I’ve often been accused of caring about animals more than people. (After all, I’m a vegetarian-turned-vegan and an animals-rights supporter. Or so the arguments have gone.) While this couldn’t be further from the truth at this point in my life, there have been times where I was a die-hard misanthrope that wanted to be a chimpanzee rather than brave the embarrassment of being part of the human race. After all, who wants to join the club of exploiters of their own kind, destroyers of the earth, war-wagers, litter-makers, and poverty sustainers (not to mention homophobes, racists, and so on and so forth)? Yes, I admit my past romanticism. Animals don’t always have it so easy. In fact, they normally don’t. Maybe that’s why I so adamantly voice their rights when they can’t.
Anyhow, this is not the story of the many, many people I have met on the road. It’s not about the variety of conversations I’ve engaged in, or the lasting friendships I have formed with people all of the world… It’s about the animals. See, my heart is always open to whomever or whatever I encounter that seems to need help, be fed, or simply have a friend to play with. When I stepped out of my first world bubble and into the reality of third world life, I began to understand the truth of many people’s day-to-day struggles. When families cannot even feed their kids, how can they feed their pets? How can they even afford pets? And so they don’t. There is a widespread epidemic of strays in Latin America- obviously not in every city or every country, but when you’re backpacking about, you see it quite often. Cities many times can’t afford to implement neutering/spaying of pets, and also can’t pay for animal control. Story has it that once in a while authorities will go around shooting the animals as a way of population control. I don’t know if this is true, so don’t quote me on it. But I believe it.
My odyssey of animal befriending started in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. I ended up meeting my Mexican ex-boyfriend one day because I was petting a black and white stray cat in one of the artesania stalls where he worked. “If you want, you can buy her, too. She can go on the plane back to your home.” In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t stooped down to pet the cat, but that’s beside the point.
When I was living in Argentina, I was in Buenos Aires, where everyone- and I mean everyone- has a dog. And they live in apartments. Go figure. Because of this, dog shit is everywhere. I reminisced about the city streets in New York often, dreaming about their cleanliness. At least in NYC it was only piled garbage at the edge of the sidewalk, not doggie crap menacingly dumped in the middle of the pathway. I tried to avoid it, but my shoes fell victim a few times. Now, what’s really amazing about Buenos Aires is the dogwalkers. They walk dogs 10, 15, 20 at a time. Leashes are strewn to small, medium and large dogs of all different breeds, and the walker goes all about the city with this small herd as if he or she is just walking a chihuahua to the corner. Did I mention that there a bunch of stray cats in the city parks, and the dogs are walked through there? I thought about being a dogwalker for a second and then gained my wits.
When I explored the expanse of Argentinean country, furry animals became my best travel partners. I went to Puerto Madryn with some friends and the first day we were there, they decided to go for a bike ride right after we landed. I hadn’t slept the night before, and had gone out the three previous nights, so I decided to stay behind. (Yes, this was very typical of me in Buenos Aires. I was twenty-two and liked to party.) When I woke up from my nap, I went to the nearest beach to write and came across a stray dog. We ended up taking lots of pictures and hanging out for a good two hours. He followed me halfway back to the hostel and then, I presume, gave up.
In Chile, I was amazed at the multitude of stray dogs that were there. It was overwhelming. I had never seen anything like it. Especially in Valparaíso, the dogs ran around in packs, skinny, mangy, doubtless full of fleas and void of food. They ran together, fighting, begging, chasing each other and trying to find scraps in garbages or at open-air restaurants. It broke my heart. There was one dog in particular that I gave some of my leftovers to. He then followed us from the restaurant to a bar across town. And to another bar. And then all the way back to the hostel. There was nothing to do but close the door in his face. When I looked down from the balcony early the next morning, he was still there. I wanted to put him in my backpack and take him with me. It hurt not to be able to give him the friendship he so deserved.
When I got to Peru, my traveling friends and I had finally reached Urubamba, which is where the train picks you up to go to Aguascalientes, the base of Machu Picchu. Urubamba itself is laden with history- the brick houses there are supposedly the oldest in Peru and believed to once house Incans. We stayed there for two days, checking out the houses, trying to talk to the shy locals, climbing around the ruins, and eating fresh locro (corn on the cob). On the second day, my friend Alex and I noticed that three or four pigs were overturning garbages and eating whatever they could find that appealed to them. We didn’t pet them, but we hung out with them for awhile, singing “Chanchos en la Plaza” (Pigs in the Plaza) to the tune of Shakira’s song, “Moscas en la Casa” (Flies in the House).
I volunteered in Tambillo, Ecuador at La Hacienda Santa Martha, which is a rescue center for exotic animals about an hour and a half southwest of the city capital, Quito. The animals there have been kept as pets, rescued from animal traffickers, or are retired circus animals. I worked with lions, capuchin monkeys, wooly monkeys, a Galapagos Tortoise, a Galapagos Hawk, ocelots, pumas, parrots, Andean bears, jaguars. It rained practically the whole time we were there, which made trekking around on the mountain watering, feeding, and shoveling crap around quite fun. Anyhow, there was one particular capuchin monkey there that had his own enclosure. His name was Pancho. He had been kept as a pet before he got to the Hacienda, and he would always pick my pockets, unzipping those that had zippers, and steal the bananas that I planned on giving to him anyhow. I liked Pancho because he was always outwitting the humans around him and got himself out of his enclosure two times when I was there- and this was only a week and a half stay.
Brazil was no different than the other Latin American countries. In Pantanal, which is an expansive marshy area south of the Amazon, flora and fauna are abundant. I got left behind from my tour group because I took too long trying to get the perfect picture of a really cool spider. I won’t provide a picture because that spider was not my friend, and could have inadvertently been my final demise. Anyhow, there was a boar that stayed at the hostel named Marisa, and I quite liked her. For some reason, I decided it would be a good idea to put my hand in her mouth to feel her teeth (was I drinking too much cachaça?). Nothing bad happened, fortunately, but Marisa was an odd pet.
One night in Rio de Janeiro, I found a kitten outside of our hostel with a collar on, but no name or phone number. I looked into the quarantine process for taking an animals out of South America and into the U.S., and unsurprisingly, it was ridiculous. I would’ve had to keep her quarantined for over a month before I could get her home. This would’ve been too taxing a process for such a young animal, so I made the owner of the hostel promise to adopt her. I was there for two weeks, so it wasn’t like I just waltzed in there and demanded some stranger to adopt an animal. That would be ridiculous. ;P) He did, but supposedly she escaped a couple weeks later.
Wherever I go, animals follow me. Or maybe I follow them. Who knows? All I’m sure of is that, when traveling, or even when staying at home, animals are definitely a large part of my experience. It adds a certain element, a certain diversity of connection and communication that cannot replace human connection, but undoubtedly has a value all its own. I’ll leave you with a couple more pictures.