It had been a tiring Wednesday after work on the 5th of May. I crashed early, and expected to get some solid shuteye. Well, that was until at 4:41 am that morning I was awoken by a flurry of texts and missed FaceTime calls from my mom.
“PLEASE EMAIL EMBASSY.”
I looked at my phone in the darkness of the room, squinting, with this exact expression:
…and that set the stage for my evacuation from the United States five days later.
I didn’t think much of it at the time. I woke up, shot off an email, and went back to bed.
By lunch that day, I had attended a few meetings, and didn’t expect that the email would be taken seriously on such short notice (given that the flights were scheduled in four days time).
To my surprise, a few hours later, my phone was flooded with calls from New York, California and Washington. That one email had set in motion a network of orchestration just to get me on that flight.
Before I knew it, I was sending copies of my passport to the consulate general in New York and the embassy in Washington.
From the embassy, to the offices of Air India, I was talking to many people and passing details as to why I wanted to travel, where I wanted to travel to and where I could board from.
In the evening of the next day ((by now Thursday), the embassy had reached out a handful of times to confirm that I would be good to board that flight out on Sunday.
“Yes, of course.” I repeated.
Just like that, I was scheduled to be on that 777 flying out at dusk on Sunday.
There was a catch. I was still in Boston. The flight departed from Newark in New Jersey.
Aside from figuring out how I would drive four states, I scurried to pack the essentials into one small carry-on.
If there’s one thing about being uniquely Indian, or desi, it’s that family always has your back. I was fortunate to have family that took care of me, and helped with the entire process, right from the logistics, to the packing, to the drive down to Newark Liberty.
But if there’s another thing family loves to do: it’s to have you pack an insane amount of stuff. I think I had enough PPE, sanitiser and disinfecting wipes to start my own field hospital. Between the essentials, the snacks and my spare changes, I planned to carry only one handbag, so that I could save time upon my arrival in Mumbai.
On Sunday, the day of the flight, I drove down to Newark. The drive was a long one, and when I woke up that morning staring at my bag full of oreo, quaker chewy granola, saltine crackers and that decadent soft caramel toffee packet, I thought to myself: “This one’s gonna be interesting.”
Also, a public service announcement: chewy granola beats crunchy granola. Fight me on this.
Departing from Boston at 2:30, the drive to Newark was a journey through Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and finally New Jersey. With a few stops, I expected to be at the airport by 8. I strapped myself in with the seatbelt, with my mask on, and the now, oh so familiar smell of hand sanitiser.
I was ~ absolutely delighted ~ to find that by 7:30, the only entrance to Terminal B at Newark Liberty (where Air India departs from) had a long queue outside. For a flight that was scheduled at 11:55 PM.
In fact, I was more surprised that desi people actually showed up before time for anything.
With that said, the Indian officials there were distributing a bunch of forms that stored details about your travel, and I literally had to fill that form in the queue with gloves on. It took a while to get into the terminal, since they were processing the queue in batches adhering to social distancing (can’t complain about that!).
Once I got in, and they took my temperature, the thought of which itself was nerve wracking to break out a sweat. If you’re as anxious as I am, you could get interrogated for a crime you haven’t committed and wonder to yourself, “but what if I have?”.
The processes after were usual: just slower to accommodate the new normal of social distancing and non-contact. Even with the slower process and the long queue, I was outside Gate B62 with an hour and a half to spare!
I made sure to use that one hour productively, by unnecessarily panicking about the possibility of my co-passengers coughing and eyeing those that sat anywhere in the vicinity of my seat at the gates.
Once I boarded the flight, I was delighted to find myself in a row with extended leg room and a window seat. Granted, I didn’t see much out of that window given that it was night on departure and on arrival, and I slept the time in between when it was bright outside. Either way, it was nice to sit by the window.
The flight was standard. I suppose as ‘normal’ as you could expect a pandemic international evacuation to be.
The food was all pre-packed. They were prepared enough to give us face shields, two meals and a bunch of snacks (Haldiram’s Bhujia, Oreo, a few packets of chips).
The crew was in full PPE. From the face shields to the gowns, it felt like I had just walked into a MEDEVAC flight or an ICU ward.
I wiped down my seat with disinfectant and strapped in for an interesting journey. I knocked off quickly.
I spent my time awake by changing my gloves and masks on steady rotations, listening to some music, and glancing over old Snapchat memories. I did eat, but the whole “pandemic evacuation” crisis kinda made me lose my appetite.
Upon arrival in Mumbai, passengers were phased out of the plane in groups. Those that had onward connections were deboarded first. I left the flight 30 minutes later, and navigated through a series of checkpoints where I submitted the forms I had filled earlier. The airport staff were diligent, and did take temperatures on arrival.
After immigration, I went to the counters where I had to select a quarantine location. This is what I was immensely proud about. The United States, which I had expected would be strict and swift with its response, lacked a lockdown protocol, whereas India, which many of us discredit though we ourselves are Indian, had made full preparations to quarantine international travelers at various sites.
My parents had already made a reservation at one of the hotels on the list, so I just had to fill my details and sign up on the Aarogya Setu app, which is intended to contact trace and monitor COVID cases.
I got into a bus with a few others from the flight who were headed to the same hotel, and checked into the desolate Taj Lands End. I walked into my room, and after all the chaos of the preceding weeks and months, smiled at finally being back in Mumbai.
I threw all my travel clothes into the laundry, sanitized my bag, my shoes and everything else like my gloves and mask were disposed of.
There I was, evacuated and quarantined in Mumbai at the expense of my university semester. Yet, above all: I was safe, in good health and still living comfortably.
Finally, a note of thanks to everyone involved in this. From my family in the States, those at the embassy, the determined Air India staff, the officers at immigration and the staff at the Taj who have been relentless and determined to make my stay comfortable in the face of this crisis while doing everything they can to ensure the safety of guests and staff.