I hate dogs. There, I said it. I don’t find them cute, I hate when they lick you after licking their nether regions all day, and I hate that people buy them clothes.
Or at least I did before our encounter with her.
It was on a peaceful mid-morning stroll down a quiet beach trail that we first met Maria. We didn’t call her that then – for now she was just stray dog number #127 in this sleepy little beach town.
But it wasn’t long before we realized she wasn’t like the other neighborhood canines.
We didn’t know exactly how to reach our destination that morning but the owner of the cabin we stayed at had told us there was only one road down to the beach, so we couldn’t get lost. Things weren’t quite as straight forward as he seemed to think, with pathways spraying off – one looking equally as much a “main track” as the next – frequently veering around hidden corners left and right, leading into little shaded courtyards, quiet family shops, or down to the shore where fisher-children in their little boats hang out. It turned out we needed some help with directions. And fortunately on this day, Maria decided to oblige.
It was about 15 minutes down the path that we realized Maria (we decided she needed to have a Spanish lady’s name) knew well the way to the beach and was indeed leading us there – experience telling her of course, that that’s where tourists are normally headed. At this stage I figured from a stray dog’s mind it was a pretty easy gig. Pick up a tourist walking along the path, walk with them down to the beach and maybe they give you some of their food.
But Maria’s level of commitment seemed to betray that she was in it for more than just a meal.
We were advised by a local man that the normal path down to the beach (where Maria was leading us) had been flooded and that we needed to go an alternate route. As soon as Maria saw us change plans she was back out in front, leading us down the alternate route, obviously knowing the way just as well as the man who advised us.
Then came a challenge. A river crossing.
This alternate route involved making our way across a flowing body of water of about 50 meters width that was along side the beach, rushing into the ocean. Of course, Maria was the first in.
We could stand up in the waist high water but for Maria, with only an average dogs swimming skills, paddling against a current is tough. “It’s a pretty hard way to earn a feed Maria”, I thought.
Nonetheless, we crossed the river and carried on the path. After one more disagreement where we inevitably deferred to Maria’s navigational judgment, we were at our destination. We’d also officially declared Maria our friend for the weekend.
We brought Maria some tacos from the local restaurant on the beachfront but not once did it seem like that’s what she was there for. She didn’t sit by us looking up with those doggy eyes. She didn’t beg, she hardly stirred. Maria was too wise for that. She had too much dignity.
She sat by us for the afternoon, relaxing, popping into the waves for a swim when we did, and retiring to her spot in the shade when we did. About this point we realized Maria didn’t really want food. She wanted a friend.
So it came time to leave the beach and jump in a little boat to take the short trip across the bay back to our cabin. By this time it was decided that Maria was coming with us. We were preparing to lift her on to the boat and everything. What we didn’t realize was that Maria had already made the decision for us. No lifting was required.
Maria, with all the strength in her old bones, leaped from the shoreline, got her front paws over the edge of the boat, and wriggled her way in. By now the idea that this was a scam she pulled to pick up free food was long gone. For at this stage even I, dog hater extraordinaire was convinced that Maria “liked” us, and wanted to be in our company. But the spectacle that was Maria continued to grow.
We arrived back at our beach, from where we had to walk about 100m to our cabin. Maria hadn’t seen us at this place earlier in the day as we had only met her much farther down the path. She didn’t know where we lived, so we figured this time we would be leading her.
As soon as we started walking Maria took off up ahead. We thought maybe that was it, and she was returning to her home somewhere around here too. But strangely, somehow, she was walking in the direction of our house.
By this time we believed Maria capable of anything but none of us really thought there was some way she could know which house we’d lived in.
We continued up the path, around the corner, up the steps, and sure enough, there was Maria, sitting patiently at our front door.
The four of us stood speechless, our jaws hanging open.
How many tourists must have stayed in this house? How many times can this dog have done this? Maybe she picked up our smell but how many tourists smells must she have smelled that day? How many similar smelling tourists must have lived in the same area? How had she done it? And WHY?
In that moment, Maria became the most extraordinary dog that had ever lived.
She spent the night, we cooked her dinner, she stood guard over our house and barked when people came to the door, and politely walked to the exit to notify us when she needed to go potty.
We hung out for the rest of the weekend and when we left, sadly, we parted.
Still one week later I can’t come to terms with the fact that a stray dog, obviously kicked around in its life, underfed, malnourished and disadvantaged, could have developed such a kind and gentle nature.
I didn’t think stray dogs would develop connections with people – they don’t have owners! I didn’t think stray dogs would know that they shouldn’t do their business in the house! I didn’t think stray dogs would have the tendency to be protective over a given area – they don’t have homes!
I’m not the kind of person who says things like this, or even believes the following statement to be possible, but I can’t help but think that somehow, Maria “cared” about us. We hadn’t raised her, and we’d only known her for half a day, but she wanted to be around us. She wanted to make sure we were alright.
And you know what? If there’d been doggy t-shirts for sale in Yelapa – I might just have bought her one.