Sawyer is Home! (My Real Life “Lassie”)

When you apply for the Peace Corps, the interviewer asks how you will deal with loneliness, isolation, and boredom. Your job is to convince them that you will not become a cautionary tale about the volunteer that went a little bit crazy deep in the bush- which happens to us all in one way or another- and will be a champion through it all. I completely underestimated what it would feel like to move to a town only reasonably accessible by prop plane, where you know only one person (your Counterpart), and where everyone you meet sees you are a foreigner.

As soon as the wheels touched down on the tarmac, I had one immediate goal in mind: to acquire a puppy. Every time I left my house from the beginning to the end of my service was a mental challenge, to face head-on the overwhelming fact that I was an outsider. Having this goal gave me a purpose to go talk to people. The first person I met, my conversation began somewhere along the lines of, “Hello, my name is Samantha. I am the new Peace Corps Volunteer. Do you know anyone that’s giving away a puppy?”

I must have asked twenty people but it wasn’t a puppy season at the moment, (the dogs go through hormonal cycles where they are all in heat around the same time,) but everybody knew of a pregnant dog. So, I had the likes of 50 potential puppies coming my way! I told myself that whichever dog came to me first was the one I was supposed to have. As it turned out, the man I asked the very first day was the one to deliver.

I was walking home one day from the school and he caught me in the street, “when can you pick up the puppy?”

I vividly remember that day. This pup was chosen specially for me out of the litter of six. It’s funny, I always pictured myself with something like a skinny collie or the runt of the litter, but in a culture where a fat dog is the most valuable and healthy choice, I was given the fattest one. And it was love at first sight.

I walked home with him sleeping in my arms at one month old on the nose. (I understand that usually you wait two months for puppies to wean them off their mothers, but this “large breed” dog was highly desirable and would have been taken by any number of people.) I held his ear against my heart and made a promise to him, that no matter what happens next, I would always take care of  him. I told him that I loved him.

Over the next eight months we went on fantastic and terrifying adventures together. Just to name a few:

  • Castration at the hands of possibly the worst vet who ever lived
  • A holiday-time bus trip that resulted in him vomiting in my lap seven times
  • Bonking his head on a concrete post and receiving a pupil-dilating concussion
  • Chasing countless of the community’s chickens and killing one baby rooster
  • Eating an entire loaf of fresh, homemade bread- my dinner- while I wasn’t watching
  • Getting attacked by a pack of dogs, bitten by one, and developing a cyst the size of my fist that burst when I inspected it
  • Catching a poisonous puffer fish that, if swallowed, would have killed him
  • And the grand-daddy of them all, my premature separation from the Peace Corps and my ensuing custody battle with the country of Guyana to get him back

I was Med-evaced from the country on June 17th of this year after six weeks of failing to fight off a mystery disease. Also around this time, I was trying to move into a different house after being sexually harassed by one of my landlords, who was my next door neighbor. So, needless to say, this was a very hectic and stressful time.

I considered taking Sawyer home with me during the 45 days but at the time, the money and stress wouldn’t have been worth it. I was, after all, planning on coming back within that time frame. Another issue was that every time I had left Sawyer for any length of time, usually overnight with a dog-sitter, something would happen to him and he would fall very ill. Once he ate an entire bag of dental treats and didn’t eat for three days, another time he cut his paw and couldn’t walk on it for a week. I did not have much enthusiasm for finding suitable sitters for this length of time. But, as fate would have it, the perfect family of pilot missionaries came into my life and took him in.

Forty five days later on July 31st, when I was unable to completely recover and return to service, I was Medically Separated from the Peace Corps. Thus, began the battle of getting Sawyer back to me here in the States. Through every step of the process the family that watched him was the most generous, kindhearted, and patient couple that I have had the privilege to meet. We talked nearly every day, spent a lot of money and put in exponential effort to coordinate Sawyer’s travel home. For anyone else that wants to transport a pet from a developing country into the U.S., this was what it took, including all of the mishaps along the way:

  • As per U.S. regulations, a rabies shot has to be administered 30+ days before dogs can enter the country, as well as an inspection for screwworm, a tropical parasite, within five days of entering the U.S. (Pushed back his arrival date to September, $47 for vaccinations and inspection.)
  • The crate he is shipped in needed to meet numerous, very technical, airline standards. There was not a suitable crate in all of Guyana, so the couple had to build one. This is not an easy task living in a remote area, there are no Home Depots to buy all of your materials from. ($35)
  • I mailed down special supplies purchased from a pet store to ease the stress of travel. ($130 and 3 weeks)
  • The couple has their own plane but can only fly it when they have a mission to complete for their organization, so booking a flight becomes extra tricky as the travel schedule is unpredictable.
  • Upon our first attempt to fly him to the international airport in mid-September, we were told that he cannot leave the country because he has no export permit with the Ministry of Agriculture. Also, if you can believe it, the day before they had planned to fly him out of the bush, the plane wouldn’t start.(Pushed back his arrival date two more weeks, $75)
  • At this time, I was expecting him to travel but I had not been able to get in contact with the international airline’s cargo office, so I made a trip to JFK specifically for this purpose. Because sending a pet on this flight was so rare, there was essentially no protocol to follow from this end, either. ($180 trip, $58 in NY tolls alone)
  • The couple spent the money and took the time to process the permit with the Guyanese government. When they contacted the international airline to book the flight again, the airline told them that the paperwork needs to be processed in a certain way, and an additional medical inspection of the dog has to be completed before the flight is booked. They were told they needed to hire a broker to complete this. (Pushed back his arrival date another two weeks, $135)

Having experienced life in this country, I know that a lot of it is corrupt. You can pay off police officers to let you get away with crime. Hell, while I was there a police officer murdered a man in the bush and everyone in the town knew, but nobody did anything about it. At this point, I am sure this is all just being made up! This is one drawn out corruption scheme. But the couple, being the saints that they are, jumped through the hoops and followed the procedures without complaint for the sake of getting my dog home to me.

  • The broker took care of the paperwork and the plane was repaired, we were almost ready to fly! That week the couple contacted the airline once again to book the ticket for last Thursday, October 19th. The response they were given, after the airline did not return calls and emails for a few days, was that their request was too last minute and there wasn’t enough time to process the paperwork. Also, the broker apparently forgot to put a certain stamp on the papers and you need special permission to land at the international airport with an animal.

NOT ENOUGH TIME? TOO LAST MINUTE? A STAMP! At this point, I had spent the entire day, for the third time, preparing to make the seven+ hour drive to JFK to receive my dog. To find out this was not the day I had been waiting for left me crying in the driveway before I could pull myself inside to wail some more about the injustice of this world. I made an international call and spoke with the woman who, in my eyes, was the one person left keeping my dog from me, and I nailed that call. I was polite, inquisitive, and burst into tears at just the right time to get her to find a way to board him on the plane the next day, Friday.

  • That morning at sunrise Sawyer and my friend, the pilot, took off from the bush on the prop plane and landed at the international airport. The pilot has purchased Sawyer’s ticket ($378). The cargo offices do not open until eleven but the mission that the pilot is on required him to be flying out of a different airport at 10am, so the couple had to hire the broker again to watch Sawyer until the cargo offices open and can check him in. With any luck at all, Sawyer would be in the care of the cargo offices until 5:25pm when the flight from Georgetown to JFK took off. Six hours later, he would land in New York. Of course, nobody will be in the offices to clear him to enter the country so what’s another mandatory $70 to pick him up off the tarmac and $150 to keep him overnight at the airport for good measure. He hasn’t been inspected enough, anyway.

My mother and I planned on leaving home at noon to journey South. We would have been at the airport at 11:30pm for any chance of seeing Sawyer before his was taken into JFK’s overnight custody. Unfortunately, the broker didn’t deliver. He showed up 3.5 hours late to provide that missing stamp that he forgot to include. Sawyer didn’t fly that Friday. Since nobody at the airport was legally responsible for him and the couple was back at my Peace Corps site out of the city, he was left in his crate in this cargo office from dawn until 9:30pm, after everybody but a security guard had left. Finally, the pilots found a family friend of a friend to drive to the airport and pick him up for the night.

The next morning, with all of his paperwork in order Sawyer still couldn’t fly because the cargo office was closed. This information was not disclosed to us the day before, either. The same went for Sunday. Monday rolled around and I racked up international call minutes on my phone trying to sort things out with the woman booking his flight and she said it just wouldn’t be possible to send him on passenger flights, even though we were planning to do that on Friday, because cargo was backed up and Sawyer was too heavy to fit on this international plane… She decided that we needed to fly him on a cargo plane through Trinidad, which required a permit to land him there and a fee for the layover ($60). I fought this, not trusting the system or sending him through another developing country where I knew nobody. But she would not budge and I was at her mercy.

  • The cargo plane through Trinidad was leaving at 5:25am Wednesday morning, with animals checking in five hours before the flight. The man who had watched Sawyer all weekend, had taken off three days of work and lived an hour away, brought Sawyer to the airport at midnight and was kept there through the wee hours of the morning to make sure that the plane actually took off with Sawyer on it. I am so grateful to this man for being so selfless and empathetic- characteristics that I was finding increasingly rare during this whole process ($195). And you know what? The plane finally took off with Sawyer on it.

The date was October 25th, his first birthday if you can believe it!! My mother and I went to JFK one last time (the third time’s the charm!) and arrived early to fill out the customs paperwork and pick him up as soon as humanly possible!

  • We arrived at 1:15pm at the cargo department, the plane was landing in a half hour. They told us to come back when the plane lands, since the passengers will be let off first then the cargo, we still had a bit of time. We left and wasted some time at a gas station then returned at 1:40pm.
  • They told us they would need to collect the paperwork from his crate which will take a while. We waited.
  • Sawyer arrived in that very building, just behind a wall from my mother and myself. He was still zip tied in his crate and hadn’t been out since 3am that morning but we couldn’t see him or let him out until the customs paperwork was complete.
  • A bunch of cargo workers came and asked for their own paperwork, and they all received their services while we waited. What was going on? We were starting to get anxious.
  • It turns out, Sawyer’s paperwork was left on the plane, we were told! Somebody would need to go back to the plane and pick it up. We waited.
  • A half hour later they supposedly located the paperwork. We waited. Where was the paperwork?
  • Forty minutes after that nothing had happened. We started raising hell at the cargo desk, it was almost 5pm at that point and we would not risk offices closing and letting them keep him overnight. They then told us that most of the paperwork- that we were certain he had boarded with- was missing. The airline had lost it and were telling us that without it we wouldn’t be able to receive him. He was just on the other side of that wall!! He had been in his crate and alone all day.
  • We started to panic. I called the missionaries and they sent all of their copies of the paperwork, which I forwarded to the cargo office. They told us they can’t and will not take copies. We made them find their boss and get permission, which they did and he agreed to. So, they printed off the copies and we were sent to the customs office.
  • The sun was setting when we arrived at customs and after he called cargo and asked about accepting copies, the man there told us that all of the paperwork was not useful. He went through the packet one by one and tore off the pages that customs didn’t need until there were two documents left. I tried my best sweet talk and told him stories about Sawyer and I and what this process has been like. With a stroke of luck, this man had a heart. He cared about Sawyer, my mom and I and he deemed the little amount of paperwork that we actually had (stupid broker didn’t know what he was doing after all) to be acceptable. He called cargo and told them to release my dog.

When we arrived back at the cargo office, I gave them one signature and ran outside to see Sawyer’s crate being driven out by a small fork lift, and thus came the 1st birthday reunion video!!! (file:///C:/Users/Samantha%20Rock/Desktop/Reunion%20Video.html)

After almost two months and spending 1/3 of my Peace Corps income, Sawyer and I were together again. On the drive home I leaned against him, but my head next to his and made a second promise. I told him that I would never leave him again.

Now, Sawyer has been home with my family and I for three days and we have a lot of training to do, to get him used to being an American dog. I haven’t slept much, but I am so grateful and full of love for everyone that helped me along the way to getting my puppy back into my arms.

 

 

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