Just like every year, we decided to make a trip to India in February to spend time with our family and friends. This time we had a new addition to our little family and were super excited to introduce her to our home country, India. But little did we know that were headed for a roller coaster ride, one that we will remember all our lives.
We had booked our tickets way back in November and were super excited to make this trip, our first ever international holiday with our baby. Around the time we left, we heard about a virus called Corona that was prevalent in China, mainly in a city called Wuhan and its surrounds. A couple of people in north Australia were said to have been effected by it along with few others in other countries. But nothing seemed alarming enough for us to cancel our holiday.
Our journey and initial experience in India:
Our journey to Mumbai was pretty much uneventful. The flight was almost full and apart from a few people wearing masks, the rest seemed pretty oblivious to the virus; or so it seemed. As soon as we landed at Mumbai international airport, we were handed over a form to fill out. The Indian government wanted to know if we had travelled to China in the few weeks prior to this and if we had any flue like symptoms. They also made sure to have a thorough temperature check of every passenger coming out of the airport.
Apart from these initial checks, Mumbai looked pretty much the same to me. I didn’t see anyone following social distancing or wearing mask/ using hand sanitizer. The next few days were spent in Mumbai, enjoying its sights, sounds and food.
The COVID19 situation worldwide gets worse:
As the days passed the COVID19 ( as they now called it) cases increased worldwide. Every country started getting stricter so as to be able to fight this deadly virus that had crippled the world, including India. Within a week of us arriving in India, we started hearing news of COVID19 spreading like wildfire. Owing to this, Indian PM Modi shut down cinema halls, malls, restaurants etc. Before we got a grip of the situation, India declared complete lockdown for 21 days.
What a complete lockdown meant for India:
Indian PM Narendra Modi was very strict on why the complete lockdown should be imposed so early on. What a complete lockdown meant for India:
- All the theatres, community centres, religious gatherings, non-essential services and goods would have to shut down.
- All domestic and international flights coming to and flying within India, all inter-station train and bus services were shut.
- No one was allowed to travel inter-state even in their own vehicle, without a valid pass.
- Shops selling essential goods and services were allowed to remain open, only between 7am and 12pm.
- All shops, essential services and vegetable vendors were advised to practise social distancing. They could only take in few people at a time.
What a complete lockdown meant for all international tourists stuck in India, like us:
- No international and domestic flights were running, which meant all our scheduled flights to our home countries were cancelled (without any surety on when they would fly again).
- We were not able to reach the Airline offices as most of the contact centres wouldn’t answer the phone even after a long wait and our emails would go to deaf ears.
- We were not allowed to travel inter-city or to the airport, unless we had a govt permit to do so.
- People started fearing international travellers as they feared every traveller could carry the virus. A lot of travellers, living in hotels were asked to remain indoors in complete lockdown by the local police for 28 days (from the day they checked in or landed in that city).
- A lot of foreigners with a non-Indian background, encountered racism in many areas around India. Again, this was because many locals believed that virus was brought to India by foreigners.
- We were asked to register ourselves in the govt portal- “Foreigners stuck in India” so govt were able to contact each of us, to pass important messages.
- We were all advised to give our details to the Australian High Commission, in the form of an excel sheet that was passed on.
- As much as we all were getting additional time in India on a “so called” extended holiday, it wasn’t easy for most of us.
- Those who lived with families couldn’t always enjoy family time, as they were mostly engaged in trying to reach govt officials or airlines call centres to check when the next international flight would run. If not doing that, they were trying to be in touch with others from their own country to arrange repatriation flights, back home.
- Those that lived in hotels and hostels or as paying guest’s, had to shell out thousands of rupees for every added day they had to stay (with no end date in sight). They also struggled to avail food, medicines and other basic stuff delivered to them.
- Repatriation flights were allowed to fly, even amidst lockdown. PM Narendra Modi had promised that he will help all foreigners stuck in India, to reach their home countries.
- Only airports from which international repatriation flights were running, were active. For e.g. New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai.
- Every day, brought with it further bad news about the COVID19 situation in India and worldwide, which further increased the anxiety of all international travellers stuck in India.
Meanwhile, the situation of COVID19 (now being named as a pandemic by WHO) kept worsening in India and worldwide. Every country started tightening its intentional borders and health screening. While on one side India stopped all international travellers from effected countries, Australia too closed its borders to anyone except Australian citizens and residents. This made it even riskier to travel abroad, specially with an infant.
Slowly news of other stranded Australians in India started trickling in. As the days passed, the number of calls and emails to Australian High commission increased and so did our anxiety. We were happy to be able to spend added time with our families back home but the complete lack of knowledge of what the next day or week would bring, in terms of COVID 19 cases/ new rules/ border closures added to our worries. There was a moment when, every single morning brought news that would shock us.
Then when all hopes died, an Australian expatriate based in India came out of the blue and offered to help arrange special charter flights to Australia. This was the silver lining we were looking for!
Find out how we coordinated with this good Australian samaritian (and a team of dedicated voluntary helpers across the country) to finally reach Sydney by clicking this link !