On the last flight to India from USA before lockdown!

On the last flight to India from USA before lockdown!

“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned”

Maya Angelou

Imagine, you are in another country. You wake up one day, and you see a message on your phone. A picture of a notification from the government of your own country – “No flights will be allowed inside or outside the country, to be implemented from 22nd March“. It was the morning of 20th march in USA, when I read this. Due to coronavirus, and erratic policies from the government all around the world, I had cut short my trip, from 20 days to 7 days, and had booked a flight direct to New Delhi on 22nd evening. But what now? Let me take you through, how I entered OUR country, on the last flight from USA to India.

How did I get the tickets for the last flight?

I had already booked a flight to India on 22nd evening, a direct flight from Chicago to New Delhi, fearing that any travel through Europe, might mean me catching the virus or getting stuck at some airport.

The minute I read this notification, I pinged my friends in USA, and we decided we need to find a way to enter India before 22nd March.

I was a little relaxed, even if I got stuck in USA, I’ll eventually be able to go back in 15 days or so ( turns out, I was grossly wrong ). I looked for flights. Air India was full. No seats in any flights before or on 22nd. I looked for United Airlines flights. There were seats in a flight on 20th, but I couldn’t reach San Fransico on 20th. I eventually narrowed down a flight on 21st, from SF to New Delhi. Seats were available. I instantaneously booked it. The problem was going into SF. SF at that point, was in a state of lockdown, with a booming number of cases. I had to take the risk.

Getting stuck in USA? What it meant to me?

I am a working doctor, working in the government sector presently. Since, I don’t have my own practice, there was not much at stake, except my job. But in such circumstances, losing your job as a Doctor, in the government, is pretty unlikely. I was relaxed about that.

I had a friend’s place to crash at too. I was rather curious, being a doctor, and since my basic education is recognised in USA, I might be of some use in places where there was a staggering number of cases (New York).

Now, looking back, all of those thoughts seem very juvenile to me. I did not take the lockdown and border restrictions seriously. Thankfully, I am home, safe and sound. Wouldn’t trade this for anything.

What was it like on the Airports?

I had never visited SF airport before. I only had heard, SF is busy, very busy, obviously its the gateway to the “American Dream”, gateway to the “Silicon Valley”.

When I reached SF, it was empty. I could count the number of people there. Everyone had gloves and masks. Some also wore their body suits.The crowd mostly consisted of young students, rushing back homes. No-one wanted to be in SF at that point. Everyone was sitting and walking at a distance(Social Distancing 101). I had never seen this at an airport. I am used to the hustle and bustle of IGI.

Anyone I shared pictures of SF airport, could not believe it is the same airport they have been to. It was empty.

San Fransico AirTrain - Empty 21/03/2020
San Fransico AirTrain! – 21/03/2020

The last flight to India from USA

United UA104, after spending 3hours, at the airport where I shouldn’t have been, I finally heard the announcement that called for boarding. A sigh of relief. Before this, I was not even sure if the flight would fly or not and all sort of uncertain thoughts had creeped up in my head. Although I actively avoided thinking about these things. I was more busy cleaning the chair I was sitting on with tissue papers.

The flight was fun. It felt like a Delhi Metro box to me. People, mostly young, stuffed inside that plane. Every breath i took, through my mask, made me think of, what if I am inhaling the virus along. It was scary. But the journey, had just started. All set to go to my country. Never have I looked forward to returning to India that much.

Most of the flight, I was sleeping or watching “Jojo Rabbit”. I had to keep my mind distracted, otherwise the paranoia, that everyone around me had corona started to haunt me. Only times, I was reminded of those thoughts was while eating food or using the washroom.

By the end, I had touched so many places on the flight with my hands, I had given up on the hope of not getting coronavirus, and had accepted that I will be infected by the time I reach home. Protection of my parents was the new paranoia now.

UA104 - Flying over Pakistan into India.
The long never-ending flight.

The landing at IGI, New Delhi.

The flight landed in India, finally. I was relieved. And the I saw the time – 12:20 AM of 22/03/2020. But since, the flight had landed, I was sure I would get in. The flight stayed on the runway for another 20 minutes. The captain announces – ” The authorities are not allowing the flight on the gates. There seems to be a problem”. Last thing I needed to listen to.

45 minutes on the runway and finally, the flight was allowed to be parked on the IGI terminal 3. Everyone rushed out. We had to fill a form about our travel history. But the form was not available. “Welcome to India” moment of the day. 200 people are waiting in a bunch for a form to arrive.

Social distancing had gone for a toss, everyone just wanted to get in.Thats all people had on their minds. With corona, without corona, everyone wanted to be on their home turf. Finally got the form, temperature got checked, and we got a stamp for quarantined on our form.

Anxiousness further increased, will they take us directly to a quarantine facility? what about meeting parents? What about work, I am a doctor and i needed to go to the hospital. No-one knew the answers, we was like a lost herd of sheep, by now people from previous flights who had been waiting were there too, a bunch of 2000 people roughly, everyone trying to figure out what is going to happen next?

Long lines of wait at IGI airport, New Delhi
The long lines right on entering the airport!

The ordeal at Delhi Airport!!

The long lines, the number of people eating sleeping rushing here and there, police and army all around, I almost got certain I will get corona. I might not have contracted it in USA or the travel, but being surrounded with more than 5000 people who haven’t slept or eaten properly at the airport, I got sure I will catch the virus and get admitted to an ICU.

Our passports were taken away at immigration counters, rumours like you will get it after 15 days, you will not get it back if you test positive and what not were circulating. For a minute, coming back seemed like the wrong decision. It felt much safer in a room in USA. Indians as usual had gone berserk. No-one seemed to know, or even if they knew, no one seemed to tell anything. Uncertainty was at its peak.Only relief was, I was in India.

People sleeping on luggage belts, on the floor, everyone in a mask, with a valve, without a valve, with goggles, with huge gloves, you could see just about anything. It was scary. The fear, the uncertainty, and the mismanagement had created a sour cocktail.

IGI airport, packed with people - 22/03/2020
Indra Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi – 10:00AM, 22/03/2020

Finally after 10 hours of waiting, we got out of the airport and were taken to a medical tent. Around 20 doctors, in full PPE, asked us simple questions – Do you have fever? Do you have cough? Do you feel alright? And that’s it. She said wait – asked for my hand, and hurray! I got a stamp. Home Qauarantine for safety of Delhites.

Home Quarantined stamp!
And I got stamped!

I finally got out. Got in a taxi. Rushed home. Got home quarantined. And finally slept in peace that night.

Was it worth taking the risk?

Totally! Home, my family support and above everything, my own country. I have at least 10 less things to worry about being here. And I can at least sleep peacefully at night, and not be uncertain about what will happen tomorrow. Will I be able to go back, will I be stuck forever? and so on. Also, I was constantly stressed if I would be given adequate healthcare and protection if needed, or will I be ignored for the natives being an international? I don’t know if that thought makes sense. But in anxious states, all these thoughts seem very realistic.

I am more than happy I came back on the last flight in India. My decision to travel seems stupid to me now, but all’s well that end’s well.

I am guessing travelling after the lockdowns will be pretty close to this experience, higher wait times at airports, social distancing, and stringent screening protocols. Let’s hope things become normal soon!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Nancy

    As a safety measure it might be helpful to mask the passport number and other identifying details from the form.

    1. Kriti Gupta

      Thank you, Nancy! Made the update.

Comments are closed.