Sunday, June 26, 2011

Fat Cat Landed!

It is a bit funny that the first member of the family to land in Dhaka was Fat Cat. for all those of you who wrote to me about shipping your beloved furries, I would like to give you a brief description of the shipping process. On Friday, the Diplomat and I loaded Fat Cat and his Lady Friend in our rental car and drove to Dulles airport. for the past 2 weeks, we kept the kennels in our living room (classy, I know), and served food inside them to get Fat Cat used to its presence. So, we thought we are cool and prepared for the drive. Not so much. 15 mins into the drive on I-66, we got stuck in rubber-necking traffic (a cop had stopped a teenager on the highway and it was apparently all the rage of the day) and that is precisely when Fat Cat decided to hyper-ventilate, pee and poop, all in that order. It became a bit odoriferous in the tiny car and we had to open the windows to let some good old fuel fumes inside to mix with the poop. Finally, the traffic let go and in no time, we approached Cargo area 6 where Lufthansa was shipping animals and other disguised cargo on behalf of Qatar Air. I went inside, announced loudly that I had a reservation for 2 cats (I felt inordinately cool for doing that, not sure why) and startled a massive dog in a humongous cage right next to the window who then started barking his brains out. He did not stop for the entire 30 mins I was there, which made communication rather confusing.  To add to the circus, a few minutes later, a couple of heavily bearded gentlemen with dark glasses (possibly from Pakistan) came in dragging two large camouflage canvass bags (rather similar to body bags?!) with the words Islamabad on them and in very broken English tried to ship them on the same plane as our cats. Apparently there was a snag in the plan since it seemed that they were trying to load 1000 kg of some stuff while their air waybill authorized them to ship only 100 kgs. They seemed crestfallen and after a flurry of frantic Urdu left. All said and done though, the process was easy as charm--we weighed the cats, filled in some endless paperwork, paid a wad of cash and were done. So, thumbs up for all those of you who decide to ship your pets on your own:
1. Make sure you have an appropriate kennel--it should be plastic, with metal screws, and allow enough space for the pet to stand and walk. Get "Live Animal" stickers and arrows pointing upwards for the kennel.
2. Get the appropriate vaccinations for the country you are going and get a vaccination certificate.
3. Microchip the pet--if going to Europe, you will need the European standard one (read--MORE expensive). If not, you can pass with the US ISO one.
4. Get a health certificate and certify it by the local USDA.
5. Check if you need import certificate for the host country.
6. Breathe deep--your pet will most likely be fine. Ask GSO shipping at post--they WILL help you!

So, the cats are safe and sound in Dhaka, and staying at Lady Friend's house. Apparently, fat Cat has chosen to hide behind the freezer and will only come out when the Lady Friend comes to get him. Amusing.

We finally packed all the circus luggage and household effects, left Oakwood and have moved into the Westin hotel close by. I like it. No cooking, no cleaning, no tidying up, bad TV. Dreamy.

Also, today, the second member of the house left--the Diplomat caught the shuttle to NYC this afternoon and per his last phone call, has gone to the movies. I have one more week here in Arlington, and then I also leave for NYC with Son. In case you all wonder why we all go to NYC on the way to Dhaka--those officers who leave for their first consular tour of duty overseas, are advised to spend some time with the Department of Homeland Security in downtown NY and at JFK airport (or Miami or the West Coast, depending on where you are going) before reaching post. That way we get to  observe what happens once we issue those visas overseas and the happy travelers arrive in the U.S. Once he is done with that, the Diplomat flies to Dhaka on Tuesday.

Monday, June 20, 2011

How to (not) ship a Fat Cat abroad and the sale of a beloved Saab

Believe it or not, one of the major headaches for us so far has been trying to organize the shipping of Fat Cat. Now, the good folks of FSI who have seen probably thousands of irritated FSOs trying to ship their beloved pets, have a nifty 2hr lecture on the subject of how to do that. The guest lecturer is none other than the owner of the most popular pet shipping company among the Foreign Service nomads, called Club Pet International. He makes it sound so easy....for a certain premium, the company will take your beloved animal and ship it without care to you, even taking care of the maze of documents needed to export the hapless quadruped. Except that it isn't that simple.

The most important information for those insane enough to even begin thinking of shipping a pet is that the Department of State will pay you a Foreign Transfer Allowance, which is provided for "extraordinary but necessary and reasonable expenses not otherwise compensated for, but incurred by an employee incidental to leaving the United States and getting established at a post overseas." (see here for more details on specific amounts but I think those are outdated a bit-- Among those expenses allowed are expenses incurred "transporting of pets to the foreign area (Note: This is only what the airline is charging to transport the pet – no other auxiliary costs. Due to budgetary constraints, State Department is not reimbursing for quarantine costs at this time)."
So, the good news is that your pet's ticket will be paid for. The bad news is that ONLY your pet's ticket will be paid for. And as I am about to show you, there are many more interesting expenses associated with the pet shipping exercise. There are two ways one can do that:
1. Take a lump sum of money, which currently is around $1300 for a family and do not submit itemized receipts.
2. Collect your receipts and receive an amount up to 2 weeks salary for a family (one week for an individual without family with a certain maximum).

So, now you know you can reimbursed for the ticket, and having happily decided to give business to Club Pet just like I did, are suffering from the delusion that the pet shipping problem is not a problem any more. Wrong.
1. After 7 phone calls, you finally locate the person responsible for shipping pets overseas. You are overjoyed. You think you are awesome. You rattle off your situation and she gives you (rather grumpily, as if you are truly bothering her by giving her business) the ticket price, her fees and kennel size particulars as well as some documentary requirements. You tell her it all sounds great and you will call in a week to give her the final travel date.
2. You then spend the next 3 weeks desperately calling and emailing the blasted woman (called Nan, I think). Club Pet rarely picks up the phone, and if the perky receptionist does pick up, then Nan is never there. Emailing is also not an option (even though she told me that is the BEST option)--every time I send her an email, it falls into an empty void at the end of the Universe.
3. With three weeks left before departure, I became rather angry. You have to understand something about me--I am a planner. I plan everything. I LIKE planning everything. It makes life SO. MUCH. EASIER! Club Pet shook my planner nature to the core.
4. So, I decided to take matters in my own hands. I emailed Qatar Air Cargo services and within less than 12 hours three different agents from the company contacted me, gave me price quotes and asked me to call them back to book. I did. The blasted cat's ticket was issued 2 hours later. I will go and drop off Fat Cat at 5 pm on Friday at their cargo terminal at Dulles. The end. In your face, Club Pet!!!
5. The benefits: (a) I ended up paying only the plane ticket, which is completely reimbursable by State. If I had gone with the shipping company, I would have incurred additional service fees which are not covered as itemized receipts (granted, could have been covered as part of the lump sum payment). (b) I did not depend on a middle man, and the shipping company was more than ecstatic to work with me. (c) In the process I learned that Qatar Air does NOT transport falcons and pigs as cabin luggage. Very good to know in case you are in the market for either!

Now, there are a few documentary details that I'd like you to be aware of. Pretty much every country has some specific requirement in order to import your cat/dog/horse/falcon/what have you domestic joy. Typically, that will include a Health Certificate and Vaccination Certificate, which your local vet can do. For Bangladesh, the only vaccine we got was Rabies. I hear Europe has a whole soup list of vaccines required. So check. Most importantly for the travel portion though is that airlines require a Health Certificate (to be filled in by your vet after a physical, and will include your ), which MUST be certified by a USDA agent 10 or less days before the animal travels. You can accomplish this two ways:

1. Mail the certificate to USDA in Richmond overnight; include an overnight envelope with return address. You can have your certified document 3 days later. Takes minimal effort and much money.
2. Make an appointment and drive to Annapolis (or Richmond, should you want to see the sights), have your document stamped and drive back. Takes 3 hours. Requires that you HAVE 3 free hours to do it.

Pricing: the vet will charge you around $60 for the certificate, plus about $50 for the physical and possibly another $50 for the vaccines. No, these are NOT reimbursable. I highly recommend the Capital Cat Clinic at 923 N. Kenmore Street. I also recommend the Ballston Animal Hospital on 5232 Wilson Blvd--they will do the job but will be a bit pricey.

Finally, I recently stumbled upon this site and they really seem like they know what they are doing. Read some of their info, especially on kennel sizes and country requirements.

In other interesting cat news, Fat Cat currently has a visiting lady friend. This past Friday, our Dhaka co-adventurers, the Hawaiians, left Arlington for Dhaka. Since they will not go straight to Dhaka, their cat was supposed to board with Club Pet and then subsequently be shipped to match their arrival in Bangladesh. Similarly disillusioned with the shipper, Mrs. Hawaiian asked me to briefly shelter her cat and then ship both cats together on Friday. No problem, her cat is adorable. The interesting part was that she dropped off the cat at 5 pm on Friday, and at 5.30pm, the Diplomat and I left the house for a weekend in NYC. After a brief introduction of the cats, we left the apartment to the sight of Fat Cat chasing the lady friend all over the apartment in vain attempts to sniff her dainty butt. Few years younger and quite sprightly, she would have none of that. So, we wished them good luck and left them alone for two days to get acquainted. I admit that coming home at 1 am on Sunday night, when I put the key into the door lock, I said a silent prayer that both cats were still alive and mostly intact. They were just fine. Overjoyed at seeing me, they ran over the furniture for about an hour.
In the meantime, the Diplomat stayed back in NYC to supervise our packouts. I would be VERY curious to see what he managed to do and what will show up in Dhaka as our HHE.

Also, in other VERY sad news, on the way to NYC, we sold my beloved Saab convertible. I am not ashamed to say that I hugged the car and watched it drive away with misty eyes. There goes the end of an era. It might be curious for you to know how the sale went down--I will tell you only that it involved an online priest, 4,000 handed over to us in pure trust, a pregnant wife and a 11.30 pm handover in a Wallmart parking lot next to the highway. Stay tuned for more to come in the next post.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

How we went to Orlando

So, in our infinite diplomatic wisdom, The Diplomat and I decided to go to Orlando during Memorial Day weekend. The idea was to have Son experience Mickey Mouse before we plunge him into the world of exotic foreign developing-world travel. As you can imagine, about a trillion other American parents had decided to come with their own children to see the blasted mouse's kingdom for the long weekend as well.

In Orlando, we met with a lovely couple of friends of ours (a high school classmate of mine) and their 4-year old son V, who clicked so well with Son that they spent the entire weekend running and screaming in delight 95% of the time. Who has THAT kind of energy in the 100 degree heat? We arrived on Saturday morning and spent a rather noisy afternoon at the main pool of the Marriott World Center. There must have been at least ten thousand people in, around, above, beside, beyond and all over the pool, which meant that I spent a good part of the early afternoon trying to find a couple of lounge chairs only to lose them to a very hairy and rather unperturbed guy when I came back from the pool dripping and holding a writhing Son in my arms. When I pointed out that I had put two towels on the chairs and my shoes were there, he just shrugged his shoulder in his own awesome nonchalant way. I loudly insulted him in Bulgarian pretending to be talking to Son, he languidly informed me he did not understand me and after giving him the iciest look I could muster in the heat, I retreated underneath a massive fake palm tree to sit next to the Diplomat who was lying quietly under the shade. In the meantime, enhancing our pleasure immensely, there was an overly excited MC who kept conducting hula hoop competitions for children, women from various age groups and certain old men (NOT a pretty sight). The result was both deafening and exciting. The next day my friend and I got carried away an actually participated. We did not win. In fact, we did not do well at all. Such is life.

We retreated from the pool waving a large white towel and spent the rest of the day pleasantly in our fabulous suite with our friends P&C, while the children were pretending to be sleeping. P and I went to highschool together not THAT long ago, and as usual, had massive amounts of gossip to exchange. When it was finally time for dinner, around 7 pm, we brazenly got into out cars and got stuck in Mickey Mouse traffic 3 minutes later. Half an hour later, having moved about 3 feet, we started exploring options for dinner at various excellent chain restaurants like Applebees and some local attractions. Upon entering, the invariable waiting time for each place exceeded 40 minutes. With hungry children and slightly irritable husbands, the situation was getting desperate. As it was already pushing 9 pm, we made the executive decision to pick up food at Wendy's, and booze and other interesting refreshments from 7-11. We finally procured some sad-looking fast food. Son was so exhausted (his usual bed time is 8 and it was pushing 10) that he kept clutching his chicken nuggets in the car, laughing hysterically or crying inconsolably but refusing to either let go of the nuggets or eat them. Then, he fell asleep in the car.
When we finally made it back to the hotel, the children woke up, ate, ran around hysterically some more and passed out. P and I spent another fabulous hour gossiping. All in all, I think it was a fabulous day in Disneyland. As a result, the Diplomat and I decided not to take Son to Disney--we reasoned that it was 1) too hot, 2) too crowded, and 3) Son would not care as he was too young to notice.
Sunday was spent pleasantly at the pools of the hotel (much less crowds which makes me think that everyone was at Disneyland), where the kids spent 8 hours pruning themselves in the water. I am proud to say that Son now swims on his own using the floaties! After calling over 10 restaurants to get dinner reservations only to have odd times like 4.30 pm or 11 pm available only, we decided to send the men to procure raw meat and other consumables, and made dinner at the grills near the pool. We had a fantastic time!

So, all was well and on Monday we sadly bid our friends good-bye and dragged ourselves to the airport. And then, as we were about o climb on the plane, a cheerful Son suddenly turned to me and said, "Mama, are we going to see Mickey NOW?" Oops....

In other news, we are on the home stretch here. The Diplomat leaves in about two weeks, and I--in about 3. It is a scary thought. We are frantically preparing and planning and it feels all so overwhelming. In another post I will tell you about all the things that need to be done before moving your life overseas.