The Dog Days of Summer in Guatemala
Walking a dog in Guatemala should come with one of those warning labels that you sometimes see tacked on neighbors’ backyard fences: ‘Warning: Beware of Dogs’. Or more accurately, ‘Warning: Beware of Street Dogs’. Because the streets of Guatemala are crawling with them. Take a walk through the Guatemalan city of Quetzaltenango and you’re likely to spot an aging, ketchup-colored stray sprawled across the pavement outside a taco shop or a pack of yellow mutts poking through the trash in Central Park.
And while it takes some getting used to having to step over the odd, feral, fleabag sunning himself in the middle of a crosswalk, for the most part, the street dogs leave their human neighbors alone and are quick to slink away whenever a person comes within kicking distance. Well, that is unless you’re tagging along behind a prancing prince Arthur, then apparently you’re downgraded to Street Dog Enemy Numero Uno. Because walking a leashed dog through hostile street dog territory is like parading a live salmon in a shark convention; it’s just asking for trouble. Which is something I’d wish I’d realized before I’d agreed to give Arthur a walk.
Arther the Dog was my roommate’s husky. A large, black and white, thick-furred creature, he would have fit in perfectly somewhere frigid and snowy, say, Antarctica, but stood out in the highlands of Guatemala like a street-side ice cream vendor in well, Antarctica.
And unfortunately for me, Arthur had just bounded out of the apartment and disappeared around the corner.
“Arthur!” I called, chasing after him. I found him watering the tires of a red Honda as a crowd of children watched the process with fascination. I knelt to clip his leash onto his collar, but too quick for me, he expertly danced away and down the block before I had the chance. I felt like one of those embarrassed parents in a fancy restaurant who’s uncooperative two-year-old is throwing cauliflower in the fish tank. I looked to the children for help, but they just stared back at me like I was television. Great.
I’d only volunteered to walk Arthur because I’d hoped that it would somehow repair our broken relationship. Arthur and I hadn’t exactly hit it off. When I’d moved into the apartment in the mountain city of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, a week prior, Arthur had taken one look at me hollered in protest.
“Why is she here?” He seemed to demand in his husky warble, pointing his snout in the air in disgust. I froze in the doorway, holding my backpack in front of me like a shield.
“Don’t worry,” my roommate had said, stroking Arthur’s head. “He’s like that with new people, but he’ll get used to you.”
Only he didn’t. Get used to me, I mean. Over the next few days, Arthur seemed to protest my presence in the apartment by alternately howling at me and and peeing in my bedroom.
“Don’t do that!” I’d chide Arther each time I spotted a fresh trail of urine in my doorway. But he’d just eyeball me, his face as blank as the walls of an igloo. The problem, I believed, boiled down to a simple mater of miscommunication. I spoke and understood English, whereas Arthur only spoke his native Dog and could understand a bit of Spanish. Therefore my shouts of “Don’t!”, “Come here!” and “Stop urinating on my hiking boots!” might as well have been Cat for all he was able to comprehend of them.
Of course I would have happily tried to talk things out in Spanish but at that point I’d only taken two weeks of conversation lessons and my vocabulary was limited to “Me gusta tacos” and “Yo soy de USA,” neither of which I’m sure Arthur would have been interested in learning.
Just as I was debating whether to run after him, a task I wasn’t relishing doing in platform flip-flops and up a cobble-stone hill no less, my roommate came to my rescue. Joining the crowd of onlookers, he whistled and shouted a short, “Arthur!” only he said it with a Spanish accent – Artur. Immediately Arthur bolted back to the group and ran happy circles around his friend, panting and smiling wide at the crowd.
“He wouldn’t listen to me,” I said defensively, shooting Arthur a frown. Arthur ignored me and accepted a pat from one of the children.
“Este es un perro?” Is that a dog? Inquired a woman as she joined the group. She looked at Arthur incredulously.
“Si,” my roommate answered, bemused. “El es un perro.” Yes, he’s a dog. He shot me look as if to say, what else would he be? A perakeet?
“Humm…” She continued to examine him dubiously, as if at any moment Arthur’s jaw would unhinge and he’d latch onto the Honda and take off with it down the street. “El es muy grande.” He’s very big.
Which was a sentiment that everyone in the neighborhood seemed to share. As Arthur lead us down down the bumpy road, excitedly peeing and pooping on every telephone pole or tuft of grass sprouting up in between the cobblestones, the other pedestrians would mumble, “grande” and stop and stare, pointing and laughing at the alien dog and his two alien companions.
But who could blame ’em? Here was a dog who was a dead-ringer for White Fang and my Dutch roommate, who tall, thin and with a buzz-cut, was a dead-ringer for a flagpole. And then there was me; a curly- haired girl in platforms stumbling on the cobblestones behind them like a five-year-old teetering around in her mother’s high heels. Not exactly a sight the average Guatemalan sees every day. And neither was the scene we were about to find ourselves in.
Suddenly the previously empty street came alive. Barks filled the air like piercing fireworks as dogs darted out from the underside of bushes or from behind parked cars. As we cautiously continued down the road, the canine residents of the city seemed to materialize out of nowhere. They barked from atop barb-wired tin roofs and raced out of darkened shop fronts. Each one glared and growled at Arthur with a deep, menacing resentment.
Apparently we’d just crossed into feral dog gang territory, a fact that I’d neglected to notice the dozens of times I’d walked through that neighborhood in the past week. But that had been sans Arthur. The lines that marked one dog’s territory from the next, were as invisible as day-old dog urine on a fire-hydrant and with every turn of a corner I tensed, half-expecting to find the canine calvary laying in wait for us.
“This is sometimes the place where it gets particularly bad,” my roomate cautioned as we continued to creep up the hill towards a row of pink houses. I armed myself with a long stick I found in the bushes and filled my pockets with rocks.
My roomate, in turn, fished his waterbottle out of his backpack and gave it a practice swing, slicing the air with it.
I looked from the cars parked along the side of the road, to the driveways to the homes and back again. A couple of men sat one of the stoops outside, watching our quiet progression with interest and another was bent over, washing the wheels of his dusty station-wagon with a washcloth. Everything about the scene suggested that it was just another, lazy summer afternoon. There wasn’t a single stray in sight. Maybe we were going to get away with it, I thought.
And then, bam. Suddenly a large, black dog shot like a cannon from behind the car-washer’s water bucket. He charged at Arthur, pausing a foot away to bark. Arthur backed up until he’d cornered himself against my roommate’s legs and my roommate sprung into action, waving his water-bottle at the dog like a fly-swatter and hollering “Eee-ya!” His shout caught the attention of a small, white dog who blew in from the bushes and began running aggressive circles around Arthur like a piece of puffy, white sugar caught in a cotton candy machine.
As I stood there dumbly, wondering what I should do to help but not wanting to get anywhere near either dog’s ferocious teeth, a golden-colored pit-bull darted forward.
“It’s a pit-bull!” I yelled to my roommate, pointing out the obvious. This was bad. Arthur may have looked like a wolf, but he was all mushy puppy inside. He stood no chance against the fangs of a yellow monster.
What should I do? I wondered. Attack? Run and get help? Fear paralyzed me. My mind froze and like a moth trapped in a cage, it flittered from one thought to another in a frenzied panic.
The scene reminded me of a time two years ago in India, when I stood on top of hill, holding a rock in one hand and a 20-ounce water bottle in the other. I’d been prepared to do battle that time as well, only it hadn’t been a black-haired dog I was about to fight but a black-haired man.
The man had followed me up the sandy hillside in Rajasthan to the mouth of a nearly deserted temple. I hadn’t been nervous at first. As a foreign woman travelng solo in rural India, I was accostomed to the stares and trail of school children that I’d sometimes find tagging along behind me in mute fascination. But when I noticed the man’s hand disappear under the waistband of his pants, I knew that his motivation for following me had nothing to do with innocent curiosity. Apparently he’d decided that his afternoon in the bright, airy entrance of sacred Hindu Sun temple would be best spent exposing himself to the sunshine and an unsuspecting female hiker. I stopped walking and adjusted my grip on the water bottle and debated what, if any damage it would do if it collided with his face. He seemed to take this as an invitation and shuffled forward until he was standing next to me, only a few feet away. He’d unzipped his pants and now held out his offering like a dog would a bone. His eyes looked at me hungrily.
That was when, without thinking, I morphed into attack mode. I flung the the waterbottle at his face and screamed at the top of my lungs. Not taking my eyes off of him, I then snatched up stones off the ground and fired them wildly. Something very primordial had taken over and as I hurled rocks and insults at him, I could feel my eyes growing wide and my face contorting into a mask of rage and insanity.
“Go away! Or I will kill you!” I roared, throwing in a few choice swear words in between and drawing out the ‘you’ into a long scream.
The black-haired man stared at me, his eyes as wide as Frisbees. Time seemed to stand still for a moment in the dry, desert heat and then like a pirated-DVD vendor in Chinatown who’s just spotted the cops, the man hastily stuffed his prize possession away and without a word, bolted back down the trail.
Now, in Guatemala, I felt that same fighting instinct well up inside of me. Not thinking about what the dogs may do in retaliation, I dug into my pockets, pulled out my ammo, and flung them at them. “EEE-YAA!” I screamed. I waved my stick in their direction. “Get! Go! Va!” I yelled, adding the Spanish on there for good measure. One of the rocks landed near the black one’s tail and the other one hit my roommate in the shoulder, but it was enough to cause the enemy to cease in their barking and turn to see who their latest adversary was.
Just as I was about to make a run for the inside of the nearby soda shop, two of the men who’d been observing from their front-row seats on the porch stoop, ambled over, clapping their hands at the dogs and shouting in Spanish. One of them grabbed the pit bull by the back of the neck and flung him backwards, as if the dog were nothing more than an inconvenient roadblock; a tree log that had rolled in front of our paths. The pit-bull toppled over and then quickly popped onto his feet again. But he backed away, clearly subdued by the threat of one of the men’s black rubber flip flops smashing into his ribcage. The white and black dog followed suit and edged back down the street. The battle had been won.
For the remainder of the walk, I held my stick in front of me like it was a magical wand and paused every few moments to check to see if the coast was clear. With a wolf-dog prancing ahead of me and my wild blond curls and even wilder look in my eyes, I’m sure the neighbors must have wondered if we’d wandered out off the pages of a fairy-tale. Thankfully though, the street dogs seemed to have dissappeared as mysteriously as they’d appeared and we didn’t encounter any further run-ins.
I never gave Arthur a walk again after that. But he never urinated in my room again either. It would seem that more than one battle had been fought and won that day.
Reannon Muth is a part-time writer and full-time travel addict. Originally from Hawaii, she’s lived in five countries and traveled through almost 30. You can follow all of her adventures on her travel blog, Taken by the Wind. She’s currently looking forward to buying her first dog (a maltese though and not a husky). She lives in Northern California.