I practically ran down the arrival corridors after disembarking the plane. I had a mound of paperwork ready to show officials that the two cats I was declaring were healthy and vaccinated. I was waved up to the immigration window and briefly questioned about my time in Thailand and my cats. Circling the baggage claim, my thoughts were on my cats and my friends who would be waiting just beyond the exit. My bags finally arrived and I quickly presented my documents to the nearest Customs official.
'Cats, huh?' the official asked pleasantly.
'Yes, I brought two cats from Thailand. Do you need to see their paperwork?' I asked, over-eager.
'Where are they?'
Panic hit me square in the chest.
'What do you mean? I thought I would pick them after this.'
'There's nothing beyond here except the parking lot. You have to go pick up your cats.'
I racked my brain for a moment, wondering how I had missed signs indicating animal pickup or imports. I found an Etihad airline attendant and asked for help on where to go. She was gone for several minutes and returned with a phone number scrawled across the back of a piece of scrap paper. She told me to call the number of the Cargo office for more information.
Dashing through customs again, I forced my way through throngs of other travelers and entered the arrivals hall. I scanned the crowd for the familiar faces of my friends. They weren't there, but my primary concern was reuniting with my cats.
I zipped across the cavernous hall, searching for a payphone. I found one stuck in a far corner and inserted two quarters. Dead silence. A man next to me said the phones didn't work but that he would let me use his cell phone for a few dollars. I was in disbelief that the payphones wouldn't work in an international airport and indignant that this man was requesting money because I was using a calling card. I declined his offer and went searching for an airport worker to direct me to another phone.
There wasn't one. No public phones available. I located a tourist help desk and asked if I could use their phone. I was told that the phone had a direct connection to local hotels but an outside line couldn't be reached. I pleaded with the woman working the counter, please, I need to make a phone call to find out where I can pick up my cats. She looked at me, exasperated by yet another tourist begging to use her phone. 'I just turned someone else away for asking to use my phone, you know. But yeah, you can call.'
She dialed the number on the paper and passed me the cell phone. I was given directions to Building 73 in Cargo Area D. I now knew where I was going, but I still had no way to get there. I hadn't located my friends, I didn't have a phone, and I had 120 lbs of luggage spread out in three bags.
Pushing my luck, I asked the woman at the information desk if I would be able to take a taxi to the cargo area. She waved the idea aside and told me to take the train to a shuttle bus that would drop me off in the cargo section. I looked behind me and indicated my massive bags.
'You'll be fine,' she assured me. 'You can take your luggage cart on the train and then move everything directly onto the bus.'
Oh, come on! I cajoled myself. You've survived 3 years in Bangkok; you can handle an airport train and a shuttle here. Everything is in English!
So I found the elevators, rode the train, found some more elevators, and located an idling shuttle bus. I asked the driver if he was going to Cargo Area D, and he said yes. There was one other woman on the bus. She was put together and didn't appear to suffering travel fatigue or desperately trying to locate pets. I asked her if I could use her phone to call my friends, explaining how sorry I was for the inconvenience but I had just arrived from Thailand and the payphones didn't work. The request was a bit pathetic. Really, who doesn't have a cell phone these days?
She passed me her phone and I called my friends. I quickly explained what I was doing and asked them to meet at Building 73 of Cargo Area D with a taxi. There was no point in dragging two massive cat carriers on the bus for the return journey. They agreed and I started to feel like everything was coming together.
The shuttle bus took me on a five-minute journey winding through rows and rows and rows of massive cargo buildings. We finally pulled over in front of a bus stop and the driver called out to me, indicating this was my destination. I got off the bus and looked around. The nearest building to me seemed to house security trucks. Several buildings beyond that, I saw a large number 73. The only way to get there was to drag my two over-sized bags and shuffle under the weight of my backpack as I walked down the middle of a deserted utility road at 10 o'clock in the morning. Jumbo jets took off and landed in the distance and the black top shimmered with heat. Welcome back to America, I thought.
Fifteen minutes later I arrived at Building 73 in Cargo Area D. I abandoned my ridiculous bags at the entrance and greeted the woman behind the counter, explaining I was here for my cats.
'Oh no, they didn't tell you?' she asked, sounding annoyed with whoever "they" were. ‘
No, I was told to come here.'
'You have to get your paperwork signed at the office down the road. It's like two miles. How did you get here? They didn't send you on the bus, did they?'
I was devastated, but so close to getting my cats that no obstacle would faze me. But I was picturing my cats dead in the cage from stress or heat exhaustion. I was desperate for information.
'Can you just tell me, are my cats okay? Are they alive?'
'Oh yeah,' the woman said. 'They're in the back, I've been playing with them all morning.'
Relief flooded over me and I felt such appreciation for this wonderful, cat-loving person. I asked where this other building was and how to walk there.
'I can't believe they sent you out here first. I'll tell you what; someone will drive you to get the papers signed. You can take my car.'
One of Ro's co-workers drove me to the Port Authority office to get my paperwork signed. We were driving back when we overcame two pedestrians on the road. It was my friends, who had also been talked out of getting a taxi in favor of the train-shuttle bus route. I jumped out of the car, hugging them and attempting to explain why I was riding with a stranger in a red SUV.
We returned to the cargo office and I handed the signed paperwork over to Saint Ro. I was finally able to retrieve my babies from a massive cargo warehouse. They were meowing incessantly but seemed to be just fine. We waited 45 minutes for a taxi to arrive. My bags barely fit in the trunk of the old blue sedan and my friends, Afton and Rachel, each supported howling, caged cats on their laps in the backseat. The driver, Freddie, was a great sport about the whole ordeal and drove us safely into New York City.