What Feral Dogs Can Teach Us About Humanity

Stray dogs overrun the cities and towns of South America. Their presence is so normal that when I asked a local about them, he answered my question with a question, “Are there not stray dogs in the US?”

“Yes, but we have shelters for them. You almost never see them in the streets.” He was surprised by this.

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Of course, one could argue that we haven’t reached a better solution in the US just yet. We’re likely just better at hiding our problems. It’s no mystery that for all our adoption efforts, there are far too many strays per household to take on. So a stray who does not win the adoption lottery has two possible fates. If he is unlucky, he will be put to sleep. If he is “lucky,” he will grow old in a cage.

Even so, I cannot help but theorize that our compassion and responsibility for the animals mirrors what we feel for people when the evidence is so plainly visible in the everyday, that as long as there is neglect for the wellbeing of any living thing in our shared spaces, there will also be litter in the streets; poverty and homelessness; and cheats, lies, and bribes beneath the shaky value of a country’s currency.

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We people, we are no different from the dogs. We are wholly domesticated to rely on jobs to justify our usefulness to society. So our confidence buckles under the climbing unemployment rate and the invention of bullshit job titles. In the US, we’ve learned to inflate the employment rate by creating more service and part-time jobs and by neglecting to include students in that unemployment percentage. Would you like fries with your PhD?

George Orwell wrote, “Freedom is slavery.”

What is a feral dog in our modern day? Has he reconnected with his long foregone wild roots, is he liberated from society’s expectations, or is he failure after investing thousands of years in permitting us to tame him because he was useful to us once, and we to him?

Would we criticize a dog for not keeping up with us as our technology outdated him? Are we failures now, for not being able to provide the security a caveman once promised him?

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This is Morena, a puppy I met on the island of Chiloé, and my favorite dog from the whole trip. She’s a beautiful girl and good friends with one of the resident dogs, Chicolisto. I didn’t know why they called him Chicolisto (ready boy) until I saw how “ready” he always was. Ah, Morenita, it’s all sweetness and games right now, but be careful when you get a little older. I don’t want you to become another teenage pregnancy statistic.

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Morenita, a black labrador pup who kept me company by the museum
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Morena (back) and Chicolisto (front)

In Valparaíso, I saw an artist drawing La Armada de Chile. A German Shepherd slept nearby and each was unaware of the other, though large tour groups passing by noticed and chatted about both. Like the creeper that I am, I sat nearby to draw them together. Like the voyeurs that they were, over the next hour, several of the tourists took pictures of me making a picture of them.

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The artist eventually left. A tourist in a bird-patterned shirt went to pet the dog, who woke up and wandered over to keep company at my feet.

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Ah, my friend, I had no food, and as a traveler, no shelter to offer you. You have no training, specialty, or purpose. We are of no use to each other. But we are friends nonetheless.

What does the existence of 5 Chilean Pesos suggest about wealth?

Contemplate this for a moment:

10,000 Chilean pesos is the equivalent of $16.30 US Dollars.

Over the course of my voyage in Chile, I have acquired many 5 peso coins, or $0.0082. I have heard of the existence of a 1 peso coin as well.

What does it tell us about value, to know that in a world where 1% of the population owns 99% of the wealth, there exists simultaneously the value of 5 Chilean pesos?

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Like the Grown-Ups (v2)

Estoy estancada.

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I’m stuck. I’ve used up most of my paper, but am dissatisfied with my drawings here in Castro, Chiloé. The setting is tranquil. I am restless.

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On the bright side, I’m writing a lot every day, and really loving this seaside city. Each day the beauties and peculiarities of this place seep a little more inside of me.

The design of the city is both logically gridded and haphazardly rough, having to wrap over the rises and drops of the terrain. Much of the architecture uses the wood of this land and has become inseparable from its identity. Cinnamon lumber in the houses/powder on top of beverages.

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Then there are the palafitos, representatives of an amphibious lifestyle dependent on the sea.

The imagery this conjures up is fantastic. We humans are like the frogs, amphibious in nature, if not between land and sea, then between any two perspectives that must be at battle within us. Our loyalty to the water that has long nourished us turns into an attachment that keeps us from evolving and fully experiencing the joys of the land, the freedom of the sky.

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The feeling of Castro, Chiloé hovers between obstinate independence and frail tranquility. It has evolved in both the freedom and imprisonment of its isolation.

But while geographic isolation may have fueled and instilled the identity of a culture developing separately and uniquely from the rest of the world, the patterns of history are undeniably human. This is an immigrant land, both colorful and conflicted with the gifts and scars of its mixing heritages.

This is a city turning on the axis of gentrification. I visited a beautiful cafe yesterday in one the many restored palafitos of Castro, where I read a book about the history of these houses on stilts over a cup of Yogi tea like I mighty have been drinking in my own, hipster, American town.

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Los palafitos. Stilted houses that face the sea. Cages that captured fish from the receding tides. The beginnings of commerce in a new world. The blending of indigenous and Spanish cultures. The trade of goods and patrimonies.

Poor homes on the margins of society. Human refuse in the sea. Neighborhoods in decline. Fire that rapidly consumed closely packed wooden houses, among other man-made catastrophes. The eternal war of tradition vs modernity. The same seeds we sowed for progress have dug deep into the earth with the roots of a cultural identity we cannot escape.

Swap out the fish and lumber industries for General Motors and we might as well be in Detroit. Replace the palafitos with the skyline of an old, European city, a temple in China. Different industries, different architectures. Same questions, same reactions.

The palafitos were considered unsafe and unhygienic and under the constant threat of demolition, by both nature and by government.

Now, the same things that threatened the palafitos’ existence have proven their fortitude. If these houses survived fire, earthquakes, tsunamis, and rich politicians who considered them to be ugly, they must be something worth saving.

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Los palafitos. Boutiques filled with handmade, local goods. Hostels and hotels in shades of pink, green, and blue. Delicious, pricy, restaurants and cafes, that dress up and celebrate what have long been local tastes, so they may be newly discovered by the phenomenon of tourism. Sushi. Jasmine tea. Indie music. Fresh pressed juice. Chia seeds in baked goods.

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And now, the steeply climbing costs of real estate of any place reborn in its success.

Like the Grown-Ups

Like any common over-analyzer, I’ve twisted my head these last few weeks over the significance vs. coincidence of things. Looking at things from my own perspective, there has to be a reason for it all. There must be something I’m supposed to discover here, and each little gift the world gives me is like a clue leading me to what I’m supposed to do next.

Then again, if I were to hear another person sharing similar accounts as mine, same feelings as I have now, maybe I would think that he or she was interpreting what he/she wanted. Every inch of the Earth is covered with some thing, and I cannot pay attention to it all. So I have to be selective. Maybe I see what I want to see, and depending on the choices I want to make, I’ll read the signs that indicate I should make those choices.

This month is the anniversary of my father’s passing, and so, has been a time to reflect in honorarium. Combined with the experiences of my trip and my see-sawing relationships between two languages, I finally feel like there’s a traffic jam inside my head.

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Not until it was pointed out to me, not until I was told, “You’ve got to get over it,” did I realize that maybe from an outside perspective, I seem stuck on not a concept, but in the past.

It’s undeniable that our upbringings are inseparable from our characters, even or maybe especially in the ways we try to express ourselves as the opposite of those who brought us into this world. We yearn for what we lacked, and often overcompensate by trying to give this missing thing to our friends, children, loved ones. One can learn a lot about the things people have had to live without in the past by observing what they can’t live without in the present.

But where do you draw the line between being conscientious of history and being confined by it? The past is a sign that can inform us as we proceed into the future, but it is not a mirror.

There is a paragraph in El Principito that reads:

“Mi amigo jamás daba explicaciones. Quizá me creía semejanteba él. Pero yo, desgraciadamente, no sé ver corderos a través de las cajas. Soy quízas un poco como las personas grandes. Debo de haber envejecido.”

“My friend never gave explanations. Perhaps he believed me to be the same as he. But I, unfortunately, do not know how to see sheep through boxes. I am perhaps a little like the grown-ups. I must have aged.”

I used to get annoyed with my parents for telling the same stories over and over again.

Yet here in my adulthood, I scour books, landscapes, cities, the internet, the lines of my personal history, anything for more information, more explanations, more how-to’s, to aid me in the things I cannot envision on my own.

Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it.

Perhaps those who study history will fail to imagine a different future.

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Photos from the show at Proyecto’Ace and some thoughts from Chiloé

It’s hard to believe I arrived in South America almost two months ago. I feel like I’ve lived a lifetime compressed into three weeks here in Patagonia.

After being on the road and multiple long bus rides, I have now what feels like a gargantuan amount of time–ten whole days–in a remote, tranquil studio with no Wi-Fi, reachable from the city center most easily via taxi for between the equivalent of 80 cents to $1.30 (depending on your driver and whether you’re obstinate about not getting ripped off as a foreigner/disinclined to fight with someone who is desperate enough to lie for an extra 50 cents), or if one is so inclined, an hour’s walk straight up a hill.

I’ll have more to share soon about this island of Chiloé and my second residency here. For now, I’m ready to share some pictures from my first residency, in Buenos Aires.

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The story follows the life of a homing pigeon, who unlike other pigeons, leaves his home and what he knows, to work in a world delivering packages of no value to people with no heads. He is rewarded for his ambition with a life in a golden cage, delivering messages for heads that are not connected to the bodies they try to lead. He has a choice at this point, to be comfortable with his “reward” in life, or to pursue a different way of being.

I have carried a draft copy with me on this trip, sharing it with a few other travelers who have been curious about my business here.

One of the many beauties of travel is how it gathers transient people to bond through the universal art of storytelling.

I have two choices when I buy a bus or plane ticket. Ida, or Ida y Vuelta? Going, or Going and Returning? For three weeks, I’ve only been going, but in this next short week, going will become returning, as I wrap my journey northward again.

Always, we are going and returning, and there is nothing quite like leaving what we know to find whom we always have been.

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Even if you hate your voice, you must speak.

Current location: on a Colectivo to Punta Arenas, Chile, following five days in Ushuaia, Argentina, “el fin del mundo (end of the world)”.

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It’s a funny feeling, relearning your own personality in a new environment. The places and the people may feel immediately warm and familiar. The thing that feels strange and foreign is you.

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I’m shier than I’m used to being. My ears and my mouth are so slow in Spanish, to the point they even slow down my English thinking here. Slowly, I’m regaining myself, but when you’re supposed to be assertive, when you’ve been accused of being even too aggressive in the past, finding yourself quiet and passive can make you feel weak.

Then again, a former mentor once told me to be quiet and listen (and later recounted his own “shut up and learn” mentorship moment), so maybe this a time to follow that advice. No matter the experiences you’ve had before, you are forever a student of the same, basic teachings. Listen so that you may speak. Forget who you are, and when you are a little lighter without your ego, a little emptier without your judgment, a new understanding can begin to fill you.

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Then, naive and uncomfortable as you are, you must speak. One, to ask dumb questions that start new dialogues. Two, to assert yourself as someone who is open to these dialogues.

One of the resident artists I met at Proyecto’Ace, Christiane Peschek (check out her work, I love her project, Golden Mountains), said that since learning English and Icelandic, she likes her native voice in German less. As I stumble through my infantile Spanish, I wonder what my own voice will sound like in another language, and how it will change the sound (or my perception of the sound) of my native tongue.

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Slowly, I’m understanding more of what people say to me. My grammar is still shit, so while I often recognize words I’ll fail to understand sentences, but it’s getting there. I find myself wanting to speak more. My conversations in Spanish are getting richer. I had a friendly, albeit extremely pungent and idiosyncratic hippie hostelmate in Ushuaia named Almicar. He talked a lot and refused to speak slowly, which pissed me off but made for great practice.

I learned that he’s on his way to Mexico, though how that led him all the way south to Ushuaia, I have no idea. He likes to sculpt clay around old beer bottles and make leather wallets. He’s the middle child in a family with five kids, all sons. He’s an uncle. All of his family lives in the same province of Argentina, except for a grandpa in Italy, but Almicar has zero interest in going to Europe, just like he has no interest in the US. Supposedly, he has a girlfriend in California that he refuses to visit as long as she lives there (though with his hygiene, there may be a reason for the distance). He thinks I should visit Potosi, Bolivia, because there’s a lot of good art there, and that I should stay in South America and be solely an artist. He thinks my Argentenian version of “Castellano” is greatly improving, and also that I’ll not learn real Spanish. He laughed at me for having trouble understanding him, but at least he was good enough to say he knows zero English and won’t try learning, so good on me for trying.

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Various Argentine shop owners have given me either candy or stickers for speaking like an Argentine (using “sh” sounds instead of pronouncing y’s, and “vos” instead of “tú” for you). I’ll take it as a compliment that the longer I live here, the less people ask me if I’m a chino and instead start talking rapidly like they expect me to understand. Maybe, eventually, I will.

At this point, I could search for some metaphor on what this whole language deal suggests about the evolution of my artistic expression and career. But since I don’t have time to write something simple and concise, I’ll leave the meaning buried in my wandering stories instead.

Ciao, mis amigos. Buen suerte de Chile.

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