I was shooting photos for a story about Cuban architecture when I came across a quiet little dog on the steps of the Capitolio.
She was so dirty that the palms of my hands turned black after petting her. But she was especially cute with her big fox-like ears, bushy white tail and multi-colored eyes - one brown, the other blue.
I sent a photo of the pooch to a fellow dog lover in California. She asked me if I'd go back out and try to rescue the dog.
I wasn't so sure I could ever find the dog again, let alone rescue it. But I went back to the Capitolio and looked around.
No luck. I didn't see the dog anywhere, so I left my business card at a few restaurants and other spots near the Capitolio and went on my way.
A few days later, a woman called me.
"Hey, mister," she said. "I've got your dog."
I was shocked.
I finished what I was doing and went back to the Capitolio. Sure enough, the woman had the dog.
She was a waitress, I think.
I asked around to make sure no one owned the dog. The waitress and everyone else told me the dog had no owner and roamed the streets.
The pooch was scared, so I gave her some hamburger from a leftover cheeseburger.
A Cuban man asked what I was doing. I joked that the dog had won the U.S. visa lottery - el bombo, as Cubans call it - and was bound for the United States. He said, "Give me some that hamburger and I'll go to the United States, too."
Once the dog ate, I took her in my arms and put her in my Jeep. She was really terrified now. I doubt she had ever been in a car before.
I drove to the home I rented in Tarara, 12 miles east of Havana. The dog didn't make a sound.
I gave her a bath once I got her home. She tried to dig her toenails into the tile of the shower as grit and dirt turned the water brown.
She slept that first night under a chair.
She seemed a little shell-shocked the next day, but her spunky personality quickly emerged and she became part of the household.
She was humble, if dogs can be humble, and appreciated the slightest bit of attention.
Her blue and brown eyes were beautiful. A patch of black hair surrounded the blue eye. It stood out since most of the rest of her was white.
“You ought to call her Pirate,” more than one Cuban told me.
But her soon-to-be owner in California had already picked a name: Rugby. So Rugby it was. And Rugby was a quick learner.
After only a dozen tries, she learned to sit up in return for scraps of chicken. One time she fell backwards with a plunk on the kitchen floor. I could imagine her saying – like the dog in an old “Far Side” cartoon that had a milk bone biscuit balanced on its head – “The next he makes me do that I’m going to kill him.”
Rugby was a perfect guest. She didn’t chew up anything while I was at work. She let me know when she wanted to go outside. And she never did her business inside.
She came to accept my house as her own. It was her territory. One afternoon, a feeble little black street dog wandered up the sidewalk and Rugby leaped off the porch and charged after it, chasing it maybe 150 yards before finally trotting back triumphantly to the house.
Another time, five or six adult street dogs rushed up and Rugby quickly rolled on her back, giving in. The dogs sniffed her privates and left. That told me Rugby was no dummy.
She’d run to the window and watch me climb into my Jeep when I left for work in the morning. Then later when I came home she would do a peculiar greeting, spinning in circles as if chasing her tail.
She was a trooper when I took her to a Cuban vet for her shots. His “office” and “examining room” were in his cramped Havana apartment. Dogs waited their turn in the living room and on the balcony.
“Too bad your dog is going to be traveling so soon,” he told me. “I’d be glad to fix her.”
I asked where he would do the operation and he told me it was quite simple. He would pack his instruments in his small case, go to my home and do the job.
“Nothing to it,” he said.
He looked at Rugby’s teeth and estimated she was seven months old.
I wondered what kind of seven months it had been.
When I first took walks with Rugby at night, she was very afraid. She would proceed as if on a reconnaissance mission. One false move could mean death, it seemed.
Once back home, she picked her dozing spots very carefully. She liked to sleep, usually with one eye open, under wooden tables and desks.
But then she discovered what it means to sleep on a couch or a soft cushion. At last, pure canine bliss.
She was afraid of the “squeak” in the squeaky toys I bought her. But she quickly learned that chasing the toys across the living room floor was quite fun - well, I had fun, at least. The rubber ball with the loudest squeak was soon a favorite, but she really liked to chew on a blue flyswatter, too.
While playing, she demonstrated her amazing jumping ability. She was only 18 to 20 inches high, but could easily leap onto the back of the couch and once even soared onto my desk while I was working, landing right next to my laptop and giving a look like, “Hey, what are doing up there, anyway? Let’s play.”
At dusk, Rugby and I explored the beach. She chased birds, but never caught one. She poked her nose through the old shoes, beer cans, plastic and other junk that washed ashore. And she sometimes rubbed her back on treasures she’d find – usually some stinky, difficult-to-identify, dead sea creature.
She drank little water – not an uncommon trait among street dogs, I’m told. And she ate what I fed her, mostly chicken since there’s a ban on dog food imports in Cuba, reportedly over fears of Mad Cow disease.
I had Rugby for just 22 days. The dog lover who wanted her agreed to pick her up in Mexico City, then take her back to California.
Before traveling to Mexico City, I needed to find a kennel cage in Havana. That wasn't easy. But finally, I found an Italian-made cage and bought it for $159.
Rugby left Cuban soil on Aug. 1, 2001.
Her owner in California figures she's now nine years and four months old. She says "Rugs" is a great dog and has "very refined manners," although it hasn't been easy for her to adjust to a new dog, Bella, and a baby, too.
Rugs, foreground, with fellow rescue dog, Bella, and their human "sister," in California
I started thinking about Rugby the other day after coming across some old photos her. Her story brings back memories of Cuba, where I worked as a correspondent from 2000 to early 2005. So I made her the subject of this blog's 1,001th post.
Those few weeks with Rugby went by way too fast, just like my time in Cuba.
My assignment on the island ended sooner than I expected. Maybe that's one reason why I started this blog, to continue writing about Cuba.
Just the other day, I was telling a journalist friend about some of the Cuba projects I have planned. I was probably boring the poor guy to death, but he let me finish my story.
"This is what you're really passionate about - Cuba," he told me. "I have a feeling you'll be writing about Cuba until the day you die."
Well, I don't know about that. I am branching out a bit this year and making a trip to South America, where I was a Fulbright scholar in the early 1980s.
But I'll continue keeping an eye on Cuba. There are vital issues to follow: U.S.-Cuba relations, the rise of Cuban bloggers, the clash of dissidents and government supporters, efforts to mend the Cuban economy, and much more.
And if I run across any of Rugby's relatives?
Who knows, maybe one of them will win el bombo.
In Southern California, on a manicured lawn
YouTube clips of Rugby in Cuba:
Rugby plays in Tarara
Rugby and her flyswatter
Rugby goes outside
Rugby on the grass
Rugby trots on by
Rugby plays in the living room
Rugby with her ball
Along the Malecon's Dogs & puppies page