By Tzivia Gover
The airport shuttle bounced through the colorful crowded streets of el centro, then wended its way into a scruffy desert neighborhood—and my heart began to sink.
I had just arrived in San Miguel Allende, in the high desert of central Mexico, to present my work at a conference. The organizer had arranged an Airbnb for me and another presenter. “As long as it’s within walking distance to the conference center, I’ll be fine,” I’d written in an email a few weeks before. “Everything here is in walking distance,” she’d replied. Now, alone in the van after the other passengers had been let off at their hotels, I had my doubts.
The driver finally stopped on of a dusty, sun-bleached street at the edge of town. I stepped out of the van in front of a fortress-like door, clapped the brass knocker against the heavy wood, and was welcomed into a courtyard strewn with bougainvillea petals. My host, who would be living in town for the week, gave me a quick orientation to the house, including the standard reminders about not drinking out of the tap and disposing of toilet paper in the bin and not the bowl. When I asked where I could find an ATM to get some pesos, he said I could walk twenty-five minutes back down the rocky hill, then another ten minutes to the plaza—or I could wave down the bus, jump out at the bottom of the hill, and make my way to the plaza from there. He pointed to a tower in the distance that looked like a cross between a cathedral’s spire and a wedding cake that I could follow to the town square.
“I’m not sure Lyfts come out here,” he said. “It’s a relatively new neighborhood, and I don’t think it shows up on GPS.” He handed me some coins for the bus then drove off on his motor scooter.
The roommate I’d been assigned was out, so I stood alone with my bags puddled at my feet. I was tired, but I needed pesos for a taxi to the welcome dinner that evening, and to the conference the next morning, so without changing out of my travel clothes, I set out to find the plaza—hopefully before sunset.
I hadn’t walked half a block before a barking sand-colored dog cut me off. I backed up to the opposite side of the street, and he retreated to what turned out to be his guard post in front of a neighboring house.
I have a phobia of dogs. Not all dogs; fluffy poodles, terriers, or any dog that would pass an audition for a Disney movie is okay. But unattended, unleashed, barking dogs like this one turn my blood to ice.
Looking straight ahead I dragged my feet to the corner, where two more dogs raced down the hill toward me. Breath left my body as the dogs approached—then shot straight past me on their way. I stood paralyzed in the stream of Mexican workers, families and children climbing the hill home, or heading into town. “You’re fine,” I told myself. But I didn’t believe it. If it weren’t for the fact that I’d have to face that neighboring dog on my way back to the Airbnb, I’d have turned around and locked myself inside.
A bus chugged along beside me, but I was too weary to muster the handful of Spanish words I’d need to figure out how to pay the driver and determine where to get off. So I kept walking.
Trying to focus on the gathering reds and oranges of the blooming sunset, I remembered something from the book, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson that I’d been reading earlier on the plane. Stevenson’s accounts of death row inmates and the rabid institutional and personal racism that had landed them there should have put my own fears in their place. But my nervous system doesn’t respond to reason.
Instead, one character from the book rose up in my imagination. Mrs. Williams, a regal African-American in her church hat and Sunday dress, was the epitome of dignity and determination. She’d been chosen by her community in a small Louisiana town to occupy one of the limited number of seats available to black supporters of a falsely-accused death-row inmate whose case would be heard that morning. In an effort to intimidate the supporters further, an armed officer was stationed at the door with a police dog by his side. Mrs. Williams, who’d had dogs set on her during the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, couldn’t convince her legs to take her through that doorway, despite her commitment to be present for the condemned man. She looked at the dog, turned, and left.
She cried and prayed all night long, then woke the next morning and tried again. This time she faced the guard and the German Shepherd at the courtroom door, repeating the same words she’d told herself all night long: “Lord, I can’t be afraid of no dog.”
She said the words out loud as she walked, trembling, past the dog and to her seat. But she did not sit, even after the judge waved his arm directing her to do so.
“I’m here,” she said, standing taller still. Now even Stevenson, her advocate, nodded to her to be seated.
“I am here,” she repeated. Only then did she slowly take the seat she’d fought so hard to claim.
Tears covered my face when I read about Mrs. Williams on the airplane. Now, as the sun sank over the hills, the story gave me courage to face my fears. I repeated Mrs. Williams’ words: “Lord, I can’t be afraid of no dog.”
The absurdity of being a middle-aged white woman mouthing Mrs. Williams’ words nudged a smile to my lips. “Lord, I can’t be afraid of no dog,” I whispered to loosen the breath in my throat and the anxiety in my chest. “Lord I can’t be afraid of no dog,” I sang as a dozing mutt lifted its head from its pillowed paws to watch me pass.
Finally, after a couple of wrong turns I found my way to the town square. The stone buildings were tinged by pink dusk and strings of lights glittered against the sky. The sounds of mariachi music rose along with chatter from clusters of tourists, and the only dog I saw was coiffed, toy-sized, and at the end of a leash. I felt victorious. But before I could locate the ATM, my phone buzzed to life with texts from the conference organizer reminding me to join the welcome dinner that was about to begin.
I pulled the invitation from my pocket and asked a silver-haired gringo, who looked like he might be from New York, how to find the restaurant. I was still a mile or two away, he explained. “Be careful,” he said, “there have been ten murders in this town in the past three months.” Now, on top of the dogs, I had that to worry about. But I climbed into the next cab I could hail, anyway. The driver agreed to be paid in U.S. dollars, coached me on my Spanish, and dropped me off in front of the restaurant.
Wearing the same tee shirt and jeans I’d put on at three that morning when I set off for the airport from my home in Massachusetts, I took my seat at a large square table where I was introduced to smiling strangers. A woman who looked like a young, beautiful Frieda Kahlo welcomed me. Another, in a colorful headscarf and a cocktail dress that seemed to hover around her lithe body, motioned for a waiter to fill my water glass. I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting beside me, who lived there in town. She asked where my Airbnb was located, and when I told her she fell silent.
“What?” I asked. “Nothing,” she said. “Just be careful. It’s not very safe.”
“Is it safe?” It’s the question I’m asked when I travel alone. It’s the question all women must ask if we travel alone. And alone is how I travel. I board a train, plane or bus by myself—sometimes leaving a partner or spouse back home, otherwise traveling solo because I’d been living solo. I left college for a semester to travel cross-country with just my blue frame backpack and thrift-store brown leather hiking boots with red laces. I took buses or rides with strangers and searched out women’s communes where I’d work the vegetable gardens or tend the goats and geese in exchange for meals and a place to stay. Since then, whether for work or just because I’ve needed that jolt of adventure, I’ve traveled solo for days or weeks at a stretch.
People sometimes mistake me for being fearless, but that’s not it at all. There’s always a point where I’m lonely, tired and insufficiently courageous to meet the challenges of being far from anyone—or anything I know. It’s not that I’m fearless. It’s that I’ve learned to be brave.
In San Miguel Allende I mustered my courage as I heard dogs barking from the streets and the rooftops all day, and at night when I slept blanketed beneath their barking, braying cries of discontent.
My roommate accompanied me some days to and from the conference center, and was gracious when a dog approached and I’d reflexively thread my arm through hers to feel protected. But just as often our schedules differed and I’d venture out on my own, sing-songing my mantra: “Lord, I can’t be afraid of no dog.”
I don’t know the origins of my cynophobia. As a four-year-old I was nipped at by my grandfather’s poodle, but that doesn’t explain it. The fear must have hitched a ride across the generations and followed me into this lifetime. My ancestors fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe, where dogs were commonly used to threaten Jews, just as they’ve been used against African-Americans in this country. The fanged menace of police dogs and the ancestral trauma of persecution must have been twisted into my family’s DNA.
In Mexico, I shared my difficulty dealing with the ever-present street dogs with people I met at the conference. One young woman from Florida, smiled and said, “Oh, we see those dogs where we’re staying, too. I have one I call Lassie.” But I couldn’t make myself see the mutts I encountered as friendly, helpful and protective like Lassie.
But no one could offer me blanket assurances that the dogs were safe. Even the young Floridian who had befriended the Mexican Lassie admitted a few days later that her new friend lunged at her knees, growling.
During a movement and body awareness workshop, a young Feldenkrais teacher suggested that when I see a dog I plant my feet firmly on the ground and channel the support of the earth, and let it rise from the soles of my feet into my heart. In another workshop, I was paired with a woman from Mexico City, who was a little older than I am. A transpersonal therapist led us through a series of exercises to help us explore and re-pattern our emotions and limiting beliefs. I told my partner, whose silver hair streaked with turquoise gave her the look of a hip grandma, about my problem with the dogs. “Let me help you,” she said leaning forward in her chair.
She told me how she’d once had to shield her then-teenage daughter from a leering man who was stalking her. “As mothers we are courageous when our children are threatened,” she said. “You can use that when you feel threatened, too.” Her warm presence, as much as her words, comforted me. That night I dreamed of a police dog sitting tall at the feet of his master. I was observing, unafraid, from a distance.
The next morning, our last day at the Airbnb, my roommate and I went outside to wait for our Lyft, and once again, the neighborhood guard dog trotted toward us. My roommate, sensitive to my fears, stepped in front of me and reached down to pat the dog. But he kept his eyes on me, and sidled up to my legs. I backed up and slipped behind the wooden door. Peeking out, I felt my breath flow smoothly and my legs held me still and steady. Encouraged, I returned to the sidewalk. My roommate smiled. “You’re getting a little exposure therapy right here,” she said. The dog settled beside me on the sidewalk, his fur stiff and warm against my bare ankle. When our Lyft pulled to the curb I stepped past the dog and took my seat.
As soon as I entered the conference center, my workshop partner from the previous day greeted me with a mall package cradled between her palms. “For you,” she said. Inside the purple wrapping I found a miniature portrait of a sand-colored dog, like the ones I’d seen on the street, except this one was plump and cushioned regally on a blue sofa.
“That’s Lady Didi,” she explained. “She was a stray that my daughter brought home. I told her we couldn’t have another dog—we already had two—and she’d have to find another home for this one. But as it turns out, Lady Didi had already found her home—with us. And we’ve had her ever since.”
Back home now, Lady Didi’s portrait has a place of honor in my home, along with Stevenson’s book on the living room shelf. I think of Mrs. Williams with her dignified courage, and I remind myself that I can be afraid. But I can walk through my fears, out into the world, and claim my place in it, just the same.
Tzivia Gover is the author most recently of The Mindful Way to a Good Night’s Sleep and Joy in Every Moment. Her articles and essays have appeared in numerous publications including Poets & Writers Magazine, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Creative Nonfiction and The Christian Science Monitor. She has been published in dozens of anthologies and literary journals including Literary Nonfiction: Fourth Genre (Prentice Hall), Family: A Celebration (Petersons) and Home Stretch (Alyson). Her poems have appeared in Lilith, The Bark and The Berkshire Review, among others. She received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University. She is also a dreamwork professional living in western Massachusetts.