Pandemic Travel: The Long Journey Home

Image Courtesy of: Ainy Shiyam

Saturday, 14 March: I was sat in the audience at MTS’ production of Evita when my friend from back home messaged to tell me I should try to arrange a flight to get out of the UK. Rumours were flying of India imposing a travel ban. I brushed it off, telling her my university was still open and I didn’t want to leave before the end of term. Still, I felt a knot tighten in my stomach. The last thing I wanted was to get stranded at university over Spring Break. I texted my parents to tell them what I’d heard. They were about to board a flight after having gone to The Hague on holiday, and told me not to worry. A ban that restricted all travel, even for citizens, seemed next to impossible.

Monday, 16 March: I was with my performance group for my Drama module in Eliot Hall. We weren’t able to book a rehearsal space that day and therefore found ourselves in the cold, echoing chamber at the heart of Eliot College. I had spoken to my parents earlier that day, checking in on them considering my dad had fallen extremely ill. So, when he called again as my group and I worked on our staging document, I was confused. “Tarini, where are you?” my dad asked with an urgency in his voice. “I need you to step outside, this is important,” he continued, before informing me that India was banning all international flights at noon on Wednesday. I spent the next few hours calling friends, emailing Visa Compliance (the faceless office that determines whether or not international students get deported), pulling down my suitcase and throwing together some clothes before my mum texted to say I should hold off on packing. “The fee to change the booking is £1200, so maybe we should hope they lift the ban on March 31 like they’re planning to.” I didn’t stop crying that night. I understood my parents’ logic and I understood their optimism, but I knew deep down that this would not be the case.

Wednesday, 25 March: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation to update them on the domestic COVID-19 situation. My parents were sat in front of the TV in our apartment in Mumbai and I was in my Turing College room, checking the news updates on my phone. As soon as his speech ended, I called my mum, tears already streaming down my cheeks. The travel ban had been extended to 15 April. The worst part about that phone call was the silence on the other end of the line. My parents had no words for how guilty they felt, and that only made me feel worse. I didn’t want them to spend all their time agonising over how their daughter was stranded on the other side of the world, and yet here I was, completely isolated. My housemates had all gone home, and I found myself the only resident of a house built for nine people. That night, I grabbed my scissors and cut off all my hair. It was a rash decision, but for a short while it made me feel excited about something — a feeling I hadn’t had for a long time.

Tuesday, 7 April: The days were passing slowly. I slept a lot because when I was awake, I would cry or stress-binge junk food. I felt completely unmotivated to work on my essays and spent most of my time on TikTok or Netflix. Everyone was in lockdown, but I was totally alone. No family, no friends, nothing. I would cry on FaceTime to my mum, saying how desperately I needed a hug. I’m quite an introverted person, but this forced isolation was overwhelming and very anxiety-inducing. My anxiety and OCD went through the roof, and for a period of time I think I was verging on depression. I started to find ways of coping, like going on walks or baking cakes. As the sun burned bright in the blue sky, I dragged the sofa out onto the back porch and read in the warm April afternoons. This specific day, my parents called to say they had managed to book me on a flight for 17 April. I immediately called a taxi company to make sure they were still operating (National Express had halted its services) as well as the medical centre to get a certificate to say I was showing no symptoms of COVID-19. At the time, it was unclear what documentation one needed in order to fly internationally.

Wednesday, 8 April: The flight was cancelled. I broke down once more, asking my parents why they had gotten my hopes up yet again. Looking back, I know that they were getting hopeful just as much as I was. But at the time, I just needed somebody to blame and they were there.

Monday, 4 May: I was cooking lunch in the kitchen while talking to my grandmother on FaceTime when I got a notification announcing India’s repatriation mission: Vande Bharat. Flights would start on 7 May (clearly allowing for plenty of time for passengers to plan…not) and would bring stranded citizens back from all over the world. I immediately contacted the High Commission of India in London to see what I could do to get on that plane. I was met with confusion; it seemed as though they had found out about these flights at the same time as the public. Still, I scrambled to get things in order: going to the bank to make sure I had enough cash, thinking about packing, and making sure I didn’t buy any more groceries so as to not waste food if I had to leave suddenly.

Thursday, 7 May: The first Vande Bharat flights were pushed back due to delays in testing all the crew members. The first flight out of London Heathrow would now be on 9 May. I was watching Glee and eating ice cream straight from the tub when the man I was in contact with at the High Commission messaged to say I would be put on the waiting list for the flight. I wasn’t a high-priority passenger because I’m young, healthy, with a valid visa, accommodation and no ailing relatives back home. All I could do now was wait. This was and would continue to be the worst part of my travel experience — the constant uncertainty of what was to come next.

Friday, 8 May: I decided to get some things together in case I was suddenly put on the flight the next day. I stayed in all morning because I’d been told Air India would call me and would need my credit card details for the payment if I was booked in. In the 10 minutes where I stepped out to get some things from Co-op, they called me. If anybody passed an exhausted-looking brunette (I had not been sleeping well as I constantly worried Air India would call while I was asleep) shouting her card number down the phone in Keynes Car Park, now you know who that was. I rushed back to the house and started packing. Most of my stuff had to be left behind. Donation drives were either closed or only operating once a week, and there was nobody to give my things to for safekeeping. I finally got the time to cook dinner at around midnight and fell asleep at 3:00 am for half an hour before I heaved myself out of bed to head to the airport.

Saturday, 9 May: The Heathrow experience was, to be quite honest, no less stressful than it usually is. Granted, Heathrow is always stressful, but that’s besides the point. There were distancing measures in place, and the terminal felt like a ghost town but, on the whole, I was suffering more from a lack of sleep than I was from the COVID-19 restrictions. Masks were mandatory on board the flight and we were also provided with face shields and gloves. The flight felt like something out of a sci-fi movie: our food was left in cold cardboard boxes on our seats, and crew members in hazmat suits patrolled the aisles to ensure we kept our masks on. Actually, when you factor in how much the crew had to chase after rule-breaking passengers, it was more like a mix between a sci-fi movie and a primary school classroom.

Sunday, 10 May: The dates are a bit blurry here because of the time difference, but I did technically land at 3:00 am on the Sunday so we’re going with that. After filling out countless forms that declared me symptom-free and getting my temperature scanned every 5 minutes, I found myself in baggage claim. We were brought in in small groups to enable distancing, and a woman came up to me to ask if I knew what the quarantine rules were. This was the first international flight into Mumbai since the beginning of lockdown and we knew nothing. “We flew back because my father-in-law died, and if we have to quarantine in a hotel, we’ll miss the funeral,” she said. My heart broke. I had complained so much about being alone that I had barely considered those whose loved ones were dying on the other side of the world.

My dad had come to the airport and was waiting outside the arrival lounge, his tall frame easily visible through the large windows. As I heaved my suitcase behind me, jet-lagged and emotionally drained, I saw him wave to me from the other side of the glass and broke down crying. A staff member pointed me to a plastic chair, and I collapsed into it, crumbling from seeing my dad after almost 5 months. I finally plucked up the strength to go to the desk where they were organising quarantine locations and, since my dad had already booked my hotel stay, I was waved past to head to the exit.

Members of staff from all the hotels where passengers were arranged to quarantine were waiting downstairs. Seeing a glimpse of my tear-stained face behind a mask and face shield, they led me to a chair and told me to relax until the shuttle bus arrived. When we were led out of the airport, my dad signalled that he’d follow in the car to bring a suitcase full of summer clothes and a hot dinner my mum had made. Security suddenly surrounded me, acting as though I was trying to break quarantine despite being escorted by hotel staff. My dad finally decided he needed to get closer, as I shrank and sobbed from the overwhelming feeling of three large men shouting at me at 4:30 am.

I will never stop being grateful for the privilege I had to spend my two-week quarantine in a comfortable hotel room. Still, the story was far from over.

Friday, 22 May: I was in the last day of my quarantine, which could only mean one thing: time to get tested! I was brought into the hallway (the first time I had left that room in two weeks) and made to sign some forms that said I was consenting to be tested for COVID-19. The previous fortnight was a blur. I caught up on sleep, revised for my exams, FaceTimed my friends and family, and generally just tried to relax for the first time in six weeks. I was in the home stretch (literally) at long last. Each day, two men in hazmat suits would come and take my temperature. Each day, I had no fever. I was also provided with the same food every day. Someone would leave a tray on the table outside my door (pressed against the doorframe so that I couldn’t leave) and it was always dal (Indian lentils), rice, three rotis (a thin flatbread), some sort of vegetable and a salad. Same food, twice a day, for fourteen days. Still, I had a large room all to myself and it was very comfortable. I was extremely lucky, but still desperate to go home.

The test was painful. A man stuck a swab down my throat and up my nose, which stung for a few hours afterwards. But what was, objectively, worse than getting tested was waiting for the result.

Saturday, 23 May: I was all packed and ready to go. I couldn’t wait to hug my parents tight. They called at noon to say they were in the lobby and were waiting for my results. Then radio silence. Finally, at around 3:00 pm, my mum called to say she had good and bad news: the good news was that I was coming home, but the bad news was that I was COVID-19 positive.

She and my dad had spent hours ensuring I could serve my quarantine at home and not be kept in the hotel for another 14 days. “She will break down,” my mum begged the doctor in charge of testing for the area, “She’s spent too long trying to come home.” I got to leave at about 5:00 pm with my parents after crying in my mum’s arms in the parking lot. I was one of many Indian asymptomatic patients, but was now gearing up for another 14 days of isolation.

Saturday, 6 June: The next phase of quarantine was largely uneventful. I had a track and trace app on my phone that I had to download by law, and I just stayed in our apartment taking exams and feeling grateful that I hadn’t developed any symptoms for the disease. Of course, it was incredibly scary, and much of my family is still unaware that I ever tested positive. For the grandparents especially it would be unnecessary stress, so they still don’t know it happened. On the last day of my quarantine, someone from the municipality called to ensure I felt totally healthy and so did my parents. Soon after, my app showed I was clear to move around again.

Friday, 18 September: We’re skipping ahead in the story now. I decided, after much deliberation, to fly back to the UK for Autumn Term. I didn’t want to miss out on more of the university experience than I absolutely had to. The flight back was far less stressful because I knew what to expect, but still draining from wearing a mask and face shield in an already enclosed space. It feels as though you’re breathing week-old air. This quarantine was more daunting as I’d be in student accomodation. There is only so much one can do to isolate from four other girls in a small house, but we set up systems where we didn’t share food or drinks and avoided getting too close where possible. It was frustrating that I couldn’t go to the shops myself or go see my friends, and when my housemates went out I wanted to come along. The sad reality is, if I wanted to break quarantine nothing was stopping me. The UK government did nothing to ensure that people were quarantining properly — not even a phone call.

As an unofficial quarantine expert, I feel the need to say that you really shouldn’t travel if it isn’t necessary right now. Besides the obvious safety risks, it’s so very tedious; take it from someone who’s had the privilege of travelling a lot in normal circumstances. Plane journeys aren’t all that great in the best of times, so stay home, go on some nice walks and avoid airports like the plague…pun not intended.

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First published in 1965, InQuire is the University of Kent student newspaper.

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