The Great Escape

Like thieves in the night running for our lives, our vehicle slipped quietly along the empty streets of Dushanbe in the dark of night to reach the only international airport in Tajikistan.   There were several of us, and the luggage we had brought to stay for a year, piled into the Embassy’s mini-van.  The Embassy, in their desperation to be rid of us before the inevitable closing of Tajikistan’s border occurred — Uzbekistan had closed its borders the day before — , was providing transportation, something which they originally said that they did not do.  Of course, they probably didn’t have anything in their playbook for pandemics, no one does, it would seem, except perhaps for countries who had had another version of SARS in the past.

The Dushanbe airport at 4 AM was filled with people, families with children clamoring to be entertained while their parents desperately made last minute arrangements on their cell phones so that they could get out and back to wherever they came from.   A lot of embassy families had been given the option to leave, something which, in hindsight, might not have been the best move.    Only time will tell but, as the number of affected people in the U.S. climbs, Tajikistan remains a haven where the virus has not chosen to rear its ugly face.  All those Embassy families might have been better off staying put, especially since they lead relatively protected and somewhat luxurious lives at their posts anyway.

Once into the departure lounge we entered a new world where people were muzzled behind a variety of masks, I longed for the pollution mask I had bought to live in Kathmandu.  I hadn’t brought it with me, a mistake that I guess I won’t ever make again, assuming I ever travel again which, after the frantic struggle we had just gone through to try to get our tickets and get out of the country with our pets in tow, I questioned whether I would ever want to do again except…I do have to make at least one more trip.

Three days before the flight I had already scheduled a month earlier so that I could bring the last two rescued dogs and cats to find their forever homes in the U.S. sooner than I had originally planned, Turkish Airlines announced that it was no longer taking pets of any type, not in the cabin, not in the hold.    A desperate run to Emirates, the only other airline that flew to Tajikistan, met with the same response.

If only I had planned to leave a week earlier…..

We can take falcons, the Emirates representative informed us.  Falcons?

My two colleagues were in tears about having to leave their pets behind, I was too busy scrambling to figure out what to do with mine to cry, especially since one of my charges was one of the other pets in jeopardy —  the cat belonging to one of my colleagues which had been my first rescue.   He worshiped her.  Clearly, I had done well in suggesting that he adopt her, it seemed.  The crazy little calico was the light of his life and he, of hers.   And I had to make sure she was safe as well as the two I had remaining, Sedgwick the last of a litter killed by children, and Samir, the peaches and cream cat with whom I had been mistakenly taken for a homeless person in the course of rescuing him from the brink of death.  I tend to get attached to animals whom I literally save from a health crisis; there was no way I was not going to come back to get them when I could.

It would seem that my saga with animal crises in Tajikistan did not end when I finally obtained one of the only two apartments in Dushanbe, a city teeming with empty rentals begging for tenants, that would accept pets.    Now I had to find someone to take care of them for an indefinite period of time in a country that seemed to wear their dislike of animals as an emblem of national pride.

Tajiks don’t like pets… was an all-to-familiar refrain when we were apartment hunting.

The man who had walked one of my dog rescues while I was gone in January agreed to take the cats but, when we called him to make the final arrangements, he was too drunk to speak coherently and finally hung up on us.

A red flag?   Well….. yes.   I was grateful that he waved it before I had left him in charge of our three beloved felines.

In the end, in desperation, we asked the landlord of the apartment where we were living Sharofat, who was quite fortuitously a cat owner herself, if she knew someone who would take the three (!!!) cats.

No one will take three cats, but you can leave them at the apartment and pay me partial rent and I will find a student to pay the rest and I will go everyday to look after them.

The fact that she never stopped talking and worrying about just about everything, a previous annoyance to both myself and Saodat, my Tajik tutor and translator for negotiations such as these, now represented something else – she was going to be an extremely conscientious cat-sitter and, indeed, she has turned out to be just that.

How often do you bathe your cats?

Bathe my cats?

Oh, yes, I bathe mine once a week.

(Poor thing…. )   Well, if you want to bathe them you can, but they really don’t need bathing.

 Her writing in English turned out to be better than her speaking so I get texts and videos and pics at all hours of the night.  I don’t think she realizes that I don’t stay up until the wee hours of the morning, but I am not complaining.  I’d rather be overcome with too much news than not enough, which appears to be the case for the dogs about whom I receive little news but am assured that they are doing fine living with the veterinarian who owns the kennel where they previously stayed.  If it is true, and they are with her and not at the kennel, it is good, but I have no way of knowing for sure.

This is not right, announced Sorbon, Saodat’s husband, she should be sending you pics. 

Well, since she said she’d send them once a week when we handed over the dogs to her and her son, I agreed.  But she did answer a recent text and tell me they were fine, and she was often hard to get hold of even when I was in country, and so, though I do wonder if I should worry, I realize that I have done all I could and at some point I have to trust when collaborating with someone who does not micromanage like the cat-sitter does that she still does her job and that the dogs are faring better than they would have in the streets.  In fact, I imagine that things are even worse now for the dogs that remain in the streets than they were before, if restaurants are closing and people are staying home.  I never figured out how they got any food as it was.

In truth, I am confident that they are receiving adequate care, if not the luxurious care that the cats seem to be getting.   If nothing else, I know that Malika and Omar, her son, love dogs, given that they have set up a facility to care for dozens of them.   They will keep them fed and housed with open hearts, even if not with daily play time and treats.   My main concern when I think about them is something else:

When we we ever be able to get them to the U.S.?   Waiting on one airlines to change its policy seems precarious at best.   A road trip across some part of Asia to get to a city where an American airlines flies who will take pets?  I don’t know.  A pet relocation service for thousands of dollars which I definitely do not have?   

 We left enough money for 5 months, something which my colleague thought was excessive but I wanted to err on the side of caution.   I am quite sure that we will have to be sending more.

As we sat in the waiting lounge in Dushanbe’s airport watching the sun rise over the city for the last time, little did we know that we were getting onto the last plane to leave the country.  The next day, the borders closed, to this day, no flights are being allowed in or out, making Tajikistan one of the only few remaining safe havens where the virus has not penetrated.

Now that I am in a country about to run out of the medical equipment I might conceivably need to stay alive if I contracted COVID-19, I am wondering if I made the right choice.