Gomez the Jungle Dog
Copyright 2019 by Brittany
Runner-Up--2019 Animal Nonfiction
At my feet, trotting in and out of the slivers of sun, was Gomez. Not much bigger than a house cat, and black like the night that hung heavy over this part of Colombia, Gomez fit in well with his surrounds.
He also fit in well with my fellow trekkers and me, having joined us shortly after we set out the previous afternoon on a 28-mile hike slated to take four days. Our destination: La Ciudad Perdida.
Spanish for “The Lost City,” the archaeological site featured an ancient city in Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria thought to have been established around 800 A.D. Likely home to a few thousand people during its peak, and then abandoned during the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s, the site wasn’t rediscovered until 1972. Local treasure hunters looted ceramic pieces and gold figurines, sold them on the Black Market, and essentially put the ancient city back on the map. At the turn of the 21st century, the site became a tourist destination for intrepid travelers who didn’t mind heat, or humidity, or mud, or mosquitoes, or torrential downpours, or even water-borne illnesses—or at least not until they had experienced them.
In addition to seeking the ancient city of lore, I had hoped to spot wild animals. While I figured I would see interesting birds and insects, I withheld any expectations of glimpsing much else.
But within an hour or two of departing El Mamey, a small town in northern Colombia with little more than a few tiendas (stores) and scattered houses, I sighted my first mammal. Bounding down the trail towards me, as if we were long-lost friends who hadn’t seen each other in years, a small black dog wagged its tail with vigor. I bent down, held out my hand, and felt a slobbery tongue licking salt granules off my sweaty palm.
I beamed. A local pet had come out to say hello, get in some licks, and wish us well on our hike.
But after a few minutes, the dog still hadn’t scampered off, so I stopped and bent down again. I rubbed my hand over the animal’s coarse black fur. No collar surfaced under my fingers. No tag hung from anywhere, detailing a name, an address, a phone number—anything that would indicate ownership.
I cocked my head. The dog looked at me with equal curiosity.
Hmm, I thought. I guess that means you’re a jungle dog.
And a male one at that, I realized after doing a little checking under the hood.
The dog wagged his tail, as if he had read my mind and agreed with my internal dialogue. And then he carried on down the trail.
I followed after, not wanting to be left alone in this place that could disappear people simply by separating them from their group members. In vegetation as impenetrable as a brick wall, I had no doubt that stepping off the trail even a few feet would get me lost.
Before long, the dog circled back. He healed at my side as if I had trained him myself, and I smiled.
“You’re a curious little guy, aren’t you?” I said.
He flicked his tail in response.
For the rest of the day, he walked with our group. Sometimes he traipsed next to the other hikers, but usually he kept pace with me. When we stopped to cool off in a swimming hole, he waited. When we took a break to eat some fruit, he sat patiently, grateful for scraps I and some of the others tossed his way. At one point, I instinctively called him Gomez. If even only a slightly less-cliché Spanish surname than Rodriguez or Lopez, somehow it suited him perfectly.
By the time we reached camp on the first night, everyone was exhausted. Gomez laid at my feet under the long picnic table, and I fed him some of my dinner. He accepted the food, but not in a greedy way. More so, he seemed to enjoy simply being around people. In the morning, he was sitting near the trail, ready for another adventurous day with his newfound friends.
After an hour or two of trekking, the slate-gray clouds besieged the earth with their liquid contents. Through small gaps in the canopy, fat drops splashed down, and I welcomed the refreshing rain, happy to be wet from something other than my own perspiration.
Mud replaced the dirt underfoot, but without hills to slog up and down, trekking was not much harder than it had been the day before. Gomez, living up to his jungle dog status, frolicked between group members without so much as a stutter in his step. By noon on that second day, he had secured a strong foothold in our group.
By early afternoon, the rain relented at last. My shirt stuck to my body as if it had been painted on, and bugs of all types vied for patches of skin they could bite. Shards of sun filtered in through the treetops, and then the greenery ended as though it had been plucked from the earth. Before us, a river the color of chocolate frothed with white eddies.
No bridge spanned the rushing water, but a rope stretched across it, hung from branches on either side. As the guides murmured to each other in Spanish, we trekkers exchanged nervous glances.
“Okay,” the lead guide said to the group. “We go one by one. Be slow, take care, and hold the rope.”
Usually keen on adrenaline activities, for some reason crossing this roiling river on foot, while simply clinging to a rope, didn’t appeal to me.
But I knew it was the only way forward. A day and a half into the journey, we had come across no other path. If anyone lived out here, they must have slipped through the jungle without disturbing even one tree.
I looked around. Other trekkers were passing their packs to one of the guides to ferry across on his head. I shuffled from foot to foot, preparing myself for the crossing.
And then I eyed Gomez. For the first time since our meeting, he seemed nervous. Whether he saw the river and agreed with me that it looked intimidating, or he realized that his friends would be leaving him behind, I don’t know. But the fear in his eyes told me his reason didn’t matter. I knew, without a doubt, that he was going to stick with the group as best he could.
“Can someone please carry him across?” I asked, to anyone who would listen.
“He’ll be fine,” someone said.
“He’s a jungle dog; he can make it,” said another.
I shook my head, trying to shake loose some sort of solution. Nothing was coming, save for me trying to carry him. But watching even some of the stronger group members cling tightly to the rope with both hands, I knew that was out of the question.
“Please,” I tried again. “Someone needs to carry him.”
But again, no one seemed concerned, at least not as much as I did.
I swallowed my anxiety. Perhaps I was overreacting. Perhaps I wasn’t giving Gomez enough credit. He was a jungle dog, after all, and he had made it this far on little more than table scraps and human companionship.
By the time I handed my pack to one of the guides, almost everyone else was across. Soon, only Gomez and I remained.
I pointed at Gomez and looked at the one guide left. “Por favor,” I said. “Please bring him.”
The guide gestured for me to grab the rope.
“Okay. But please bring him across. Otherwise he’ll try to follow.”
Whether the roaring river drowned out my words or the guide didn’t understand them, I can’t say. But out of options, and out of time, I grasped the rope. Hand over hand, I pulled myself across th whooshing river.
The water reached my waist, and more slopped up to my chest. Some even splashed my face. The current tugged at me, but I clenched the rope tightly. At last, I reached the opposite bank.
Safely ashore, I looked back. The remaining guide was nearly across, but Gomez stood on the other side. He lunged at the river once, twice, stepping in and then stepping out just as quickly.
I wanted to tell him to stay, that we would be back in a couple of days, or that another group would come along just as shortly, but panic absorbed my vocal chords. Guilt stabbed at my gut. Gomez jumped into the churning water, and I knew that was the last I’d see of him.
Unable to watch, I turned away, tears mixing in with the sweat and river water covering my face.
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