The Highs and Lows of Himalayan Valley Life

We fast approach Month 3 and what can I say? It’s been an adventure. We have our routines, but this place is still daily on the surprises.

Let’s start with the house. This place is ridiculous.

Corinthian columns. Why not?

Corinthian columns. Why not?

When we first arrived to Patan (the kinder, gentler side of Kathmandu), we had a short window of time to find a house and leave the hotel/resort. Not just according to my contract, but also according to the chihuahua and hound. They grew tired of the humble twin bed and en suite bath even sooner than we did.

Mr. Lal was our first agent. A stout man. Always wears his traditional Nepali folded cap and wool blazer, no matter the humidity. He showed us a some decent places, but we’d soon learn they were already rented.

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Artist’s rendition

Santosh was next. Wild eyed and rapid-fire responding to every question with a firm “Okay! okay!” He showed us everything from a ramshackle with earthquake damage to a mansion on the hill. No middle ground though. Nothing we actually needed.

What we needed was a house with a bedroom, plus another space that could be used as an office/guest room. I needed kitchen space. The dogs needed a lawn. The agents were eager to show up places, but nothing in that Goldilocks “just right” zone. Nothing even close. Time was running short, and with the post-disaster housing shortage, we realized we may already be out of options.

That’s when the Mystery Man appeared. He took us to Doggie Heaven. It was the only property he showed. It was far larger than we needed, with a whopping three stories, four bedrooms, and a larger garden than we had back home. Additionally, the rent agreement included salary for a full-time gardener/guard.

Also, zombie-proof walls.

Also, zombie-proof walls.

Last year, we never thought we’d have to pay someone for lawn maintenance. Now, between our “home house” and “here house,” we’re paying two gardeners. The freaking Carnegies we are!

Pinkies up

We connected with Raja Ram, the owner of Doggie Heaven and had a nice chat. We agreed to reconvene once a rent agreement was written. Three days later, he was speaking in abstractions about maybe not wanting to rent the place, maybe moving his sons in, and on and on. Essentially, this was code for “let’s renegotiate the rent.” There was much drinking of tea, wagging of heads, and speaking in loquacious formalities. We finally got ink on paper and began our move from the hotel.

Breeze blew back Boo’s ears as she cast her snout into the wind, riding next to me in the bed of a panel truck, swerving through traffic with the typical local fatalistic attitude, surrounded by our suitcases and recently arrived air freight. Surely, I thought, she senses that freedom is just down the road. We rolled through the massive iron gate, down the drive, and the dogs leapt from the truck to immediately mark every tree and bush in sight.

That's a lot of marking to do!

That’s a lot of marking to do!

That was some time ago, but it feels as if we’re still moving in. We bought some very affordable wicker furniture, and Raja Ram is “storing” his sofas here. We’re free to use them, he says, until the day comes that he decides to move us out.

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Another day in Doggie Heaven

The dogs are certainly at home now. However, while Floyd follows Fiona everywhere she goes, Boo refuses to go up to the roof. And for good reason. While we were house hunting, I noticed some people kept pets on the roof. Made sense. Rooftop terraces are very common here. Plenty of fresh air, shade, room to run around. What’s not to love?

Boo is definitely not in love with roofs. We tried to keep her up there… once. She literally ripped apart the screen, the wire mesh, and the door frame itself. Ever since then, she refuses to ascend past the second floor.

Nope nope nope nope nope...

Nope nope nope nope nope…

Too bad. The view is terrific. Afternoon sundowners. Garden terraces adjacent to slums. Few satellite dishes, many solar water heaters. High rise offices and residencies hastily abandoned in the seismic wake of April and May. Sometimes we see evidence of squatters through the dusty, unkempt panes of glass. Pigeons and kites (both the avian and handmade varieties) harmoniously share airspace, until the evening opens the stage to hawk-sized fruit bats. A haze of dust and mist and burning rubbish against the deep green hills that roll into purple mountains that eventually, with enough time and patience and willpower, roll into the permanently snow-capped Himalayas. 

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It’s okay, I guess.

The smog would typically be worse, but there’s a fuel shortage on. Buses line the ring road, waiting for fuel, rooftop racks packed with after-work commuters. Taxis in another line, another part of town, abandoned of their drivers. Not until tomorrow will their pumps open for business. Or so the attendants claim. Anybody’s guess when the army of scooters, mopeds, and motorcycles will remobilize. Paramilitary police stand idly, to ensure everyone behaves nicely. 

Meanwhile, my commute as of recent weeks has been relatively free of belching diesel exhaust, maverick motorists, and crowded lanes. Selfish as it sounds, there’s never been a better time or place to be a cyclist. For now, I own the roads.  

Ah, local recreation. We’ve done a few rides into the surrounding rice fields, and the scenery is always magnificent.

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Exhibit A

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Exhibit B

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Exhibit C

Sometimes we go with a group; more often it’s just us. As always, we get lost. As always, that’s half the fun.

I’m thankful we invested in mountain bikes and not road bikes. The day-to-day work commute is brutal enough: roads pockmarked with potholes or suddenly absent any paving at all, that makes for adventuresome cycling. Get out into the countryside though, and that’s cowboy country. Asphalt gives way to brick, brick gives way to dirt, dirt gives way to goat trails. Even the skinniest path may be shared by motorbikes, cycles, cows, shepherds, farmers, laborers hauling a half-ton of bricks in a thatch basket strapped around their forehead… it’s anyone’s guess what will be around the next bend.

Fiona just left for a run with Boo. We’re trying to figure out how to hike the dogs through the countryside, but 1. they don’t ride bikes and 2. with the fuel shortages, taxi drivers aren’t enthusiastic to take folks into the surrounding hills, much less with two dogs. There are a few walking and running routes from our gate, however. For example, the Mürderhörn: a gentle slope down across the chaotic ring road, over a bridge, then more or less straight up at a nosebleed pace for a couple more miles. Dogs love that one.

Then there are the back alleys. More than a month passed before we learned of the brick-paved labyrinth that weaves through the residential sections of Patan. It’s a bit like human-scale Pac-Man.

Oops. That lane is a dead-end.

Uh oh! Pack of murder-eyed street dogs around that blind corner!

Oh snap! Produce cart! Oranges!

Low hanging fruit from the pomelo tree! One hundred points.

Agh! More dogs! Lose a turn.

Wait, why does it feel like I just came out the same side of the alley that I first went into?

Super bonus! Landed at Suraj Shop!

Ian welcomes me to the Shop with a cold cheap beer.

Ian welcomes me to the Shop with a cheap cold beer.

A word about Suraj and his shop. There are a couple of folks with whom I TGIF on the regular. One evening, the hours ran long, and when I’d normally be headed home, my friend Ian suggested I join him for the cheapest, coldest beer in town. I pictured a locals-only bar, full of working class Nepalis drinking half-liters of Strong and smoking ragged clove cigarettes. Something that Bruce Springsteen would sing about, if New Jersey were closer to the Himalayas.

Suraj Shop is way quainter, and more inviting. Suraj is the shop owner by inheritance, and a longtime friend of Ian by proximal association: during Ian’s earliest months in country, Suraj’s was the closest shop for beer and other sundries.

By “shop,” don’t imagine a grocery store or even a 7-11. It’s basically a corner bodega with little room for much more than a glass counter, small fridge, and shelves packed with inventory. It looks small, but Suraj Shop stocks everything from toiletries to instant noodles to newspapers to soft drinks to… you guessed it, cheap cold beer.

So we sit on the benches, right there in front of the Suraj Shop. We drink cheap cold beer in the open air and watch the night’s pedestrian traffic. Sometimes it’s an extended Friday night, sometimes it’s a dog walk break on a Tuesday evening. Hawkers sell fruits, vegetables, and paper cones full of spicy puffed rice. Kids run around, oblivious of bedtime. Policemen walk by, festooned in their riot gear and camouflage, brandishing birch canes or shotguns, smiling and laughing and holding hands (it’s not gay, it’s Nepal). The patrons of Suraj Shop share stories of love, travel, and trouble. And the cheap cold beer keeps on coming.

While nights are never dull, daytime is prime time for people-watching. Interesting coincidence that our preferred watering hole is a short jaunt uphill from the literal watering hole used by the local residents for laundry and bathing. Saturdays, everyone sees to their domestic details. Whole families carrying clothes up and down, usually packed like a Jenga set on the back of a motorbike, though lately, they’re more likely on foot or on the back of a pedal-powered lorry.

Most every Saturday, Suraj Shop is the rendezvous spot from where we’ll leave for a day of eating grilled animal parts and drinking chyang (homemade rice beer). Sometimes we grill right there on the stoop. The dogs are always welcome. And man, do they love barbecue day! There comes a point when they truly cannot eat one more piece of tendon or gristle.

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Suraj. He’s the guy on the right.

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Marinated chicken, wood-fired grill.

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Good times at the Shop.

The local chow here is rustic yet amazing. Most people who’ve traveled through Nepal know dal bhat, essentially rice and lentils. It’s basic, it’s filling, and people will tell you it’s all locals eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

I’m here to tell you those people either haven’t visited Nepal since the 1990’s, or they weren’t paying attention.

An easy way to categorize and compare area cuisines is by ethnicity, because foods can’t join the ACLU.

A typical Thakali plate features a central heap of steamed rice, surrounded by little dishes full of stewed meats and vegetables, starchy tubers, sweet and savory gravies, and slap-my-face spicy, sour pickles. A formidable meal!

Photo credit: ECS Nepal

Generations of exiled Tibetans have revised local palates with a lengthy menu of earthy, hearty, and sometimes bizarre foods. Tibetan tea for example, made with yak milk and who knows what else, is reportedly ideal for cold nights and high altitudes, but if your mouth isn’t expecting a warm yet salty yet almost chowdery sensation, that may be the last time you take on Tibetan tea.

Tibetan thukpa though, is phenomenal. Pleasantly warming, cheap as chips, and totally filling on any occasion, this hearty chicken soup hits the spot no matter the season.

Now, Nawari food? That’s my jam. Nothing says “back to fundamentals” like butchering a whole damn animal and finding a way to cook every square inch of it.

For example, what happens to this adorable goat?

Sorry, what?

When our Saturday supper club goes out to the villages, it’s always for Nawari. Pictured here, you’ll see a typical dining experience.

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Let’s see what’s left on this table (actually, a mat on the floor). There’s dried, spiced, aged buffalo. There’s blanched buffalo tongue, served with local spices. In the foreground is a fermented lentil cake stuffed with ground buffalo, topped with a goose egg, and smothered in buffalo gravy.

Those two empty bowls used to be full of livers, gizzards, and an assortment of other parts that get collectively marinated and slow cooked. To eat, one scoops up roasted, flattened grains of rice then dips that into a dish of whatever is nearby.

Most importantly, wash everything down with frequent gulps of chyang, that rice beer I mentioned. Every brewer in every village makes it a little different, and the batch must be consumed within 24 hours — no hops or other preservatives to keep it any longer.

Cloudy white and slightly sour, to drink chyang is like drinking a dream. It’s the Little White Fairy. With each sip, my mind wanders further. I notice the pigeons. I notice the sound of wind passing peacefully through the valley dell. I notice there’s still a few pieces of kidney. I notice they colors of the sun and forget about the kidney. It’s like my old friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said…

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Milk of paradise. Pretty sure we’re talking about chyang, Sam.

At the time of writing, Dashain (dee-shy) is on. Suraj tried to explain it to me one day. Every day, for many, many days, there are tributes one is expected to make in honor of various Hindu deities. I still don’t completely understand how it all works. Today for example, devotees will bring home stalks of sugarcane and fistfuls of ginger, to be placed upon the family shrine alongside silt from the Bagmati River.

I’m left wondering, what happens to the ginger? Doesn’t it wilt? Or get moldy? Does it attract flies? At what point do you remove it? Do you have to burn it or something, or just toss it in the bin?

Suraj just stares at me like I’m an idiot.

What I do know is Dashain is remarkably similar to Thanksgiving, except instead of eating your weight in food over the course of one day, you eat and don’t stop eating for about 10 days. And like Thanksgiving, a medley of wine, beer, and local spirits is mixed in, so the equivalent of a turkey nap is part of the formula.

Suraj has promised to get me out to his sister’s house for one of the feasts, but I think he’s a little concerned I’ll ask too many damn questions.

For example, what happens to this adorable goat?

For example, what happens to this adorable goat?

Then we’ve got the chariot phallus.

The chariot phallus, four stories high and of incalculable girth, tours but once every 12 years. Senselessly bold, virile young men scale this gargantuan knob as it sways to and fro at angles that defy physics and engineering. All the while, the cucumber-shaped leviathan rolls on chariot wheels, powered by white-clad worshippers who tug away at massively thick shipping lines, the sort one may have found on Melville’s Pequot. See what I did there?

Can't... take... any... more... double entendres!

Can’t… take… any… more… double entendres!

Like any ceremonial protrusion, the popular belief is that by touching the tip of the elongated mushroom, you ensure prosperity and fertility in the year ahead. For that reason, the eminent eminence traditionally pops up in springtime. Unfortunately, the April quake, err… blocked it. Anticlimactic, I know.

Now, in the fall, it is the phallus chariot that does all the blocking. Like some sort of hentai nightmare, the cucumber-shaped leviathan rampages through the city, surrounded by throbbing crowds, confused commuters, and pushcart vendors with their balloons and cotton candy.

I had no prior context for this event, back in late September.

It was a long afternoon at work. Fiona, imparting the advice of our housekeeper, suggested I commute by back roads for the rest of the day and evening. “Some event” was slowing traffic. Headstrong as always, I reckoned my bicycle could easily get me through any rush hour. So down the road I went.

The first thing I noticed was the linemen, scaling power poles and clipping cables with wanton abandon. With their flip-flops and lack of any safety gear, I surmised they were not employees of the utility company. How odd.

Next, as predicted, traffic thickened to a crawl, then a parking lot. The spaces between cars filled with motorbikes, the spaces between motorbikes filled with people like me, struggling to push through a bicycle.

Hmm. Maybe I should start looking for one of my back alleys.

A regiment of gurkha soldiers paraded towards me, playing flutes.

Seriously, what is going on today? 

The flautists’ function, I’d soon learn, is not to make merry. The woodwinds are a signal to either thrust yourself into the approaching morass of religious ecstasy, or get the hell out of the way.

And that is when I saw it. Coming into view, just the tip at first, around a gentle turn in the road. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing at first.

If you’re a Cold War nerd like me, you know how this works. You see the flash, then the mushroom cloud. Duck? Cover? Forget it. Because the shockwave hits in 3… 2…

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Cue the ocean of people. See gurkhas in black and white regalia on the right.

At the risk of using a trite metaphor, I found myself instantaneously drowning in a sea of people, no rudder, no sail, no emergency flare.

My mind flashed back to the race riots that used to happen at my high school football games. That horrific feeling of no way out, no escape, no control.

Also, this scene from “Akira”

The good news, the unruly mob was super friendly. I pieced together that this was a religious festival and not a political demonstration. A few people noticed I was clearly in the wrong place, wrong time, and gently escorted me out of the current, smiling all the while. From there, I was able to observe from a safe distance. 

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Honey? Going to be late. Yeah, I know. Chariot phallus.

I finally maneuvered to a back alley and made my way home. Fiona had been smugly watching the spectacle from the roof. For dinner, I was served a heaping plateful of “told you so.”

In summary then, the greater Kathmandu area has opened up a world of outdoor adventure, exotic food, and colorful festivals. I’d leave it at that, but there’s one final face of Nepal that must be acknowledged: The Vivid, Raw Humanity.

It’s the taxi driver next to an idle cab, staring up at the sky as if in silent prayer, because petrol prices have driven up his fares, and no one can afford his fares because everything else is more expensive. He takes out a dust rag and starts dusting, because what else is there to do?

It’s the street dogs. Oh, the street dogs. Sometimes roaming in packs, more often running solo, scavenging through street side piles of rubbish (oh, the rubbish). Covered in mange, sores, scabs. Tails between legs, a limping leg here, a protruding bone there. There are some local and international groups that try to help with spaying and veterinary needs, but this is a culture where dogs are for outside. The mentality: Let Darwin sort them out.

It’s the desperate eyes of the pushcart produce vendors, who will never sell all those apples. Of the old barefooted man fixing people’s shoes on the sidewalk. Of the child with Downs Syndrome who’s only been taught how to ask strangers for money.

It’s the single mother and three tots huddled in a doorway, distended bellies all around, filthy, surrounded by rubble.

The long rows of tarpaulin tents along the sewage-filled Bagmati River.

No secret they had an earthquake. But things weren’t so hot before the quake either. Walking around, you’ll see a collapsed building, bricks spilling into the street, steel and wires poking out in every direction, and the first thought that comes to mind: was that from before April, or after?

I’m not trying to go Sally Struthers on you here. I just need everyone to know the dimensions that make up a very complicated Nepal.

Brief history lesson: Nepal has fought for centuries to maintain its nationhood. They fought China, they fought Britain, they fought India, and they fought themselves. Through it all, they remained autonomous. But it cost them.

Nepal places in the bottom 20 for poorest nations on earth. This is due to a series of questionable governmental decisions (acceptance of foreign aid packages with unscrupulous payback conditions) and plain bad luck (landslides, famines, earthquakes).

Not to mention the political strife! In 1996, Maoist separatists launched a 10 year civil war. In 2001, the crown prince gunned down his entire family, then himself. Shortly after, his uncle, technically the heir, decided that in order to best defeat the Maoists he should dissolve the ministries and establish a totalitarian monarchy. And to top it off, the country’s main supply route is periodically blockaded because of India. Or Nepali separatists. Or China. Depends on which year, and who you’re asking.

YET.

Where some countries would give up (looking at you, Somalia), Nepal jumps back into the ring. Again and again and again.

This month, Nepal drafted the world’s youngest constitution, within only a few short years of abolishing the monarchy and establishing a republic. They’re the first country in South Asia to legalize gay marriage. And right now, just outside my window, dance music resonates from neighboring homes. Nepalis may not have financial security or stably built houses or a five-year plan but it’s Dashain and it’s time to celebrate. 

I’ve sort of fallen in love with Nepali people. The other day my bike chain fell off and a dude dropped what he was doing and came to help. Not unusual. Things like that happen all the time. Other parts of Asia, people tend to exist in bubbles.

Wow, that guy just smashed into a car! He looks hurt! Glad it wasn’t me! 

I’ve worked with some truly selfless individuals and groups as of late, and I feel pretty crap for not being more like them. Sudip Lingthep is one guy who comes to mind.

We met through the “Ride for Light,” an event he organized a few weeks back. Proceeds went directly to the purchase of solar panels for villagers in remote Dhading, which was leveled by the quake.

Delivering power to the people.

Delivering power to the people.

That disaster served as a wake-up call for Sudip. Though his own home was damaged, he realized he still had so much more than others. He sold his motorbike (imagine for a moment, selling your car), and that was the nest egg for his charity work.

He and his friend Bishall have organized and directly participated in a number of supply runs to badly impacted villages. What separates them from large charities like WFP and Red Cross (not to speak ill of any charitable work) is their ability to work on a micro scale. Where the larger charities get their supply trucks stuck at the bottom of a muddy hill, Sudip, Bishall, and their volunteers are getting up that hill on bikes or in boots, whatever it takes.

If you’re interested in contributing to his efforts, drop me a line and I can facilitate.

There are other people working to make Nepal a better place as well.

Our dear friend Doreen Johnstone we knew in Borneo. She’s what you might call an Old Nepal Hand, having worked in the countryside for years, mostly in education. At 74 years young, she is a good will powerhouse. Her charity, Book Reach, works something like this:

  1. Schools in Nepal, especially rural schools, need English language books desperately. Like in so many other countries, English is the money language. Fluency in English is a path out of poverty.
  2. Schools around the world, especially private and international schools, have English language books. More than they need. Every year, school librarians purge the stacks of books that are outdated, unpopular, whatever the reason may be.
  3. Doreen reaches out to those schools with the surplus books. They’re happy to donate — frees up storage space! She organizes the logistics of shipping, receiving, customs out, customs in, and so on. If she’s lucky, she can get a major air carrier to foot the bill, but that doesn’t always happen.
  4. Doreen flies into Kathmandu twice a year, where the Ministry of Education offices receive the books. She gets the books out to area schools.
  5. Doreen visits the area schools periodically to see how teachers are using them. She coaches teachers on how to use them better.

In essence, Doreen does the job of an entire NGO. She relies on donations for her airfare into country, as well as other associated costs. What donations don’t cover, she pays for out-of-pocket. Which is easy, because she’s the heiress to a family fortune. Ha! Just kidding. She’s a substitute teacher. She also sells Nepali shawls.

This box? 200 kilos. No big deal.

This box? 200 kilos. No big deal.

I’ll say that again. Doreen, a substitute teacher, at age 74, runs Book Reach entirely on her own, aided only by shawl shipments and the kindness of strangers. She’s pulling kids out of poverty. She loves what she does.

The strangest of strangers...

The strangest of strangers…

Sound like someone you’d like to help? It’s easy. She has a PayPal set up.

Finally on the list, I have to plug my own school’s fundraising efforts. TBS has been long involved in projects involving some of Nepal’s neediest schools. When I say “involved,” I mean that in the most direct sense of the word. Everyone — students, teachers, even the head of school — travel out to the sites, some which are very remote, to do good work.

Two of the schools serve Nepali students with disabilities, and the quake added a new dimension to the support those schools require. The third project, in the aforementioned village of Dhading, is a major focus this year due to the unfathomable scale of damage done in that area. TBS is rebuilding three schools there.

As with the other two charities, all contributions to the TBS Community Service fund (donate here) go directly to the charitable work. No one pockets any money, there are no CEO or coordinator salaries being paid here. Definitely no “awareness campaigns” or champagne fundraisers either. The PR for these charities comes exclusively by word of mouth, and costs as much as it cost me to publish this blog today (so, nothing).

I wish all the news to report from Nepal was good news, but some things really suck for local people right now. Please do consider a charitable gift as we move into the holiday season. Even small amounts will go a very long way. In turn, Fiona and I will keep finding ways to stay directly involved with helping out when and where we can. I’d like to think that together, we can make this funny little corner of the world a better place for everyone.

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How to move two dogs to Kathmandu

TL;DR — Skip the saga, just tell me how

Make sure you’re moving to a country that’s okay with dogs.  Most are.  But research.

Got money?  Lots of it?  Pay someone to organize the rest for you.  Google will introduce you to dozens of companies eager to take your money and do the job.  It’ll cost you a few thousand.  If you prefer to spend less — like hundreds instead of thousands — then read on.

If at all possible, begin planning no less than two months from the fly date.  As you note the requirements from involved firms and agencies, construct a timeline.  The timeline will vary from country to country.  How recently must your dog have been vaccinated?  How close to the fly date should you schedule the wellness check?  If signatures and stamps are required, how long will it take to obtain them?

Don’t panic as you read through the next steps.  They seem like an insurmountable series of challenges, but it’s all part of a process.  Pet relocation can be accomplished with thoughtful, researched, organized planning and action.  Repeat to yourself:  It’s just a paper tiger.

1.  Find an airline that will fly your dog to the destination.  Call them, inform them of your plans, and book tickets with the understanding that you are only interested in flying if your pets are on board.  Be sure to ask about costs, weight allowances, required documentation, and how they will see to the pet’s needs during the flight (think: food, water, potty).

2.  Contact the Ministry of Health (or equivalent bureau) in new host country.  Ask for specifics on what their government will require for your pet’s entrance to the country.  Make sure you have a firm understanding of their quarantine policy, if any.  To minimize miscommunication, ask the same question three different ways.  Even still, be prepared for surprises at customs.  The import requirements of many countries can be found at this USDA page, but I cannot vouch for its accuracy.

3.  Contact your nearest USDA office.  Ask if you’re speaking with the federal or state office.  Ask what will be required for your pet to leave the airport, and what’s required when your pet returns to the US.  Take names and ample notes.  If you spoke with the federal office, contact the state, and ask the same questions.  If you spoke with the state, contact the federal, and… you get the idea.  The USDA attempts to explain all this on their website, but it reads like sanskrit, and isn’t totally accurate or up-to-date.

4.  Contact the CDC.  Their focus is pets returning to the US.  What they say will likely parallel what you heard from the USDA, but policies change all the time.

5.  Contact your vet.  Make sure (s)he is certified by the state and USDA.  The vet will need to complete the USDA’s APHIS 7001 form, as well as any health forms required by your state, and any international health certificates required by the host country.  State forms your vet should have on hand, but you will likely need to provide the 7001 and international forms.

6.  Assemble your pet passport.  This is not necessarily required by the host country, but it makes everything easier, and provides peace of mind.

7.  Make copies of everything.  You may be surprised what customs requires when you arrive, and trying to find a copy machine at an airport in a foreign country after a long flight is no fun.

8.  Start throwing money into a hole.  Expect to spend at least $400 on the shipping fee (less, if airline allows you to bring dog into cabin with you).  You will likely need to buy a travel-worthy kennel (different airlines have different size requirements).  You will need other doggie accessories, such as a sip bottle (like the kind in a hamster cage), cold weather jacket if the climate demands it, and other things that you think might be unavailable in the host country.  Amazon Prime is your friend; otherwise, PetCo and PetSmart offer lots of online shopping incentives and a generous return policy.  Expect some previously undisclosed “duties” and “handling charges” along the way, especially in the host country.

9.  Throw your hands in the air.  At some point, with the flight just hours away, you’ll realize there’s nothing further you can do to prepare.  There will be last minute fees, forms, and general unexpected hell.  Do what you can.  Take a deep breath, pour a stiff drink.  You and your buddy will get there eventually.

10.  Put the dog on the plane.  If you’re carrying your pal onboard, life is much easier for everyone involved.  The crew may or may not have procedures for potty time.  If the dog is flying below deck, then your pet’s life will suck during the entire flight, but you can minimize that suckage.  Provide plenty of blankets, food, and water.  Make sure the captain is aware he has live animals down there, so he keeps the climate controlled appropriately, especially on the tarmac.  Make sure the flight crew is aware of your situation.  An able flight crew will make sure your pet is fed and watered, but sadly, you can’t count on that with every airline, so yeah, a trans-oceanic passage could be pretty awful.  Sure you don’t want to leave Fido with your brother or something?

11.  Walk the dog out of the airport.  Customs will most definitely want to talk to you.  If you landed in a fairly developed country with transparent government policies, you will probably have all your documents together, and you’ll breeze right through.  If you landed in a somewhat backwards country, you might be stuck in customs for some time, while they sort out whether you’re allowed to enter the country with the dog or not.  They won’t care if Mr. So-and-So at the Embassy of Backwardistan assured you all papers were in order.  You’ll have to do as they say.  Hopefully your employer knows a good fixer.  Save all documentation.  Your pet may need it later to leave the country, or to re-enter the USA.

Our mad tale of how it all came together

My hope is to make the pet relocation process a little less painful for whomever reads this.  That said, the process is painful.  Painful in the butt.  But it’s doable.  And worthwhile for anyone who doesn’t have thousands of dollars to spend on a pet relocation service.

Let’s meet the dogs.  Our big girl is Boo.  She’s a lab-hound mix, 44 lbs of pure neurotic.  About a year ago, we adopted her from a local shelter, where she’d lived for eight long months.  Total sweetheart, lots of separation anxiety.  Not exactly a prime candidate for a 25+ hour trans-Atlantic, trans-Asiatic flight.   

IMG_6361Here is Floyd, whom a friend rescued from a truck stop over a year and a half ago.  He’s also sort of cuckoo, but has become a pretty lovable little chihuahua-miniature greyhound mix.  Very mellow, except when he’s barking at hallucinations.

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We recently accepted new positions in Kathmandu, Nepal, and this is the story of our mission to relocate there with our dogs.  My devoted readers will know that my wife and I are no strangers to relocation.  Many times now we’ve shoved our lives into three cubic meters and boarded a plane.  But never before have we attempted to board with any live animals, aside from ourselves.

Learn as much as possible about the new host country.  Is it pet friendly?  Are there places to walk the dog?  Do local municipal laws allow dogs?  Are there restrictions on size?  Will your accommodation provide your best friend sufficient living space?  What are the cultural attitudes towards dogs?  Will your housekeeper get jealous because the dog’s food costs more than her salary?  Will locals try to eat the dog?  By the way, totally not kidding about any of these questions.     

As it happens, Kathmandu is reportedly pet friendly.  Indeed, Hindus honor dogs — specifically on Kukur Tihar, a part of the annual Diwali “Festival of Lights.”

A bedazzled pug on Kukur Tihar. Source: http://www.dogster.com

We connected with a few people who live or lived with their pets in KTM, and they were able to confirm that we’d be fine bringing dogs over.  Our contacts all agreed that the hardest part is transporting the pets through the airport at home and then again in Nepal.  So our most immediate question: what does the red tape look like?

Woo boy.  Talk about a can of worms.  We’ve dealt with bureaucracy at every level, from US and NZ immigration procedures, to the Qatari ministry of health, to getting a gym membership in Sweden (much tougher than it sounds).  And I guess that got us toughened up for this research project — getting dogs out of the US, then into Nepal, then back again after the contract ends.

When booking flights in the past, I’d simply run a metasearch to find the cheapest flight with the least number of stops… maybe even a cool layover.  With pets, you must carefully consider your flight plan.  The plane cannot fly through certain countries if animals are on board.  Certain countries may disallow animals for environmental reasons or reasons of health and safety.  For example, New Zealand won’t let anyone enter the country with plant or animal products of any kind — fruit, dried shrimp, even wood-handled tools are forbidden.  Dogs are cool, so long as you’re happy to let them sit in quarantine for a couple weeks.  Because you know, that stuff could cause a chain reaction that wipes out the kiwi birds or something.

Countries like Abu Dhabi and Qatar won’t let animals fly through because it’s so damn hot.  If you left Poochie on the tarmac for longer than 5 minutes in Doha, she’d be shawarma.  For us, that meant no Etihad, no Qatar Air, and no Emirates — all airlines with otherwise convenient flight paths from our nearest airport to the final destination.

We contacted a number of local travel agents, but none of them wanted anything to do with a pet relocation.  Too many hassles and too much liability, given that it’s a family member at stake.  Thankfully, the AAA was happy to help, even though we aren’t members.  They pointed us in the direction of probably the only major carrier that could do the job, Turkish Airlines.

Even if your AAA office recommends an airline for you, be sure to verify everything with that carrier.  TA’s stateside customer service isn’t exactly spectacular, but after a half hour or so of broken English conversation, I was able to confirm they will transport dogs.  But there would be surprises in store for us later.

While TA was happy to take our money in exchange for the transport of dogs, we found domestic carriers to be less accommodating.  Few allow pets as checked cargo.  Those that do, want lots of money, in addition to what the international carrier already demands.  They have a handful of other sticky rules, and when we did the math, it made more sense to rent an SUV and drive the whole dang gang up to the international hub.

Doing this cost a little more, and obviously would take more time, but think about which would be more enjoyable:  a leisurely, scenic road trip with stops for short hikes and maybe a camping trip, accompanied by two dogs who love riding in the car OR… tacking on an extra four hours fly time to what’s already going to be a 25+ hour flight, right after squeezing dogs, luggage, two humans, and a big ass dog kennel into and out of a Prius?  I feel we made the most prudent decision.

Different countries require different things to import pets.  Australia, as Johnny Depp famously learned, is among a handful of countries that quarantine newly arrived animals.  Many countries, fortunately, require only a stack of documents thick enough to choke a horse.  In the case of Nepal, I called their embassy in New York.  The man who answered sounded like I had woken him from a nap.

“Yes what?”

“Uhh, is this the Nepalese embassy?”

“Yes yes what you need?”

I explained that we wished to bring our pets into Nepal, and needed to know the requirements.

“What you asking me for?  That something the government handle.”

“Which is why I’m contacting you.  At the embassy.  Of Nepal.”

We got nowhere fast.  I guess I should’ve pushed harder.  Maybe made some more calls, asked for supervisors or something.  Or tried to dig up a contact at their health ministry.  But having now gone through the process, I’ll say it probably wouldn’t have made a lick of difference.  More on that later.

Equally frustrating, our own blessed government employees.  Try to find relevant information online, you’ll get stuck in a Möbius loop of digital insanity, or dead-end at a nonsensical paperwork dumping ground like this one.  Calling the central USDA number proved just as useless, so I tried the state office.  It so happens, one of their offices is near our house, so I dropped in.  Thus began my trip down the rabbit hole of how the USDA works.

The USDA has a million offices in a million buildings, each office designated to one compartmentalized detail.  The office I visited handles import-export, yes, but only of plants.  They gave me a number for an office two hours away that handles animals.  Called that number, talked to a real helpful fellow.  Real knowledgeable.  At least, that’s what I thought until later, when I realized he only worked with interstate import-export of animals, not international.  I’ll come back to this point later.

What you need to know for now is this:  most countries will require at minimum an APHIS 7001 form.  You can thank me later for the link, because the USDA doesn’t make it easy to find on their website.  The 7001 is a federal-level document (not to be confused with the state-level USDA form your vet may mistakingly suggest) that must be filled out by your USDA-certified veterinarian after (s)he performs a wellness check of the animal, then sent to a federal (not state) USDA federal office to be stamped for a $55 fee.  I mention the fee because if you’re transporting more than one pet, you can list them all on one form, thus paying only one fee.  The wellness check often needs to be within 10 days of arrival — check with your host country on this.  The stamping itself is mercifully quick, but because it’s a time sensitive document, you may consider driving down to do it in person, which requires an appointment.  If this is not an easy option, overnight a self-addressed express envelope to the office and hope for the best.

It’s important to also be mindful of what the US requires to bring a pet back home.  At the time of this writing, the animal needs a recent statement of good health from a vet in the host country, as well as up-to-date shots records.  I’d recommend also keeping on hand your pet’s entire medical history, in case it’s required later.  You’ll want to contact the CDC a few months before you plan to fly home; the federal-level USDA guy tells me incoming pets are the CDC’s jurisdiction, not his.  However, you will need to contact the state-level USDA office of whichever state is your final destination.  They will likely have something like a “companion animal certificate” that needs filling out.

I cannot say the pet passport is money well spent.  It’s sort of like when you turned in your high school essays in a plastic sleeve.  It didn’t improve the quality of writing, but it looked prettier.  The pet passport is something we found on a for-profit website.  The company claims to have passports “customized” for every country.  It will cost you $15, and for a little extra, you can have a handsome leather sleeve.  See?  My high school analogy isn’t far off.

How about I save you $15 right now?  Here’s what you need on that pet passport:

  • Photo of pet
  • Name of pet
  • Breed, sex, age, color
  • Microchip number
  • Owner(s) contact details (phone and email)
  • Alternative contact details (such as friend or family member)

It looks something like this:

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Notice we put in (sigh) a plastic sleeve, so it’s grouped with all the other required documents (APHIS 7001, rabies certificate, vaccinations, medical history).

Boom.  Now go buy yourself something nice with that $15 you just saved.

With everything neatly assembled in one place, you should make copies of every single page.  No telling what documents that customs guy will need to keep.

As for how to transport the dogs, every airline has different requirements, but as a general rule, if you lapdog is allowed to fly in cabin, Poopsie will need a carrier that meets the carry-on requirements (i.e. fits under the seat).  If you’re checking your larger dog onto the plane, then Buster will need a kennel that allows him to stand up and turn around.

Here’s how our dog transports were organized in the end:

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  • We slid Boo’s pet passport into an envelope and attached it to the top of her kennel with clear packing tape.  This way, cargo and air crew would have easy access to her details if needed.  We also equipped her ride with a giant plastic hamster-style bottle and plenty of warm blankets.  For an added touch of class, I slapped a bunch of brewery stickers all over the kennel.  That step is optional.
  • Floyd’s passport went into an envelope, and that went into my carry-on man-purse, along with the duplicates we’d made of 7001’s and vax records.  His carrier was equipped with a mess of blankets too.
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Would you could you on a train? Would you could you on a plane?

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D’awwwww!

Final days.  Here’s where things got tense, despite our best laid plans.  Both dogs had their vaccinations updated 30 days before the flight, as most any country will require, no problems there.  As required for Nepal, we took them to the vet for their “fitness to fly” check within a week or so of the flight.  That’s when things went south real fast.

The vet filled out the APHIS 7001, as well as the interstate travel form.  I was in the post office, ready to overnight the documents to the USDA for stamping, when I realized I didn’t have their address handy.  Called the number, but got a different USDA guy.  He was like, “Why are you using the 7001?  Do you know if the Nepal government even accepts that?  Most governments have their own form.  Didn’t your vet know that?  And why are you sending the interstate travel form?  That’s only if you’re moving your pet to another state.  I’m a federal guy, not a state guy.  I don’t even stamp that.”

So basically, the “knowledgeable” USDA fellow we’d talked to a month previous had given us completely erroneous information.  We’re days from our flight.  If the government of Nepal requires additional documentation, we have no time to obtain it, much less get it stamped and sealed by the US authorities.

For about ten minutes, I lost my damn mind.  Right in the middle of the post office.  You know you’re a mess when postal workers are concerned about your mental health.  Then I realized, “Hey.  Nothing we can do.  We’re just gonna put these dogs on a damn plane and hope for the best.”

I mailed the documents to the USDA, came home, made and sandwich, and drank a full ass glass of wine.  A couple days later, we picked up the SUV, packed in four suitcases, one kennel, one carrier, and two dogs, and hit the road for the Grayson Highlands in the great state of Virginia, followed by a couple days with family in Washington, DC.  That little adventure deserves its own blog, but it suffices to say the dogs got their ya-ya’s out before the big flight date.

Fly day

Anyone who’s flown with even the most meager of luggage knows the heightened level of crazy that’s experienced at any airport drop-off point.  You’ve got two lanes of cars all pushing in to the same tiny space directly at the airline’s front door.  You have to jump out, madly flinging suitcases and god knows what else onto the curb while an angry motorcycle cop bleats his siren because you are taking too long.  The PA is blasting off warnings about distressed security levels and how your really shouldn’t be parking your car for even a second and how if you take your eyes off your bag just once then a terrorist will plant a bomb in it.  Horns are honking.  Delayed jets scream away in the background.

Now, add two dogs to the situation.  Also, pretend you drove a rental care and you have to return it which means you need to abandon your wife at the curb with two dogs while you take care of that, then hop the shuttle back, and hope that you can find her at departures.

This is why we have curbside porters.  Bring cash.  The rule of thumb is a $1 tip per bag, but given our extraordinary luggage, I was happy to sweeten the pot a bit.  I didn’t feel great about leaving Fiona with the two dogs, but the porters were great in getting her out of the heat and into the departures lobby.

Pulling up to the rental car returns, I felt smug.  We’d taken precautions to ensure no dog hair littered the vehicle, because no rental agency in their right mind would knowingly permit its customers to transport animals.  The check-in guy performed the customary checks for dents and scratches, then stamped the car as A-OK.  Only when he started to drive away did I notice the stash of dry dog food in the passenger side door handle, which Fiona had made into Floyd’s ad-hoc feeding tray.  Not sure if I need to be worried about that or not.  Ah well.

Turkish Air checked us in as promptly as could be expected.  Both dogs were weighed on the luggage scale whilst in their carriers.  Both dogs were within the weight allowances and TA charged us about $600, as agreed at the time of booking.  The TA clerk asked if we wished to leave Boo now or formally check her in later.  We felt sooner was better than later (Boo seemed to detect this betrayal almost immediately), so a TA porter wheeled Boo to a special TSA counter.  This is the last moment when owners are officially allowed to touch their dogs.  The inspector ran his anti-terror magic wand across the dog, then throughout her kennel and blankets.  He bound up the kennel door with zip ties and slapped a TSA inspection tag on the side.  Sadly, we had to leave Boo behind the TA ticket desk while we went to do our own security check-in.

Floyd had a decidedly easier time.  A quick wave of the wand, and he pranced right through security, to the adoration of every TSA cop in the place.  He sat underneath our table at the mediocre airport restaurant, where Fiona fed him bits of sausage.  Meanwhile, Boo undoubtedly bemoaned her abandonment to a gang of Turkish dog traders.

The flight was long.  The intended itinerary was DC to Istanbul, Istanbul to Kathmandu.  Before every takeoff and during each stop, we asked the flight crew to check on Boo.  They always shot us a toothy grin and thumbs up, but failed to provide any substantial information.  We came to learn the crew was not trained on any “procedure” for feeding, watering, or potty breaks as promised by the agent at the time of booking.  This was bad for Floyd, who managed to hold it for the most part, but surely was worse for Boo, who wasn’t let out of her kennel during the entire flight.

What made matters worse was the diversion to Delhi, due to poor weather in Kathmandu.  India is one of the “no pets” countries, so we had no idea how that would play out and neither did the crew.  Fantastic.  We sat on the tarmac for a couple hours, and we were assured the air conditioning in cargo was running that whole time, but it sure as hell wasn’t in the cabin, and by this time, we had no reason to believe anything Turkish Air had to say.  We were pissed off, but the situation was entirely out of our hands at that point, so all we could do was wait it out, and hope they didn’t kill our dog.

When we finally landed, it was like the curbside at Dulles but in reverse.  Long line for visas, mercifully short line for passport checks.  No wait at all for baggage claim.  A bit of a trial finding Boo… it’s not like anything at KTM airport is clearly labeled.  Finally, we had all bags and all dogs in tow.  Boo was practically turning backflips when she saw us.  All we had to do was walk out that door, where a driver with a sign would await us.  It goes without saying, we were thoroughly jet lagged, exhausted, and short tempered by this time, so I sure wasn’t in the mood for some customs official to tell me I needed to stand aside with our cart full of crap and two dogs.

Naturally, that is precisely what happened next.  I pulled the puppy passports, sure that this would satiate his bureaucratic hunger, but no.  He was merely a bottom feeding bureaucrat.  I’d need to talk to their “quarantine” official.  I sure didn’t like the sound of that word.  Where, pray tell, would I find this official?  The man pointed me to an unoccupied desk with the word ANIMAL QUARTINE scrawled across it.  Taped to the desk was a piece of paper with two phone numbers.  He was pretty sure the guy could be reached at one of those two numbers.  I asked if he had a phone I could use.  Of course not.  I explained, having just arrived, my phone did not have a local SIM card.  He suggested I go get one.

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During this conversation, Fiona was busy rehydrating Boo.  The ground crew had managed to break her water bottle, and she’d apparently not had a drop to drink for the entire journey.

With Fiona once again guarding our completely disoriented, dehydrated dogs, I set out on a quest.  It involved finding three broken ATM’s, two crooked money changers, and one actually quite pleasant SIM card salesman.  I must have walked back and forth through customs a hundred times, and each time a policeman told me I couldn’t go through, until I explained in exasperated, rapid fire English that my wife was with my dogs in customs and I had to call two phone numbers to talk to the quarantine man who works at a quarantine desk with no man at it.  They let me through every time, which is very different from similar situations with the TSA.

Called the two numbers, they didn’t work.  The bottom feeder scratched his mustache, thinking hard, staring at the still-vacant QUARTINE desk.  He noticed a few more numbers, scribbled in pencil next to the white piece of paper.  He said to call those numbers next.  For all I know, they were numbers for hotels or massages or who knows what.  Just then, my phone rang!  It was the QUARTINE man!  I guess he’d seen my phone ID pop up.  He said he’d be there to meet me in fifteen minutes.  The cacophony of barks and meows in the background suggested that his interpretation of 15 minutes was different from the one on my watch.

Forty minutes later, the QUARTINE man arrived.  He wanted copies of my 7001 and rabies record, which I had on hand.  He inexplicably wanted other, random pages from the passport, for which I (take note) did not have copies.  New quest:  find a copy machine.  More heated exchanges with customs officials.  Finally, QUARTINE man is happy and stamps some official looking piece of carbon paper.  I pay another bureaucrat about $50 in “taxes” and at long last, we have arrived to the balmy free air of Kathmandu!

Finale

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Rodents!!

Incredibly enough, our driver was still waiting for us, seven hours after our projected arrival time.  We arrived at the hotel, and as soon as I took the dogs out of the van, they proceeded to execute the Longest Pee Ever.  How they held it for so long, I’ll never know.

We’ve been in Nepal for several days now.  The dogs aren’t exactly crazy about life in a hotel room, but that will soon change, and more than anything, they’re happy not to be on a plane any longer.  We go on walks every day, just as we did back home, but we need to be vigilant about the stray dogs in the street and strange food littering the sidewalk.  As if they weren’t spoiled enough already, they drink only bottled water, but that’s because the tap water will poison them.  There are plenty of rodents for Boo to chase, and Floyd continues to attract lovestruck glances from all passers-by.  I think we’ll be fine.

Wherever you plan on taking your dogs, I hope our story helps.  Despite the rough patches, we made it without paying anyone a substantial fortune and without losing our buddies to the great dog park in the sky.  I’d say it was worth it to have our dogs with us on our newest adventure.