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Posted by Tim on Nov 8, 2008
Coming to America

The rocky, root-pitted dirt road snaked its way through the jungle, weaving between mountains and occasionally following the gurgling Mae Tang River. I remember feeling simultaneously exhilarated and terrified, and neither feeling had anything to do with the way our van bumped and bounced and flew around every curve. It was a familiar feeling: this was almost exactly how Jessica and I had felt when our trip had begun, more than a year and a half before. Then, the roiling mix of emotions grew from the fear and excitement of setting off on an adventure we'd spent years and years planning. This time, it was because we were in the midst of arguably our craziest adventure yet.

In the back of the van sat a brown and white dog named Belly (read Belly's story here). It had been more than six months since we'd first laid eyes on him, when he'd "adopted" us at Elephant Nature Park. He'd slept in our hut with us for basically the entire time we'd been at the Park, and in our bed with us for our final three weeks there. We had been talking with our friends at the Park for some time about the possibility of adopting him, but we knew we'd have to go home first. Back when we'd set off on our trip, we'd sold everything we owned: we didn't even have a home to return to. We had to go back and get ourselves situated before we could even think of adopting Belly.

Sitting in that van, I thought about the four months that had transpired since we'd bid Belly a tearful farewell, promising him that we'd be returning one day soon. Our time apart had been painful for us: there was a sort of "Belly-shaped" hole in our lives now. But we were driven with a single-minded, tireless dedication to one goal: we were going back for him. It was something we never questioned, not once. We needed him in our lives. He was already part of our family, and it was unbearable for him to be 13,000 miles away.

We'd made phone calls, dozens of phone calls. The Department of Agriculture. The Center for Disease Control. The US Customs Office. The Thai Embassy. There was little or no information online at the time on how to import a dog from Thailand, so we just had to work the phones, day in and day out. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, we worked out all the details. We supplied our friends at the Park with meticulous instructions on the shots and documentation he needed to get. We bought supplies, we bought plane tickets, and made some final phone calls to double-check our information.

And then, joyously, four months after we'd left, Jessica and I returned to the Park. Belly remembered us immediately, and came sprinting over to greet us enthusiastically. We were together again. I swear I am not exaggerating when I say that it felt like we'd been underwater for months and months, and were only now able to breathe once more.

And now, a mere fortnight later, we were in a tiny white van bouncing along on its way to the Chiang Mai Airport. Belly was coming with us to America.

The hard part was supposed to be over at this point. We had all our records and documentation. Belly had been vaccinated, microchipped, and thoroughly examined by his vet. We'd next been taken to the ominously-named Department of Livestock Development, where we'd been awarded our precious Export Certificate. And just the day before, I'd been ferried on the back of a motorcycle to the top of a mountain (the only place near the Park where cell phone service was available), and called the airport to check that we had everything we needed. We were golden.

Or so we thought.

Night had fallen by the time we neared Chiang Mai. It was the height of the Loi Krathong festival, and the air was filled with thousands of paper balloon-lanterns, flaming orbs rising high into the night sky. The city was swollen to capacity (we had heard visitors to the Park talking about how impossible it was to find a place to stay at the moment), and our van slid past parades and spontaneous street-corner parties. Thousands of floating paper lanterns lit the river with an eerie orange glow. It was a surreal scene. On another occasion, I might have wished for a bit of time to join in the fun. As it was, though, I just wanted to get to the airport. Nothing else mattered to me at that moment than the idea that we were only a day away from having Belly home with us at last.

At the airport, things at first went exactly according to plan. We had no baggage to check except for our beloved puppy, who would be traveling to the States in the cool, quiet, dimly-lit cargo hold, where it was hoped he'd sleep soundly for the duration of the flight. We paid our little "excess baggage" fee, and I was thrilled as they placed a big sticker on his crate that said CHM->JFK. We were so close I could taste it. The manager was called over to approve our documentation.

She gave each page a through examination, and then calmly told us we were missing our Export Permit. Without it, she said, "You can go, but your dog will remain here."

In Thailand, expressing negative emotions (such as anger, frustration, or as in our case, panic) is simply not done. No matter how bad a situation is, you have to smile sweetly and stay calm at all costs. Getting visibly upset would be as offensive as if you had started spitting and cursing. Fortunately, we'd spent enough time in Thailand that it was instinctive for us. We stayed calm, and we smiled.

"No, no," we said soothingly, "you're mistaken. This is our Export Permit, here."

She returned our smile, but shook her head. "That is not an Export Permit. It is not from the Department of Livestock Development. See?" She pointed at the header on the page, all of which was written in Thai, and unintelligible to us. "This is a certificate of examination from the Chiang Mai University Veterinarian."

We were stunned. The building we'd been taken to wasn't the DOLD office at all. There had been some sort of miscommunication between our vet and our friend Chom, who was driving us, and he'd taken us to the wrong place. And there, when we'd told them we wanted to take Belly to the US, they'd assumed we needed a health certificate (which we already had) and gave us that. Because it was all written in Thai, we'd had no idea it wasn't the right document, or that we'd never been in the right building in the first place.

Valiantly, we struggled to "stay Thai." But it was getting harder. (I freely admit that I completely froze up at this point, and became entirely useless. It was Jessica who carried us through this awful evening. I just hung on for the ride.)

How could we get the permit? Was there any way we could go without it?

The manager shook her head. She seemed to genuinely regret not being able to help us. "If you leave without this permit, your dog will not change planes with you in Bangkok. They will leave him on the tarmac when you take off."

Stay Thai. No emotion. Stay Thai.

She pulled out a pad and started scribbling on it. "This is where you need to go," she said, drawing a little map and writing out instructions. "Here you can get the permit you need. And then you can come back here, and we will put you on the next flight."

I looked at the clock. It was nearly midnight. On a Friday.

"Is it open tomorrow?" Jessica asked, as serene as could be, betraying no hint of how much we were panicking. (I remained helplessly comatose.)

She shook her head, smiling sadly. "This is a holiday weekend. It will not be open again until Monday. And we have no flights to JFK on Monday, so you will need to fly on Tuesday."

She gave us a long, solemn look, and then tentatively laid her arm on Jessica's shoulder. "I am sorry. But it is going to be ok," she said, smiling encouragingly.

Oh, yeah, sure it would. Except that we both knew the whole town was booked solid because of the festival, and anyway, where could we stay with a dog in the first place?

Stay Thai. Stay Thai.

We made our way out to the taxi stand, trying to come up with a plan. Jessica had done some "worst case scenario" planning before we'd left for Thailand, thank goodness, and had tucked away a very good recommendation for a dog-friendly hotel: the amusingly-named Come On Place. It was our only hope.

Belly, who had been a superstar through all of this, started to whimper in his crate a little as the taxi made its way out of the airport parking lot. It was a pitiful noise.

At the Come On Place, Jessica waited with Belly in the cab while I went inside to check if they had any availability. What we would do if they didn't, I had no idea. When I asked, though, the two young men behind the counter looked regretful. One of them shook his head and said, smiling in that Thai fashion, "I do not think we have any room left tonight." I was crushed. The other man, seeing my look, hurriedly said "Wait, wait. We will check to make sure." There followed some furious thrashing of papers and some hurried conversation, and then they both looked up at me, smiling.

"We have one room tonight," the first one said, "but is already booked tomorrow morning. You would need check out at 7am. Is this ok?"

I sighed. It was already well after 1am. But a few hours of sleep would be better than none, so I readily agreed that it was, indeed, ok.

We checked into our room, and then immediately let Belly out of his crate. He ran around the room in astonishment, sniffing everything. I tried to imagine what this must be like for him. He'd spent basically his entire life at Elephant Nature Park, surrounded by dogs and elephants and thatched-roof bamboo huts. The tile floor was incomprehensible to him, and he was terrified of the bathroom. (We suspected it was the mirror: there weren't really any mirrors at the Park.) To make him a little more comfortable, we pulled the bedspread off the bed and laid it on the floor.

He seemed confused, and maybe a little scared. But then he smiled at us, to let us know he was ok. To let us know he trusted us, and that he was up for whatever came next.

The room was lovely, and it killed me that we'd have to check out in a few short hours to continue searching for lodging to get us through the weekend. We were considering our options when there was a knock on the door.

Terrified it was someone come to tell us we had to leave, I opened the door. One of the smiling guys from the front desk was there, beaming more than ever.

"Sir," he smiled, "we make changes to booking. You no have to leave in morning now. You ok stay to Tuesday."

I could have kissed him.

Next matter of business: food. We were exhausted, but we were also starving. And so too was Belly, who hadn't been fed since breakfast (in preparation for his flight).

We made our way back outside, looking for a place to grab some food at two in the morning. The festivities were happening half a city away from our guesthouse, and the streets were relatively peaceful. Along our right ran the 800-year-old moat that surrounded the "old city" of Chiang Mai. And incongruously, about three blocks "upstream," we could make out the friendly lights of a 7-Eleven. (You'd be astonished at how ubiquitous 7-Elevens are in Thailand.) Knowing that 7-Elevens were open 24 hours a day, it seemed like our best bet. Maybe they'd even have some kind of dog food.

Our fortunes seemingly on an upswing, we started making our way towards it.

We were alert for one menace above all others: soi dogs. These feral dogs (soi is Thai for "street"), just as ubiquitous as 7-Elevens in Thailand, were suddenly our worst fear. We didn't mind them normally, but we were worried that if Belly was attacked by one (and subsequently required attention from a vet), he wouldn't be able to travel home with us. So we kept our eyes peeled for them, tracking them as they wandered around at the periphery of our vision under the bluish streetlights, ready to grab Belly and hoist him up into the air and run at a moment's notice.

The three blocks' walk felt like it took an eternity. On the plus side, we scored some croissants and Doritos for ourselves, and some kibble for Belly.

Then we returned to our room and slept through the night, awoken only when Belly caught sight of his reflection in the TV and started barking.

The next day, still shell-shocked at what had transpired, we stayed mostly holed up in our room. One fortuitous benefit of staying at the Come On Place was that we were across the street from the dog-friendly Nong Buak Hat public park, a marvelous patch of greenery where we walked Belly several times a day. Other than that, though (and a quick food-run I made while Jessica took care of Belly in the room), we didn't want to tempt fate. Our luck hadn't been the best, so far, so we mostly just wanted to get through the weekend without anything else going wrong.

The only problem was that the TV in our room got virtually no reception, and we were getting a little stir-crazy by the second day. Thus it was that I emerged from the confines of our cozy little "safe zone" and into the warm, sticky Saturday-evening air, on a mission to score us some distraction. My target: Panthip Plaza.

Panthip Plaza in Chiang Mai, like the even larger version in Bangkok, is a sort of computer/electronics/media shopping mall.

The one in Bangkok is arranged in a nice spectrum of dodgy-ness: the bottom floors are chain stores and other reputable vendors.

The next few floors are store after store of bargain-basement parts: a store selling nothing but keyboards (thousands of them), or one selling nothing but RAM.

Then the top levels are dedicated to out-and-out piracy: you choose the software, movies, or music you want from a huge catalog, and then someone burns you a disc in the back room.

The one in Chiang Mai isn't quite as organized as the one in Bangkok, but the prices are just as good. My goal was to score us some DVDs to watch for the next couple of days, and (most indulgently) a massive amount of McDonalds, that most comforting of "comfort food" when abroad.

I'd forgotten about the festival. I did in the end score us a bunch of entertaining movies and a ridiculous amount of McNuggets, but I first had to do battle with parades, marching bands, an army of people in animal costumes, a mobile carousel, and an unexpected roving gang of evangelical preachers.

All that matters, though, is that soon enough we were safe and sound in our hotel room, wolfing down french fries and watching Ice Age. When that little squirrel ran across the ice at the beginning of the movie, Belly was entranced by it and bit the screen. Somehow, some of my happiest memories are of the three of us in that silly hotel room. (And in hindsight, it was great for Belly. He was able to adapt to the new world beyond the Park before he even boarded a plane, so that when he finally arrived in DC he hit the ground running.)

On Monday, I found a pay phone and called my office to let them know I wouldn't be into work that day, owing to unfortunately being still on the other side of the planet. (They were most understanding.) Then, the three of us hailed a songthaew and climbed inside. It was time to get that Export Permit.

Songthaews are the primary means of getting around Chiang Mai. They're these red pick-up trucks with a covered bed containing two benches for passengers (songthaew is Thai for "two rows") that just drive around all day. When you flag one down, you tell him where you're trying to go and haggle out a price. Once you've agreed, you climb into the back of the truck, and pay him when you arrive at your destination. Fortunately, the songthaew driver we had didn't seem to mind in the slightest that we had a dog with us, and soon enough we were out in the Chiang Mai University part of town, where things are all a lot more green and leafy and a lot less hectic and noisy.

The agents at the DOLD were much nicer and more professional than any of the nightmare scenarios we'd dreamed up, and everything was a piece of cake. We'd been warned we might need to offer them a "small gift" (which is to say, a bribe) to get our paperwork, but all we wound up having to pay was the normal 50 baht fee (about $1.25 back then). Belly's final examination consisted of a gruff but not unfriendly official peering at him from across the room and asking "Is he pit bull?" (They're a lot harder to export.) When he was assured that Belly was not in fact a pit bull, he gave us a big old Thai smile and handed us our forms. It was that easy.

Afterwards, Jessica played with Belly in the park across the street while I ran down to another of those ubiquitous 7-Elevens to grab us a quick bite to eat. When I returned, she pointed out the trio of soi dogs that had been circling the perimeter of the park the whole time I'd been away, giving her a heart attack. We swiftly hailed another songthaew and returned to our room again.

Jessica spent the better part of the afternoon tracking down a place where we could get photocopies of our all-important Export Permit. While I was cuddled with Belly on the hotel bed watching The Lord of the Rings, she was managing to score us those photocopies for the "local" price (as opposed to the "tourist" price). Which was only fair, of course, what with Belly being a local and all.

At last, we were ready. I even ran over to the airport that afternoon, just to have the Thai Airways check-in people confirm that we had everything we needed this time. Happily, it turned out to be the same woman who'd denied us a few days earlier, and she was very pleased to tell me that yes indeed, this time we were good to go.

Back at the airport again the next night, things started as they had before. We paid the "excess baggage" fee again (it had been reimbursed to us after we'd been unable to fly before), and made our way back to check-in. Once again, that lovely CHM->JFK sticker was placed onto Belly's crate, and then we waited for the manager to come over and check over our paperwork.

Back when we were doing our research a couple of months earlier, I was on the phone to this friendly guy named Jim, from the Office of the New York State Health Requirements Governing the Admission Of Animals (heck of a title, huh?). Jim said to me one of the most reassuring things we encountered during all of our research.

"Once you're on the plane," he'd said, "you're home free. If there are any problems, if there's anything you missed, the airline will catch it before you ever make it to customs or whatever. They have to fly you back, you see, if anything's wrong or missing. So they're super, super careful and cautious. Once you get past them, you can relax, because that means you've got it made."

With one of those enormous Thai-style smiles, the manager looked over our paperwork, and said everything was good. We were approved to export our dog.

We said our goodbyes to Belly, and then watched as he was trundled away on a conveyor belt.

After all the stresses of the past few months researching and planning, and after all the stresses of the past two weeks of getting Belly ready to fly, and after the stresses of the past few days where we found ourselves unexpectedly still in Thailand, we were just wiped out. We had a brief layover in Bangkok, during which we were able to see Belly loaded onto the plane. (We also checked with the ground crew to make sure that he had made it onto the plane ok.) After that, it was a 19-hour flight from Bangkok to New York.

We slept basically the whole way. Every now and then we'd wake up eye to eye with the photo of Belly we'd stuck onto to seat-backs in front of us, and a flight attendant would stop by to assure us that he'd be fine.

Someone had once told us that Belly would come down the conveyor belt with the other luggage, and we'd believed them.

We were standing at the baggage claim at JFK, waiting to be reunited with our fluffy little boy, when the gaggle of departing Thai Airways flight attendants spotted us. They immediately swooped over to lend us a hand, and led us over to a security guard, asking him to help us find our dog. He did a little chatting into his walkie-talkie, and suddenly someone was appearing with Belly in his crate!

He was being such a good little boy, curled up quietly in there, waiting for us to tell him what to do next. After an astonishingly brief conversation at customs (they literally just asked for his rabies certificate – it's actually easier to bring in a dog than a banana), we suddenly found ourselves out in the parking lot, letting Belly out of the crate.

We'd done it. He was here, he was ours, and he was coming home. That Belly-shaped hole in our lives was filled. We'd actually done it.

The feeling of joy that overtook me at that moment is one I'll never forget.

That was exactly two years ago. We were standing together in that parking lot at around noon on November 8, 2006. Two years ago today.

Now, that wasn't the day it was supposed to be. We were several days later than we'd planned, owing to that adventure with the Export Permit. Which makes that date even more interesting.

By some random chance, if you believe in chance, or by some twist of fate, if you believe in fate, it was on November 8th that we all stepped out into that parking lot together.

Four years earlier, on that same date, two other things happened.

On November 8, 2002, in the village of Ban Lao in northwestern Thailand, Belly was born. (Well, give or take a week, we're not exactly certain.)

And also on November 8, 2002, something else happened half a world away. Late in the evening, in a small pub in the middle of Philadelphia, two hedgehogs happened to meet for the very first time.

December 10, 2008 at 1:34pm
It seems as if has been ages since I looked in, but your travel plans made me realize I should do so. I'm glad I did. This is wonderful.
Tim the hedgehog
April 12, 2009 at 6:57pm
Awww, thanks Tracy. Belly is a pretty special pooch, isn't he? :)
August 25, 2009 at 1:47pm
What a wonderful, wonderful post and what an amazing story. Really, you guys should consider consolidating these stories and sending them to a magazine --– I know that there are many, many dog lovers out there who would be inspired and cheered by what you have done for Belly. I am not a fatalist, but I believe that some things in life are just meant to be. You two being with Belly sounds like one of those things.
Tim the hedgehog
September 1, 2009 at 11:48am
Thank you so much, Akila! That's a fun idea too, definitely something we may have to look into. It'd be lovely to share Belly's story with more folks. :)

…I believe that some things in life are just meant to be. You two being with Belly sounds like one of those things.

We couldn't agree with you more. :)

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