Left to right: Simba, Marshmallow and Impi
Written and photography supplied by Landi Bekker
I’m sitting on my bed in South Africa, surrounded by my three beautiful cats sleeping as if nothing had ever happened, and I’m so incredibly grateful to be home at last.
A little café in Goa
I moved to India in September 2018 to start something new in my life. I opened a little café in Goa close to the beach, and very soon after I met a cute little ginger kitten that came there for a bit of food and a lot of love. I fell in love with her instantly! (As did everyone who visited my café.)
My stay in India was only temporary, and I didn’t want to become too attached or let her become too dependent on me. So, I’d leave her at the café when I went home after hours, but each morning, she’d be sleeping on top of the fridge, awaiting my return with a head bump and a growling stomach. My heart melted. I decided to take her home and named her Cheddar.
I bought a basket and blanket so that she could come home with me after work, but in the morning when I had to leave the house, she’d stop me from leaving, rubbing against my legs as if I’d never come back. And, so, my ginger friend would go with me to the café while I worked and home again after I finished every day. Cheddar was so comfortable with the scooter rides that it was no problem at all, and her company was also well needed!
A few months later, I went to visit my family in South Africa, and I asked a friend of mine to look after her at his place whilst I was gone. When I returned three weeks later, Cheddar was pregnant! She was so small and (I mistakenly thought) WAY too young to have babies that I hadn’t thought it could happen. But what was done was done, and I decided I’d find the babies good homes when they were ready to leave their mom.
Then, Monsoon season started. My café didn’t do too well in the rainy season because it’s an outside area and there’s no tourism during that time. I decided to book a train and move to Bhopal.
The big move to Bhopal and a new feathered friend
Five days before pregnant Cheddar and I were to take our 28-hour train trip to Bhopal, someone brought me a baby bird that was covered in ants. I just couldn’t leave the little guy to fend for himself, so I cleaned him up, fed him, and became a mother to this tiny blue bird as well.
Cheddar, the blue bird, and I boarded the train a few days later and headed to our new destination. That train trip was probably the longest 28 hours of my life! It was incredibly hot, the train was full, the bird wanted to eat every hour, and Cheddar absolutely didn’t want to be stuck on a bunk bed. But we all made it there in one piece, tired but excited!
After a week or two, the little birdie was fit to fly, and he went on his own new journey into the world. Weirdly enough, Cheddar had never tried to harm the bird, which had been free-roaming in the house. What a beautiful soul…
Three little kittens
A month later, Cheddar had three beautiful and healthy kittens in my cupboard where I made her a safe spot so that they could all sleep comfortably. And that’s when Impi, Simba and Marshmallow were born.
The night after she had her babies, I woke up hearing tiny noises and saw that she’d put them all in the bed with me. I’d put them back in the cupboard one by one, but as I took the second kitten, the first one would already be back in bed. Clearly, that’s what Cheddar wanted, and who was I to say no – we’re all family now!
Cheddar was gone
She’d grown up an outdoor cat, and keeping her locked inside didn’t work. So, every morning, I opened the door for Cheddar to go and explore the complex in which we lived (which was enclosed and considered safe), and by 4PM each day, I’d call her back with no trouble at all. She was always around, chasing butterflies or sleeping under the tree in the shade.
The day before Christmas 2019, I called her to come inside, but there was no response. I walked around the complex, calling her repeatedly, then headed outside the complex, calling her and calling her. Cheddar was nowhere to be found. I asked everyone in the society if they’d seen her – the security guard at the gate, the people working at the little shops across the road… but Cheddar was gone without a trace. I never saw her again.
My heart was broken. Not just for me but for her three kittens. Simba sat at the window for weeks on end, literally staring at the spot where she used to sleep under the tree.
A magical connection
Impi, Marshmallow and Simba became so attached to me, and I realised I couldn’t ever leave these three babies – they needed me; they found comfort in me when they lost their mom.
Some people don’t understand the connection you can make with animals, but it’s so incredibly pure and absolutely magical that two species can just be so trusting without words being spoken. I don’t think there’s any love purer than that.
I fell in love with Simba, Marshmallow and Impi the day they were born, and with each day, I just loved them more. I knew it would be incredibly difficult to move out of India with them when the time came, but we’re a family, and that means no one gets left behind.
Covid-19 shattered my world
My visa was about to expire, and my money was about to run out… and then Covid-19 hit! The government announced that the borders would close in a day or two and advised all foreign nationals to take the first flight out.
My whole world shattered! I phoned pet travel agencies and was told that no animals were allowed to travel at that time because of the Covid-19 situation.
What else could I do but stay in India with them?
A lot of people told me to stay put until this situation was under control. Little did I know I’d get stuck for this long…
The government started repatriation flights, and I thought to myself: “This is it! We’ll get home soon!”
I couldn’t leave them behind
I phoned a pet travel agency in India called AirPets to get Simba, Marshmallow and Impi “travel ready” but discovered that none of the vets in Bhopal did microchipping, so I had to order the microchips from another state, and, at that stage, the couriers weren’t able to travel out of state. (Cats need to be microchipped at least a month before you can leave the country, and they need vaccines and rabies shots older than 30 days, BUT you can only get the rabies vaccine AFTER being microchipped.) But I couldn’t leave them behind.
Months went by. My visa expired. I couldn’t work without a permit (which, obviously, I didn’t have, and even if I did, there were no jobs).
We had to move out of the house. We stayed in a house outside of the city, which I got rent-free, at least, from my ex. But there was nothing in the house, not even a geyser or bed. I mean LITERALLY NOTHING. Impi, Marshmallow, Simba and I slept on a single mattress on the floor for months, not knowing when we’d be able to get to South Africa, if ever.
I’ve never felt so alone in my life. These three cats saved me, and I was determined to give them the life they deserve. How could I just fend for myself and leave them behind?
Comfort on bad days
Being stuck in a foreign country during this pandemic is no joke. I promise you, you appreciate things you took for granted like you won’t believe! Hot water, a bed, aircon, friends and family, hugs, Afrikaans, Simba chips… the list goes on and on.
When I had a bad day (which was quite often, to be honest), Impi would come and lie next to me, comforting me until I got up. Simba would take his toys in his mouth like a dog and put them next to the mattress to encourage me to play with him when I felt sad. Marshmallow would head bump me for attention or bite my legs softly if I took too long according to her.
Small little things those three cats did kept me positive and kept me going forward.
Reaching out for help
By this time, I had nothing left, and getting back to South Africa, never mind with Impi, Marshmallow, and Simba, seemed impossible, to say the least. I decided to start a Back-a-Buddy fundraiser and shared my plea on Facebook – some people shared, some donated, and some unfriended me.
A woman named Megan-Ann Robertson contacted me and wanted to help me as much as possible. She put me in contact with another woman named Aimée Zermatten, and the two of them helped me so incredibly much with my fundraiser and getting my plea out on social media. Honestly, if it wasn’t for them, the four of us would still be stuck in India.
My fundraiser to get the cats and me home started booming. (Keep in mind I needed R55,000 during a world pandemic!) People from all over the world started donating and sharing. I’ve never been so excited for Simba, Impi and Marshmallow – and they didn’t even know what was happening.
These three kitties have never had a garden to play in without supervision. Because India has so many stray dogs, it’s super unsafe to let them outside, and keeping track of three cats in an open garden is impossible. I took them to the terrace (which is just an open space full of nothing) every day to get fresh air and roam around a little, but that’s no life for any animal.
I tried to keep them entertained in the house and got them grass to munch on in the mornings (they love their grass!), but they were frustrated, and when I went out every now and then, I’d come back to a ball of hair that Impi would pull out from her tail due to frustration. It was clear that getting home with the cats had to happen soon.
Time to go
After a few months, the R55,000 was raised – I couldn’t believe it! I contacted Vandana Anchalia at AirPets for their permits and paperwork, etc. and Juan-Pierre (JP) and Michael Thoms from The One Pet Relocation in South Africa for the import permits and clearance, and we started the whole process to get these three beauties home with me.
First, we needed to get from Bhopal to Delhi (around 800km). We booked a private cabin in a train and were all set to leave in the evening when, on our travel day, I was told: you can only take two cats on the train with you!
I had no choice but to sneak the third cat in with me and just hope and pray that they wouldn’t check. Thank goodness, we reached Delhi over eight hours later with no problems.
We stayed at a friend of mine’s cousin for a few days before our flight while I took the cats for their vet checks. From there on, Vandana from AirPets and JP from The One Pet Relocation took care of the rest.
There was still one last hiccup… The cats’ flight was moved two days later at the last minute, and my ticket was nonrefundable, so I couldn’t stay any longer. They’d have to fly without me. Thankfully, AirPets India’s wonderful Vandana came to their rescue and offered to take care of them for those days in between and to make sure they got to South Africa safely. On Christmas Day 2020, I left India for home.
Home, sweet home
Simba, Impi and Marshmallow landed safely in Johannesburg on the 29th of December. Once they got cleared at the airport, JP from The One Pet Relocation in Johannesburg actually drove them down to Bloemfontein the very same day without any complaints. I’ve been so blessed to work with these amazing agents!
The two girls, Impi and Marshmallow, started exploring the day after they arrived; Simba took a little longer to warm up to all the new sights and sounds. They absolutely LOVE the outdoors and catching bugs and running around chasing each other up and down the tree.
If you decide to take care of an animal, whether it’s a cat or dog or rat or snake, make sure that you accept them as part of your family, because they aren’t disposable objects. They get attached to you as well, and even if you think you’ll be fine without them and they’ll adapt, you were that little creature’s family and provider, and then you’re just gone, and they don’t know why.
If it weren’t for these three amazing cats that got me through THE DARKEST time of my life, I wouldn’t be here right now.
I don’t want to name-drop too much, because every little donation, big or small, every share on Facebook, everyone who supported us through this very difficult time, the phone calls to make sure we had food and somewhere to stay – these are the people who made everything possible for Simba, Impi and Marshmallow!
My mom borrowed money for my flight ticket, and although she unfortunately couldn’t help much more financially, she stood by me every single step of the way. I thank her for everything she’s done for Marshmallow, Impi, Simba and me. She’s always been my biggest supporter, and I love her more than anything for being there for me always, no matter what the situation is.
We’re a family with a lot of love to give, and now we’re whole at last!