Archive for June, 2012


All of the sudden, everyone is white and speaking English. The flight attendant performs the safety demonstration like a presenter on Playschool, the pilot announces the flight details like a sports announcer, and I’m not sure if it’s just because I understand what they’re saying that they seem strange, but I don’t think so.

Then Mexico is gone and we’re flying over Pheonix – a flat landscape of lights all in a row. I learn that Phoenix Airport is America’s friendliest airport. You can volunteer to make it friendlier. The people who do wear purple uniforms and overblown lapel flowers. They stand at mildly complicated corners and guide people around them, smiling fiercely.

“That’s seriously one of the most fucked up things I’ve ever heard,” Nina writes back when I tell her about them in an email.

I can have idle conversations with strangers, and I do. I can eavesdrop. In the customs line at the Phoenix Airport, I listen to a group of people around my age discussing how they’re going to get into town, what they’re going to do when they get there, and I’m fascinated. I try hard not to look like I’m listening.

In my bag are Nina’s Mexican things. She wanted to send them back to Australia for her sister to sell – Frida Kahlo bags, intricately painted ceramic skulls, beaded jewellery, embroidered cheesecloth dresses – and considering Mexico doesn’t have a postal system, I volunteered to ferry them home for her. So this is where my favourite idle conversation with a stranger comes from: at security, with the man behind the x-ray machine.

“Nice skulls,” he says, watching my bag slide back out of the machine.

“Thanks,” I say.

I have two hours in the Phoenix airport before my flight to Yuma and, though it is a friendly place, it is definitely not an exciting one. I wander mildly, then I go to my gate, where the flight leaving before my flight is being evacuated back into the airport.

As they are evacuated, the passengers sit heavily back down in the boarding lounge. They’re supposed to be on their way to Palm Springs by now.

“I dunno, maybe she’s just like that. I mean, I don’t want to judge people or anything,” says a lady on my row of seats. She has a thick southern accent. “But. Well, she was havin’ trouble. I’ll just say that.”

“Nope,” replies another lady. “She was drunk.”

The people in airport uniforms are looking very serious. There is an announcement over the gate loudspeakers apologising for any inconvenience the delay may have caused, but assuring us that safety is their primary concern and all staff must be breath-tested before passengers can be permitted to re-board the plane. This should not take long.

A little while later, a female flight attendant, crying quietly, is escorted from the plane by the pilots, past everyone in the boarding lounge, which has gone very quiet.

Colette and Marcel pick me up from the Yuma airport and take me back to the RV. They are happy to see me. I have to tell them that I’m really sorry but I can’t stay for the New Orleans Gumbo Dinner at the Park tomorrow night with all the Park People, that I’d really love to, but I have a friend in LA who’s only going to be there for a couple of days, and I haven’t seen him in years, and he lives in Melbourne so I probably won’t get another chance to see him any time soon, and he’s just got married so we have a lot to catch up on. But I can stay for a little bit tomorrow. I won’t leave until the afternoon. We can have breakfast. Alright, Colette says, but she’s doesn’t hide her disappointment.

In the morning, the trunk of my car is broken. The button in the centre console that is supposed to open it, won’t open it. Neither will the key. I pull all the stuff out of it and climb in from the back seat, start trying to feel around in the latch, just lie there in the dark pushing at the roof. Soon, there are three or four Park Men standing around it with furrowed brows, and I am watching with Colette from behind the screen door of the RV.

They part, and it is fixed. I hug and kiss everyone goodbye, we all make some vague promises, and then I get in. The car’s been sitting there for three months without so much as turn of the key but the engine goes without hesitation. I back out, drive the speed limit out of the park, and out and up and North.


Cutting Balls from Dogs

When I get back to La Manzinilla, the weather has turned. It’s raining daily, like it never does in the Dry. The bus drops me off at the turn-off and I hitch a lift into town in the back of a ute; by the time I get back to Jeanne and Brian and Glen’s place, I am soaked through. Warm rain, like a water heater running out of hot. Nobody’s home, so I towel off and wait under cover, and when they do come home, everyone’s very happy to see everyone else.

They hadn’t been there when I arrived, they explain, because they were volunteering at a pop-up dog (and cat) clinic in town. Twice a year the clinic happens, when volunteer vets are brought in to neuter or spay every dog and cat, factory style, owners can be convinced to bring in, and there are a lot of dogs and cats in and around La Manzinilla. I imagine a little vets office, with volunteering gringos sitting with a handful of subdued animals, maybe running flea combs through the animals’ fur until they wake up. When I go to volunteer the next day, however, I find that it’s a much bigger operation than that.

On the first day I volunteer, they chop the genitals out of almost seventy animals. The entire town hall has been commandeered for the operation, a space about the size of a school gym. To the right, there are a line of those carry cages you take pets to the vet in – all sizes, an enforced queue of dogs and cats waiting to go in. When cage and animal reach the front of the line, they are stuck with a needle of general anaesthetic, then carefully caught and spread out on the operating table when they fall fully under. The are laid on their back, four legs bound to each corner of the table, belly and genitals to the air.

The vets do it all for free. The clinic is five days, starting from around 8 in the morning until often more than 12 hours later. There are three of them, and the work is assembly line. They work in a separate room at the end of the hall, but the two spaces are connected by windows, so I can stand and watch if I want as a vet slices into the sac around a dog’s testicle, then presses at the sides until out pop the two white balls, one by one. I feel sick but it’s very, very hard to stop watching.

The next bit is where we come in. The left side of the hall is the recovery area and, still in the grips of the anaesthetic, the dogs are carried in by their legs, tongues lolling, and laid down on towels and mats on the floor. The cats are placed on tables closer to the door. I was right about the flea combs, though with the sheer magnitude of fleas present, they are rendered largely ineffective. And then there’s the mange, the ticks burrowed into ears, the clumps of missing fur, the ribs pushing out at the sides. This is the bit when you realise why this clinic happens. And there aren’t the packs of dogs roaming the streets like there used to be, either, I’m told.

So it’s our job to ease the animals back to consciousness, to catch whatever fleas we can before they get there, to check their ears and between their toes for ticks, and to feed them the bright pink liquid worming medicine when they start to come to. The dogs take half-an-hour or so to rouse, the cats take three. The cats and the smaller dogs, at risk of losing body heat, get those little rice packs you warm up in the microwave. The cats have crosses of tape over their eyes – cartoon for dead – because the anaesthetic makes them especially sensitive to light.

Sometimes the job is cradling a kitten in a towel, or returning a litter of puppies to their comatose mother. Sometimes it’s mopping up extra shit and blood that happens to slip out. Sometimes it’s convincing a confused and frightened dog in a cage to stop, please stop, bloody barking. By the end of the day, it feels very much as though you yourself are irrevocably covered in fleas.

One Mexican farmer drives around to all the farms in his area, picks up his neighbours’ dogs, and brings them all in at once – ten or thirteen of them, all tied up in the back of his ute. A couple of extraordinarily cute kittens, freshly de-sexed, play in a cage beneath a ‘Free to Good Home’ sign. In the back of one ute, a freshly neutered male tries his best to mount a freshly spayed female, as yet unaware of the change that has been inflicted. It rains, it stops raining, it rains again. I fall in love with cute animal after cute animal and, back at the house, finally book my flight to Arizona.

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