Accidental Tourist: Puss and boats
For cat lovers missing their own fluffies, every foreign destination becomes a kitty city
TASHIROJIMA is a tiny fishing island just off the coast of Japan where cats outnumber humans. The residents of the place commonly known as "Cat Island" believe looking after the cats brings good luck. Aside from the thousands of felines, there is a small cat shrine, monuments of cats and buildings shaped like cats. Dogs (understandably) are prohibited. It's a veritable kitty city - and my idea of a dream holiday.
There's a turning point during every overseas holiday when I begin missing home and my family of felines. It's then that I begin popping into corner shops to buy the odd bit of processed meat, which waits in a corner of my handbag until I come across a deserving street cat. It's downhill from there as I transmogrify into a wild-haired, middle-aged, mad woman who walks the streets talking to herself and to anything small, furry and feral that comes within spitting distance. It's not long before the cold meat is replaced by cat pellets with added victims and minerals, decanted into a zip-lock bag and ever-ready for distribution. Of course, although I try to be even-handed and feed every feline within the city walls, some become favourites.
In Zanzibar, at a second-rate beach resort, I befriended a sweet young thing who crawled into bed with me every night. It broke my heart to leave her.
On an island in Croatia, I met a cat with one eye, one ear, three legs and swollen nipples. How she had managed to keep her balance during conception was a mystery. I first saw her and her friend, a skinny, pregnant redhead, hanging around the dumpsters at the edge of a beach. I returned that evening to take her to dinner but she and her pal had gone. It's an island, I thought, it shouldn't take long to find her: just a day walking the grid in a square kilometre produced results. She, her handful of babies and her friend had colonised a bush at the top of a narrow alley. I fed her each day for the duration of my stay and, although I wasn't allowed to touch, she would gaze at me with her remaining eye and occasionally grunt. We definitely developed an understanding.
Istanbul was a pussy paradise. They were everywhere: draped over piles of for-sale carpets, curled under trees, perched on chairs at outdoor restaurants, sunning themselves on the tops of ancient walls - they were fearless, haughty and hard to please.
I was enchanted. Lira after lira went on tubs of yoghurt, helpings of kebab and slices of pastrami. I held banquets in parks and gave out snack packs at monuments. I fed solitary toms and extended families. I gave to the beautiful, the disabled, the moth-eaten and the stout. On our way to the Grand Bazaar I came across a man selling cheap jewellery on the steps leading to a cemetery. He was clutching a tiny white kitten, painstakingly trying to feed it drops of milk. He was a little slow and more than a little poor. I bought four pairs of earrings and he let me pet the kitten. I returned the next day. He now had a second, even smaller kitten that he'd found in among the gravestones and he was trying to mediate the hissing war that had broken out between them. He can't afford this, I told my long-suffering travel companion, I have to buy him cat pellets.
"It's 34°C," she said, "I really need to sit down."
"Just a quick diversion to a supermarket," I pleaded. "How long can it take?" Forever, apparently.
The area we were in had nothing but small grocery stalls, all hidden down windy, cobbled roads, none of them stocking cat food. After an hour, five shops and several attempts at miming an eating cat - meow meow, yum yum - I found a pack of Iams, chicken flavoured. It cost almost R200. I walked back to the park where I had deposited my exasperated companion and found her trying to fend off the vigorous wooing of a man young enough to be her grandson.
We handed over the cat biscuits to the jewellery maker. He was moved, the kittens battled on, I took photos. One street away, a woman holding a large plastic bag began to scoop little piles of meat stew onto the ledge of an old wall.
Be warned: we are everywhere.