Colombia; Utter the word Colombia and many people immediately conjure up thoughts of three things; coffee, cocaine and kidnapping! But to make this assumption or to go down this path is doing the country, its people and its dogs a huge injustice!
After spending six days travelling on a 43 foot yacht from Portobelo, Panama via the beautiful San Blas Islands, (including two days crossing the open ocean in less than ideal conditions), I arrived at my first South American country, Colombia, and into the harbour of the beautiful, historical city of Cartagena.
Through the process of disembarking, getting my bearings and hunting down some accommodation, it became immediately apparent that the Colombian people I had met so far, were, by and large, colourful, warm, friendly and incredibly helpful. My impressions of the Colombian people only strengthened during my time there. As each hostel I entered advised me of their premises being full, they also provided me with suggestions as to other places I might try. Genuinely helpful people who went above and beyond for no other reason than to be helpful. I could tell I was going to enjoy being in this country.
Equally, it became abundantly clear that this city, like many other towns, cities and villages that I came to visit over my three months in the Colombia, was heavily populated with dogs; street dogs, pet dogs, military dogs and (other) working dogs. I explored both the main streets and back streets, old town and new town and acquainted myself with my surroundings. In the process I met a number of people and dogs in the process.
One of my most vivid and touching dog memories within Colombia and indeed that year travelling, was in the city of Medellin, home of the infamous and now deceased, Pablo Escobar. I was staying in the trendy area of El Poblado, known for its nightlife, cafes and restaurants. It is frequented by locals and tourists alike. I was walking through the back streets one day and saw on the other side of the street, a man, who through his appearance, I gauged was homeless. In itself, this was not surprising, as by this stage, I had come to recognise the huge disparity of wealth in Colombia, particularly in the affluent area of El Poblado, where the extremes of social status was even more evident. What was surprising was that the man was pulling a large, wooden cart up the incline of the street and had four dogs tied on leads to the cart and one sitting regally on top of the cart, who too, were trudging up the street with this man as he carted his belongings. I was enchanted with this man's unknown story. This was a person who clearly had little money but huge volumes of love for his dogs. After some five minutes following him from the other side of the road, I noticed additional movement on top of the cart. Even more captivated and curious than before, I decided to approach him. With my somewhat limited Spanish (of the time), I tried to ask him more about his beloved animals and his personal situation. He told me he had more than the four dogs I could see. He then peeled back layers of cardboard to reveal a cardboard box housing a number of puppies , who would have been no more than a few months old. In total he was carting around ten dogs.
It didn't stop there. I offered to buy him some lunch and the dogs some food. Over the next 30 minutes or so he told me more of his and his dogs' lives. They all had names, given by him and he had more dogs that he cared for by one of the many local rivers. By this time I had been in Medellin and its surroundings for a couple of weeks. I had travelled all over the city and to surrounding towns in the Antioquia region. I had come to know that many homeless in the city lived by the many rivers around Medellin. Housed by cardboard and cast away plastic, the homeless, like the Colombians at large, were industrious and were not wasteful of anything. He collected cardboard, which the country recycled and offered cash to those who collected it. This was his limited source of income.
His dogs, albeit somewhat dirty looking, looked relatively healthy and well-fed. I asked him how he managed to and why he looked after so many dogs. His answer was such a heartfelt one which demonstrated his love for these dogs in such a simple way, 'Who else would look after them' he replied. I said nothing in return, instead gesturing my understanding with a gentle nod of my head.
Through all my years of travelling, one consistent I have noticed and something which still has the ability to surprise me and humble me, is the generosity of those who have so little. This man, for whatever the catalyst may have been, was homeless and clearly had few possessions. What he did have, however, was an ability and desire to look after and house those with even less than himself, his ten plus dogs! He did this with a sense of purpose, with love, compassion, pride and dignity.
Colombia, its people and dogs showed me a warmth, strength of character and sense of resilience. For the harshness this man (and the country for that matter) has undoubtedly seen, he maintained a soft side, a side who cared and protected his dogs, no doubt his family. He took in those who could not care for themselves, for no other reason than to help those less fortunate. Something we could all take a note of and learn from, myself included.
I walked away from my chance meeting with this stranger feeling richer for having met him.