For reasons that will become clear, I have decided to share this dramatic account of how I smuggled the three-legged cat, Garbanzo, into the UK in 2006.
It’s in four parts. Here’s the first.
Part One: Getting Out
After four years of loving friendship/marriage, my true love chooses to leave me: by telephone and email. No face-to-face last goodbyes; no parting kiss or farewell embrace.
The reason is that she is afraid. Afraid I will do her physical harm, for one. (It is true I have a terrible temper, and during the break-up, which occurred—by phone and email—between Halloween and Nov 5th, I burnt most of her things and beat myself up with my fists.) But perhaps most of all, she is afraid of the pain she will cause me, afraid of being a witness to it, preferring the “safety” (and cruelty) of distance. It is such fear that causes me by far the worst pain.
All this is merely to set the scene.
My partner was supposed to come to Guatemala (from the US) and give me a chance to win her back (or at least say goodbye), in order to take Garbanzo, my three-legged familiar, to the US, and then on to England to me. Admittedly this was back before we both realized that it was over, but the bottom line was that I had discovered it was impossible for me to take a cat directly from Guatemala to England without resulting in six months’ quarantine at the other end. This was not even a remote option.
When my partner bailed on me, I had to find an alternate option, and the best I could come up with was to fly to France instead, and try and get Garbanzo over to England somehow from there, either legally or otherwise.
That year alone Garbanzo had lost a leg, been mauled and nearly killed by three stray dogs, been “gelded” or castrated, and last and perhaps most undignified of all, microchipped specifically for the trip to England. I had spent a small fortune on the paperwork necessary for England, only to have to toss half of it when I found out Guatemala is not recognized as a “safe” country, obliged to begin again making Garbanzo legit to travel for the US, then to halt the process again, in order to commence arranging for his legal passage into France.
What money I had quickly ran out. My ticket to the UK was lost completely, there being no way around that one. A friend helped me get a new ticket to France. My employer at the Holistic Center spotted me a thousand dollars to cover my debts in Guatemala and give me something to fall back on once I got to France.
It was hard to know if I was doing the right and necessary thing, however, or just being selfish. Did Garbanzo really want and need to accompany me to England? Was it just my own neurotic needs at work? There were two options, so far as leaving him, but neither was satisfactory. I was fairly sure if I left him, I would never see him again. I have abandoned far too many cats in my life, and I had lost far too much in the previous week (try everything) to feel up to losing my cat also. Others felt quite strongly that I should stay with my cat, however, or vice versa. Shaman friend Mitch felt the same way, when I spoke to him later. He said that, after all I had been through, the Universe had given me a doctor’s note: “Jake gets to keep his cat.”
That gave me hope. Not much, but some.
I finished up the necessaries for Garbanzo, including a liquid tranquilizer to be administered orally to help him through a roughly 16-hour trip. (Two-hour flight from Guatemala to Mexico, connecting to another flight two hours later to France, which was ten hours; then whatever maneuvers were necessary in Paris.) On top of this, I had recent ear-damage (from sound trauma of firing a gun) to consider. My right ear had pretty much healed, a month later, but then three days before the flight I had caught a cold and was once again dangerously sensitive to changes in pressure. I was taking all sorts of medicine, both natural and otherwise, to try and reduce the symptoms.
Those last three days trying to tie up all loose ends and close the book on a whole cycle of my life, to book (and then catch) the Paris flight, were like being a state of total war. Not in the sense of conflict, or even danger, but in the degree of focus, efficiency, discipline, and abandon required to get through them. All this while still reeling from a broken heart. (Although, unlike my previous heartbreak—which led me to Morocco—this time my heart wasn’t shutting down; I was feeling things more intensely than ever.)
Getting Garbanzo out of Guatemala was easy enough. At security, I had to take him out of his box (a special box designed to fit under airplane seats) so they could x-ray the box without harming him. While waiting to board, I gave him two thirds of his tranquilizer medicine and took some of my own pills. To my relief, taking off didn’t cause any great discomfort to my ear; it was only when we were nearing 30,000 feet (or whatever was our flying altitude) that I began to suffer, though nothing like I had feared, or been prepared for.
Once we were in the air, it suddenly occurred to me that Mexico might be an hour ahead of Guatemala: that would mean I had only one hour between my flights. I was highly doubtful that would be enough, especially for having to process Garbanzo also.
The first flight attendant I asked confirmed that Mexico was an hour ahead, so I went to ask another attendant if there was anyway to alert my Paris flight and to speed up my passage at the airport. I was assured there was in fact no time difference between the countries. Garbanzo was fine during the flight.
In Mexico, I managed to go to the head of the immigration line and then straight to baggage claim. I was obliged to present Garbanzo’s paperwork to the authorities, even though he was only changing flights, and this took a long time. We encountered problems when I was told that his certificate of health wasn’t recent enough, two weeks having passed since it was drawn up. Fortunately, I was able to point out more recent documents, dated four days earlier, that persuaded them to allow us through. Since the computers were down, however, they couldn’t give us official sanction, and instead we were personally accompanied through customs. Despite being told my flight was leaving soon, the customs guy wanted to check my bags, assuring me there was time. He did a quick check and we were through.
I checked my wheeler suitcase (filled with books and notebooks, it must have weighed around 80 kilos) and got my boarding pass. All seemed well. Boarding began moments after I reached the gate and I had a slight foreboding. I attempted to conceal Garbanzo with my body as I was standing in line to board. Sure enough, as I reached the check-in, I was told “No cats on board!”
I had bought my ticket with Air France and done all the necessary checking. But the flight was actually with Air Mexico, working in cooperation with AF. AM had a no-animals-in-the-cabin policy!
The woman told me he would have to travel down in the cargo. Not happy, I tried to argue. She said she’d look into it and told me to have a seat meanwhile. I sat down. Since I knew it was unlikely they’d let him travel with me, I gave Garbanzo the rest of his tranquilizer, then went to speak with what I took to be the senior official, at the check-in desk, a man in his forties with black hair and glasses. I asked if there was any way Garbanzo could travel in the cabin. He assured me in an impatient fashion there was not. Gradually, as he spoke, I realized that he was not only refusing to allow Garbanzo into the cabin, but (because I had failed to tell them about him and secure a place for him in cargo) he was refusing to let us on the flight at all!
As this terrible realization sunk in, I felt the first creeping of dark, nightmarish panic. I began to beg the man to reconsider, not by getting down on my knees but by saying, “I beg you…” etc. He asked me not to beg him. It was beyond his control, company policy, etc, etc. He was very cold and mean, like a machine.
I stood there feeling the nightmare unfold before me. I was going to be stuck in Mexico City with a three-legged cat. Mexico City. Stuck! I would lose another air ticket! I was well and truly done for. Finished!
In despair, I considered the possibility of going out again and checking Garbanzo as baggage. But it was clear there was no time, and I doubted they would even let me out again. Instead, I decided to try and slip onto the plane anyway, hoping the officials wouldn’t know what had been decided, and that the Holy Spirit would somehow smooth my passage. I saw the young official who had first pointed Garbanzo out to the others, looking at me, shaking his head. I knew I didn’t have a chance. I went and asked him whether I had time to check Garbanzo as baggage.
This caught the attention of one of the check-in ladies, and the case moved into her hands. She wanted to see Garbanzo’s paper work and was reassured by the fact he had been microchipped. I began to feel creeping hope once again.
The lady went and checked with the robotic senior official, then came back and told me I should wait. I stood for a time muttering prayers, tears in my eyes. I was in a strange state of hopeful hopelessness. I overheard someone suggest radioing the cockpit to ask the captain for approval. Garbanzo’s and my fate were in the captain’s hands. It seemed fitting, somehow. I continued to pray. Had a jury been deciding between a sentence of life or death for me, it’s hard to imagine I would have felt greater apprehension. In a way, that was exactly what was being decided.
Everyone had boarded and they would be closing the gate any moment. I couldn’t bear to just stand there so I went over to the desk to make them aware of my presence. The official who had asked me not to beg wanted to know my name. A cargo loader showed up then by chance and when he was asked about putting the cat in the hold, shrugged, like it was the simplest thing in the world (which of course it was). I realized that the miracle was about to be granted. It wouldn’t extend to having Garbanzo travel with me, but we would at least be traveling!
A young woman accompanied me into the boarding tunnel to the entrance to the plane. She then took Garbanzo down some steps to the cargo hold. Before she left, I told her his name to ensure she had a personal connection with him. I went to my seat, said a prayer for Garbanzo, took some valium, and slept the entire ten-hour flight to Paris.
End of part one.
I, for one, can’t wait for the next installment:-) Sleep was the best possible thing for you, but I am worried how Garbanzo was doing!
Just as an aside (and sort of travel tip), I suffered from ear pain also on a eight hour flight to Paris many years ago. We had a Jamaican steward, who noticed I was doubled over with tears streaming down. He went to the kitchen and quickly came back with two small paper cups filled with paper towels he had soaked with very hot tap water. He motioned for me to take them and put them over my ears. I must have looked ridiculous, but that man knew his in-flight medicine. Instantly, the inner ear pain subsided from the moist, heat that surrounded my ears enclosed by the paper cups. I could have kissed his feet I was so grateful:-)
Thanks for the comment, Debbie. Comments keep me engaged in posting – even if I don’t respond they are always deeply appreciated (no lie).