THE DOG BLOG
Lovers of Travel
An occasional blog to be read from Top to Bottom
Dear Appreciators of Animals and/or Travel,
My apologies, I have no stories about drug cartels or danger. Instead, Colombia is full of friendly people desperate to revise the world's view of their country.
Dog, Bruiser and I arrived in Cartagena, Colombia the 1st of July. Since it was a Sunday, there was no one to stamp our passports at the marina. Nor was there anyone available to check the dogs for their papers. Since we'd come with a captain who regularly transported tourists, he took our passports to the immigration office for us the next morning. The dogs were not worth mentioning. The cost difference to transport the dogs by sailboat as opposed to airplane was probably over $1000 since the paperwork in both countries was extensive. I have no idea what cargo prices were. The trip was a bit grueling for the dogs either way. But at least we'd been together.
The Most Beautiful Women in the World. This is the label attributed to Colombian woman, so I was curious and entered Cartagena sure to see this proven true, especially after meeting Paula, who was the wife of the captain I sailed with from Panama. Paula is truly a striking woman. Were all Colombian women going to compare with her? Could it be possible these women were more beautiful than those in Sweden, Somalia and Sri Lanka? I wandered the streets early in the morning, at mid-day, afternoon and evening after arriving in Cartagena. I scoured the landscape while driving through countless villages. My conclusion was certainly there were some gorgeous women, but proportionately no more than in other countries.
"Yes, yes! Definitely the most beautiful," Western men replied, swooning in ecstasy. Was it their bodies? Or did they feel they were just sexier? I e-mailed Andy T., a friend who'd ridden through South America a year before. 'Regarding Colombian women,' he replied, 'yes I thought they were pretty, but not a lot more than the rest of Latin America. My theory is that all these countries have a wide mixture of races living there, and the stirred up gene pool creates a more interesting end product. Kind of like mongrel dogs making better pets than purebreds... ' Other men's answers were vague, but consistent. Colombian women were the most beautiful. I didn't get it.
Many Latin women adore spending time preening and there's a huge emphasis placed on being sexy. I took a break from driving at the top of a mountain where there was a small village six hours from the closest city. I clambered up a narrow track negotiating the rocks and uneven surface. Behind me was a local mother about 30 wearing tight jeans and high heels. I couldn't imagine the same in the US. On the coasts where it's hot, almost every women of every age and background wear very low cut, skin tight tops that announce, "These are my boobs." It's such a part of their cultural 'uniform' that it carries less emphasis than it would in the US. On the Colombian coast, I felt this attire was slightly more pronounced. But not overly. I didn't feel this was what men were focused on.
I arrived in the capital of Bogata to stay in an upscale neighborhood at the invite of a young American man who works with the US embassy. I'd met his mother two years earlier doing animal rescue work in New Orleans. When she heard I was going to be in Colombia, she introduced me by email to her son. He was going to be traveling for two weeks and offered me his apartment. Though I'm not much of a city person, this was all the incentive I needed to drive over twelve hours from Medellin to Bogota. After two months of driving, camping in difficult areas, and arranging transport over the Darien Gap, myself and the dogs needed a break.
I walked Bogota's busy streets. Same conclusion as before, attractive women, unattractive women but most in the middle. Then one day I went to the local grocery store. While standing in line, I was suddenly surrounded by outrageously stunning women, all dressed in chic clothes with hair carefully tousled for that just-out-of-bed look. And expensive make-up discreetly applied.
I thought of Paris Hilton, a lighter skinned version of these women. There's no way I can write this without sounding catty, but while Paris Hilton is stunning, she is not beautiful. She has presence. Her facade sets her apart. These women were no different. Were the Western men living in Colombia focusing on women from this echelon of society? And those men visiting, were they focusing on women out clubbing, who would naturally be decked out? While in contrast, the women I was seeing while wandering streets in market areas were women selling fruit and vegetables for half the price than in the upscale supermarkets. How much is money at the root of beauty? Certainly in America, beauty is for sale at spas, saloons and skin specialists.
Is it possible the story of Colombia's beautiful women been told so many times, that men, eager to discover the perfect female form, believe these stories out of desire. And if these women are indeed more beautiful, wouldn't it also be true that the men are amongst the most handsome in the world? Because surely, genes are genes? Though I've seen some devastatingly gorgeous Colombian men, I don't feel any more so than in the other 35 countries I've visited. Or maybe, it's an attitude. Colombia is a country having endured four decades of civil war. People are eager to dispel the rumor their country is dangerous and come across as friendly and giving and attentive. Just what men like. Or maybe this is just a man thing, and it's just not possible for me to 'get it'.
Another benefit to being in Bogota was my host told me there was an abundance of bomb-sniffer dogs in Colombia's capital. The dogs you see outside banks, malls, apartment buildings and other high security areas seem to have helped in the capital, as the homicide rate has dropped a stunning 70% in ten years.
From the moment we got to Bogota, strangers on the street looked at my dogs and asked, 'Que rasa?' What breed? And it was no wonder. Dog and Bruiser are exotic here in the eastern mountain slopes, in the upscale area of Rosales where every apartment building has a security guard who will only unlock the door if he knows you. This is an area where many dogs are walked several times a day not by their owners, but by maids who often have skin tones several shades darker than their employees, or young men who as on the streets of NY, go door to door to gather up numerous dogs and either walk the dogs in an artificial pack on short leads on brick and cement sidewalks or drive them in a van with three tiered kennels to play for the day. The lucky ones go to the outskirts of town and romp on green grass. The others spend their time under artificial lights on sawdust.
Beagles are popular and we also see Boxers, some tiny miniature Doberman's and some fluffy frou-frou dogs. But the vast majority of dogs are Labradors. And one thing is certain. There are no rescue or street dogs. Which is why we get the attention. It's the south part of town, which is much safer than 10 years ago when homicides were 70% higher, where the street dogs are.
I hold pet food companies largely responsible for this class divide. Though canned food is rarely available in Colombia, Pedigree and Purina line supermarket shelves along with locally produced brands such as Bonzo. But the ads on tv are from Pedigree and Purina. Unless Colombian's tune into Animal Planet, ads from pet food companies are the dogs they see on tv. Just as in most advertising, we allow advertisers to make the rules and set the standards. And just like in the states, the dog of choice are fluffy, furry and overly friendly.
If all this sounds similar to the status quo in America, Colombian's relationship to their dogs is not. Walk the streets and despite traffic whizzing by in a style which would make New Yorkers alarmed, you'll be sure to see some dog owners walking their dogs without leads. On rural roads this is normal, and I believe one of the most beautiful sites in the world is women walking to the market with the family dog trotting happily beside, in front or behind, of the dog's own choosing. To someone growing up in America, this is initially an alarming sight, and the initial thought is, What about cars???? Remarkably, having driven through all of Central America I saw few dog carcasses on the roads. Just like us, dogs learn from experience, from peers, from owners and from their parents. Roads are dangerous. Look before crossing. It is the survival of the fittest and the smartest. To think otherwise is to subject dogs to a state of childishness.
Nevertheless, it is a shock to see some city dwellers using these same practices. Their dogs chase along the sidewalk, beside, in front and behind their people. These dogs didn't learn these ropes over the course of a few generations, but because they'd grown up as pups on these city streets. I find it amazing some city Colombians have joined together two disparate dogs worlds to create new rules.
While here, I've worked on a story about bomb-sniffer dogs. Even though I've only seen a few street dogs in the upscale neighborhood I've been staying, there's quite a few in other areas of town. I ask Dr. Nancy, the veterinarian who treats the 110 dogs at the police center if they ever use street dogs for sniffing. Predictably, the answer is no. And I'm reluctant to admit the explanation makes sense. Street dogs are too easily distracted. I have to agree. Dog and Bruiser grew up on the rural streets of Kenya and ate whatever scraps they could find. Bruiser especially has never veered from this habit, never quite convinced the meals I feed him are not his last.
Holding Bruiser at the end of a retractable lead while walking the streets is a battle in Bogota. This neighborhood has a plethora of restaurants, many catering to take out. Food gets dropped often while people cross the streets. Bruiser quickly forgets all I've taught him about the dangers of cars for the promise of a quick snack. Twice when we come out from an off-lead park he chases across a street and makes a bee-line for a few bags of garbage he'd sniffed earlier. I'm not at all certain if he's looked to see if cars are coming and like a mother with a disobedient child, I scold him, fearful of what could've happened. Unfair on my part, as in most locations, he's free to wander at whim.
I plan to leave city life shortly. It's time to head for open spaces. Nothing sounds better than to wake up in the morning, fling the doors of my van open and let the dogs run free... as all dogs should have the liberty to do.
Best wishes to you all, Lorraine