Traveling Back to India in the Middle of a Pandemic: San Francisco to New Delhi

Neha
On the plane. Author photo.

Neha Cariappa, recent graduate of the USF MA in Asia Pacific Studies program, shares her experiences while traveling back home to India during the pandemic and how she passed the time while in quarantine.

In March when the ‘shelter-in-place’ was announced, I happened to be visiting family in the Bay area. Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be completing the rest of the final semester of my Masters program online. However, with the support of the wonderful family I stayed with during lockdown, the professors and staff of the MAPS program at the University of San Francisco and my friends, I very successfully  completed my graduation requirements. With my visa expiring soon, I had been worried for days that I would get stuck in the US because of the extended lockdown. India was also under lockdown, and had closed itself off from all international flights. So when India finally opened up, I got myself booked on one of the flights from San Francisco to New Delhi. Preparing for the journey was on short notice, and I had to pack up everything I owned in two suitcases. It was a 16 hour flight to New Delhi. There was no food served on the flight but we were given a well-stocked hamper of dry snacks, water and juice for the journey. I hadn’t removed my mask and face shield, eaten a proper meal or had much to drink in over a day, before I finally got to my hotel room in New Delhi. Once I got to the hotel, it was definitely a sigh of relief for my whole family. I was finally in India!

On landing at the airport in New Delhi, there is an installation of hand symbols called Hast Mudras in the arrival area. Having learned Bharatnatyam (a form of Indian classical dance) as a child, these symbols that are a representation of Indian culture, struck an instant chord in my heart. My time spent in the US was memorable, but I was happy to be home. One of the first things I saw on the roads of Delhi were two stray dogs. I realized how much I had missed seeing these familiar sights. May is not the best month to visit Delhi because of the sweltering heat, but somehow I did not seem to mind it. The hot summers of Delhi was something that I had missed in the last two years while living in San Francisco. 

The Hast Mudras
The Hast Mudras.

The Government of India and the Delhi State government had strict guidelines and instructions given to all travellers coming into India. When I landed, it was Day 5 after India had opened its borders and yet I felt a lot of thought had gone into planning these repatriation flights for its citizens. Before I left the airport, I made a quick call to my parents, afterall travelling across the seas and continents was not a mild feat during a pandemic. I felt much more at ease once I had arrived at the hotel. The rules at the hotel were simple. Guests could not walk around outside the room, we were served food in sealed trays, left outside the door at the same time every day. These trays were to be put into disposable bags immediately after finishing the meal. The bag was then kept outside the hotel room for it to be thrown away. Any garbage in the room was to be disposed of in the same way.  The only other time we were required to open our room doors was for the regular temperature and blood pressure checks by government assigned medical professionals. These daily checks  were the only time I had actual contact with other human beings during my days in quarantine. It was definitely comforting. What’s more, the health professionals were both women from Kerala in South India and during every visit small talk  about my hometown, Coorg, which is also in South India was such a pleasure. The meals I got for lunch and dinner were always Indian food, often cuisines from different regions of India. Sometimes I got Punjabi food, sometimes it was Kerala cuisine, and I even got Biryani once! 

breakfast
Breakfast one of the days: Bread, butter, scrambled egg and Indian style potato, along with an apple and a Yakult bottle. Author photo.

To keep myself busy, and my mind distracted, I tried all sorts of things. I called up friends and family at different times of the day to either play online games, or talk about their day, since I was stuck in my room. Even though my windows couldn’t open, to look on the bright side, the view of the city from my room on the 12th floor was fabulous.  At night I could see a lit up India Gate, a famous war memorial that was built during the British rule in India. I practised  Korean and even started learning a little Spanish on Duolingo. But one of the most pleasant surprises I discovered in quarantine was that Netflix in India had a whole lot more K-dramas to choose from. I would watch shows that I had already watched before, and loved, without subtitles in an attempt to test my Korean skills. 

Netflix
Netflix India has a lot of Korean dramas available, not just newly released but also many older dramas. Author photo.

Despite the occasional daunting thought of “What if I actually test positive and can’t go home to my family?” I made sure to talk to my family every day and managed to continue thinking positive thoughts. In the end, the quarantine of 14 days in the hotel was cut short to 12 days and I spent the rest of the quarantine requirement in isolation at home. This whole experience was definitely nerve-wracking, but at the end, it was worth going through it to get home safely.  The moment I saw my parents, brother and dog, waiting to greet me at home, it felt like the heaviness in my heart  for the past couple of weeks had finally disappeared.