Witnessing the global pandemic unfold from the other side of the world on our dream trip to India - we hadn't backed on a pandemic!
Last August I turned 50, and it coincided with the launch of my first book. My daughter gifted me with a dream trip to India, something we had talked about doing together for years. Because my book tour and related events took over my fall schedule and she started a new job, we planned the trip for February and March of 2020.
What we didn’t plan for was a pandemic.
Dream trip to India
My closest childhood friend has lived and worked in New Delhi for years, so the trip started and ended there. Our trip took us from Delhi to Jaipur, to Jaisalmer, to the Thar Desert, to Goa, then back to Delhi, a quick hop to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, then a few days in Delhi before heading back to New York through London. We started hearing about the coronavirus when we were in Goa, about halfway through our trip. We had traveled via train from Delhi to Jaipur, via plane to Jaisalmer, via car then camel to the desert, then via plane to Goa — so lots of casual interactions with lots of people and particles in many different cities. India is also a cash economy, and cash is known to be one of the dirtiest substances we commonly use.
If you haven’t been to Goa, it’s pretty close to paradise. Known as a haven for hippies, it has a very chill vibe, natural beauty, fresh locally sourced foods, beautiful handicrafts, and very few plastics. We stayed in Southern Goa, away from the party culture, in a cluster of beach huts with no TVs, and very little influence from the outside world. This was the newspaper headline that alerted us to the growing problem.
Read more: Coronavirus live updates from Ireland
COVID-19 news begins to spread
Now, I’ll be the first to admit, I was not willing to enter the headspace to consider prematurely ending this trip. It still seemed somehow away from us, not an imminent threat, not our primary concern, not yet anyway. We considered briefly if we could get our laptops from Delhi to Goa, where we had left them as we traveled the country, but realized pretty quickly that wasn’t going to be easy or secure. When we heard that SXSW had canceled, we knew it was getting serious back home in the States.
We read about a group of Italian tourists who traveled a similar itinerary as ours just about a week before us, unknowingly infecting hundreds throughout Rajasthan. No one in Goa seemed particularly concerned, but that fit with the relaxed, low key mood of the region. But considering how many people we had been in contact with since arriving in India, we realized that we were likely asymptomatic carriers of the virus.
Traveling to Dehli for Holi
My touchpoint when I travel is the airline personnel. Considering their exposure to hundreds of strangers every day, I watch them for clues as to changes in protocol. If, when we arrived at the Goa airport for our flight to Delhi, they were wearing masks and gloves, so would I. But they weren’t. Plus, those items were now difficult to procure. And in an isolated beach community like Goa, it would be even more difficult.
We got back to Delhi, where we had planned to celebrate Holi with our friends. A country-wide joyful celebration of good over evil, the arrival of spring, many people know it for the bursts of colorful powders thrown in the air and at each other. We planned the trip so that we would be back with our friends and experience an authentic Holi. But because it requires many people to come in contact with each other, tossing water at and on each other, many Indians either didn’t celebrate at all or greatly downsized their celebrations this year. We were grateful our friends held a small but wonderfully fun celebration for their family and a few friends.
Taj Mahal and restrictions
We left that afternoon for Agra by train to visit the Taj Mahal, which was our original plan but felt much more urgent now that things were closing and announcements from overseas were ominous, particularly Italy. We only had a few days left in India and were very concerned about flight cancellations or stricter mandatory quarantines.
Once in Agra, it was clear that things were rapidly changing around us. We booked a small hotel within walking distance to the Taj Mahal but planned on having dinner someplace special as our trip was winding down. We called several of the upscale properties only to be told that they were not accepting dinner reservations from people who were not guests of their hotels. I’ve never heard that restriction before.
The next morning we woke up before dawn to see the sunrise at the Taj Mahal which was extraordinary. Crowds seemed sparse but I think that’s due more to our early morning arrival than the virus. No one was maintaining any social distancing, but to be fair, that wasn’t yet protocol there. As the morning progressed, the crowds increased which was our cue to go.
As we walked out, down the long street back to our hotel, we saw a group of security guards playing Holi with each other — so fun to see, considering the stress that was now palpable. They caught me snapping photos of them and bombed us with color and smiles and laughter. It was delightful and unexpected, even though I hadn’t planned on washing another set of clothes before leaving.
Flying for a stop off in London
We then got back on the train to Delhi for our last night in India.
Because my daughter lives in London, we flew into Heathrow and I planned to fly back to New York two days later.
Arrival to Heathrow was uneventful, no screening or forms even though schools were closing and the public was encouraged to stay home and not gather in groups larger than ten. Numbers of confirmed infected were rapidly rising, spreading into more countries, and those dead from coronavirus complications were also rising. Sporting events were canceled, along with other large scale gatherings such as concerts and business conferences.
I was set to fly from Heathrow back to New York on Saturday, March 14th. Circumstances were dynamically changing, the advice was contradictory and hardly comprehensive, and I felt that by flying I would likely expose the entire flight to the virus, even though I wasn’t showing symptoms because I still believed I was likely a carrier due simply to all the places we have been in the weeks prior.
We decided at breakfast — our last meal out in public, incidentally — to cancel my flight and wait it out in London. British Airways posted to their site that bookings could be canceled with no penalty, and passengers would be issued a voucher for the value of the flight to be used at a later date. We found a reasonable Airbnb in my daughter’s neighborhood and booked it before finishing our coffees.
I had always wanted to stay in London on an extended trip, but not like this. I hadn’t packed clothing for London’s brisk spring weather, only enough for a day or two on the way in and the way out. So on Sunday morning, we set out to get me some essentials, and good thing we did because that was the last day the clothing stores were open.
I moved into the Airbnb on Sunday afternoon. In a wild stroke of luck, when the address was revealed after we made the booking, it was on my daughter’s street, about 100 yards from her front door. That was such a blessing. The owner was so accommodating when we explained that I didn’t have a firm departure date, agreeing to work with us as best he could to keep it affordable and safe for everyone. People really are decent, mostly.
Reality of the coronavirus pandemic sets in
British Airways, however, was not such a blessing. Nowhere on their “Book with Confidence” site did it state that if you had already traveled part of your booking, you were disqualified from receiving a voucher, but they rejected my submission. I have yet to hear from them regarding my appeal, but to say we were very disappointed would be an understatement. They reminded me that it’s clear in their T&Cs that you cannot claim a voucher once a trip has commenced. Not a great response during a crisis.
Shortly after I settled into my flat, it felt like the world was collapsing around us. The UK government did daily news briefings updating the numbers of dead and infected both in the US and the UK, new restrictions on movement were laid down, and we found ourselves existing between our two flats and the local butcher, and the fruit and veg store. Stores were out of toilet paper and cleaning supplies, the streets were empty, and the mood was dire.
The silver lining if there was one, was that we were able to spend this unstructured time together — a luxury we haven’t had in years. We had sleepovers, morning coffee together, worked across the table from each other, and cooked meals together. It was lovely. But I still didn’t have a plan to get back home.
Until we saw this:
I honestly didn’t know what was the best thing to do. My two-week post-India self-quarantine was ending, and by getting on another flight, that clock would restart from zero. When we canceled my flight back to New York, we thought this would be over in about two weeks, and it was clear now that we were way off. I sought advice from a good friend who is a global health expert, and she said if I didn’t leave within 48 hours I should prepare to stay until at least June.
Making a move and taking precautions
I booked a flight out on Virgin Atlantic for the following Wednesday.
I should note that every time I travel overseas, I file my itinerary with the State Department. Because I mostly travel alone, I feel it’s a good practice and should something happen when I am in the country, I would like the embassy to know I am there. I highly recommend it for everyone, as you get email updates on any considerations regarding the countries into which you are traveling, with links to the embassies and emergency contact information.
Over the next few days, the stores began restricting patrons to a few at a time, leaving queues out on the street. Elderly people had designated hours for shopping, and the city became eerily quiet. I began to notice at about 4:30pm there would be a fairly constant hum of motorbikes until about 8pm, delivering everyone’s dinners.
I checked my flight every day, making sure Virgin wasn’t cutting their schedules and that flights were still leaving on time. Drone footage above Heathrow showed dozens of parked planes, a foreboding image for someone still hoping to get home.
Logistics - getting to and from airports
Part of my planning involved both how to get to the airport, and how to get from Kennedy airport back to Connecticut upon my return. I generally rely on public transportation because it’s easy and I’m cheap, but those options were not going to work for me this time.
I hired a car service for the ride to Heathrow which, all things considered, was not terribly expensive. The roads and highways to Heathrow were empty — we made the trip in under an hour when in rush hour, it has taken close to two hours. Heathrow itself was a ghost town. No one in line to check-in, no one milling about outside security. I checked my (now massive) bag and passed through security more easily than I have since before September 11.
Beyond security, I could not get over how empty the seating areas were. Only one coffee shop and Boots pharmacy were open (Boots only allowing two people in at a time), and the duty-free was completely shuttered.
The walk to my gate — which is usually pretty active — was just as quiet. I have never seen an airport this empty.
Thankfully, my flight was still scheduled for an on-time departure, and when we boarded, I was thrilled to have a four-seat row all to myself, as well as the two-seat row on either side and the row behind me. The actual airplane was the last place I expected respectful social distancing, but since we’re all breathing recirculated air, the impact was probably minimal.
We were given these forms to complete and present upon arrival into JFK. When we deplaned, we were greeted by two people, head to toe PPE and CDC patches, who did forehead temperature scans and collected the forms (actually they only collected the Traveler Health Declaration from me). We got a Coronavirus Information Sheet and were told someone would follow up with us soon. I’ve yet to hear from anyone, but I’ve only been back for a few days.
I collected my bag from the carousel (and thank you Virgin Atlantic for not charging me for my overweight bag) and exited the airport where my darling brother was waiting for me at the curb.
Getting home and lessons
We sped up the Van Wyck — and those of you who know the Van Wyck know how remarkable a statement that is. Queens was and likely still is the epicenter of the virus in New York so I really wanted to get out of there. We made it to Connecticut in record time, where I retrieved my car from a friend’s house and got myself home.
Honestly, I’m not sure what lessons or learnings I’ve had as a result of this trip, other than if you are American, register your travel with the STEP program from the US State Department, or with your home country if you are not from the US and your government offers a similar program. I am still getting emails from them about evacuation plans for getting Americans out of India — had we stayed there, those would be helpful and welcome guidance.
I’d also advise anyone leaving their home country to get travel medical insurance. I am a remarkably healthy middle-aged woman but I almost always get this as a precaution. This time it felt like I might actually potentially use it (I didn’t, but it was nice to know it was there).
I’ve still not shown any symptoms but am sheltering in place, washing my hands, staying home as much as possible, and giving my dog way too much attention.
Please follow the instructions from your local governments, listen to the medical experts, wash your hands and stay home, and I look forward to seeing you and greeting you with a signature Big Scully Hug on the other side of this.
* Eileen Scully is a TEDx and Keynote Speaker. Author. Founder, The Rising Tides. Committed to the success of #women @ #work. Passport stamper.
* Originally published on Medium.