My Journey Home During the COVID-19 Pandemic

We could feel her panic before we heard it out loud

The trip to India in March 2020 was six months of planning, a lifetime of dreaming and no way of predicting the chaos that quickly ensued  after arrival.

The CDC of the United States Government said it was A-Okay to travel to India. The tour company said, Come over, we’re waiting for you.

Perhaps I should have called a psychic who might have said, buckle up; it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

India called my name for as long as I can remember – her turbulent history, exotic food, ancient backdrops and women wearing the prettiest rainbow of scarves.

This was a mother-daughter trip for me, joined by four adventurers from Australia and New Zealand and led by local female guide named Harsha.

Two days in and high on the buzz of seeing the greatest love temple of all time- The Taj Mahal, Harsha no longer smiled sweetly, she had the look of someone who just lost their job.

“Could we all meet in the hotel lobby in a half hour? I have important news.” We could feel her panic before we heard it out loud. You know the feeling when your stomach intuitively turns itself into a knotted ball of bread dough. “No”, I pleaded, “tell us now.”

“You must leave India now”

This is how she told us: “To minimize the spread of COVID-19, the Government of India’s Ministry of Tourism has rescinded your visas. You have to leave now – sightseeing will no longer be allowed. I am sorry, but I have been directed to tell you to contact your airlines immediately and leave.” The time was 7pm on a Saturday; the airport was a five hour drive away. Our original flight home was scheduled for 10 days later.

Questions that couldn’t be answered combined with a swirl of un-named emotions began that night and continue through today. Kicked out? Pandemic? Websites blocking our credit cards for flights? Is this real?

The way home

It felt like getting a seat on an outbound flight was like winning the lottery, no matter the cost. Tourists all over the world were doing the same thing at the same time – trying to find a way home. COVID-19 had exploded to the pandemic everyone feared. Fifteen hours later,  at Indira Gandhi Airport, that welcomed us three days prior with sculptures of giant yoga hands (called mudras) was now like a grand central station filled with zombies. Masked faces, frantic families and endless lines of people who had not yet heard the term ‘social distancing’.

My flight was on time, March 15 at 10:45 pm direct to Newark. A fifteen hour flight in a first class seat that extended to a bed in a private cubby. Yes, it was my first time in first class, yes, it was the only seat open, yes it cost $1,000 and yes, I knew pandemics aren’t covered by travel insurance. It did not matter. United Airlines did waive their usual change fee and their mobile app worked fine making the changes. Armed with sanitizing spray, gel and wipes, I disinfect my plane seat like a doctor preparing for surgery. Every passenger was doing the same and even sharing supplies. Family messages were pouring in warning of pandemonium at my home airport. The flight itself was a jumble of fancy first class stuff mixed with unstoppable anxiety. Am If flying straight into turmoil ? Will we be forced into quarantine?

The 4 am arrival at Newark airport looked like a ghost town. No officials in hazmat suits ready to take our temperature or send us to military barracks. A journalist on the flight was telling everyone that America has given up on screening people; they just didn’t have the manpower. Immigration asked us if we were recently in China or Italy, and that was all. We were free on home soil.

Through it all, some people found the way home but many did not. Those who worked with travel agents were the first to have problems resolved, you could message a good agent 24/7. At the time of this writing, (Day 25 of worldwide quarantine) there are still thousands of tourists stranded because borders are closed.

No one can make sense of it all – or predict what it will look like on the other side. It’s too early to tell.

Yet, my promise is this: I will return to India. I remain a travel agent, tourism will return.