Anyone who’s been to Chile will have noticed the dogs. There are dogs everywhere: city dogs, country dogs, pampered dogs, guard dogs and most of all stray dogs. Apparently people just dump puppies on the street all the time and it breaks your heart to see all the homeless dogs begging for scraps or digging in garbage. This guy above was hanging out in Puerto Varas and like all his brothers and sisters, he was really friendly. You might imagine a country full of roaming stray dogs would be alarming, especially if, like me, you’re more of a cat person and mildly afraid of big dogs. But the weird thing is that these dogs all seem either uninterested in humans or, if interested, entirely unthreatening. I suppose they’ve figured out that humans are a source of food, but more than this, I think, they’re part of a community of dogs. Whereas a stray at home might be scared, alone, liable to lash out, strays here seem to join into a wider canine social sphere that keeps them on an even keel.
We came upon this guy at the market in Castro, curled up like a kitty in his box.
But the dog that really stole our hearts was in the tiny Chilote village of Dalcahue, where we stopped off en route to the ferry to Isla Quinchao. Dalcahue is nothing to write home about, just a little fishing port with one of Chiloé’s famous wooden churches, but its setting is astonishing. As you drive down from the hills around it into its little bay, views open out across the archipelago and, in the distance, the Chilean mainland and the Andes. It’s really breathtaking.
So there we were in Dalcahue, basically stopping off for a soda and a pee before getting on the ferry, when a street dog decided to follow us. We figured he followed all the tourists and soon enough he stopped when we passed beyond his stretch of sidewalk. On the way back, we saw him again sitting outside the same shop, but he wasn’t following the other passers-by. Odd, we thought. Then we came by him and he got up and followed us again. Hello doggie, we said. He kept following, and started looking up at us adoringly in that doggie way. Well, we thought, we’ve got some spare milcao in the car, maybe we could feed it to him.
Wait, you’re thinking, what’s milcao? Well, since this is a food blog, I’ll make a quick digression to explain this wonderful thing. Milcao is a traditional Chilote bread that is eaten in the morning and made from – wait for it – potatoes, roasted pork, butter, and lard. Mmmmm. It’s a bit like a much thicker Scottish potato scone, maybe the size of a substantial arepa, dripping with pork fat and stuffed with more pork. We were obviously highly excited to try these milcao from the moment we read about them, and we found the ideal source in a little pink wooden stand on a street corner. The woman working there sold apple empanadas in the early morning and milcao from 11am until they sold out. There was already a crowd gathering at about 10:30. We knew this was going to be good.
It was good. Hot porky potatoey goodness. But we really didn’t need three of them. We shared one among the three of us and felt, shall we say, sustained. Maybe you could eat a whole one if you were going off to work in the fields all day, but as lazy-ass tourists, we had a lot left over.
So, back to our dog. We thought we might feed him the leftover milcao, but our car was several blocks away, almost on the other side of town. Surely he wouldn’t follow us all that way? But he did. I don’t know how he knew we were any different from all the other people he saw and ignored that morning, but he adopted us on sight. He even herded Mama Lemur when she fell behind. We walked half way across Dalcahue with this one at our heels as if he’d been our dog forever. When we got to the car I was seriously developing thoughts of bundling him into the back seat and taking him home, except I really didn’t think our hotel, or Iberia airlines would approve, never mind our cat back home. So we just gave him a milcao, which he wolfed down like he hadn’t seen food in days. Which perhaps he hadn’t, though I hope he does ok between the fish on the docks and the soft-hearted tourists.
We took this last picture from the car. Look at his eyes. Just look at them! Leaving this one behind may explain why I watched the crappy Richard Gere dog movie Hachi on the bus back to Santiago – in Spanish – and then cried inconsolably at the end. Chile: this country will make you like dogs.