Thursday, September 23, 2010

Britain Glorious Britain

(....were it not for the whining Brits)

Cardinal Walter Kaspar may have remarked that Heathrow made him think of England as a Third World Country, ahead of Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain. "England today is a secularised and pluralist country. When you land at Heathrow airport, you sometimes think you've landed in a Third World country," he was quoted as saying to a German magazine before the Pope’s grand arrival. Then mysteriously following the controversy in Britain that followed his insult, the senior papal advisor pulled out of the Pope’s trip, citing illness. (!)

Well, I could not disagree with what he said more.

A typical English high street
England is certainly First World.  When I landed at Heathrow, after three years in India, I marvelled at the modernity, cleanliness and organisation of the airport. Everything looked new and everything worked. I felt immensely relieved to be holding a British passport and able to walk through immigration without a queue, heightened by the fact I had had a priority pass, having (accidentally) flown business class. Hundreds of foreigners meanwhile queued at the long line of immigration officer desks. I had always been one of that lot whenever I had landed in India or the USA. But not so anymore! Yippee.

 I was glad I had not lost my British citizenship from living in India (imagine if that had happened?!) Now I was so excited to be home, even if the sky was grey. My parents were waiting at the arrivals section for me, having driven up from Somerset to greet me. As always when they met me off flights from India, my mum was carrying a thick coat, and this time, a pair of shoes. “Mum, we have shoes in India. We are not all ascetics. Did you think I was going to land barefoot?” I asked sarcastically. We put my stuff in the car and I entertained them all the way home about my nightmares leaving, how I had to give away most of my stuff, and discard it at the airport, the cats, the 11th hour upgrade to business class, and so on.

As usual my parents didn’t really have many or any questions about India, but that was to be expected: they rarely had questions about anywhere I travelled (as a general rule British people are spectacularly uninterested in wherever you travel and it’s a social taboo to bore them with the details, and certainly not to even start on photos). 

So, I gazed at the uncrowded roads, that only had cars speeding down on (not rickshaws, mopeds, motorbikes and cabs crashing into one another), the clean perfectly drawn white lines on the edges of each grey tarmac lane, the lack of people wandering or sitting on the streets - and it didn’t bore me. For once, I liked England; for once I liked the peacefulness and organised state of things.

Another typical scene
A typical empty street (outside London)

 The chaos of India had entranced me at first. I think most tourists are bewitched upon seeing flower and fish sellers sat on the pavement, child beggars tearing at their trousers and homeless people living in tents on the pavement. Forget the fact it is an indication of poverty, tourists find it fascinating and even take pictures of it on digital cameras. These are the scenes, often described as “colourful” by novice writers. I too was seduced it all at first, but it eventually, that lost its appeal after three years. Until then England had lost its appeal and I had found India fascinating. Now I found England fascinating. Maybe I was looking at England through an Indian person's eyes. I found the English pavement and tarmac interesting; the way people crossed the road in England interesting; the plethora of dyed hair on women intrigued me; so did puffin crossings. You see, maybe that is what being an expat does - it makes you appreciate your own country more. After some time in India, despite initially seeking adventure, excitement  and chaos, I started to want quietness and normality. India had, at the end, started to feel like a dream. Back sat in my bedroom in Somerset felt like reality again. Or maybe comparing my 250 square foot flat in Mumbai to Somerset was not a correct comparison. A studio flat in Brixton may have been a better one. Maybe then my Indian eyes would have preferred Bandra.
For now, having lived in India for 3 years, I was really appreciating  the peace and organisation of England (for the first time!) I no longer needed to go to bhangra nights and study Hindi, to get a virtual link to the country I had fallen in love with as a 19-year-old backpacker. I was finally able to feel English and be English. I could now imagine going to Henley Regatta once more, or playing tennis, picking blackberries, or eating strawberries and cream.
India had cured me. Of something.
(Herein lies a reason why India is considered spiritual. It teaches us foreigners lessons, lessons we didn’t even know we needed to learn.)
The good old English pub and familiar Tudor buildings

I no longer hated typical English pubs. How long would this fascination with my birth place last, I wondered.

I could sense my Dad was nervous as to how long I might stay in his house, where he had a computer that was ‘his’, an armchair in the sitting room that was ‘his’ and a life, set up with hobbies and classes at specific times, in a set routine, that was ‘his.’
The next few days were very busy as my parents were celebrating their Ruby wedding anniversary soon after I arrived – one of the reasons I had flown back at that time. I had always thought that it was only in India that people could afford caterers. To me, the general rule had always been that whatever there was a servant or labourer for in India, in England it was done DIY. No one has a cook, driver or a maid in England, for example (save the Queen). And generally at dinner parties and house parties, we cater ourselves.
But my Mum  proved me wrong on the occasion of her 40th wedding anniversary and hired a catering company, at massive cost (which I later discovered, was at my expense too.). So, in the week leading up to the big 100-guest event, we had a large marquee van arrive to put up the marquee, caterers, florists, you name it. It was like a scene from Four Weddings and a Funeral.
I was especially pleased when I noticed that the men putting up the marquee were all young and good-looking. I remembered that rule, which is in The Rules, which states you should always look your best, even at Tesco. So, I took off my pyjamas and put on some make-up and made them cups of tea every hour.

The marquee
The marquee

 Then next came the wine delivery van. I have never ever unloaded and carried so many boxes of wine in my life. The van man sad he had never had such a large order before either.  Boxes and boxes of 12 bottle crates of red and white wine filled up our kitchen. Lifting them compensated for me not doing arm weights in the gym for two weeks.
My Dad suddenly panicked we did not have enough fridges to cool the white wine in. (We have three American sized fridges and one wine fridge.)

My Dad then investigated hiring a fridge. Cost: 500 pounds per day.

“In India they just put them in wheelie bins of ice,” I said helpfully.

I informed him he had over-ordered on the wine, as our house looked like a wine warehouse. He nodded, but it was too late. I remembered that golden rule for a successful party: get the guests drunk. So, I guessed, we always had that option to fall back on.

A few days before the Big Day, I decided that since so many good-looking marquee men were around, since I was in my 30s and unmarried, and since my Mum had been harassing me to do it for ages, it was time to get my hair highlighted. This was something I had resisted my whole life, proud of having “natural blond hair like the woman in the Timotei Ad.”

But now all my friends who had highlighted or dyed blond hair (equals most of my friends) were married. I was not.  There was a missing link, a disconnect. Perhaps, I figured, older and wiser, perhaps it was time I did dye it. After all my eyebrows and arm hair were blond, so it would look pretty natural anyway wouldn’t it? My mum agreed to pay the 100 pounds cost as she had been asking me to do it for 10 years, and I had till now, refused.

The catering company came on the party day and overtook our kitchen. I was busy helping with the seating plan (doing emergency changes as the disorganised people dropped out last minute) and it was all ‘go’.

My Dad then kindly informed me this was my “surrogate wedding.” By that he meant that since I had not got married, my mum and he had decided to splash the money they had been saving for my wedding, on their ruby wedding party – and that they did. We had champagne and canapés in the garden, followed by a sit down meal and speeches in the marquee. Hence, it was done at my expenseJ

The fact I had flown back two non pedigree Indian cats to Britain was one of the main topics of conversation at the event…The news even split the guests. While some found it cute, and gazed at the cat pix on my mobile phones, others said: “Do not tell me how much it cost you as I will find it a disgusting waste of money!”

The Indian non pedigree cat

In the evening we had a barn dance.

The barn dance

In case you don’t know what a barn dance is, it is a ritual, popular in the countryside of Britain, alongside green wellies and Barbours, whereby a caller shrieks into a microphone, while a band plays country music in the background, and people, of all ages, dance with different partners (not their own) a kind of folk dance.  Although it originates in America, it is to me, quintessentially British.
The following day we had a barbecue and salads on the lawn.

Life in England was fun. Real fun.  And in the countryside it was truly fabulous. This was not a Third World Country, no way – Mr Kaspar, I thought, as I drank sparkling wine and ate grilled Salmon kebabs, with chicken and hamburgers in a white marquee.
Of course, not everyone agreed. Or at least, my Dad and other men engaged in talk of the ‘recession’.
“I just can’t see this country ever getting out of debt. It’s too far in,” one said. “Yes, it’s the worst it’s ever been. It’s a disaster,” another said.
 “What is wrong with you?” I would say. “This country is amazing and has everything, everything you can dream of. There is nowhere like it in the world,” But they couldn’t see that. They had not lived overseas like me. They could not see that Britain was in far better shape than in 2007 when I left. It was like someone becoming fat in three years, and noone noticing apart from the person that had been away. I could see that a fight was on my hands to prove to the British that they were not in recession. 

A typical street in the UK

Oh, why are the English so gloomy and negative? The Indians, on the contrary, are far more positive and happy.
Anyway the party was a success. The best part being that no one (including my sister) noticed that I had highlighted my hair….They all presumed that was how it had become in the heat of sunny India. Ha Ha.
It had been worth it, not just for that, but in a few days time, the marquee men were to be returning to pull down the marquee.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Indian cats' big adventure

A week before my cats were due to fly from Mumbai to London, my worst fear was realised: I came down with fever, diarrhoea and vomiting.
The diarrhoea was, in fact, green. Loss of appetite was unsurprising.
That same day the freight forwarding agent, that I had been forced to employ, to fly two non pedigree Indian felines back to England (since cats are only allowed to fly as cargo to the UK) rang me and said he required a load of original documents, even though I had scanned in dozens the week before.

I could barely move. I spent the previous three days in bed, unable to eat. I could not think of a single person I could ask who would be prepared to carry the documents to his office for me, and was certainly not going to trust a courier company with them, so I sank into a low point, wondering if I had any ‘real’ friends in Mumbai.
Yes, I had plenty that wanted to meet in a café or a bar for a glass of wine. But who would voluntarily do some work for me? I rang a Bandra friend, who had a car, to see if he would at least drive me to the guy’s office, so that if I had ‘an emergency on the way’ (read: diarrhoea) he could stop the vehicle; since a regular cab driver may not get it if I started waving my hands wildly. But my car-owning ‘friend’ did not answer my calls or texts.
Next my maid showed up. Every day when I was sick, her first concern had been my health the minute she walked in the door. She offered to accompany me to see her doctor. It dawned on me, that apart from my cats, she was my only real friend.

I told her my latest dilemma and we agreed I had no option but to go myself, despite my ill health. Together we packed four loo rolls and towels for the event of ‘an accident’ in the cab, and off I went…scared.

But luckily God was on my side as the cab driver a) spoke English and b) was unfazed when I told him my predicament (that I may vomit or have diarrhoea in his vehicle.) In fact, I have always found in India that whenever things go really wrong and reach their lowest point, suddenly there will always be a silver lining. And there was. So, I reached the office ‘sans’ accident and the cab driver, clearly feeling for me, gave me his number and told me he would pick me up later. I felt less like the world was caving in all at once.

After several hours of signing forms in the cramped hot freight forwarding office, I felt faint, having not eaten for three days, so bought a mini Five Star bar from a dusty roadside stall outside.
Ten minutes after eating it the same bar reappeared in vomit all over the freight forwarding office bathroom. I was amazed at how much sick a tiny chocolate bar could produce.
The office had a water shortage (as did several parts of the Mumbai suburbs at that time) and there was no running water from the tap. Wrenching at the sight of my own sick, and feeling embarrassed to have ruined the office’s only bathroom, I promptly left.
Outside I rang the cab driver who said he would be an hour, so I took a rickshaw to a nearby five star hotel. As always with Indian five stars, you are treated like God, even though you may be pale, have fever, vomiting and have not have eaten for a week.
The fact I was carrying two large cat carriers did not faze the poshly-dressed doormen either. I glided to the hotel bar, pretending I was Julia Roberts, and sat down, hoping no one would realise I may vomit any second.
Despite the waitresses attempts at suggesting I order a special creamy mocktail, I went for a lime soda. “I am a tad under the weather, and can’t really handle a mocktail,” I said in the biggest understatement of the year. After barely sipping a fifth of the Rs200 drink, the cab driver rang me to say he was outside. I glided to the Ladies. 10 times the amount I had consumed of lime soda suddenly appeared as vomit across the five star hotel’s Ladies’ toilet. Wrenching at the sight again, I left the hotel and got in the cab. My godlike driver drove the cat carriers and me home.

By the time the day of the cats’ flight came, my infection had cleared up owing to a powerful drug called Orni-O …But the bureaucratic marathon was far from over. Despite having spent weeks filling in forms, photographing the cats, getting vet certificates and letters and scanning them all, in, nothing appeared to be ready and everything still appeared to be chaotic.

Getting ready to fly
I reached the freight office and for the 100th time the cats had to get weighed and measured, more documents needed sorting, before we arrived Nightmare on Elm Street 13 aka Mumbai cargo complex. This is a dark, scary, noisy place. Thirty men immediately surrounded the two cat carriers plonked in a wheelbarrow and me.
“To them, what you are doing is like putting two cockroaches in a cage and taking them back to England,” a helpful English friend had told me.

The flight cost Rs 50,000 and the quarantine at least four times that…”Would you spend that amount on a human?” an Indian friend had asked me earlier that week. “No,” I had said.
And I had meant it… Well, not unless the human meant as much to me as my cats. Would my Indian friend spend that on a random human? Unlikely.
My English friends were equally bemused at the cost. But do I judge them on what they spend their money on? Like skiing holidays… No. My cats are priceless. A value cannot be put on them.

I did not sedate the cats, despite several Mumbai vets recommending this. The customs official was nastier than expected…He told me to open both cages and let the cats out in the middle of the open cargo complex, with planes taking off and vehicles moving everywhere. I refused, pointing out the cats may escape as they were scared stiff. He would not budge. In a naïve moment of exhaustion and anger, I said “Do you realise I am a journalist?” He replied: “ I don’t care where you work” and our relationship soured even further. I quickly realised that comment had not been the best move, and there was every chance the cats may not get on the plane, a point reinforced when my freight forwarding agent helpfully informed me that the previous night a dog flying to America had not been allowed to board as at the last minute as the customs official had deemed the cage to be too small.

There was no vet present and no animal handler to hold my cats, and there was every chance they would escape. But with little option, I unwired the cages and lifted them both out.
Luckily they were so frightened, all they wanted to do was jump back in the cage.
Next the customs official demanded a funnel to feed water to the cats. Naturally, we didn’t have one.
Where anyone would get a funnel from at 10pm near Mumbai cargo complex was beyond me. But miraculously, it was possible. The agent sent off some boy and he returned with a funnel round his neck.

Several hours later, after the customs official had leafed through all my documents, and scared me and my agent as much as possible, claiming documents were missing then magically finding them, I was told to leave.

Needless to say I did not got to bed but stayed up all night tracking the flight on the web.
At 5am I rang Heathrow and, using my journalistic skills, managed to get through to the exact people who collect animals from planes…Amazingly my cats were expected!…. At 7.30am I rang again and the cats had landed. “Are they alive?” I asked. “ I think so,” the man said. My heart skipped a beat. “Please check.” I heard his feet patter off. Silence. He retuned “Yeah, they are alive.”…”Do they need feeding? Are they ok?” Silence followed apart from the patter of his feet. “They look alright to me.”

Hours later, an email arrived. “Your cats have reached the quarantine kennels,” is all it said. I nearly fell off my chair. I rang up the kennels straight away from India. “Are they covered in urine? Are they starving?
“No, they are fine.”
“It’s a miracle. How did they get there in one piece?”
“We didn’t expect anything less. We do this every day,” she said. “Goodbye.”
Sleep-deprived, I collapsed on a heap on my bed in my Bandra flat. “Its normally the pet owners that require sedating more than the pets,” the freight forwarding agent had told me. He was right.

If you need any kind of advice on flying pets overseas, please put your question in the comments section and I will be happy to reply.

A frightened cat knowing something is up