Our Ecuadoran guide started the walking tour of Quito's La Floresta neighborhood with a round of introductions. Standing in a crescent-moon shape, we each took turns saying our name, country of residence and reason for visiting. A German couple was in the final stretch of a monthslong vacation. A Dutch researcher was laying over in Quito before her field work commenced up north. A pair of friends from Australia and England were bound for the Galapagos Islands. And then there was me.
"My name is Andrea. I live in Washington D.C., and I came to Quito to dogsit."
My statement felt like an confession, which I guess it was. Because - no shame - I flew nearly 3,000 miles to the middle of the Earth to take care of a mutt named Fischer. The trip enabled my double addiction to travel and dogs.
"The three Ps are pets, people and places," said Angela Laws, the social media and community manager at TrustedHousesitters, an international petsitting company. "You are caring for pets, helping people and seeing places."
Before Quito, I had never crossed DMV lines for my pet gigs. The biggest culture shock was the different colored Metro line. With TrustedHousesitters, I could expand my petsitting borders to other cities, states, countries and continents. Instead of marking my destinations by pins, I could cover the map with paw prints - or cloven hoofs or chicken scratch.
"I now have four-legged nieces and nephews around the world," said Angela, a Brit who has completed more than 60 sits in seven countries.
Founded in 2010, the company based in the United Kingdom connects pet owners with sitters in 130 nations. The listings cover all manner of domesticated animals, including dogs, cats, chickens, miniature horses and donkeys, tropical birds, rabbits, sheep, goats, llamas and even a pair of veiled chameleons. Travelers can choose among urban apartments, country manors, Old MacDonald farms and rustic retreats. The length of stay can span from a weekend (two nights with a Pomeranian in Amsterdam) to many months (nearly half a year with five cats and two dogs in Bali).
The experience resembles a homestay with one crucial difference: In exchange for free lodging, you must care for the occupant(s). No money changes hands, an uncommon arrangement in the petsitting industry. You pay for your own travel, though the family might throw in a few extras such as use of their car or the contents of their fridge. They will also cover any pet-related expenses.
"The love is for the pet, not the travel experience," Angela said. "If you want a vacation, go on a cruise. This is a lifestyle choice."
To join the community, you must pay a $119 annual fee and complete a multipart profile that includes a three-step process of trust and verification. Like a dating site, I wanted to highlight my finer qualities (good communicator, devoted) and interests (long walks, Frisbee, wet kisses) without sounding desperate. On the form, I shared my childhood with a pack of Siberian huskies and my experiences petsitting for colleagues, fostering rescue dogs and volunteering at shelters locally and abroad. I posted photos of myself with dogs and with pals, to show that my circle of friends does include humans. I scanned my driver's license and collected references. My submission exceeded a thousand words. The only story I omitted was the time my gerbil escaped and I pulled on its tail a bit too forcefully. I didn't want to overshare.
"We give the owners the tools to make an educated decision," she said. "They don't choose on a first-come, first-serve basis."
I pressed submit and took a deep breath. Now for the real challenge: Choosing a destination and a dog, and not necessarily in that order.
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It is easy to lose your grip on reality when faced with such dream scenarios as 14 weeks with a German shepherd, Doberman, cat, five chickens and fish in Sri Lanka. Or 10 days with a five-month-old puppy named Bruce in Hong Kong. Or a month with Alex, a "maltese-human" mix, in Tasmania. The owners' instructions to exercise Alex on the beach and "enjoy a morning coffee or tea on the deck or an evening spa counting the stars" only fuels the delusion.
To snap me back, I reached out to Angela, who was spending five weeks with Miss Izzy, a 21-year-old Burmese cat, outside of London. The veteran had some sage advice for a newbie. Pick a location that feels familiar to you - say, North America. You don't want the foreignness of the place to distract you from your animal care responsibilities. Because I was competing against more-experienced members, I should not focus solely on such major cities as London, Paris and New York, which often receive a high volume of requests, especially among digital nomads and retirees. Instead, I should consider less coveted or exotic locales, and be flexible with dates and places.
To gauge the popularity levels of various locations, I checked the number of submissions on select listings. Remington, a cat in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, had garnered more than 51 requests. Bruno, a Barcelona pup, had pulled in eight-to-11 applications. And Marco and Elke, a feline and Great Dane outside of Dallas, were sitting at zero-to-three applications. The Texas family had less than a month to find help, a ticking clock that could work to my advantage. The closer the departure date, the more urgent the need.
Keeping Angela's advice in mind, I started perusing the postings. I used the filter to winnow down the dates (late January to late February) and the species (dogs, for their active and social attributes). I decided to stay on this side of the Atlantic, assuring Cherish, the Swedish pug, that it was not personal. I also acknowledged my own physical limitations: To handle three huskies in Ottawa, I would need to take a month of IditerodFit classes. I didn't have time to train for petsitting.
I sent out my first batch of requests to a subway-riding Labrador in Toronto, a Portuguese water dog in Calgary, a special needs pit bull in British Columbia and a pair of rescues in Denver. The Toronto couple responded first, and we scheduled a FaceTime interview. Unfortunately, they had a roommate, which the company does not permit, due to the potential risk of same-species conflicts. I heard back from the B.C. owner, who explained the hazards of her remote location, including avalanches and road closures. I expanded my search, eyeing Seattle and Park City, Utah, before ditching my playbook and sending a message to Fischer's family in Quito. While I waited for a reply, I considered the advantages of the Ecuadoran capital: It follows Eastern Standard Time, uses the U.S. dollar and is beyond the icy grip of the polar vortex. As for the disadvantages: At 9,000 feet, the air is thin, and I don't speak Spanish. But I could always pick up a can of oxygen and learn a few phrases.
I heard from Becky, Fischer's mother, within a day and we set up an interview. During our 15-minute conversation, she inquired about my background with animals and my interest in Quito. Becky adjusted the camera so that I could meet her husband, Kip, and Fischer, who was sprawled out on the couch and clearly not interested in the vetting process. That night, I received a message from Becky inviting me to spend 10 days with Fischer in Quito. I started pulling together a packing list, placing dog treats before party dress.
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In anticipation of my visit, Becky posted a welcome guide on my profile dashboard with restaurant and park recommendations, emergency contacts, home details and other critical information. She also left me a guidebook in Spanish but with annotations in English. (Sample: "A must . . . make sure to do both," for the Middle of the World monument and Intiñan Solar Museum.) She offered to have their housekeeper, Rosa, work a few days so that I could explore Quito without rushing back to Fischer. I asked a Colombian friend to write out a statement about my plans that I could read to Rosa, as I didn't want Fischer's walk to get lost in translation.
Because Becky and Kip had to work, I spent only a few hours with the family before they had to catch their evening flight to Florida. She and Fischer, plus her two young children, waited for me outside their apartment in neutral territory. The two-year-old, part-Irish wolfhound rescue with the soft gray curls, long Modigliani face and lanky limbs jumped up on me - a welcome-to-the-pack greeting. Becky led me upstairs to their spacious three-bedroom apartment with giant picture windows. She pointed out the important features, such as the TV and remote, coffee maker and dog food container. Then she took me to the rooftop deck overlooking Pichincha, the active volcano that fences Quito in. As Fischer peered at the barking dogs below, I scanned the Andean peaks for a sign of the awakening giant.
On our way to dinner, we took a quick spin around the neighborhood, an affluent residential area with a light dusting of businesses (mainly related to food, beauty and cars); an American international school, where Becky and Kip teach; and the U.S. Embassy. Becky showed me her go-to spots for fruit, sundries, sandwiches and a cheap massage. She assured me that the area was safe and the stray dogs were friendly, if not a little messy.
While waiting for pizza at an Italian restaurant, she shared a longer version of the bio that appeared on the TrustedHousesitters website. Nearly three years ago, she and Kip moved to Quito from Portland, Oregon, to teach math and biology, respectively. They were flying to Florida to drop off some of their belongings before their next teaching assignment in Abu Dhabi. The five of them will leave Ecuador for the capital of the United Arab Emirates this summer.
I was curious about Becky's history with TrustedHousesitters. She said she learned about the company through the expat community and uses the service for longer trips. She said she felt confident with the interviewing process - that she can speak with a potential sitter FaceTime-to-FaceTime - and has a strategy for determining the applicant's priorities: Did the person ask more questions about Quito or Fischer? (Her family has also searched for petsitting opportunities around Latin America but they are often limited in this region of the world.)
"I would rather have him with a person than in a kennel," she said. "And it's free. It's a win-win."
I was Fischer's sixth sitter. My predecessors included a married couple from New Zealand and England who took him on epic hikes and a Chicago woman who fell so hard for Quito that she stayed an extra month.
I asked Becky how many people had applied for the February stay, jokingly adding, "Tell me three thousand."
"Three thousand," she said, playing along.
"OK, how many for real?" I asked. "Three, and one dropped out," she said.
Not quite Remington level.
When the family was ready to leave for the airport, Fisher and I accompanied them to the car. The kids hugged him tightly, as if he were going off to college. I led Fischer into the dark night. The street was silent, save for the sound of his nails clicking on the sidewalk and the insects chattering all around us.
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Fischer and I quickly fell into a rhythm. Up early, but not ridiculously so. Walk to the park near the school. Greet the dogs along the route, from up high (the pair of pups on the roof of a bodega) to down low (the black nose poking through a hole in the gate). At the park, we would watch neighborhood athletes kick around a soccer ball, swat tennis rackets and wriggle alongside a Latino Richard Simmons, who led a saucy dance class on weekends. Sometimes, we would hop on the running track, passing the ladies in vibrant track suits who were talking more than walking.
In the afternoon, we would hike for hours around Parque Metropolitano Guanguiltagua, a green oasis larger than Central Park. To not get hopelessly lost, we stayed on the blue trail, which led us to vistas with spiraling views of the valley and to oversize sculptures that Fischer thoughtfully did not tag. Along the way, I traded "buenas" with mountain bikers who burst out of the forest before the trees swallowed them up again. Afterward, Fischer and I would go up to his rooftop to watch the setting sun transform the sky into a pink valentine.
Midway through my stay, I ventured beyond north Quito, leaving Fischer behind. I met Lupita, a friend of a friend, for a tour of Old Town. We started at Community Hostel, which her husband opened in his parents' home in 2012, and swung by Don Jimmy's, a beloved lunch spot in the Mercado Central since 1953. (Everyone orders the fried sea bass with potatoes, ceviche and side of popcorn, the only item on the menu.)
At the Pacari chocolate store in Plaza de la Independencia, I bought Rosa a thank-you-for-watching-Fischer gift. In the late afternoon, we parted ways. Lupita had to return to her mommy duties, but I had a few dog-free hours left. I hailed a cab to the Mercado Artesanal and visited every stall in every aisle of the crafts market.
I had to hasten the pace the following day, on the tour of La Floresta. The excursion was supposed to end by 1:30, and I had told Rosa that I would be back by early afternoon. However, Antonio, our guide, extended the walk, even as coal-black storm clouds gathered overhead. For our last stop, he dropped us off at Casa Warmi restaurant. The Germans, Dutch, Australian and Brit grabbed a table for lunch and invited me to join them. With regret, I had to decline and dashed into the downpour to Fischer.
For our final night together, I took Fischer out drinking. I brought him to the Bucket List, a nearby bar and restaurant where dogs can roam free. After more than a week with a canine as my sole companion, I needed some human interaction. I ordered a beer and joined the conversation that bounced between football, politics and dog care. The two couples who run the place own a menagerie of animals, but they can never travel. I said I might know a few hundred sitters who can help. We hung out for a few hours, drinking and chatting, sniffing and digging.
Back in the apartment, I slid under the covers for the last time. Fischer stretched out next to me. I scratched his belly and suddenly the idea of vacationing in Abu Dhabi seemed very appealing.