I was on the Indonesian island of Flores, famous for its multicolored volcanic lakes, and I came across a bunch of backpackers talking to a restaurant owner about the possibility of him roasting them a dog for dinner. The backpackers were acting like it would be a real adventure. Here they were at the end of the earth, they seemed to be thinking, far from all the social mores that keep their friends and parents chained to desks, far from such wondrous places as Kelimutu, the volcano at the top of Flores. Why not live dangerously, break a taboo?
The restaurant owner was ready to do pretty much anything to get some money out of these travelers. Even the five dollars a day that backpackers could live on in Indonesia was a lot of money to the people of Flores. His restaurant, located in a village at the base of Kelimutu, sat on the side of a dirt hill. There was a circle of rocks to sit on and an open fire with an iron grate over it and two iron pots on top—one for frying, the other for boiling. A few feet further up the hill was a smoldering pile of garbage. In the village, a flame was put to whatever garbage was left after the dogs and pigs and chickens were done rooting through the peels and plastic bottles the humans left behind.
So the restaurant owner was willing, if the travelers wanted to pay $20, to slaughter one of those dogs and have it butchered, cooked and ready for the travelers to eat the next day when they returned from their long hike up to see the turquoise, lapis and ruby-red volcanic lakes on Kelimutu’s crown.
I had no interest in eating a dog. I was in Indonesia for two weeks, trying to see some of the wonders I hadn’t had time to see when I visited years before. I’d just traveled from California to Guangzhou in China with my father to help him at the trade fair where he buys rubber duckies and rattles by the container-load to import for dollar stores in the U.S.
I hadn’t eaten dog in China, where it is a traditional dish for some people. Those who eat it believe they are ingesting the dog’s life force, which will help keep them warm during cold seasons. I had heard that dog was something Indonesians would eat. Looking around the mountainside town where there was no electricity except the kind from batteries, where the people lived in shacks of corrugated iron and wood and rocks, it wasn’t hard to understand that sometimes they were hungry here. During the seasons when the travelers didn’t come and nothing was being harvested, they would eat whatever they could to avoid starving: leaves, cans of United Nations food-aid tomatoes, dogs.
“So you can do?” a woman from Holland asked the restaurant owner.
“Yes, yes. You want sure?” He replied.
I watched the faces of these travelers, young men and women from places like England, Norway and Germany. A light was growing in their faces. They liked the idea of how crazy, how daring they were about to be.
I wanted to smother that light. I didn’t know why I felt so strongly about it, but the words just erupted. “Don’t eat a dog here,” I blurted before they could say another word to the restaurant owner. They turned to look at me. I was the only American. I am often the only American. I continued, trying to back up my outburst. “If you want to eat a dog, do it in China where they know what they’re doing. Don’t let these savages kill a poor dog for you. It’s not right and it won’t even be worth it because they won’t cook it well.”
I could see they didn’t like me calling the Flores natives savages. It was very insensitive. It was something some colonial overlord villain would say in an old movie, as he ordered his slaves to paddle faster. The other travelers looked at me with hatred. I wasn’t one of them at all. I was an American asshole.
On the way to Flores a couple days before, I had stopped at Komodo Island, a national park where 25-foot long monster lizards with forked-yellow tongues and poisonous fangs live. Before the hike to where the dragons congregated, each backpacker had been asked to pitch in a few rupees to buy a goat. Local guides led us and the little goat, which walked quietly, bleating rarely, on an hour-long walk. Up at the viewing area, the guides hacked open the goat’s throat with a machete. They didn’t look happy about having to do it. As the blood pulsed out of its neck into the sandy dirt and the little creature kicked and spasmed out the last of its life, its eyes slowly unfocusing, they held it down gently with weathered hands and looked away. When the goat was finally still, the guides gathered it in their arms and, after counting “1-2-3” to make sure the travelers were ready with their cameras, hurled the goat over a rail to the pack of Komodo dragons waiting on a dry river bed below. 15 or 20 of the Caucasian-skin-colored beasts swung open their mighty jaws to attack the warm carcass and the goat was ripped in half and eaten—bone, fur, hooves—and all within eight seconds. Completely gone.
Back at the restaurant on Flores after my outburst, the other travelers kept the subject of the dog alive for a little while, but it soon fizzled. By the next afternoon we’d all been up to the volcano and back. We’d seen what we’d come to that village to see and by the next day we were somewhere else. One dog lived one more day.
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