Behind the blue gate

A story told by Silvie Mechelen, Belgium

Silvie is a passionate youth worker, radio producer and social media enthusiast. “Expect the unexpected” is her motto, both when travelling and in her daily life.

My best friend Maya and I hopped on the rattling bus to the suburbs of Cuzco. Maya had been living in Peru for a year by then, so she was used to it: bumpy rides, fast Spanish conversations, streets becoming more and more decrepit as we moved away from the centre of town. I was visiting Maya for a month and together we had taken the opportunity to volunteer for a few days at a local dog shelter. “Woof woof” would sound more or less the same in Spanish, right?


The bus came to a screeching halt in front of a bright blue iron gate. You could hear the barking from the street; dog dialogues in a Peruvian suburb.

We stepped through the gate and into dog heaven. We were immediately noticed: at least thirty dogs enthusiastically ran towards us, barking. They jumped up against us, their little paws getting stuck in the fabric of our trousers – I didn’t even mind. A slightly uncomfortable, but nevertheless heart-warming welcome. The love of an animal can do so much! Let alone thirty of them.

The property had the unmistakable smell of dog food, but other than that, it was very different to what I had expected. Not an official, organised shelter, but the result of Milagros’ love for animals that’s got slightly out of hand. No cages, no scared puppies in dark corners, but freedom and some woods to play around in - all very relaxed. Indeed, it was more like the way South Americans go about their lives. That’s not to say that Milagros turning her backyard into a dog shelter is a very Peruvian thing to do. For many people in Peru, a dog is street vermin rather than a house pet.

Not if you ask Milagros, though. And we were very happy to help her feed and care for the animals. We had a wonderful few days there, highlighted by the rescue operation of a pregnant dog stuck in a sewer. The fact that this wasn’t your typical pre-planned “volunteer duty” made it all the more special.

Another special moment on that trip was my visit to Machu Picchu. The stereotypical photograph I took with the Inca structure in the background is a beautiful souvenir.

But when I look at the picture we took when saying goodbye to Milagros and her doggies, I experience a different kind of thankfulness, one that I can feel from my head down to my toes. Unexpectedly, this spontaneous bit of volunteer work had turned into one of the highlights of my trip. And the only thing I had to do for it was to be curious about what was behind the blue gate.

Take it from Snoopy’s dad: “In life it’s not where you go, it’s who you travel with”.


Authored by Claire Bracke Ghent, Belgium