Living up in the mountains overlooking Quito – the self-proclaimed ‘middle of nowhere‘ – has been a rather unique education to the smaller pockets of Ecuadorian society.
Up here, the houses have names, not addresses; there are more farm animals wandering around than people, and a little yellow school bus driven by Pepe doubles up as the sole taxi to take us all the way down to the main road.
We walk around the neighbourhood and skitter down the paths almost every day, either relishing in the mystery of total cloud cover across the valley, or gasping audibly at the views that reveal themselves after the fog passes.
We wave hello to children coming home from school, exchange brief greetings with the shop owners who stand idle outside their wares, and walk gigglingly past the teens on bikes who shout “gringo!” because they’re not sure why we’re in their territory.
The area is beautiful, and the residents are fascinating – but I’m not just talking about the rural lifestyle that the locals live up here, away from the capital, at an altitude of over 3000 metres. There is another group of characters; a set who patrol stone walls, run rampant up and down the slippery mud and loose rocks of the crooked paths between houses, and shout loudly at anything that moves.
These are the roof dogs of Quito, and they are absolutely mental.
I’ve always had a healthy respect for dogs. While I’ve never actually had a bad experience with one, since a group of them charged me at 5am in Northern Thailand, I tend to keep my distance if they look at all disgruntled.
Me and the roof dogs are no different. In the last two weeks I’ve changed my mind about their behaviour more times than I can count, because however cute I think they seem on first appearance, there’s always a worrying gleam in their eye that makes me take a step backwards.
Plus a great deal of Ecuadorian dogs seem to have overly red eyes, which isn’t very supportive for the whole “it’s alright, they probably don’t have rabies” mentality.
My biggest difficulty, though, is that I set out for Ecuador with the fervent vow that I would try everything: be it strange food, activities out of my comfort zone, or making spontaneous decisions, I would give it a shot at least. So far I’ve kept to my word – it’s how I ended up paragliding last week, and it’s why I’ll be getting stuck into a few surprising uses of my time once I make it down to Cuenca and start teaching properly.
But when the route of our daily walks goes past a huge group of roof dogs, barking and jumping in excitement that some fresh meat will be tantalisingly close to them, my heart starts going a mile a minute, and I lose my cool a bit.
There’s no doubt that a lot of these dogs would bite you as soon as they got close, which is why they’re not allowed down onto the ground. And the ones that do wander along the street are treated with the utmost respect (even if I want to turn tail and run) because the idea of sudden movement resulting in a pair of teeth in my heel is just too much to bear.
But then I started thinking about the life these roof dogs live. Sure, they’re angry – but probably because their families train them to always expect danger when someone approaches. And they bark like mad – but it’s just to warn us that we’re getting too close to their property. Their territorial nature is actually rather admirable, and it shows a rather important aspect of Ecuadorian culture: while community and family here is highly valued, there’s also a definite need to stake out one’s possessions and ensure that others respect the boundary you create.
It’s not all quite so threatening though. There are the puppies being trained by their parents to terrorise strangers who pass by – except they haven’t quite got the hang of it yet, and flop over the sides of the walls in an attempt to bark in high pitched voices. There are the much older, more sedate dogs, who simply stand at the roadside and watch you walk past with a look of distain, because they’re just too unbothered about attacking you.
Then there are the days when the cloud clears and the sun beams down onto the top of the mountain, the days when even the roof dogs get too lethargic and hot to patrol the roof, and only have the ability to lie in the grass and pant.
I’m still a little fearful of these Ecuadorian dogs, but the knowledge that I have a little Yorkshire terrier at my host family’s house in Cuenca is somewhat soothing. Hopefully she’ll bark at me a bit less than the guys around here.
The roof dogs of Quito lead an odd life. On the one hand, they’re isolated, angry, and unloved by their owners. But on the other, they’re the masters of their territory, impassioned about what they do, and their vantage point over the city pretty much makes them the most spoilt-for-scenery dogs in Ecuador.
And who knows? They might really like barking out at each other over those views.