How I Returned to India Before the Lockdown

A first-person account of cross-continent travel in the wake of COVID-19.  
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With shutdowns and bans being announced on a daily basis across the world, the author experienced airports go from buzzing to empty in the space of a few weeks. Photo By: Suhaimi Abdullah/Contributor/Getty Images News/Getty Images

It was my odyssey—being on the road for a year was my goal. Eight months in, I was in paradise, spending time in small beach towns along the coast in Oaxaca, Mexcio. I had dealt with all the challenges the journey threw at me—backpack being stolen at Seattle airport, being robbed by cops in Mexico—but travelling never stopped being fun. For the first time, my resolve was sorely tested: by the novel coronavirus. Exploring the world became less of an adventure and more of an impending accident. This is my account of a cross-continent marathon trying to get back to India in the face of shutdowns and bans the world over. 

It was early February before the deadly novel coronavirus got any attention from me, that too as a silly pun on the popular Mexican beer in a Cancun bar. With the Americas still safe and Italy not yet front page news, I flew to Newark from Cancun on February 15 and travelled to the Big Apple and, went about checking off a list of quintessentially New York things: creamy cheesecakes at Eileen’s Special Cheesecake, evenings out at Hell’s Kitchen and catching the Broadway hit Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in a full house. Between February 15 and 26, the most anyone had done on the East Coast about the coronavirus was a food walk through Chinatown organised by a kind soul to offset the negative economic impact of New Yorkers avoiding Chinese food from that hood. 

A Writer's Long Journey Home

The author celebrated Mardi Gras in New Orleans (top) and relaxed in Mexican beaches (bottom), before reaching San Francisco in mid-March. Photos By: Erika Goldring/Contributor/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images (carnival), Rubi Rodriguez Martinez/shutterstock (beach)

From there, I hopped to Nashville, where bachelorette parties continued unaffected and all the live music venues in Music City were packed, and to New Orleans, where the Mardi Gras festivities outdid the previous year’s efforts. On March 2, hours before boarding a flight to Seattle, I heard the first serious reference to COVID-19 in North America—the deaths in Washington state. Despite that, the queues at security check at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport were long, planes packed and no one seemed concerned about coronavirus on the East Coast just yet. (This feels like a lifetime ago, given New York’s current crisis.)

However, in Seattle, stores had already started running out of hand sanitisers and by March 4, several companies had advised their employees to work from home; one school closure was also announced because someone in the school had tested positive. By the weekend, the popular Bellevue shopping mall was empty but one of city’s most romantic bars, Ascend, on the top floor of the mall, was still abuzz. 

Seattle airport on March 7, when I was leaving for San Francisco, however, was uncharacteristically empty. Security was a stroll. There were more people in masks, but still no tests or temperature sensors. The flight to San Francisco itself was less than half full and though it was a Saturday night in San Francisco, the streets and bars were empty. On Monday, March 9, when work resumed, plenty of people were working from home but there were suited up folks milling about around Union Square. That evening, my pal and I were among the hundreds who were running along the Embarcadero in South Beach but both the tourists and vehicular traffic were notably absent. The next day, all corporations had asked their employees to work from home and the cafes, bars and restaurants were quiet. 

On March 14, Saturday morning, nervous and unsure, I went to San Francisco airport to check in for my Korean Air flight to Hanoi but I couldn’t. The airline had been forced to cancel most of its Vietnam flights due to new travel restrictions. I immediately bought a ticket to Bali via Singapore. Although the U.S. had declared a national emergency, security checks were a breeze, and the airport conducted no health screenings for passengers. The Singapore Airlines flight I was on had enough room for almost every passenger to lie flat, and practice social distancing. I could feel the relief in the flight as the 17-hour journey to Singapore began. 

 

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In New York, the author watched Broadway-hit Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (top left) in a packed theatre, and went for a foodwalk in Chinatown (top right); Singapore’s normally busy Changi airport (bottom left) was eerily empty during the author’s transit; Locals continued jogging- and cycling-routines (bottom right) in South Beach till mid-March. Photos By: Walter McBride/Contributor/Getty Images Entertainment/getty images (broadway banner), Spencer Platt/Staff/Getty Images News/getty images (pedestrian), Sam’s Studio/shutterstock (waterfall), AsiaTravel/shutterstock (cyclists)

Inside the A350, many wore masks and there were uncomfortable looks shot all around every time someone sneezed, coughed or cleared their throat. We landed in Singapore nearly an hour early the following evening on March 15. Changi Airport, normally a busy township with passengers trying to shop, eat, work out and watch movies between catching flights, was quiet. It seemed like there were more people manning thermal sensor screens at the airport than the total number of passengers there that evening. I got scanned, cleared, and my passport got stamped with a smile not hidden behind a mask. After spending the night at my cousin’s house, I was back at the still empty Changi airport for my onward flight to Bali. Despite a fair number of European travellers and backpackers, the flight was still below 50 per cent capacity. 

On March 16, Monday, when I landed in Denpasar, all travellers had to fill up a yellow health form. This was handed over to the authorities after a team of health workers took everyone’s temperature and gave the all clear to proceed to immigration, which was still functioning as per normal for people of most nationalities. That day was a breeze and to me, this part of the world seemed unaffected. But by nightfall at my hostel in Canggu, when everyone got back from the beach, all talk was of lockdowns and how to get back home. There were also murmurs of Indonesia going into a lockdown soon. 

The impact of coronavirus hit me like a freight train, and on Tuesday morning, I bought myself a ticket to Kolkata on Thai Airways for March 21. I spent the rest of the days alone in hotel rooms in Ubud and Seminyak as I didn’t want to interact with too many people. On Saturday, I reached the airport four hours early for my 4.10 p.m. flight to Bangkok. After having my temperature checked, I saw the queue at the check-in had overwhelmed the next row too.

In the two hours that it took to get my boarding pass, I had seen tears, desperate phone calls, anger and relief on faces of travellers who knew little about what was going on, and all they cared about was getting back home. 

 

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As the severity of COVID-19 grew, airlines were forced to shut operations. Photo By: John Moore/Staff/Getty Images News/Getty images

I underwent yet another temperature check after disembarking at the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, and boarded a flight for the final leg of my trip to Kolkata. All but two passengers on this flight had a mask on and social distancing was no problem at all. Mine was probably one of the last international flights to land at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International airport at 12.30 a.m. on March 22, Sunday; India’s ban on international flights began on 1.30 a.m., March 23. 

Inside, all the passengers were greeted by health staff pleading loudly to keep their distance while undergoing temperature checks. I handed over one of the two self-reporting health forms to them. The immigration officers asked us to leave the passport on their counter and stand behind the yellow line eight feet away for the interview. Everything and everyone felt distant. 

After an hour, I was reunited with my bags. The airport exit had been locked. At 2.30 a.m. the CISF personnel unlocked the doors and the airline staff guided us to two buses that took all passengers to the Chittaranjan National Cancer Research Institute in New Town, where health workers in disposable hazmat suits asked us the same questions that we had been asked at the airport—our travel and health history—before writing out a prescription for each one. 

Mine read:

Presently: Asymptomatic. 

Vitals: Stable.

Advice: Home quarantine for 14 days, which began at 5.00 a.m. on March 22. 

I was, finally, home.

No Safety in Numbers

Number of coronavirus cases in places the author visited as of April 3, 2020:

Mexico 1,510

U.S.A. 2,45,442, with New York being 93,053

Singapore 1,114

Indonesia 1,986

Thailand 1,978

India 2,301

  • Shrenik Avlani is a newsroom veteran on a break from full-time work since 2012. He uses his newfound freedom to travel, get fit and undertakes odd jobs, including writing, to pay his credit card bills on time.

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