Thursday, August 30, 2007

My Spirit Guide Decides to Visit.

It was an auspicious occasion this morning. I woke up to the caw, caw, caw of the crows which fill this city like pigeons in NY, but above the cacophony, I heard a high pitched shrill, a scream.

Back in 1978, after finishing high school, I had intended to attend college at Cooper Union in NYC, intern at BBD&O eventually becoming the Creative Director for a number of high profile clients. I simply expected to get in without a problem, so I didn't spend the time carefully crafting my application and presenting my portfolio. Needless to say, I did not get in, and ended up going to a college in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico.

I was only there for one semester, but it was long enough to engage me in Native American studies. One of my classmates, Joe Red Bear, was the first of his family to live off the reservation and they called him an apple (red on the outside, white on the inside). He was a big, burly dude with a huge smile. He was taking criminal science so he could go back to the reservation as a cop. His grandfather was a shaman, an elder who knew the ways of the old medicine, who had taught Joe a lot about his religion and instilled a pride in him as one of the few living indigenous peoples of America. He was willing to take me to see his grandfather.

After many trips to the reservation, speaking with his grandfather about the old ways, I was invited on a Spirit Quest. Typically, Native Americans don't allow white people to participate because many of these new age, yoga practicing, granola eating hippies tend to turn it into something crass. It is a sacred rite of passage and I was lucky enough to be someone that the grandfather had seen something within and granted me passage to this other world.

I can't go into many of the details of this journey - let's just say, there are substances injested that aid in enabling your spirit guide to show themselves. Spirit Guides are typically animals that provide you with their strengths in order for you to reach higher realms of existence. The activities begin in the early evening and go at least all night, but for as long as required. I was told that my spirit guide would appear and show me the way. When I met her, it instantly made sense. I lay there on the ground at the mouth of a cave on the side of a mesa. The red tailed hawk soared above me, slowly circling in the rising heat coming off the desert. She dove down and rose, dove and rose while I watched the sun go down. There is a lot more to this story, but let's get back to Kolkata.

We just moved to Ekta Heights and live at the top of one of the buildings. I woke up to her call, amidst the din of the crows. I sat up, looked out the window overlooking the terrace, and there she was. This hawk was more brown, and bigger. Its talons gripped the pipe fence and it extended its wings to full span. I approached the door expecting her to leave in a flurry of feathers, but she stayed there, looking at me as I closed the door behind me. She tucked in her wings and settled down. She was about 20 feet from the door. The crows were incensed with her. I walked slowly toward her until I was about 8 feet away. She eyed me suspiciously, but stayed motionless, ignoring the crows. I very slowly sat down cross legged on the floor of the terrace still looking at her. I stayed quite still. Suddenly, in a burst of feathers, she flew right over my head, causing me to jump in alarm.

I then realized there were three or four hawks flying in and out among the four towers, chasing crows and being chased by crows. I consider this a most auspicious greeting - to be welcomed by a spirit guide is quite an important affair. I was meant to be in Kolkata, at Ekta Heights, for a reason and I'll need to find out why. Most times, the connections only happen later, with the crystal clear view of hindsight. The last hawk who visited me was in Aurora, IL where we had been living for 4 years. She came to me just before Lee asked me to go work for him in Chicago. While the job was less than pleasant, I met and befriended Jason who was married to a woman from Pune. He was in the midst of moving to India and he inspired me to finally make my move here as well. I wonder what is in store for us in the future. :-)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Gangrene Sweets Open Since 1882

We are finally moving to our new apartment today. We closed yesterday paying three month’s rent as a security deposit, plus first month. I only found out a couple of days ago that I’m going to have to come up with another month’s rent for the agent. They get paid by the renter and the landlord one month each. Not bad for him.

We went out shopping yesterday and Uttam, one of the most helpful people I know, took me everywhere that I needed to go to pick things out and then he took the list of stuff I didn’t need to approve. From cups and cutlery to a toaster, induction plate, plastic storage containers, glasses, etc., he got everything. For all of the basics, it cost around 11,000 rupees. I paid 13,000 for a small Whirlpool refrigerator (about half the size of a standard American one), around 6,000 for a Samsung microwave (that also grills), 17,000 for a 1.5 ton Carrier air conditioner, and about 8,000 each for two mattresses. Manish gave us a set of microwave items including a rice cooker, which I could have used in the states. I plan on getting some real furniture next month or maybe October, after Will’s school has been paid off. Electronics cost around the same here as in the US.

I am hiring a driver to take me back and forth to work again. The taxicab thing isn’t working out well for me. There’s too much stress when I don’t know where I’m going and the taxis are just not trustworthy. Maybe trustworthy is too judgmental. Some of them aren’t thieves, they’re just stupid and know as little as I do about Kolkata streets. Regardless, I don’t know enough Hindi or Bangla to argue with them. It’s just not worth the trouble. I will be paying about 900 to 1,200 rupees per day, which I think is more than reasonable considering they work from 8am to whenever each day. If I were visiting Kolkata, I think I’d hire a driver for the day to take me wherever I wanted to go. If I go visit Mumbai, I will do the same.

Once I get paid in September, I will be looking to purchase a car. I’ve been told to get a Nissan or Honda, but I have my heart set on an Indica. Don’t ask me why, but I just love them. Maybe I can find a battered up ‘98 white Indica - I’ve been using that image as a metaphor at work to describe something that is familiar and has been dependable and working well, but now it’s tired and dated and needs to be cleaned up and modernized. I’ve grown a bit fond of that car…

The weather has been very humid, and it seems the rain is coming down after I arrive at the office. I keep seeing my staff come and go with umbrellas, but I never see the rain. Now, with the big terrace, I’ll be much more in touch with the weather. I have a friend who is going to help me set up the terrace like an oasis in the air. I’ve been considering borrowing Lee’s idea of using a hot tub without the heat, and keep the bubbles, as a sort of pool, along with lots of banana, mango and citrus trees, hibiscus and jasmine. I’m so excited about this move. I haven’t been home since my property was moved!

Will just came in to the office. He was telling me there is a shop near the house called Gangrene Sweets. It’s been open since 1882. Makes you wonder.

Monday, August 20, 2007

"The World Loves Our Sweet Dark Beauties"

Shopping in India is at times overwhelming, frustrating and always interesting. Since we are moving to our new place this coming weekend, we needed this weekend, to find a basic minimum of stuff to make the move as least disruptive as possible.

We are simple people. We don't need a lot of stuff, but what we do need, we really really want to have with us. I'm looking for two mattresses, twins really, that we can later use as the base for custom couches or connected together to make a bed for the guest room. I need a few towels, some plates, cutlery, glasses... just typical stuff. We could also use a small fridge which can later be used in Will's room when we get a bigger one. And an air conditioner, just one for the living area.

Okay, now, where do we get this stuff? All the regular stores that we've been sent to are like malls, large structures with small stores within. Everything is expensive, not American expensive, but Kolkata expensive (I'm beginning to appreciate the difference). I know for sure that most Kolkatans do not go to City Centre to buy mattresses, but where? After going to many places, Will and I just gave up and went to the Crosswords bookstore.

We love books. We miss our books. I sent about 900 of my first editions, handmades, familiy heirlooms, art books, classics, etc. to my brother, and left thousands of them at my old home because I simply could not ship the weight involved. The cost to purchase new was less. Wills finished the last two Harry Potters on the way over here, and has read three more books since arrival. He really needed something to read and I've just missed having free time, let alone using it to read...

We arrived at the bookstore around one and decided to check out the whole store befor epicking up any books. Temptation was everywhere.

"Good Afternoon, Madam." The door was being held for me by the guard. We stepped in. There were three people in a small foyer. Each said good afternoon. Two followed us up the stairs. Two more people dressed in blue polo shirts joined them.

"Good afternoon, Madam, are you looking for something in particular?"

"Just looking, thank you." We walked from the stairwell toward the shelves. Another blue shirted beuaty appeared from between the shelves.

"Good afternoon, Madam, how are you today?" Total so far, five people following us around the store. I pick up Buck's "The Good Earth".

"Would you like that in a card cover version, Madam?"

"No, thank you. Will, put this in a basket." One of the people gives Wills a basket in which to put the book. I move. So do they.

Now, we're not the only people on the floor. It's quite busy actually; Sunday afternoon on Elgin Road is not a time to expect peace and quiet. There were other people looking for assistance, book in hand, but we seemed to be granted the larger share. We move toward the back of the floor, past the fiction, sighting architecture books. I was interested in finding a book on Indian architecture. None. I ask. Three blue shirts scatter. We take advantage of this and attempt to leave our entourage for another floor. As we start up the steps, we realize they are on floor duty. They don't accompany us up the stairs. Will said something about using this to our advantage.

When we got to the top floor, which was childrens' books and a cafe, people literally stopped talking and stared at us, everyone except the kids who were going about their play. I was beginning to wonder whether we'd made some big error somewhere. Now in America, by the time I'd seen two assitants looking at me I would have already asked for a manager and taken his/her head off. This kind of treatment is typically one of security guards/shop assistants watching to make sure you don't steal anything, and I for one never liked being treated like a thief. Here, it's a different kind of intrusion - we're uncomfortable because we're not used to this level of service, but I also feel that this level of service wouldn't have been the same if we hadn't looked like Westerners. A black (ahem, African) friend of mine says he doesn't get served at all here.

Anyway, we walked to the front of the store where the cafe is and looked at the offerings. A sign, "The World Loves Our Sweet Dark Beauties", was taped to the front of the treats case. It got me thinking. There aren't a lot of Indian women tapped for America's Next Top Model or featured on the covers of Vogue or Glamour, but there are some seriously beautiful women here in this country. And I'm not talking about the Bollywood archetype with skin whiter than my own, but women with an innate sinuous grace, shiny long hair that smells of jasmine, eyes as dark as a mystery, and a smile as bright as the sun. Women here walk with a sense of dignity and awareness of their quality. It's pretty amazing stuff. I related this to Wills over a felafel sandwich.

"Yeah, they've got some hot babes here," he replied.

The men aren't bad either, but that's a story for another post.

Monday, August 13, 2007

American Style Malls

Wow. We heard a rumour that City Centre may have a pet store, so last night after work, we asked the driver to take us to Salt Lake's City Centre Mall. First off, getting out of work occurs at 7:30, and I knew the stores were closing at 8:30, but looking at the map, it looked no farther away than where our new home will be from the office. Boy was I wrong. It took nearly an hour to get there, so we watched the stores close up, but the mall didn't close until 10:30 so people could hang around the food court.

The food court!!!! Wills was so excited. The place was huge. Five stories of cute little shops, Levis, Tommy Hilfiger, home furnishings, lots of iPods, Xbox and other electronics, Bose - you name it, they had it. We were like two kids looking into the windows of the candy store. "Oooh, look at that... Mom, can I get a new game for the PSP next time? ... Hey look at that shelving system - wonder how much that costs..." We rounded a corner to see, yes, Pizza Hut and KFC.

Now, I know we've only been here a few weeks, but Wills is really missing his friends and he hasn't started school yet because we're waiting on the bank account to be set up (so I can pay the school). When he saw KFC, I thought he was going to cry. He didn't want to go in though because it was very busy. He's beginning to get overwhelmed with the attention he gets. He asked if we could come again later when it wasn't so crowded. I felt bad for him. I know it's just a matter of time getting adjusted to it, but even so, it's tough at times. when we were at New Market - I had the same feeling - people zeroing on on me, memsahib can I show you this? Mamsahib, paise hai? What part of 'no' do you not understand? I saw a sign for an Italian restaurant on the fourth floor, so I suggested we go there.

OMG. Hushh has an interesting interior - all black on black. Will went for the fried calamari and I started with the pasta salad, which was kind of weird because they put lettuce in it. The pasta could have been a bit more cooked through (it wasn't handmade either) but the pesto vinaigrette was very well balanced. Will selected a conchigliere with seafood for his entree, and I chose a prawn risotto with saffron. I wasn't expecting much - risotto is a risky choice because it's easily ruined, but with skill, it is the star dish on a menu. Wills and I both had tonic water, mine had the local gin added with a bit of lime. Both entrees were impeccable.

I have to say that until yesterday, my favorite restaurant for risotto was Felidia's in NYC. There was an abundance of saffron flavour and a blooming frangrance of the sea. The aborio rice was perfectly cooked, not too hard and not gummy, the two areas where risottos typically fail. The color and presentation of the dish were beautiful - if anything, I'd use a little more imagination on the garnish - a crispy carmelized onion would have been interesting or a mushroom saute finished with sherry could have been nice too, but overall, the stunning flavor didn't need any elaboration.

Will's tomato-based gravy was bursting with intricate flavors. I detected a nice touch of fennel playing off the prawns and squid. There was a certain smokiness to the sauce that I couldn't define, but it was very, very good. Again the pasta did not seem home made, but the attention on the sauces more than made up for it. This time the pasta was cooked through.

Will had the dark & white chocolate mousse for dessert. Skip it. There was one other bothersome thing - there were three different sources of music heard at our table. We had jazz directly above us, 70s pop and disco towards the interior of the restaurant, and something else everytime the entrance door opened. The entire meal, with a 10% tip was around 1,800 rupees, with about 600 of that for the gin. We're definitely going back. I was so surprised to find a foodie restaurant. There seems to be a few more at this mall, so I think we'll be going back. Often. It was a nice respite to find something comfortable and familiar and best of all exemplary here. I should have expected it, with the skill every cook in this country has with their spices, that they could make simple dishes all the most interesting with a deft hand at the herb and spice rack.

Bottom line? Still no kitty litter, but well worth the trip. :-)

Sunday, August 12, 2007


Weather is bad. It's been raining for a full day with no end in sight. The roads are flooded and most of my team won't be making it in to work today. Since I'm only around the corner, and my driver made it to the house, I came in.

Last night around 10:00 pm, BOOOMMM!!! I was awakened by a blow to the solar plexus, knocking the wind out of me. As I curled up into a fetal position, I realized it was Grace whining and looking for a place to hide. BOOOOM BBOOOOOMMM!!! She became even more panicked. The rain was coming down in solid sheets (still is). I opened up the doors onto the balcony to watch the rain come down. The smell of ozone was overpowering. Lightning was crashing everywhere. I closed the balcony doors and went to see if Wills was okay.

Of course he was sound asleep. He can sleep through anything. BBBB--BB--BBB-BOOOMMM!!! It was really really loud. I woke him up by pushing him and shaking him. I wanted him to see the city. He wanted to sleep. Oh, well.

I went back to the balcony to watch the rain. The city had an odd colour to it. The lights were reflected by the bottom of the heavy clouds that were obliterating anything over 8-9 stories. (Made me wonder whether moving to the tenth floor would be a good idea). The entire city was misty, making everything look like a shimmering mirage. Nothing looked real. I must have watched the rain come down for an hour. The one thing I noticed? No car alarms. Just quiet.

Thunder's still going off over my head now. I ran five feet from the car to the office door and was drenched completely, only to meet a stray dog huddling in the corner of the stairwell, completely wet, shivering... I really wanted to pick up the dog, get him a bath and a vet visit, and take him home. Poor thing. There are strays everywhere. My team's just coming in. I guess the rain is coming down even harder now. Must go.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Registering at the Foreigners Office

The first thing I recommend to anyone moving here is to step off the plane and immediately go to the nearest passport photo shop and get ten or 12 made. You'll need them for applying to everything, the sports club, ordering your wireless internet, applying for school, getting a bank account, and registering at the Foreigners Office.

You have 14 days to provide proof of address, proof of employment, etc, and each office requires their own set of paperwork. On my first attempt, I went with my colleague and he said to not expect it to be completed that day, that this would just be a visit to ensure we had everything we needed. He was right. We had everything listed online, but they had other ideas.

At my particular office, I was required to bring a copy of my passport showing the photo page, date of entry page and the visa page. Same for my son. Then the form from the internet was not accepted. They had their own form, one for each of us. They required 4 photos for me, 2 for the minor. I needed a letter from my company confirming employment, plus my contract, and a letter from me requesting permission to live peacefully in their city with my son. This meeting took 45 minutes.

At my second appreance, which I did with my son in tow just in case, we had everything, but I had to go over every piece of paper with two different people, then sign my name to every page again in front of a third person. I also had every original with me. If I hadn't none of the copies would have been accepted. I also brought a second copy of everything just in case - I was told that a different office in the city required 2 copies. This meeting took about twice as long as the first meeting, and I was finally told to come back on the 14th. They didn't explain why, but I'm assuming I'll get a booklet confirming our registration.

It was a little less painful than going to the Department of Motor Vehicles in the US, except everyone is speaking a different language. I never realized how lost you can feel as an immigrant. People are making decisions for you based on your presentation of your paperwork - and you have no idea how things are being interpreted. Luckily I have found that, here in Kolkata, a smile, having a sense of humour and being patient, goes a long way.

Hindi toro samaste hain! :-)

Finding a Place to Live In Kolkata

Originally we had planned to move to Salt Lake, a planned section of the city, but those who live there say it takes 45 minutes to an hour to get to the office. Right now, I'm about ten minutes and really didn't want another commute from hell, so we decided to look elsewhere. The office is just around where Ballgunge and Tollgunge meet, so we looked in both.

The first day of looking we looked at three different properties. The first, a fully furnished place was situated on a main boulevard close to work with a lot of architectural detail - too much. The floors were beautiful white marble, but the space felt cramped, dark and there wasn't much to really like. The furniture was WAY over the top - I couldn't have lived there. Anyone who knows me, knows that I like very clean, simple lines with little or no ornamentation (I expect my artwork to decorate). My furniture should keep my butt off the floor - very utilitarian, and with multiple uses if possible. He wanted 25,000 Rupees for the space, plus 4 months deposit. So, no go.

The second place was in a brand new building on the seventh floor. It looked very modern on the outside, with massive backup generators, and architecturally, the external design with visually stunning. The elevator inside was something else and when we stepped out onto the 7th floor, I stumbled over several pairs of shoes. I knew this was not going to be the place because I already disliked my neighbors. It was way too hot, no electricity working, many of the finishes weren't complete and I really did not want to move in with a punch list of stuff that still needed to be done. There was also a significant mold problem in the master bedroom which they were telling me was because of construction. Uh uh. I'm the daughter of two architects. It's because of a defect in the the construction (or design or both). I'm not dealing with it. They wanted 30,000 rupees a month with a six month deposit.

The third place was the place on Southern Avenue that we had planned on renting. They agreed to 25,000 rupees a month, but would not budge on the 6 month deposit.

Get this. A typical rental agreement is 11 months, and basically the landlord is asking for more than half upfront, an entire 7 months of rent. I find that excessive. Plus I'm told not to expect any contact with the landlord once we sign the agreement, so what's in it for me? So time to look again.

The streets in Calcutta are on sensory overload. Everyone moves around one another - all driving here is based on a dare. Whomever is going faster or looks crazier has the right of way, plus you share the street with bullock carts, bicycles, cows, packs of wild dogs, lots and lots of people, buses, trucks, trams, hand rickshaws, bike rickshaws, motor rickshaws, motorcycles, mopeds, scooters, handpulled carts overloaded with goods going to market, construction materials, etc. ... and no one uses a lane (they're not even marked - I think they gave up on the notion), and no one heeds the traffic lights or the traffic cops. Drivers use their horns constantly. It's noisy, polluted, hot and sticky, and overall, a most unpleasant undertaking.

The sides streets, on the other hand, are quite beautiful. They are so skinny, most of the two way streets only have enough room for one car. The trees are so overgrown, they are entwined across the tops of most streets, so they are dark, quieter and more peaceful. You can only see the windows of the ground floor, so the windows on the remaining 2-3 floors have just tree limbs for a view (they must get their sun from side and back windows...)

This past weekend, we traveled south to Javadpur in the most southern part of Tollygunge to look at Ekta Tower. We looked at the penthouse apartment on the tenth floor and it was amazing!!! There's about 1,800 square feet of living space, plus a 1,000 square foot terrace. 3 bedrooms, 3 baths (the cat gets his own bathroom again), plus a large living/dining area. We have balconies in three directions, and we're literally the highest point we can see. :-) They were asking 35,000 rupees and 6 months deposit again, but our agent talked the owners into a great decrease in the rent and a 3 month deposit in exchange for a 3 year agreement with a 5% increase each year. We made a verbal agreement yesterday and just need to wait for the papers. In the meantime, I have to scramble to get cash. I'm hoping to have my bank account set up next week, so at that point I can see what I can get wired in to pay for this, plus Will's school (more sticker shock - just under 200,000 rupees to get him in the door, then about 3,000 per month).

If it weren't for the corporate group helping me with getting set up, I would be completely lost. I was able to get myself registered with the Foreigner's Registration office this week, but only after making the trip once with help, and a call during my second attempt. The people in corporate have helped with arranging suitable temporary housing, arranging a car/driver, setting up my bank account (the amount of paperwork for foreigners is massive), finding an apartment, suggesting restaurants, even providing helpful phrases in Hindi and so much more. I doubt an American company has ever provided all this to their employees coming from overseas. I am completely overwhelmed by the hospitality and generosity of the people here.

And of course, "I'm worth it" as the L'Oreal commercial says. We work six days a week, 9:30 to 7:30 M-F plus 9:30 to 2:30 on Saturdays. It doesn't feel like a long day, but by the time I get home, I'm done. Will heats up dinner for me (he's such a good kid), we watch a bit of TV and then bed. **Yawn**

Thursday, August 2, 2007

First Impressions

Instead of staying at the Landmark Hotel as expected, the company put us up at a flat associated with the Princeton Club. It is a three bedroom, two bath on the fourth floor of a group of appartment buildings called the Merlin Residency. Being very close to the office, it works out fine.

Differences: all marble floors, with high thresholds that we keep stubbing our toes on. Even the cat and dog have had a tumble. No central A/C. There are window air conditioners in two of the bedrooms, but none in the living/dining area or the kitchen. TV in the room with no A/C. (Constant struggle with the decision of whether to read in a cool room or watch TV in a hot room; usually the book wins out.)

Similarities: every modern convenience is available, including cable TV, stainless steel appliances, etc. Speaking of TV, they have everything, "My Name is Earl", "ER", "The 4400", "That 70s Show", they even have US soap operas like "General Hospital". MTV India is quite lascivious, much to my surprise - was not expecting that.

We went looking for our own flat a few days ago and looked at a place we really liked on Southern Avenue, even closer to work than where we are now. The flat is on the sixth floor of a newer building (anything after the British split) with white walls, colourful terrazzo floors and huge windows overlooking most of south Calcutta. There's a park just below us, so mostly you see heavy banyan trees and palms and just the tops of other buildings - there are a few high-rises (20-30 floors) to the south. The other half of the view is sky, and with the monsoons, you can see the dark clouds rolling in, dumping sheets of rain and lightly scurrying out to the east. It's a very open and airy space, very light. One of the people at work has been helping us with negotiating the price. It's quite beautiful. It has been explained to me that once you negotiate the price and put down the rather large deposit (4 months), the only time you'll hear from the landlord is if you don't pay the rent. Don't expect them to perform maintenance and such. I hope that works both ways and no one will be complaining about my dog or my noisy son.

Will should be starting school soon as the Calcutta International School. It's a brand new building. He took his admission test on Saturday and he thinks he did well. We had an interview at the school and we had to make a decision whether to have him redo 7th to make his transition easier, or dump him into 8th grade, which started more than a month ago. We're starting 8th and getting a tutor to help him align his math to where they are in class.

Will is enjoying life here. We joined the Princeton Club so he can swim and use the gym. We have someone who comes to the house every morning with the driver bringing our breakfast, then he accompanies me to work. Will can then use the driver to go to the mall or food bazaar during the day. I work 9:30am to 7:30pm M-F, plus 9:30am to 2:30pm on Saturday.

Lance is still upset because we can't find kitty litter. We're using sand right now, and it's not working too well. Two things I can't find yet in calcutta - kitty litter and Gin. I could use a good G&T this evening...

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Flight

We arrived at O’Hare with plenty of time to get everything arranged. There were few people in the airport and no waiting involved. We flagged down a skycap who helped us manage the four boxes, three bags, two pet carriers, one guitar case and our two carryon bags. We walked up to the desk and told them we were picking up our tickets. They were there as anticipated. The Air India agent looked at everything we had and excused herself, opening a door into a back room. After a moment or two, a gentleman came out and started asking questions, “Where will you be staying? Why all these bags? Why do you need these animals?” I explained that we were moving there.

“One way?” he said, eyes wide.

I nodded.

“So, you are returning home, yes?” he said, jokingly.

I replied, “In a way, yes.” I explained how I had lived in Mumbai as an exchange student when I was 15 and how I had always wanted to return, blah, blah, blah. He hesitated for a moment, looking at me, then he talked with the agent. I paid $266 for each of my pets, and $133 for a box and that was it. They made photocopies of the pet’s papers, and we were done. Tickets in hand, the skycap escorted the pets and us to the arrivals area, where we could walk Grace and keep Lance near us. We had over three hours until our plane would leave, but we had to wait until 30 minutes before to hand over the pets and go through security. Bored, we waited. I had anticipated going through security, getting something to eat, settling down in a spot to check email, get a drink or two, buy some magazines… all we managed was the magazines when we were finally able to drop off Lance and Grace.

We took off about 45 minutes late, but once we were in the air, the flight was uneventful. I read magazines and Will started reading the seventh “Harry Potter” book he had just received from his Gran. Next to Will was an older woman dressed in a burkha who didn’t speak any English. She had keep getting up for us because we were always moving around. After a while, I motioned for her to take the window and she declined. She used the little English she knew to tell me her knees bothered her and that aisle was better. She asked me to complete her Customs paperwork and she handed over her passport. After our next meal, she shared her after dinner digestive with me, a palmful of caraway and other seeds to freshen your breath and aid digestion. Not being a big fan of caraway, I took just a little bit and thanked her, popping it into my mouth. She shook her head, took my hand and dumped a bunch more onto my palm. I thanked her and chewed on the rest… She was really nice. I wanted to ask her a lot of questions regarding the culture of the burkha, but that will have to wait until another day, another woman. The food on Air India was actually quite okay for our palates. We ordered the Indian non-veg and were happily surprised. Whenever we were expected to eat continental style though – not so good.

When we finally arrived in Mumbai, it was 11:00 pm. Immigration was a breeze, taking only a few moments – not even one question from the officer. Next came the part I had been dreading – Customs.

When we arrived in Baggage Claim, I looked at the available luggage handlers and selected one who I thought could help. I told him that I had $40 on me and needed assistance with a large amount of cargo through Customs. He jumped to attention, assembling 3 or 4 other young men with trolleys to await my bags. I had expected my pets to come off first. When they didn’t, he went back into the loading area to find them. They were inside within five minutes. As soon as Grace saw me, she went nuts whining and barking, causing everyone to stare. It took six guys to get her crate (with her in it) off the revolving carousel. They kept stepping on each others feet and Grace shifted her weight, nearly causing the crate to tip over onto them. As soon as I could, I got her out of the crate and on a leash. She was the center of attention. Everyone was looking at us. Staring at us. The luggage guy was barking out orders to all the other helpers while Will was busy pointing out bags, boxes, and cases. The luggage guy wanted to know where we were going and well, there was a problem.

I had called Sprint before we left to make sure that my phone would be India-ready. I was sold the International package and didn’t have a way to test it. Apparently, the International package only works on the phone in the U.S. making calls INTO foreign countries. Once I arrived in Bombay, the phone did not work. My contact at the office had called while we were waiting at the airport in Chicago to let me know that he would be emailing me the name and phone number of the contact who would meet me in Mumbai and take me through to the domestic airport. Unfortunately, I never had access to my email and now had no phone access as well.

I explained this to my luggage handlers and they recommended taking the Jet Airways shuttle over. It was free. They would help me get on it even though we didn’t have our tickets. They were sure they could talk us on because my contact had thoughtfully sent the ticket numbers ahead, and I had them listed in my notebook. We started through Customs and with 8 trolleys full of bags, boxes, cases, and crates, plus about 8 or 9 people, a barking and whining dog, a cat, I think we overwhelmed the Customs agent. The luggage handlers kept loading one item after another, yelling to each other – by the time the last box went through, everything else had already left the area, like a tidal wave have come, sweeping all things away, leaving just me, the Customs agent, and one box. He asked me what was inside. I said personal items. He wanted to know where my papers were that listed every item. I looked at him blankly. He said open the box. Another agent came over and slit it open.

The box contained a Tibetan statue of Tara, the Goddess of Compassion. He had a lot of questions, but once I said I bought it on Ebay, he said, "go." We were pushed through the Jet Airways lines and through to the waiting room. I didn't even ask how they did it. We sat for a moment, then were ushered out onto the tarmac where a bus completely filled with people waited. The luggage handlers pushed our bags into any available opening, then stuck Will and the pets in the rear section of the bus, where they keep the tools, cleaning supplies and such - Grace had to make a five foot jump to clear the barriers - and then sent me to the front. A discreet request for a tip, money changed hands, and I stood in the stairwell of the bus as it sped off to the domestic terminal. It arrived about ten minutes later. Overall, the entire process took about 30 minutes.

When we got to the next airport, we had to ensure we had all the bags, boxes and crates, plus get my son and pets out of the underbelly of the bus. They jumped out covered in soot and grease, but okay. We approached the Jat Airways desk to arrange the next leg of the flight. At this point, Grace had had enough of this whole trip and refused to get anywhere near the crate. She was whining and barking, and the sound of her echoed around the nearly empty airport in the early morning hours. It sounded like someone was gutting an aminal alive. Of course, all eyes were again on us. Lance's crate was on top of Grace's, both sitting on a small trolley, the only size they had. While speaking with the agent, Grace pushed all her weight against the cage, sending her crate crashing down, and Lance's hurtling through the air landing on its top. Upside down, Lance joined in the cacophony and now everyone in the airport had stopped doing anything and just watched us, as we pulled the cratesopen, checked the animals for injuries and righted averything again. Grace must have realized her mistake because she stayed quiet for a while after that.

We had about five hours to kill, so we found a quiet corner to keep both animals out of their crates once we had our boarding passes. This calmed them down until it was time to hand them over to the agent. After a quick flight to Kolkata (just under two hours), we were finally able to meet our contact from the office who, with his staff, arranged everything getting us and our stuff out of the building and into two cars for our drive to the guest house.

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