In the rising tide of Covid-19 cases, India was forced to a grinding halt when the Central government declared the first lockdown. When University and all modes of transport shut, my professors extended a lifeline and for the next two and a half months, they freely gave of their home, hearts, and resources.
As the weeks rolled by, lockdowns 1. 0, 2.0, 3.0 and 4.0 saw time distinctions blurred so that weekday and weekend became alike.
But it had gone on for far too long and though the toll was piling up and migrant workers were still walking home, the country needed to find its feet again. And so, an uneasy easing of restrictions began. When the skies opened up for commercial flights, it was time to leave Ahmedabad.
'Show Me the Way to Go Home'
Campbell and Connelly’s song played on a loop as the frantic search for flights began. A slew of restrictions turned each state into a kingdom unto itself, requiring a pass to be allowed entry. The country’s federal structure gave them space to flex their muscles over travel rules – meaning that among other things, form requirements are subject to change without notice, quarantine norms differed and that your pass could be pulled even if it was just approved.
Karnataka was the first to reject my application. Since Gujarat was severely affected, the only way I could enter Bangalore was if I was terminally ill and seeking treatment there. Not an option.
Tamil Nadu needed a flight seat, so after booking the ticket I sat to fill the form. It was full of technical glitches and fields that did not apply, so reached out to friends in Chennai. One flustering night later, it came through.
Feeling mighty pleased, I downloaded the Aarogya Setu app and began packing only to learn that the flight got cancelled.
No matter, it was still possible to book another flight to Chennai. But hold on, this meant I had to apply for a new TN pass with the fresh ticket details (without which I couldn’t board) Arghhhh!
Here we go again – book the ticket, apply for the pass and keep hitting refresh like a crazy person till it gets approved.
After 6 restless hours…the second TN e-pass came through. I was all packed and ready, when just a couple of hours before leaving for the airport, the airlines called to say that all flights to Chennai from red zones were cancelled. Marvellous.
What to do now?
I needed to try Bangalore again. Karnataka wasn’t looking pretty because of their 7-day institutional quarantine, but there was no other option.
Here too I needed to book a ticket to apply for the pass. I called up my dear relatives there and said: “I’m sorry, but tomorrow at this time, I’ll be there.”
Hmmm, no direct flights from Ahmedabad – Bangalore.
Option 1: Ahmedabad- Delhi with an 8-hour layover – Bangalore * sighs*
Option 2: Ahmedabad – Hyderabad with a 3 hour layover – Bangalore *sighs deeply and accepts*
Oh well, at least the layover means I can write this to you!
The Karnataka form kept turning up with errors over and over again till finally, after countless One Time Passwords (OTPs), it was acknowledged, but not approved. By this time, Karnataka decided to change its mind again so that passengers from all states except Maharashtra could be home quarantined. Great, but it is important to note that this could only happen if the pass got approved.
I’d have to take the gamble and hope that it would come through while I transited.
Knowing that it was better not to risk missing a document, I ran to get photocopies of the ID proofs and printouts of the boarding pass and baggage tags.
Boarding pass? Check
Baggage tag? Check
Karnataka acknowledgement form? Check
Aadhaar card?........ Aadhaar card?
Oh no, where’s that dang Aadhaar card?
*Spends the next hour looking under the tables, running home to look inside the suitcase and folders *
Found it, phew!
Armed with gloves, mask, face shield, documents and luggage, I bade my professors farewell and headed for the airport.
'All changed, changed utterly'
This single line from Yeats’ poem ‘Easter, 1916’ summed up my sentiments on reaching the airport. Queues snaked outside the entrance filled with all sorts of people — infants whining and whinging at the discomfort of wearing a mask, bachelors yelling updates to their family over the phone and a few over-smart characters trying to cut in line.
Suddenly, a doctor comes out and orders a separate line for those travelling to Calcutta only, bringing the total to four lines. Four lines and one thermal screening counter, we seem to be scaling new heights of brilliance!
The masks and gloves are not helping the sweltering 41-degree humid weather and snail’s pace at which the line moves. Someone gets especially bugged and soon, a fight breaks out. Some join, the security forces swoop in to break it up and the rest of us spectate. A few metres away, a sleeping dog lies oblivious to the frenzy surrounding him.
As soon as the fight is quelled, the lines dissolve again as everyone makes a dash to have their luggage compulsorily hosed. Suitcases and bags are doused with a watery substance that smells like a chlorinated swimming pool, my Aadhaar card gets soaked. On finally reaching the thermal screening counter, an angry doctor tears the boarding pass out of my hand, demands to see my Aarogya Setu app and yells asking for the reservation number.
I don’t blame the poor guy, it’s hard not to lose your cool when thousands of people are jostling at the counter every day.
It’s necessary to keep your cool, at least when undergoing the thermal screening test. Bad joke, I know.
Onto the soldier who verifies the ticket and ID before letting me through.
Finally, I’m inside Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel airport.
After making a few enquiries, I find the airline counter and stand in a socially distanced queue.
Have to move to another queue since the baggage tag won’t do. The person in front of me was not allowed to go through because he didn’t have a pass for his destination. At this point, my Karnataka pass was still pending. I only had the printout of the acknowledgement form, and my heart skipped a few beats.
Baggage checked in successfully, just a few grams shy of new weight restrictions. When the flight attendant asked for my travel credentials, I nervously pulled out a printout of the acknowledgement form and was let through.
Before the security check, there’s another line to have the boarding pass scanned at a machine with a soldier behind it.
Surprisingly, the security check was the most normal part of the whole procedure. In the restroom, a lady tries to operate the faucet with her elbow. The whole airport is filled with people in either masks, face shields or both masks and face shields. Is this even the same country? Given that usually, a lot of people display an utter disregard for public hygiene, one wonders whether the value we place on our lives is much higher than we let on. Let’s go down that philosophical rabbit hole in another post.
There are yellow signs in the boarding lounge so that the total seating is reduced to a third of its original capacity. The lady in the next row meticulously sprays disinfectant thrice on her seat and also on seats in the vicinity, it reeks of insect repellent. Anyway, it didn’t matter much because our boarding gate changed five times.
I drank some coffee and an oat bar because you know, gotta keep ‘em energy levels up for the next 13 hours.
Before boarding, we are given a safety kit to wear in the plane: a folder containing a face shield, water and a zip lock bag with five sachets of hand sanitizer. By now, my hands are numbed by this sanitizer fest- sanitizer outside, at the counters and bathrooms -not even sure what liquid I’m applying anymore. I guess that as long as it’s cold and evaporates, it should do the trick.
On the flight, I’m flanked between a Telugu loudspeaker and a grouchy Gujarati dadi who sternly commanded, ‘andar avo’.
The Beatles came to my rescue via Youtube downloads “whispering words of wisdom, let it be”.
Just then respite comes in a particularly unusual form. I’m asked to sit in a separate row – Great. However, as the air hostess informs me, this is so that I can operate the emergency exit and evacuate other passengers “in the unlikely event of an emergency landing”. Not a fan of heights and now asked to operate the emergency exit because I’m travelling alone – Not so great.
So, you can imagine my delight when we were wheels down in Hyderabad.
City of Pearls
Hyderabad, I always imagined visiting here to wander around the Charminar, gaze at the Veiled Rebecca in Salar Jung museum and relish Nalli Ghosht at the Taj Faluknama. I guess this time around, I’ll have to settle for wandering around the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport, gazing at the less attractive display board and make do with a cuppa Maggi.
Hyderabad has one fancy-schmancy airport. In these troubled times, it’s complete with guards who take your temperature every few metres, Purell hand sanitizers, tray disinfection tunnels and stickers on the distanced seats. I wonder what the people in this city are like.
I love solo travel and long commutes for the opportunity it provides one to be alone and also to interact with many weird and wonderful strangers. Those dynamics are majorly upended in travel today. The sense of fear is quite palpable — electronic payments are preferred and in the lounge, a harried healthcare worker in a PPE suit screams that those who don’t wear masks are endangering the lives of others.
Each person is more paranoid than the other, each one more selfish than the next. I’m the most relaxed person here and that’s saying a lot coming from a Type-A control freak.
Even after stealing away to slurp a cuppa Maggi at a distance, I receive cold looks that pierce like daggers of disapproval. As the spices in the warm broth tickled my nose, I became more grateful than ever for a fully functioning olfactory system.
There but for the grace of God go I
With no approval for the Karnataka pass in sight, I boarded the flight to Bangalore with a heavy heart. My co-passengers were a group of young Malayali army officers. Once they found out I was also a Malayali, some serious flirting ensued.
Aiyoyo! Good thing they were going on to Kochi.
The plane landed at 22:09 just as my Karnataka e-pass got approved at 22:08. Soon after alighting, passengers were segregated based on whether or not they had an approved Karnataka e-pass. Talk about the Red Sea parting!
What followed, were a series of queues according to the type of traveller (pregnant women, families, elderly etc).
First, a queue to verify the ticket and body temperature (by placing a finger in a machine). Then a desk where my hands and boarding pass was stamped with semi-indelible ink stating that I should be in home quarantine. Here too, the person in front of me was taken away but did not go without a fight. Finally, a queue to be told that I was told not to rub it off.
There is also another queue for different categories of hotels and one to go out and wait for a taxi. All stations were replete with loads of hand sanitizer proudly bearing the Make In India logo. On duty were defence personnel, Red Cross workers and airport staff who superbly coordinated logistics and spoke excellent English and Kannada.
When I came to the taxi stand, I was offered a women’s cab. Taking a cab alone at 1 in the morning is not the safest thing to do, but I was probably more scared than usual because this lady drove faster than Schumacher while chatting with the other lady drivers about each of their drop locations!
Pretty soon, she zipped through NH44 and brought me home.
In retrospect, there were quite a few hiccups, but whether you call it the grace of God or a heavy dose of sweet luck, you’ve gotta admit that a lot of factors outside my control fell into place. It was stressful, who wouldn’t like their own individual chartered planes in times like these eh?
But on the bright side, the third set of flights didn’t get cancelled. Also, in one day, I got to witness first-hand how three different states handle this crisis, and reached home safe. And that is more than enough for me!
Weirdly, it is pretty thrilling to live on the edge. I am so glad to have been in the thick of what my country had to face. The chaos on commercial flights is nothing compared to what those who cannot afford to fly are enduring. It is both heartening and saddening to see so many men and women selflessly manage the fallout of a few gigantic mistakes. If I get the chance to work in a similar situation, I would be honoured to serve.
I salute those who are quite literally putting themselves in harm’s way to ensure others get to move on with their lives and pray for protection over them.
My takeaways from this journey would be that you can only ever do your best, then adjust and improvise as curveballs come your way. Also, don’t develop an ostrich mentality and let your issues fester, keep abreast with developments. So much goes wrong because the uninformed and callous take strong stands.
India, you are now faced with a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, a crippled economy, a stand-off with China , two cyclones and a locust invasion.
But I am certain that we will find a way to overcome this.
To quote our late President Dr A.P.J Abdul Kalam, “Difficulties in life do not come to destroy you, but to help you realise your hidden potential and power. Let difficulties know that you too are difficult.”