A Man and His Donkey Walk Mexico

MP Mexico News Staff

We found this piece and thought it should be read by more people…a nice story for your weekend.



JONATHAN DUNHAM is walking the earth. Assisting him in this endeavor is his donkey, named Judas. They have stopped to rest for a few days in Colinas de San Lorenzo, a slum in this dusty town on the cattle-raising plains of northwestern Venezuela.

On a recent Sunday morning, reggaetón blared from a house near the abandoned shack where Mr. Dunham has been sleeping on the floor. Barefoot children wandered up to his hovel, petting Judas. They giggled and stared at Mr. Dunham, 33, whose disheveled look evokes that of a graduate student for whom surfing, or maybe foosball, is high art.

“Are you an athlete?” one of the children asked him. “Or a missionary?”

“No,” Mr. Dunham replied. “I’m just a guy.”

In fact, Mr. Dunham is just a guy searching for the meaning of life.

His quest began more than two years ago in Portland, Ore., where he was working as a substitute teacher in the public schools. One day, he decided to start walking south, down through the western United States. From Texas he crossed the border into the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, where he stopped for a while. He said he hoped to walk for two more years across the rest of South America until reaching Patagonia.

In an interview here, Mr. Dunham retraced his tracks. He said a family in Tamaulipas allowed him to care for some of their dairy cows while he stayed with them for several months. It was there that he honed his Spanish and his milking technique. When he left, they gave him a donkey to help carry his load: a few books, a bit of food, some secondhand clothes.

Mr. Dunham named the donkey Whothey (the origins of the name are obscure), which in Spanish is roughly pronounced Judas. Now 4 years old, Judas is something of a minor celebrity in parts of Latin America. The donkey and Mr. Dunham arouse curiosity wherever they go.

“Judas is not just any donkey,” El Heraldo, a newspaper in Barranquilla, Colombia, reported last October, when public health officials barred him from entering the country because of sanitary rules governing the import of donkeys. “He was born and grew up in a beautiful and well-managed hacienda.

“Jon is a well-mannered and shy biochemist,” the newspaper continued in its description of Mr. Dunham, who did in fact earn his college degree, from Denison University, in biochemistry. “He was unsatisfied with living in the materialist realm, with the eternal anguish of getting the dollars for the gluttony of consumer society: laptop, new car, Chanel No. 5, cellphone, the latest release by Madonna or Shakira.”

Well, sort of.

The precise motivation for Mr. Dunham’s travels is not entirely clear, even to him; perhaps it never will be, though at a minimum it is a journey of self-discovery and endurance. In the meantime, newspapers along his route have reported that he was walking for world peace or to set a world record or to spread the word of God.

“THEY always find something to say,” Mr. Dunham said of the reporters who beat a path to meet him and Judas.

Mr. Dunham has relied on the kindness of strangers along his way through Mexico, Central America and, now, Venezuela. He keeps away from big cities, aware that they are no place for a donkey like Judas. He often seeks out a church upon arriving in a new town or village in search of a safe place to sleep. Judas helps him meet people, Mr. Dunham said.

Here in Tinaco, for instance, Mr. Dunham and Judas were resting in a park where artisans sell their wares. “I struck up a conversation with the quiet gringo and his burro,” said Williams Exaga, 38. “I thought, ‘Here’s a chance to cure some of the animosity between our governments.’ ”

Mr. Exaga allowed Mr. Dunham to stay in an empty shack on a lot he owns where he hopes one day to build a house. The shack, Mr. Exaga explained, is in the middle of the poorest slum in the poorest town in one of Venezuela’s poorest states, Cojedes. Mr. Dunham jumped at the opportunity.

Tinaco is a long way from where Mr. Dunham grew up in Laramie, Wy., the son of a university professor. Although he studied biochemistry, he comfortably cites philosophers like Hegel and Sartre in the same sentence. Once in a while, he finds an Internet cafe to send an e-mail message updating family and friends on his trip.

Mr. Dunham, who was planning to enter medical school before his walk began, speaks some Arabic, having traveled by camel in Sudan, and some Tok Pisin, having spent part of his childhood in Papua New Guinea, where his father went on sabbatical. “The Bible,” he replied when asked about what he was currently reading. “And some Plantinga.”

That would be Alvin Plantinga, the American religious philosopher at the University of Notre Dame. Mr. Dunham also carries an MP3 player that he uses to listen to lectures by renowned professors. He said he had given away most of the books he read during the last two years.

“People probably start fires with the books I leave behind,” he said.

His journey has had its ups and downs. While walking in the United States, he said, he sometimes was so hesitant to spend money that he ate discarded food, like half a cheeseburger or pieces of pizza. In Nicaragua, Mr. Dunham, who lacks health insurance, contracted dengue fever. Both he and Judas have battled parasitic infections.

He traveled by ship from Panama to Venezuela to avoid traversing the dangerous Darién Gap separating Colombia from Panama. Even taking precautions, and even though he carries almost no cash and little else of value, Mr. Dunham has been robbed twice. The most traumatic episode was in the harbor outside Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, where he and his donkey were on a Panamanian merchant vessel waiting to enter the country. Gun-toting pirates stormed the boat and robbed everyone.

MR. DUNHAM recently had another close call on a rural road in Guárico, a state in Venezuela’s interior, where soldiers from the National Guard interrogated him for eight hours, trying to determine if he was a spy. They let him go after asking his opinion of President Hugo Chávez.

“I don’t know enough to give an honest opinion of Chávez,” Mr. Dunham said.

While Venezuela might at times seem like a hostile place for an American to be walking alone, he said he had witnessed greater generosity in this country than almost anywhere but Mexico.

One Venezuelan gave him an old prepaid cellphone (the first such device Mr. Dunham has owned). Others have given him food, clothing and shoes, crucial gifts for someone surviving on about $2 a day.

Over a breakfast here of Pepsi and arepas, the corn-based bread that is a staple of the Venezuelan diet, Mr. Dunham quietly ate under the beaming look of the cook, Ada Boza, 47, a housewife in Colinas de San Lorenzo who has prepared food for Mr. Dunham while he has stayed here. She lives in a shack across from where he is staying.

“Jonathan came into our lives a few days ago, and has shared with us his good spirit,” said Ms. Boza as she doted on him and other visitors. “We will miss him immensely when he moves on.”