It was early June when I encountered the dog. The month began with the unwelcome news lock-down was being extended for another 30 days, subjecting Colombia to the longest continuous quarantine in the world. The tension mounts. The big cities are pressure cookers of poverty and paranoia as progress towards a better tomorrow is paused, perhaps permanently.

There is an expression here in Colombia: ‘plata o plomo’. Translated directly it means ‘silver or lead’, the two choices you face when a cartel offers you a bribe. “Take the money and do as you are told or get a bullet in the head.”

Silver or lead. It could just as well apply to the colours of the wet season in the Andes. Great plumes of cloud steam off the jungle canopy. Infinite shades of grey transform the chain of mountain peaks into an uncharted archipelago lost in limbo.

It was the 108th day of lock-down when I trudged the crooked mile down the mountainside on a mission to the farmacia to buy antibiotics. The truth was I didn’t need penicillin, I needed to see the outside world. Spend your life running and ducking and you forget how to stand still. On my way home I lingered, determined to wring every last drop of sensation from my brief release. The mighty Andes was blanketed in cloud, nothing left of Colombia but the unchanging slate vista. Even the birds disappeared into the fog bank, their song muted by the curtain of mist.

 

Mighty to the micro

Deprived of scenery I turned my attention from the mighty to the micro. These cloudy months are when normally pedestrian insects take flight in search of undiscovered nest sites and virgin territory. Blundering beetles take to the air alongside ants with temporary wings, a flying circus of mismatched, miniature aircraft flown by inebriated pilots.

A huge rhino-beetle zig-zags across the road before bumping into me and dropping to the ground like a carelessly lobbed pebble. I watch the beetle lying helplessly on his back, his legs waving frantically as he tries to turn himself over. He reminds me of myself when I first arrived in Colombia – overwhelmed by heat and culture shock.

“You’re a splendid fella aren’t you?’ I say, admiring the insect’s emerald exoskeleton as I crouch down and flip the beetle back on its feet using my house key. The beetle lumbers towards the long grass – CRUNCH! Canine jaws snap shut, the iridescent carapace crushed as a stray dog emerges munching what remains of the beetle.

He’s a little mutt with huge balls, a xylophone ribcage and a stomach sucked in against his spine. More of a skeleton than a dog. I extend a hand slowly to let him sniff my fingers but he leaps back, forelegs stiff, mouth menacing. As I try coaxing him he looks at me in a strangely wistful way, pressing himself low to the ground and wriggling over my feet. There’s a shambling broken-souled poetry about this canine wreckage, this furry flotsam wagging his tail and sitting on his haunches.

His muzzle and flanks are etched with scars like a map of his journey through life, a wordless story that started a thousand miles away in a Wayuu settlement in Venezuela. I stroke his oily fur, feeling the stringy muscles like steel wire under his coat. Under close examination I realise the dog isn’t as ancient as I first thought but quite young, prematurely grizzled by hard years and grim experience.

 

Jackal ears

The dog has impressive jackal ears that speak of Xoloitzcuintli heritage. According to legend the Xolo breed was born when the Mayan god of death, Xolotl, created a dog from the Bone of Life. Xolotl gave the dog to man and instructed him to guard it with his life. In exchange, the dog would guide mankind through the underworld on the way to the heavens.

So it was apt the day of this dog’s birth fell on a celebration of death. His mother’s birth-whimpers drowned out by drums, flutes and chanting as the tribe paid honour to a long-dead wise-woman. The cycle of life doesn’t end at death for the Wayuu. After five years the bones of the departed are exhumed with great ceremony, wrapped in a chinchorro, a traditional hammock, and reburied in the clan’s cemetery.

Of course the newborn puppy knew nothing of this, only the ultimate security of maternal warmth. Long before the caress of his mother’s tongue opened his eyes the sounds and smells of the settlement flooded his senses. Shouting and laughter, the smell of cooking, of guajirito rice and stewing iguana. The bodies of his siblings, romping with them, tiny throats vibrating with the distant ancestor of a growl.

The puppy’s eyes hadn’t been open long, yet he could already see gun-barrel straight when he met his god, the nine-year-old Wayuu boy who was to become the centre of his universe. A child and a puppy. A mutual love that burns with a blinding brightness because their shared condition of innocence is so tragically transient. Pure. Demanding nothing. Maybe this is why god is dog spelt backwards?

The boy called the puppy Chop and, having received a name in this world, the puppy grew up on a traditional Wayuu settlement, a small cluster of circular huts built from wattle and daub using wood from the dagger-cactus. He hunted rats in the shade of strategically planted cacti that created a living fence, protecting the goats and providing sustenance in the form of fruit. His formative days were spent following his young master on his routine, absorbing the ways of the ancient people among whom he dwelled.

 

The Wayuu culture

The culture of Wayuu people is endlessly expressed in daily life, nowhere more so than in their weaving, a skill learned from infancy. Endlessly crocheting brightly coloured shawls, footwear, bags, hammocks, blankets – the threads of history rendered in textile. According to myth, the Wayuu were taught the skill by a magical spider called Walekeru, a creature not unlike Arachne of Olympus. Both were condemned by those jealous of their talent to weave their lovely tapestries forever with eight-armed dexterity. No-one is more trapped in the web than the weaver.

The tribe lived in tune with the immutable cycle of Amazonia – birth, death, forest fires, rains and rebirth. During the dry season the tribe would migrate, crossing the border into Venezuela, the women and children selling their weaving by the river while the men worked seasonal labouring jobs in the city of Maracaibo.

The dog never speculated much on heaven, although I’m sure he could tell you a tail or two about hell. Maybe the closest he ever got to paradise were the lazy days by the river? Tumbling after his boy, his god, as the boy fetched something for his mother, a smiling woman who would pout with her lips at what she needed instead of pointing with her finger.

When the rains came they would migrate back across the border to their forest dwellings in Colombia. The wheel of the seasons turned and the dog and his boy grew strong on their annual migration – until the wheel broke. The economy in Venezuela collapsed and more than a million refugees fled for the border leaving the transnational indigenous tribes with nowhere to go.

The human cost of the collapse is everywhere in Colombia. Homeless refugees, displaced families with no education or food in what has become the largest displacement crisis in the Western hemisphere.

As I walk back down the hill to buy food Chop follows a few paces behind, stopping when I stop, carefully keeping the distance between us. A woman breast-feeding a new baby begs outside the supermarket, two small children peeping out from behind her skirt. Chop lingers outside with the family while I buy two roast chickens and some fruit and water. I give one of the chickens and the fruit to the woman and reply with an embarrassed “de nada” when she thanks me – it really was nothing.

I sit on a wall and rip my way into the chicken as Chop watches with the wistfulness of ravenous hunger – his gustatory sensations so excited his mouth opens and the saliva drools forth. I throw a chunk of chicken that disappears in moments. Chop licks his chops with the pleasure of anticipation as I tear him off more meat. He is skin stretched over a bony frame with strings for muscles. I wonder how he locomoted without collapsing? I watch Chop eat as his journey unfolds in my mind’s eye.

 

Terrible day of change

The terrible day of change came when the Wayuu left their village for the last time. The sky was bright but the cloud low when the dog followed his boy and their small clan on a march to nowhere. Men, women, children, all heavily burdened as their weary feet tread the lethargic pilgrimage of poverty. With nowhere else to go they head upland through the tropical savanna to the Colombia border city of Cúcuta.

The Wayuu group has been swelled by new faces and many new dogs. The newcomers’ language sounds strange to the pup, having grown up hearing only Arawak. Food is in short supply. Chop develops a taste for insects after some Yukpa indians who joined the group show them how to consume wasps by knocking the paper nests on to a fire and eating the toasted larvae.

Chop gets on the wrong side of one of the new dogs, a belligerent part-grown pit bull, and loses half an ear, learning a savage lesson about the cruelty of the pack. Greatly perturbed and worried by this new adventure, Chop spends the rest of the dismal trudge to Cúcuta glued to his master’s side. The group is half-dead from hunger by the time it reaches Cúcuta. They sleepwalk past Christo Rey Hill and stop at El Malecón, a riverside promenade, to sell trinkets before the police move them on.

The exhausted group takes refuge under the San Rafael Bridge and shuffles past a man with no legs cooking a rat on a stick. His fire is made from trash he has scraped together. Despite having no legs he has no wheelchair or any other mode of locomotion. Hundreds of homeless families are living under the bridge, sleeping in cardboard boxes. A few of the lucky ones have dome tents covered in taped-up slashes from repeated robberies.

 

Unwashed misery

Chop has never smelled anything like the camp before – the stench of disease and unwashed misery. The side of the camp is hung with banners pleading for help that will never come. The Wayuu feel a loss, a need for the hush and peace of the rainforest. There are so many newcomers here – men, women, children – all making noise. Then there are the dogs, always snarling and fighting.

Here the very air is palpitating with life. It hums and buzzes unceasingly as mosquitos feast on human and dog alike, adding to the toll of human misery. The thud of music, urban filth and screams in the night attack the young dog’s senses. The noise continually changes intensity, making him nervous. He barks at nothing and earns himself a cuff from his master. Chop spends the night restless and worried.

Chop’s group decides to push on and risk the journey to Bucaramanga, a perilous 2,900-metre ascent through areas controlled by armed groups who prey on refugees. The group leaves in the morning, crossing the same bridge they slept beneath. There are more men and many women and children – maybe 100 souls – all heavily burdened. The indigenous people in the border areas of Amazonia – the Yukpa, Motilon and Wayuu – are caught up in the shifting flow of history. Some of the group are sick from drinking contaminated river water. The children suffer from infected mosquito bites.

The terrain is an endless emerald ocean and the travellers seem pitifully small, pitting themselves against the might of a merciless world. There’s a horrible comedy about it – laughing at the futility of life and all our efforts and plans. A 15-year-old pregnant girl who suffers from epilepsy has to be carried on a makeshift stretcher.

The land itself teems with life but provides little sustenance. Insect hordes wait to devour the exhausted when they fall to the ground, faces set in a rictus grin as they finally get the punchline to the great cosmic joke – all this time you were only here to provide sustenance for an endless army of ants.

 

Men in green

I feed Chop the last shreds of chicken. Across the road at the army base two young soldiers are trying to knock mangos out of a tree using a broom, their AK-47s hanging behind them. Chop’s muzzle rises, his tail stiffens, hackles bristle and nostrils dilate as he sniffs the air. His face is distorted with menace out of all proportion to the unthreatening men, nose wrinkling from tip to eyes so prodigious is his snarl. The little dog growls deep in his throat.

I’m surprised by his hostile reaction to the men in uniform but then I didn’t know about the last time Chop saw men in olive green. The day Chop’s world was shattered forever.

The Wayuu group had walked almost 100 miles following the route of Ambrosius Ehinger 500 years before them. Through the patchwork geography of North Santander, across mountains, deserts, forests, a dozen rivers in low-lying country before the climb through the mountains. Like Ambrosius Ehinger they are ambushed in the Bobalí mountains. Men in olive green uniforms appear out of the jungle – cartel militia looking for refugees to prey on. Some of the Wayuu try to run – and die. When they drag his boy to a waiting truck, Chop attacks the militia and is stunned by a savage kick. When he comes round he is alone, his people taken.

Chop and I don’t discuss their fate. Organ harvesting, sexual exploitation or slave labour to work the cocaine factories. The fate of the forgotten people of South America is grim, silent tragedy playing out for a world that doesn’t care.

 

Hopeless quest

So Chop embarked on a hopeless quest to find his master, bound by some canine code of honour. Running on instinct he continued to Bucaramanga. Up into the mountains, through Manizales and Pereira. More of a skeleton than a dog, stringy muscles animated by the need for his master, Chop ran day and night across the most biodiverse country on the planet. Once he saw a blur of spotted fur and a flashing paw as a jaguar made a kill. He crossed valleys and a dozen mountain streams before reaching the low country where the mountains merge with the softer landscape.

Under an overhanging clay bank he follows the Magdalena river to Honda and El Dorado, hunting game in the small streams but always following the river. In the lowlands while hunting cabybara he almost becomes meat himself. A pack of wild dogs pursue him. Chop is no cousin to the ravenous animals, just more meat to be slashed by hungry fangs. For miles Chop runs. Behind every steel-like contraction of a muscle lies another and another, driven by survival. Hunting cries come from the left and right like the wailing of lost souls. Chop loses the pack somewhere on the freeway into Quindio a few days before I meet him in the town.

I pluck a tick from his ear, an unwelcome passenger from the riverside, and squash the bloated parasite like a holy berry. It’s getting close to the 5pm curfew so I head home, coaxing Chop behind me. The setting sun blushes the pearl sky pink as we climb the mountain. As we reach my building Chop stops. The little dog gives me one last look before turning and disappearing into a narrow tunnel in the bamboo. I try calling him but he’s gone, off on his endless quest to find his master, a canine Don Quixote in a cruel world. I wish life wasn’t so vicious and that terrible things didn’t happen to children and puppies. But a wish is just a wish.