I travelled from London to Kerala on 'Vande Bharat' mission and here's my story

A blog that provides a peek into how the best COVID-19 controlled state in the world goes about doing its job with ruthless efficiency.
Vande Bharat passenger waiting to board flight to Kochi
Vande Bharat passenger waiting to board flight to Kochi

I travelled on the London-Vijayawada-Kochi flight in phase 2 of the #VandeBharatMission on May 19, 2020. I’m grateful to Air India and the High Commission of India in London for making this happen.

I’m sharing the chronology of events so that those who are planning to travel by air back to India, know what to expect.

The following is a timeline of my journey.

April 28: I register on www.norkaroots.org, created by the Kerala government, and my number is 2 lakh plus. 

May 1: I register with the High Commission of India, London, by filling a Google document on their site. 

May 7: I sit back and watch the Asianet TV news coverage of the returning pravaasis (expatriates). They are covering it with the breathless ball-by-ball momentum of an Indo-Pak final in Sharjah. Based on this, I have now come to a few spot decisions as to how to face my moment in the sun.

1. I need a matching mask.

2. I have to get my crooked eyebrows back in shape.

3. As I get off the flight, should I wave grandiloquently like ‘Amma’ or show the ‘V’ sign? Decisions… decisions…

4. I must somehow try to plug my novel.

5. I might do a little drama like leap off the flight and kiss the earth. When I tell this to a friend, he tells me that I must also consider doing a front roll from the last step of the ladder onto the tarmac and leapfrog into the waiting bus. That will earn me a sure place in the news. Further, I would be the first pathologist to do it.

May 13:  I get an e-mail from the High Commission of India, asking about my willingness to travel in the London-Kochi flight on May 19. If willing, I have to reply ‘yes’ and wait for Air India to call me. I'm instructed not to attempt contacting Air India. They will contact me 48-72 hours before the flight. I dash off my reply. As the priority is for the elderly, pregnant, sick or children, I realise that I may not make it to the shortlist. Meanwhile, I’ve booked my train ticket to reach London on May 18 and hotel stay, too.

May 14: I get a call from the High Commission of India, verifying my travel willingness. So this is happening! I just might make it to the shortlist.

May 15: I wake up to a text from my neighbour in Thiruvananthapuram.

“Did you inform the local police station before leaving?”

I rub my eyes in disbelief and try to quell the rising panic. Of course I hadn’t. Did some thieves try to break in now?

I text back a “No, why?” and wait for her reply.

In the meantime, I wonder if our house has been robbed. The hubby as usual is cool as a cucumber. He says, “What are they going to steal if they enter the house? The TV is old. So is the fridge. The washing machine is on its last legs. The only thing of real value there is our Italian washbasin and rain shower head.” I'm a little relieved now. It would be difficult to displace that washbasin. And surely, the thieves wouldn’t be interested in my Tintin comics collection, my 6,000 piece framed jigsaw puzzle, or my little one’s Kinderjoy toy collectibles. Their lives would be in peril if they dare touched the last mentioned item. For, my determined five-year-old would hunt them down to the edges of the earth if even one went missing.

Minutes later, my neighbour’s reply comes. “I had gone to the police station to take a car pass to Tiruvalla when they asked whose car is parked in your driveway – because we KNOW the doctor is in the UK. I explained that it’s my car and that I have parked it there with your permission. So, did you tell them you were going to the UK before you left?"

I puzzle over this and then I realise that when I registered with www.norkaroots.org I had given my home address. So, they probably did come and check my residence to see if it’s an unoccupied house.

(They may allow home quarantine, I think. But I’m not hoping for much because the rules state mandatory institutional quarantine. The only options are free quarantine in a government facility or paid quarantine in a hotel.)

It is a small thing but it shows how well oiled our state machinery is. Taking care of even the smallest detail.

I check www.norkaroots.org and find a list of hotels in each district earmarked for institutional quarantine with details of the rates. I contact Mascot Hotel and get an email confirmation of a room there for two weeks. Payment to be done later.

May 16: I’m still waiting for that call. I abandon all reason and my whole day is spent in trying to contact Air India via their Twitter page and customer care numbers. I end up feeling a bit like a fox running in circles trying to catch its tail. As I fidget impatiently, I glance at my impressive collection of hand sanitisers and alcohol wipes. Enough to do Lady Macbeth proud.

I'm now literally hanging onto my phone for that call from Air India. I can hear my phone ringing even when it isn’t! Tinnitus? An imaginary bell ringing in my head? I need to get a grip on myself.

May 17, UK time, 1:30 pm: Exactly 48 hours more until the flight. With a heavy heart, I start texting my elder daughter – I don’t think I will be shortlisted... and that’s when my phone rings. It’s a call from Air India. I happily do the checks to confirm that it’s genuinely Air India (by asking them to tell me some of my details as instructed in the email) and pay for my ticket. 596 pounds for an economy ticket. 1605 pounds for business class. The ticket comes to my e-mail. Simultaneously, I get a pass in my e-mail from the High Commission of India, enabling me to travel to London. An hour later, I get a call from the High Commission of India to check if Air India has contacted me. Amazing when you come to think of it! They must be doing this not just for me, but for each passenger in the Vande Bharat mission.

May 18: I’m on my way to London. Deserted platforms, empty compartments and ghost trains… it’s a surreal experience. I alight at the London Euston station. Five instead of 500 alight from the train.

May 19: I reach the London Heathrow airport earlier than three hours, but there already is a long queue.

All of us are with masks and gloves. I take this picture to send to my two daughters who are waiting for me, and in an impulsive moment, dash off this photo of mine on Facebook with the caption: ‘Coming soon…The Mummy returns‘. The Tamil translation is funnier. "Ammachi thirumbi vantaach."

We are given a form to fill. Check-in and security check happen as usual. Before boarding, there is a temperature check done and a seal placed on our pass. Boarding starts finally. The flight personnel are in full PPE gear. On each seat there are two snack boxes and a packet with face shield, mask and hand sanitiser sachets.

There is no in-flight entertainment. Makes sense because then how would they sanitise the earphones? I have come adequately prepared with my headphones and a movie downloaded on my mobile. The flight is full. There are no empty seats. And after a slight delay of 1 hour 45 minutes, we take off. Throughout this 11 hour flight, there is a lot of air turbulence, so restroom trips are restricted. Sleep completely eludes me. I’m certain we will get sucked into the eye of a cyclone.

May 20, 3 am: We reach Mumbai. Those headed for Vijayawada are asked to disembark and Kochi passengers remain seated. I doze off at this point.

May 20, 7:12 am: As we touch Kochi, unbidden tears prick my eyes. As we step out, we are greeted by men in PPE suits squirting handwash into our hands as we stagger out of the flight. The Kochi international airport is spotlessly clean and everything is perfectly well coordinated. I start to feel a bit sorry for the men in PPE. It can’t be easy wearing all that in our hot weather and still being so cheerful and kind. To my disappointment, there are no TV cameras anywhere. All that make-up for nothing!

The baggage collection takes a long time as we have to maintain physical distancing now, which is a bit of a pain considering we couldn't do so in that packed flight. The baggage arrives, all wet and smelling of a bleach solution.

I have already downloaded the Arogya Setu app. But as I’ve misplaced my SIM card, I can’t register on it. I explain to the official at the airport that I’ve applied for a duplicate SIM with the help of a friend and will get it only once I reach Thiruvananthapuram, so I ask if I can buy a new SIM here. But none of the mobile counters are open at the airport, so he tells me I can register with my own SIM once I reach Thiruvananthapuram.

We are made to fill another form with the usual health related questions. No one on this flight is symptomatic, so no one is sent to a Covid Centre. 

The crux of the matter is this – Are you elderly (>75 years), pregnant, a kid (<10 years), handicapped or sick? Private taxis to take you to your district and the option of home quarantine are strictly allowed only for people who fall in this category.

I’m a bit puzzled that I cannot get a private taxi at extra cost, but later I learn that the number of private taxis are limited because the strict guidelines state that each taxi driver has to go into 14 days quarantine after dropping the passenger to his destination! It is simply stunning how every possible loophole has been taken care of by the state government.

I’m directed to a fleet of KSRTC buses which are numbered as per district. We are each given a food packet which consists of two buns and one litre water. I’m told to direct my queries regarding my quarantine location to the health officer in charge at Thiruvananthapuram.

The steps of the bus are high and it is not easy to haul my luggage up. The seats are narrow, so our heavy suitcases can only be kept in the passageway. The front few seats are cordoned off with a rope so that the drivers are at a safe distance from us. There is a 72-year-old lady on the same bus with me. There is nobody to help other than our co-passengers. Once our bags are in, we clamber over the suitcases and leapfrog jump into our seats. We make the 72-year-old lady sit towards the front so that she is spared the acrobatics.

The bus finally gets to a rattling start at 10:30 am. There are no stops for food or toilet. The bus stops to report at multiple police stations on the way. For some of the stretches, there is a Kerala police jeep tailing us. The 72-year-old lady asks me why the police jeep is following us? In my most reassuring voice, I tell her from across the sea of suitcases between us that it’s probably to check if any of us suddenly develops an urge to escape. She gets the joke and flashes me a toothy smile in return.

The bus drivers aren’t forthcoming about where we are headed. Finally at 5 pm, our bus rattles to a stop in the compound of the Jubilee Mission Animation Centre near Raj Bhavan in Thiruvananthapuram. We slowly get out hauling our bags. There are plenty of people waiting with gloves and masks but no help is forthcoming. Our luggage receives a second bleach spray.

I talk to the health officer in charge and explain that I have an unoccupied house, but to my disappointment, he says that it’s not allowed. We only have the option of free quarantine at this centre or paid quarantine at the hotels listed on the norkaroots.org website. The 72-year-old lady asks if she can see the room and then decide if it’s okay or not for her, but that request is declined because once we enter, we can’t be let out. It’s like Hotel California. Stepping in and out of a room would mean that they have to disinfect it all over again. The 72-year-old lady decides on the free quarantine. I think she is too exhausted at this point.

Most of us decide on hotel quarantine. The health officer tells us that as per the rules, we can be sent to our respective hotels only in an ambulance escorted by men in PPE. As only three or four of us can squeeze into one ambulance with our big bags, I end up waiting with three others in the last lot. We are exhausted and hungry. Only water is offered to us here. My friend arrives at the quarantine centre in an auto rickshaw with my duplicate SIM card. She is a Facebook friend whom I’m meeting for the first time. We have been online friends for years, share a mutual love for books and also live close by, but we never got down to meeting up with each other. She hands over the duplicate SIM by placing it at a distance and along with it is a surprise gift. A copy of Salim Anees’s Fly Hasina Fly. In the most tiring day of my life, this act of kindness is overwhelming.

It is 6:30 pm now and one of the senior ladies with me insists that they open up a toilet for us. So, one of the rooms is opened up and we are allowed to use it. She then tells an official present that she is a diabetic and if she doesn’t get anything to eat, she might just faint. Four bananas miraculously spring out of somewhere and now we are happy. At 7:00 pm, our ambulance arrives and the health officers look more relieved than us, to bid farewell.

At Mascot Hotel, we are welcomed with a bleach spray on our bags (third one in the day!) and our shoes too. After a temperature check, I am assigned my room. The lift we use is also separate. I am given a doctor's number to store on my mobile. I can contact him anytime during my 14-day quarantine if I develop any symptoms or have any health concerns.

My room is beautiful and spacious. In the bathroom, instead of toiletries, I find two bottles of phenoyl, a germi-check soap, some dishwashing liquid and a washing soap bar. I’m too tired to ask for toiletries, so I take a bath with the germi-check soap. When I come out, I get a call from the reception, saying that my food has been placed outside. I open the door to find two sealed packets placed on a table outside. I realise that the plates are provided in the room. I have to wash them myself and place the food waste in a disposable bag outside. We aren’t allowed to leave the room at any cost. There are cameras placed in the corridor to catch us lest we feel tempted to make a dash for it.

I fall into a deep, exhausted sleep on the inviting bed. The next day, I sort out the nitty gritties of the menu and get my supply of toiletries. I feel like a VIP as I get calls from the Museum Police Station as well as the Medical College Police Station.

The days stretch before me with nothing much to do other than stare out of my window at the canopy of trees outside. My 12-year-old is happy I’m back in town. My five-year-old daughter is counting the days remaining on her calendar. Thanks to her grandparents, she now has a good grasp of subtraction, to calculate the UK time corresponding to the Indian time. She also has a clear idea of months and dates on the calendar, much ahead of her years.

I thought of writing about this so that those who are planning to travel know what to expect and can be better prepared. And also provide a peek into how the best COVID-19 controlled state in the world goes about doing its job with ruthless efficiency.

Dr Priya Mary Jacob is a pathologist working at Regional Cancer Centre, Thiruvananthapuram. She blogs at acuteangle7.wordpress.com. This article was originally published on her blog.

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