach sooner than I normally would, not stopping to say hello. My heart broke in one million little pieces.


I was stewing in a different kind of struggle in my new room, a stew of selfishness and loneliness that bubbled more the stew of self-sacrifice and companionship.


Each time it rained heavily outside, the guilt rained heavily on the inside. I thought choosing me would feel better.


-----

I woke up this morning, late and heavy. I made some coffee and boiled some eggs. I filled a plastic bag with water and stuffed a half loaf of bread in my backpack. It was raining lightly, and I didn't have an umbrella or raincoat, but I didn't care. I took my supplies and went to the beach to find my friends.


Ned wasn't there, but my entire lady pack was right at the clearing, even Sally, who apparently decided "not to go through with it" in the road the day before, the same spot where we had splashed around in the sunshine together, just three or four days before.


They were excited to see me, and even though, they are dogs, I took that as a sign of forgiveness. I dug a hole in the sand and opened the bag of water, placing it in the hole like nature's dog dish. Glinda went for it first, slopping water on my ankle and foot and leaning on me so hard that I fell over in the sand. Jazzy dug a hole too and then laid in it, something I thought they only did on hot days.


Stinky Sweetie smelled much stinkier than usual. When Glinda finished the water and stood up, Sally flinched and cowered with her tail tucked underneath her.


I started peeling the shells off the eggs and telling the ladies, that were sniffing aggressively, to back off and wait until I was ready. "You must be so hungry," I said.


I opened my backpack to take out the loaf of bread. We all sat on the beach, the rain drizzling down on us, enjoying hard-boiled eggs and soggy bread together.


I wondered if I could find an umbrella big enough to protect us all.


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