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Dawa, the Ladakhi Guide Dog

Dawa our fierce guide dog was a loyal compatriot. We arrived in Phyang at a family run guest house for Dragon’s orientation and were immediately greeted by her amber and orange fur. Phyang is positioned near Leh, high in the Himalayas in a Northern region of India referred to as Ladakh. Ladakh, commonly celebrated as an agricultural beauty, has seen continual encroachment from Western and globalizing ideals. The presence of plastic wrappers, subsidized food undercutting local food prices, and cars emitting smoke formerly unfamiliar to the region were an advent of complicated political tensions which sought to encompass the agricultural valley into India’s economy.

Our guest house felt like a sun filled oasis opposing this trend in its own synthesis of tradition and modern influence. The home, which had its own vegetable gardens and solar water heaters, sat surrounded by poplar trees and green settled valleys otherwise nonexistent in the arctic desert climate. Picture yourself, sandwiched between two contrasting barren mountains. On one side, a mix of tan, grey and brown rock scramble painted with Tibetan script and carved with spiraling transport roads. On the other, a near identical scramble but lived in – inhabited by monastery structure and the growing settlements of the village.

Yaks, cows, horses, and water canals populated the multi-leveled agriculture fields. All of this, we would come to discover, was Dawa’s territory. The baby cow which lived on the property was policed by Dawa – “stop eating the Marigolds,” she would bark. At first, we thought this was as far as Dawa’s reach expanded, but we would be wrong to assume so. On our first morning trek we spent five minutes trying to get Dawa back into the property. These efforts quickly proved futile when, after sealing the orange and black iron gate, Dawa slipped through one of her many holes in the property’s rock wall and stood ready to follow us wherever we went. Dawa was to be, whether we expected her to or not, our Ladakhi guide dog.

Dawa followed us up the spiraling roads, looping through her own secret and well-known pathways. We came out at the peak of a hill, which curved with a small valley of road between us and a pack of dogs sunning themselves. Dawa immediately stood to attention, staring down the dogs and warning us not to go further (insert Lion King reference here). Needless to say, we listened to the Ladakhi dog who so clearly knew more about the area than all of us combined.

That being said, Dawa didn’t know everything. One morning, we watched as she tried to eat a hornet for the third time. Maybe it was her protective nature coming out, as three of the four boys in our group had been stung by wasps earlier that week or maybe she was curious about the tasty-looking yellow flying snack. Either way, she kept trying. This stood out to us because it appeared foolish: why try something again and again if the best possible outcome is a bad one? Dawa was a fierce and loyal compatriot. We didn’t leave her, one fateful morning at the end of our orientation in Phyang, without the spirit of her lessons watching over us. We carry those lessons with us as a guide: that the fear of pain or the threat of looking stupid should not stop you from protecting those you care about – even if your pack doesn’t look like you or smell like you they are your family just the same.