"I was living in the first hotspot, and was traveling [for work] to the second hotspot of the country", says Pulkita, a Product Developer working with a garment manufacturer in Dhaka. As international travel restrictions were put in place to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, students and recent graduates all over the world faced a tough decision - leave their studies and jobs abruptly and risk a journey back home, or stay in a foreign country, away from home and loved ones in these tough times.

"I did not want to come back and spread the virus myself,” recalled a second-year Film Studies student in Paris. Facing imminent lockdowns in both France and India, he had to make a quick decision. “The pros were that I would be back with my family, the cons included losing my housing.” He eventually decided to leave for India on the last flight out of Paris.

Akshat, a Bachelor student in the UK, faced a similar situation. His university had shifted to online classes, and he was spending a lot of money on housing. But due to his pre-scheduled exams, he had to postpone his journey. As for Pulkita, who was working in a factory that employed ~8000 employees, the situation was dire. "Every day you come into work, you're putting yourself at risk". Her company's administration was initially apprehensive of her taking a leave. But familial pressure, the constant stress of proximity to the virus, and the dangers of being in a foreign country in times of an emergency prompted her to negotiate with them. In Dhaka, she recalls, "people were getting sick left, right and center". After several requests, the company management gave her unpaid leave.

The experience of getting on a Vande-Bharat flight back home was unique to everyone. After registration on the High Commission of India website, the travelers had to wait for the embassy to contact them. They were usually informed about their confirmed seat two days before the flight. For many, packing up and leaving at such short notice was stressful, as experienced by Tejashvy, a recent graduate in Singapore, who had to rush to the Air-India office to pay for his fare.

The flight home was a unique experience for every passenger. They expected appropriate social distancing being followed on the flight and were surprised to see that all the seats were occupied. Everyone received a "care-package" which contained a face shield, few masks, packed food, and some sanitizer sachets.

Pulkita remembers her journey as a 'Happy Flight Home' where she saw "signs of relief on the faces of the people who have been stuck [in Dhaka] for a long time". Akshat and the Parisian student remember it quite differently, as both saw a case of a medical emergency aboard. A passenger on Akshat's flight fainted, while a passenger near the Parisian student threw up. The fear of being air-locked in a flight full of passengers scared everyone. “The worst thing getting to me was that what if I have it?”, recalled Akshat.

For most, after landing at Delhi Airport, the process followed for processing incoming passengers was ‘well organized’. The passengers were divided into groups of 30 each and had to complete each step of the processing: thermal check-up, immigration, and baggage retrieval. Social distancing and appropriate protocols were being followed wherever possible. There was a heavy presence of CRPF officers who were monitoring the process. “I did have some expectations [about Delhi airport] when I had traveled, but I did not expect them to be this organized, and this helpful” said Pulkita.

Meanwhile, few travelers reported crowding on terminals and long waiting times. “You can’t imagine the chaos”, said a passenger who had to spend 9 ½ hours at the airport before being allowed to leave.

The processing was slow, such that the steps that “normally took 2-3 were taking 5-7 hours”, recalled Akshat. Also, in terms of actual testing for COVID-19, passengers were only being given thermal scans. While being asked questions about his journey and symptoms by professionals in PPE kits, Akshat was told that “Testing is only for people who are symptomatic at this point because we cannot afford testing of asymptomatic people”. Many others recounted this interaction with professionals in PPE kits. Contrary to their expectations, it was more of an interview rather than a medical test.

After completion of the immigration process, the travelers had to choose a hotel from a list of 3 and 5-star hotels for their quarantine. Their passports were handed over to the respective hotel officials who transported them. “The hotel staff was not accommodating initially. They treated us like patients and not guests.”, says Pulkita, who was quarantined at a 5-star hotel in Aerocity. The guests weren’t allowed to leave their rooms throughout that period. Three meals were provided by the hotel and the food was ‘manageable’. Some hotels also provided laundry services and occasional room-cleaning services.

The high cost of quarantine was a significant challenge- “Paying 26k of your savings which you have saved as a student… really blew me!” recounted Akshat. Before leaving, the guests were either given a COVID-19 swab test or a thermal scan. If they passed, they were issued travel passes that allowed travel between states.

Many passengers had to travel amidst different levels of county-wide lockdowns to get back to their home cities. Due to the high cost of extra luggage, or the unavailability of airports, some chose to travel by train. But they were alarmed by the lack of protocol being followed at the Delhi Railway station.

Tejashvy booked a Rajdhani train ticket to Dhanbad. To his surprise, there was no catering service on board, even though he had paid for it. Local vendors and hawkers were allowed to sell their produce on board, something that also perplexed Akshat, who was traveling on a similar train to Ranchi. The passengers were pleasantly surprised by the protocols being followed at the other railway stations. “Ranchi Railway station was much better managed. I was proud of it!”, noted Akshat.

This long journey was fraught with challenges and tough decisions for everyone. Students have limited access to financial resources, and they had to spend huge amounts of money in a short period. The risk of being exposed to the virus was imminent to every passenger. But their initial motivation to get back home to safety kept their spirits high. As Akshat noted, “It cost me around one lakh to get back home, but it was worth it.”

Cover Photo: GAUTAM DOSHI / The Citizen