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


viksdes said...

No other airport in the world makes me more nervous than Mumbai airport..sick custom officers, sick staff and sick infrastructure. Let alone cats, even humans are not treated like humans!

Amit said...

Naomi tell us what youv been upto in Somerset? Youv been there now almost a month? Whats the greater plan you have ?

I cant help but wonder how one can come to terms with the english weather especially starting Oct to Feb. i think your spoilt with the Mumbai weather so whats the plan?

Naomi said...

Hey....that is all to come in the next blog....just had so much to write on leaving India - it has taken me four blogs!!! It was clearly a disturbing shift for me...

Sunny said...

hi Naomi this is the first time i read your blog. Nice to hear your cats are safe and sound.Hope they have adjusted to the weather there.Would love to hear what this Expat on the edge is upto at her home. Take care......Sunny

nri2008 said...

Hi Naomi

Hope the cats are doing fine in Somerset.



IndianBlogger said...

Hi Naomi

I finally got to read your blog here and its a shame that you left in such conditions/circumstances - no friend to help you out on that day is a disgrace - people dont call that city 'cold' for nothing - though themselves they will never say so - I bet if you were in Delhi you would have not faced the same 100% sure!

Anyway, alls well that ends well, I am glad the cat are safe, I would have been equally worried for the pets if I had to do the same.

I though found your comment about not spending the same on Humans a bit strange - maybe you wanted to sound funny.

I hope to read more and hopefully get to know what you are up to - but if you ever visit India again you should get a feel of Delhi's hospitality surely!

Warm regards

Anonymous said...

I should digg your article so more people are able to look at it, really helpful, I had a hard time finding the results searching on the web, thanks.

- Murk

Naomi Canton said...

Hi Viksdes - you don't like Mumbai airport...well try the cargo complex! It is awful.
Hi Indian Blogger - Mumbai is similar to London and other big cities, whereby the people there are all stressed, all working long hours, all need to earn a living, and don't have time for each other (apart from their immediate family). I barely got to know my neighbours, but the same would happen in a bug city in the UK, esp if you were a foreigner. So, it's no different. In these situations you really need introductions to integrate. Incidentally my best experiences of friendly India were in the smaller places...I found Cochin to be really friendly for example. In Mumbai, most people just want to party with you, but not help you pack.

Naomi Canton said...

Good job I ran this post. A cat has now been killed at Delhi airport as a passenger was trying to transport him out of India. Read the story here and here

ashtoreth said...

Naomi, this sounds like a terrible ordeal. I'm so glad your cats made it okay. How long and where did you have to quarantine them before they could head to london?