I am sitting here by the river with Santiago laying by the side of an old make shift camp fire. One of many of the lost dogs of Latin America I have come to know...momentarily. Some stay longer in hope of food and dare I say company. Others pass by. While travelling through Argentina and Chile I have been taken aback by the number of dogs who roam the streets. Some have owners whom I presume allow them to wonder during the day and even the night. Certainly in the smaller villages. It might be the tell tale sign of a good collar or the superior condition of a dogs coat. But it's a few. When you look in the crowd the lost ones start to stand out and in significant numbers. There must be millions. When I travelled North America it was the homeless lining every street corner that startled me. How could this be in a rich and democratic nation. I come to learn that it is the cost, the byproduct, the toxic waste of a free market gone sour. Maybe when it sweetens, the homeless will be cleared up by the next economic miracle.
We first meet Benji on a street corner in the small idyllic town of an Antonio de Reca. His black coat had a shine but he had no collar. Stoping to say hello he took up with us as we wandered the streets. He sat with us outside the hostel where two others soon joined us. Lulling around on the pavement . Content to sit and take in the idleness of this little town in our company. The next day he sought us out again but as we wandered far from his corner he parted ways. As we gathered our possessions to move on a again we looked for Benji but he could not be seen. Each black dog excited us, was that Benji, no he has white paws, benji was pure black. Benji sloped his shoulders as he approached as if greeting us with a sign of submission. Maybe he had found another corner out of sight.
Lost dogs might not be the true account of the roaming dogs. They wonder free and seem to have a home here on the streets. Maybe they have lost their owners but have found enough kindness of strangers that they have a place in the hierarchy of the towns, countryside and cities. Among themselves they appear to have rules. I never saw any of the roaming dogs fighting, at least not in public. If a leashed dog passed by it might bark and pull the owners leash but the roaming dogs would not be intimated. I liked to think they had a pride in being the vagabonds of the road. Taking the day as they pleased. Enough scraps out there and restaurants they could find food to get by. But the romanticism can be easily shattered.
In Horcon, a sweet and enchanting working village by the sea we meet many dogs. We gave out what we had. As Rachel said when we talked about the dogs " you can only do what you can do at that moment and you do as much as you can". They gathered by the rear of the van as we set up for breakfast in view of the fishermen that had brought in the catch of the day and were preparing them on the gutting tables. Mobbed by seagulls and with pelicans sitting patiently on the wall for the leftovers. In the group was a shy and nervous dog, keeping his distance we could see a severe case of mange, with half his coast missing and black wrinkled skin exposed. Rachel tried her best to entice him and get some food to him. Amidst the group was another dog, a bulldog with a white complexion who looked scarred and had one eye that was a perching blue but the other less attractive. I has seen him earlier nestled by a wall, as if escaping the hustle of the street. You start to realise that life on the street was not always so easy. Dogs are pack animals but I was not sure how well the pack worked for some.
After Horcon we picked up a bag of dog food. If we are going to feed every stray that comes along let's be prepared.
We are not unfamiliar with dogs as we have two jack Russell's and while we know they are in a loving home while we travel we pine for them. Maybe already having a dog bond opens us up to the affection the lost dogs have brought us. Are they serving a need in us more than they need from us but here's the thing. Santiago sits here at my feet and shows no interest in the food I have put out. He follows Rachel down to the stream and waits as she takes a morning bath in its fresh cold invigorating waters. He trots slowly back to the van when she returns. Settling down with us as we take morning coffee. Out here many of the dogs seem to be lone wolves and while they take in the company of other dogs it feels as if they as searching for a human companion. What is it they say, mans best friend is a dog but a dogs best friend might be us, even if it the bond is scratched out of the few hours that we give them. It's hard not to fill Stan the van with them all. But you do only what you can in that moment. Sometimes it has been a stroke when sitting at a park or even as they have passed us by when at a bus station waiting to leave town. Sometimes it can be a few days.
At Baha Inglesia, a small seaside town established some centuries ago by English pirates, that sits on the edge of the desert next to clear blue seas with slow lapping waves washing the sand. Here we meet two special dogs. We had just finished a wonderful lunch that was a fusion of chile and other world flavours. As we passed across the road we are greeted by dusty and smoky. Dusty a blond scraggy coasted fellow the size of a small Labrador and his smaller companion, a scraggy black coated chap with grey highlights. They soon took up with us and followed us down to the beach as we collected sea shells and marvelled at the views across the cove, where I imagined pirates set anchor protected from the view and winds off the Pacific. We took in two days at a deserted camp on the beach with a very amiable host, who made no fuss when we arrived back at camp with dusty and smoky leading the way. After setting out some rules with the two home dogs who lived on the camp, who were not so hospitable at first, they settled in with us. It's fair to say they stole our hearts. That night they set up beds in the sand by the van. The endearing quality of these two were their close bond. Dusty would continuously groom smokey and when smokey followed me down to the beach dusty got quite anxious when he could not find him. Visibly relieved when we returned. It was as if they had set up home together on the streets. Bringing each other much needed friendship. And for those two days they bestowed upon us that friendship. I like to think they will have many happy years together on the road.
Driving many miles we see the lost dogs of Latin America lining the streets and the highways. I catch a glimpse of a pack of four taking a rest in the endless desert where many hours of fast travel separates populations. So for them they must have a long way to go before the next scraps or maybe they find enough out here to keep them going. Sadly I also see the blotted carcasses of the ones who got too close to the fast highways.
Alfred was a large fair haired dog with a shaggy coat that may have once been long flowing locks of shinny hair, but street life and lack of grooming had taken its toll. When I awoke on our first morning he greeted me enthusiastically, paws on my chest and looking keenly in my face. Such a large beast but seemingly with a friendly disposition. That was shattered when he suddenly took upon another dog that approached the van later in the morning. Alfred was clearly a guard dog who had a need to continue his vocation on the campsite, he just required a family to protect. We threw water over the squabbling dogs and they scattered but soon Alfred slinked back, looking apologetic and craving a stroke. He was irresistible so we let him back on camp but kept a careful eye on him, trying to convey that he did not need to protect us.
You can't help wonder where do all these dogs come from. Do they just get up one day and leave home? Are they the result of non-neutered strays? Or are they abandoned as it would appear, Bruce and Hugo were who we encountered at a municipal park at San Jose de Jachal. Just two little puppies, maybe 7-8 weeks fending for themselves. Accompanied by Bella, who we thought was mum but turned out to be just one of a series of dogs they had latched onto. She was gone by morning. We feed and set up blankets in one of the alcoves under the unused stone bbqs, Fred taking watch over them. When you encounter the adult dogs you can fantasise that they have freedom and with enough scavenging get by. Tolerated they sleep and lull where they want for most of the time. Encountering a dog laying in the lobby of a bank is not a sight you would see in England. What we thought were two puppies born in the wild we soon discovered from the local workmen at the park, had been abandoned. Maybe two too many of a litter or just unwanted. As I now listen to Neil Young " only love can break your heart " and update this entry I can recall Rachel sobbing as she held the puppies for one last time. We left the blankets and the last of the dog food and in broken Spanish Rachel asked the workmen to feed them. We can only hope on the kindness of strangers.
There will be no economic miracles here. So the lost dogs I am sure will continue be ever present on the streets for a long long time. They are a part of the landscape and there is something heartening about the fact that can live in some kind of harmony with the folk who go about there days. Seemingly tolerated and maybe sometimes in need of a bit more personal care, especially those who fair less well.
As I sat at the restaurant. The Argentinian man took his lefts overs to the door and gave them to the dog outside. It was a warming sight. I later got to know the dog as Chico and he loved to have a ball thrown for him. In the morning when I was going about the van my watch caught the lights and Chico would chase and bark at the reflection in the sand. We also later discovered he liked to bark at his shadow.
The lost dogs are playful, friendly, respectful and always companionable. I think many of them are free and fair better than those in England, who live a life of false obedience. often owned for the sake of their owners vanity.
I retired about 5 years ago. I had been in the Mental health industry for my whole working life. I put my spare time into art, writing and photography with mixed success. I found that I had a great capacity to be idle and I would love to teach this to other people. The opportunity to spend this amount of time together as family in these modern times is rare. I will miss my older kids and Buddy and my close friends.