I travelled in the London-Kochi-Vijayawada flight in phase 2 of the #VandeBharatMission on May 19th,2020. I’m grateful to @airindian and @HCI_London for making this happen. I’m just sharing the chronology of events so that those who are planning to travel by air back to India, know what to expect.
April 28. I register at the norkaroots.org site of the Kerala govt and my number is 2 lac plus.
May 1. I have registered with the Indian High Commission, London by filling a google document on their site.
May 7. I sit back and watch the Asianet TV news coverage of the returning pravaasi’s (expatriates). They are covering it with the breathless ball-by-ball momentum of an Indo-Pak final in Sharjah. Based on this I have now come to a few spot decisions as how to face my moment in the sun.
1. I need a matching mask .
2. I have to get my crooked eyebrows back in shape.
3. As I get off the flight should I wave grandiloquently like ‘Amma’ or show the ‘V’ sign? Decisions … decisions…
4. I must somehow try to plug my novel.
5. I might do a little drama like leap off the flight and kiss the earth. When I tell this to a friend, he tells me that I must also consider doing a front roll from the last step of the ladder onto the tarmac and leap-frog into the waiting bus. That will earn me a sure place in the news. Further, I would be the first pathologist to do it.
May 13. I get an e-mail from the Indian High Commission asking for my willingness to travel in the London-Kochi flight on May 19. If willing I have to reply back ‘yes’ and wait for Air India to call me. I am instructed to not attempt trying to contact Air India. They will contact me 48/72 hours before the flight. I dash off my reply. As priority is for elderly, pregnant, sick or children, I realise I may not make it to the shortlist. Meanwhile I’ve booked my train ticket to reach London on May 18 and hotel stay too.
May 14. I get a call from Indian High Commission verifying my travel willingness. So this is happening ! I just might make it to the shortlist.
May 15. I wake up to a text from my neighbour in Trivandrum.
“Did you inform the local police station before going?”.
I rub my eyes in disbelief and try to quell the rising panic. Of course I hadn’t. Did some thieves try to break in now?
I text back a “No, why?” and wait for her reply.
In the meantime I wonder if our house has been robbed. The hubby as usual is cool as a cucumber. He says, “What are they going to steal if they enter the house? The TV is old. So is the fridge. The washing machine is on it’s last legs. The only thing of real value there is our Italian washbasin and rain shower head.” I am a trifle relieved now. It would be difficult to displace that washbasin. And surely, the thieves wouldn’t be interested in my Tintin comics collection, my 6000 piece framed jigsaw puzzle, or my little one’s Kinderjoy toy collectibles. Their lives would be in peril if they dare touched the last mentioned item. For my determined 5 year old would hunt them down from the edges of the earth if even one went missing.
Minutes later, my neighbour’s reply comes. “I had gone to the police station to take a car pass to Tiruvalla when they asked whose car is parked in your driveway – because we KNOW the doctor is in UK. I explained it’s my car and I have parked it there with your permission. So did you tell them you were going to UK before you went?”
I puzzle over that and then I realize that when I registered with norkaroots.org I had given my home address so probably they did come and check my residence to see if it’s an unoccupied house.
(So maybe they might allow home quarantine. But I’m not hoping too much because the rules state mandatory official quarantine. Only option is free quarantine in a government facility or paid quarantine in a hotel.)
It is a small thing but it shows how well oiled our State machinery is. Taking care of even the smallest detail.
I check the norkaroots.org website and find a list of hotels in each district earmarked for official quarantine with details of the rates. I contact Mascot hotel and get an email confirmation of a room there for 2 weeks.Payment to be done later.
May 16. I’m still waiting for that call. I abandon all reason and my whole day is spent in trying to contact Air India via their Twitter page and customer care numbers. I end up feeling a bit like a fox running in circles trying to catch it’s tail. As I fidget impatiently , I glance at my impressive collection of hand sanitizers and alcohol wipes. Enough to do Lady Macbeth proud.
I am now literally hanging onto my phone for that call from Air India. I can hear my phone ringing even when it isn’t ! Tinnitus? An imaginary bell ringing in my head? I need to get a grip on myself.
May 17 , UK time 1:30 pm – Exactly 48 hours more until the flight.With a heavy heart I start texting my elder daughter – I don’t think I will be shortlisted... and that’s when my phone rings. It’s a call from Air India. I happily do the checks to confirm it’s genuinely Air India ( by asking them to tell me some of my details as instructed in the email ) and pay for my ticket. 596 pounds for an economy ticket. 1605 pounds for business class. The ticket comes to my e-mail. Simultaneously I get a pass via email from the Indian High Commission enabling me to travel to London. An hour later I get a call from the Indian High Commission to check if Air India has contacted me. Amazing when you come to think of it. They must be doing this not just for me, but for each passenger in the Vande Bharat mission.
May 18. I’m on my way to London. Deserted platforms, empty compartments and ghost trains… it’s a surreal experience . I alight at London Euston station. 5 instead of 500 alight from the train.
May 19 I reach London Heathrow airport earlier than 3 hours, but there already is a long queue.
All of us are with masks and gloves. I take this pic to send to my two daughters who are waiting for me and in an impulsive moment dash off this pic of mine on Facebook with the caption- ‘Coming soon…The Mummy returns‘. The Tamil translation is funnier. ‘Ammachi thirumbi vantaach.’
We are given a form to fill. Check in and security check happens as usual. Before boarding there is a temperature check done and a seal placed on our pass. Boarding starts finally. The flight personnel are in full PPE gear. On each seat there are two snack boxes and a packet with face shield, mask and hand sanitizer sachets.
There is no inflight entertainment. Makes sense because then how would they sanitize the earphones? I have come adequately prepared with my headphones and a movie downloaded on my mobile. The flight is full. There are no empty seats. And after a slight delay of 1 hour 45 minutes we take off. Throughout this 11 hour flight there is a lot of air turbulence, so restroom trips are restricted. Sleep completely eludes me. I’m certain we will get sucked into the eye of a cyclone.
May 20, 3 am , we reach Mumbai. Those headed for Vijayawada are asked to disembark and Kochi passengers remain seated. I doze off at this point.
May 20 7:12 am As we touch Kochi, unbidden tears prick my eyes. As we step out we are greeted by men in PPE suits squirting handwash into our hands as we stagger out of the flight. Kochi international airport is spotlessly clean and everything is perfectly well coordinated. I start to feel a bit sorry for the men in PPE. It can’t be easy wearing all that in our hot weather and still being so cheerful and kind. To my disappointment there are no TV cameras anywhere. All that make-up for nothing !
The baggage collect takes long as we have to maintain social distancing now which is a bit of a pain considering there was none in that packed flight. It arrives all wet and smelling of a bleach solution.
I have already downloaded the Arogya Setu app. But as I’ve misplaced my SIM card I can’t register on it. I explain that I’ve applied for a duplicate SIM with the help of a friend and will get it only once I reach Trivandrum so I ask if I can buy a new SIM here. But none of the mobile counters are open at the airport so he tells me I can register with my own SIM once I reach Trivandrum.
We are made to fill another form with the usual health related questions. No one on this flight is symptomatic so no one is sent to a Covid centre.
The crux of the matter is this – Are you elderly (>75 years), pregnant, a kid (<10 years), handicapped or sick? Private taxis to take you to your district and option of home quarantine is strictly allowed only for people who fall in this category.
I’m a bit puzzled at why I cannot get a private taxi at extra cost , but later I learn that the number of private taxis are limited because the strict guidelines state that each taxi driver has to go into 14 days quarantine after dropping the passenger to his destination ! It is simply stunning how every possible loophole has been taken care of by the state government.
I’m directed to a fleet of KSRTC buses which are numbered as per district.We are each given a food packet which consists of two buns and one litre water. I’m told to direct my queries regarding my quarantine location to the health officer in charge at Trivandrum.
The steps of the bus are high and it is not easy to haul my luggage up. The seats are narrow so our heavy suitcases can only be kept in the passageway. The front few seats are cordoned off with a rope so that the drivers are at a safe distance from us. There is a 72 year old lady on the same bus with me. There is nobody to help other than our co-passengers. Once our bags are in we clamber over the suitcases and leap-frog jump into our seats. We make the 72 year old lady sit towards the front so she is spared the acrobatics.
The bus finally gets to a rattling start at 10:30 am. There are no stops for food or toilet. It stops to report at at multiple police stations on the way. For some of the stretches there is a Kerala police jeep tailing us. The 72 year old lady asks me why is the police jeep following us? In my most reassuring voice I tell her from across the sea of suitcases between us that it’s probably to check if anyone of us suddenly develop an urge to escape. She gets the joke and flashes me a toothy smile in return.
The bus drivers aren’t forthcoming about where we are headed. Finally at 5 pm our bus rattles to a stop in the compound of the Jubilee mission animation centre near Raj Bhavan. We slowly get out hauling our bags. There are plenty of people waiting with gloves and masks but no help is forthcoming. Our luggage receives a second bleach spray. I talk to the health officer in charge and explain that I have an unoccupied house , but to my disappointment he says that it’s not allowed. We only have the option of free quarantine at this centre or paid quarantine at the hotels listed on the norkaroots.org website. The 72 year old lady asks if she can see the room and then decide if it’s ok or not for her but that request is declined, because once we enter we can’t be let out. It’s like Hotel California. Stepping in and out of a room would mean them having to disinfect it all over again. The 72 year old lady decides on the free quarantine. I think she is too exhausted at this point.
Most of us decide on hotel quarantine. The health officer tells us that as per the rules we can be sent to our respective hotels only in an ambulance escorted by men in PPE. As only 3 or 4 of us can squeeze into one ambulance with our big bags, I end up waiting with 3 others in the last lot. We are exhausted and hungry. Only water is offered to us here. My friend arrives at the quarantine centre in an auto rickshaw with my duplicate SIM card. She is a facebook friend whom I’m meeting for the first time. We have been online friends for years, share a mutual love for books and also live closeby but we never got down to meeting up with each other. She hands over the duplicate sim by placing it at a distance and along with it is a surprise gift. A copy of Salim Anees’s ‘Fly Hasina Fly’. In the most tiring day of my life this act of kindness is overwhelming.
It is 6:30 pm now and one of the senior ladies with me insists that they open up a toilet for us. So one of the rooms is opened up and we are allowed to use it. She then tells him she is a diabetic and if she doesn’t get anything she might just faint. Four bananas miraculously spring out of somewhere and now we are happy. At 7:00 pm our ambulance arrives and the health officers look more relieved than us, to bid us farewell.
At Mascot hotel, we are welcomed with a bleach spray on our bags (third one in the day!) and our shoes too. After a temperature check, I am assigned my room. The lift we use is also separate. I am given a doctors number to store on my mobile. I can contact him anytime during my 14 day quarantine if I develop any symptoms or have any health concerns.
My room is beautiful and spacious. In the bathroom, instead of toiletries I find 2 bottles of phenol, a germi-check soap, some dishwashing liquid and a washing soap bar. I’m too tired to ask for toiletries so I take a bath with the germi-check soap. When i come out, I get a phone from reception saying my food is placed outside. I open the door to find two sealed packets placed on a table outside. I realize that the plates are provided in the room. I have to wash them myself and place the food waste in a disposable bag outside. We aren’t allowed to leave the room at any cost. There are cameras placed in the corridor to catch us lest we feel tempted to make a dash for it.
I fall into a deep, exhausted sleep into the inviting bed. The next day I sort out the nitty gritties of the menu and get my supply of toiletries. I feel like a VIP as I get calls from the Museum police station as well as the Medical college police station.
The days stretch before me with nothing much to do other than stare out of my window at the canopy of trees outside. My 12 year old is happy I’m back in town. My 5 year old daughter is counting the days remaining on her calendar. Thanks to her grandparents she has now a good grasp of subtraction, to calculate UK time corresponding to Indian time and has a clear idea of months and dates on the calendar much ahead of her years.
I thought of writing about this so that those who are planning to travel know what to expect and can be better prepared. Also a peek into how the best Covid controlled state in the world goes about doing it’s job with ruthless efficiency.