It was just a nip behind the ankle, a very professional, almost playful bite. And though I constantly encountered street dogs on this walk it was country dog that bit me.
Most dogs were in reality guard dogs, a necessity in an environment where many of the houses were half-built and lacking in windows or walls to keep people out, as a veterinarian in a dog pound in Chimalhuacan told me. About a third of the canines however were real strays. He told me that once a pack of more than 60 dogs had been encountered by the Lake of Texcoco. The packs however never really attacked people and most injuries were caused by rabid dogs, often puppies infected with the disease and then rescued by families. Rabies would only manifest itself later. Suddenly the new pet would go mad and bite somebody.
I learned on the trip that dogs will try to bite you from behind and that when four dogs try to stop one from continuing onwards it is not the two in front of you which you should be most worried about. I learned that dogs walk past you and then attack from behind. I learned to try to identify which houses dogs were guarding and not to walk between them. And finally I learned that the best way to pass by dogs unnoticed is just to walk right past them without paying attention as if you were a normal member of the community.
And so dogs taught me how to behave.
Almost all dogs would scatter when I lifted a rock and threatened to throw it at them. Only three did not, all of them boxers, one guarding a junkyard in Valle de Chalco, one on a dirt road in Nuacalpan, and the most ferocious of all a white boxer called Paloma in Atizapan who wouldn’t back down – crawling outwards me growling as I lifted a big rock over my head until an eight year old child came out a house close by and put his foot on her neck.
But only one dog bit me.
The first days I skirted the low, swampy lakeside of the Lake of Chalco before turning inwards behind the Sierra de Santa Catarina, the volcanic range separating the Lakes of Xochimilco and Chalco and what was once the Lake of Texcoco. The Santa Catarina mountain range marks the border between Tlahuac to the south and Iztapalapa to the north. I never really understood the geography of the Valley of Mexico until I climbed its highest peak, the Cerro de Guadalupe.
The edge of the city led me to a low fence separating a neighborhood of for roads and concrete houses from the road upward curling upwards towards the mountain range. After some consideration I decided to scale the fence separating me from my route. I felt like a teenager trespassing as I crouched down in the dust. After walking on a dirt road behind the low unpainted concrete houses for some fifty yards I was stopped by a dark, short, broadly built man in his fifties with a baseball cap. The question was the polite form of what-the-hell-are-you-doing-here, namely “Who are you looking for?”
I explained my walk and after adding sufficient detail I was cheered to find that the whole story was accepted. The man was taxi driver and the community was one of Mixe Indians from Oaxaca who had migrated here about twenty years ago. He told me that this neighborhood was relatively safe. I replied that I was worried about the edge of Chimalhuacan by the Lake of Texcoco that seemed for some reason to look frightening on the map. He said that I needn’t worry about Chimalhuacan. Before then I would have to pass Valle de Chalco and that in his opinion was a truly dangerous area. He then kindly invited me to the community’s festivities later in the year.
After some consideration I continued my path until reaching a disheveled market building with rusty fairground rides on the parking lot outside.
There a young man in the parking lot told me that my trip across the Sierra de Santa Catarina would be dangerous and that I would pass one place in particular known as the Hole where I would probably encounter problems. A narrow road slithered up behind concrete houses along the ridge of the volcanoes. I was heartened to see buses barreling down it in the late afternoon, a sign that it surely was not completely lost to civilization.
Either I would really follow the path the city dictated or I would skirt around possible dangers. With a sigh I accepted that it would probably make little difference one way or another since I had no idea which areas were dangerous or not. I had no idea where the hole was .So I entered the concrete labyrinth along its edge, houses stacked up against the hillside, like a coral reef set against a volcanic wall. After a while trees, grass and crags arose on my right towards the peaks of the volcanoes and the self-built concrete neighborhoods of Iztapalapa stretched downwards to my left. I continued until nightfall finally descending the hills to find a hotel.
The next morning I walked back up towards what I perceived to be the relative safety of the countryside. The ridge of hills with their craters and oddly shaped rocks struck me as being one the most beautiful landscapes I had ever seen. Among the hills I saw a goatherd with some 20 goats pasturing on the hill. Slowly our paths converged. And suddenly I was among the goats and the dogs directing the herd were yipping at my feet as we walked.
We were on a low ridge just above a meadow surrounded by a wall of loose stone called the Pasture of the Moon. I teetered on the twisted rock between two volcanoes.
A black Labrador-like dog whirled barking around me as the goats ran by. I didn’t feel I could lift a rock, fearing how the goatherd might react. Then the dog nipped me just above the heel, a little start to keep me moving along as if I were one of the goats. Followed by the barking dog I separated myself quickly from the flock. Then I went my way along the houses scrawling along the Iztapalapa-side of the Sierra de Santa Catarina until Valle de Chalco lay on the lakeside below me in the late afternoon sun.