What was it like travelling overseas during the pandemic – Part 2

Seriously, what are these tennis players whingeing about?! If you read Part 1, you would know about my recent trip to India. Doesn’t look that bad, does it? So, how was the return back to a country with one of the most tightly guarded borders (following the pandemic)?

Chaos prevails

After a couple of weeks, and my dad ‘sort of’ on the mend, I had a slight sense of urgency to get back. Why? Firstly, UK had a new COVID mutant strain that was panicking the world. Countries were going back into lockdowns and closing borders. Australia, which loves a good lockdown, started having conversations about how to deal with this strain and placing further restrictions on international arrivals. Did I mention my best half was in Melbourne this entire time? We had never been apart for more than a week since getting married in 2014. I also had a new job which I felt required my attention back in Australia. While I had worked 90% of the days I was in India (a much-needed distraction), my workstation was a laptop and a mouse, which started taking a toll on my physical health. The more I thought about it, the more I realised, at the very least, I need to start thinking about a way back.

I originally had a return trip booked for January 16th. Just when I was getting comfortable that the return trip was all but guaranteed, I received news that my first flight back via Sri Lanka (on Sri Lankan Airlines) had been cancelled. They then cancelled the flight on the 23rd of January and stated that Feb 1st was the next available date. And event this wasn’t guaranteed. Why? Sri Lankan Airlines stopped flying to India due to the UK mutant strain until Feb 1…this is when the panic slightly set in. And I was also told Sri Lankan Airlines wasn’t flying into Australia. Upon checking the FlightRadar app, I could they see were flying in and hence, something wasn’t adding up. Perhaps, they weren’t flying into India and used that as the reason to deter passengers from booking flights from India to Australia…

I was talking to my Australian and Indian agent and both were struggling to find the silver bullet. One had me on a flight to Adelaide via Kuala Lumpur…and no, we hadn’t forecasted states closing their borders to each other in January, and nobody knew Malaysia would announce a state of emergency in January. I felt this wasn’t a good option at the time (instinct) and boy, am I thankful. The other local agent was feeding me information which was relatively unhelpful…in a nutshell, I couldn’t leave India and couldn’t get into Australia as both countries were tough with their borders. I knew the problem; I needed a solution. Not at my wits end yet, I spoke to a friend of mine whose husband had just been to India and got back in the span of two months. She mentioned his path: India – Maldives – Sri Lanka – Melbourne. High risk but why not?

Immediately after the call, I jumped on Sri Lankan airlines website and there was a business class ticket (I found out later this was the last one) left for the 15th from Maldives to Melbourne via Colombo. So, Sri Lankan Airlines was flying to Australia; they just weren’t flying to India. I decided to take a gamble and booked this flight. I then booked a local flight from Chennai to Mumbai and then to the Maldives for the 14th. I was more worried about the Maldives – Melbourne flights cancelling, and never expected anything unfortunate to happen with the local flight.

And then the dreaded news came on the 6th – Chennai – Mumbai – Maldives had been cancelled by SpiceJet due to COVID. I instantly thought of the COVID situation in the Maldives as the capital, Male isn’t coping well with the pandemic. This put a knot in my stomach as I thought all airlines from India might cancel flights to Maldives. I checked the travel website and found another airline (the only other airline) going to Maldives, via Bengaluru. I booked IndiGo instantly and kept my fingers crossed. If this flight cancelled, then all hope was lost!

I had never used the FlightRadar app so much as I did between the 6th and the 14th. I noticed flights being cancelled left, right and centre. I also noticed some Sri Lankan airlines being cancelled and noted on social media about it’s unreliability. Oh, and did I mention someone told me Sri Lankan doesn’t fly to Australia! Sometimes, less information is less stress. Despite all these negative and somewhat conflicting news, I kept my head down and stuck with the ticket. I would jump on live chat with the airline each day to ask about the flight status. I would always hear that it was on time.

The day before and during

13th came and I checked Sri Lankan Airlines website to ensure it left on the 13th to Melbourne; they have two flights a week, Wednesday and Friday. I was on the Friday flight, and so taking off on the 13th would be a solace. Alas, it was cancelled. I spoke to the airline and they gave me information which made no sense! I told my parents not to worry, and that if I got stranded in the Maldives or Colombo, I would then figure out a Plan B. While I like planning in some instances, when the stakes are high, I generally don’t have a backup plan. Please don’t hold that against me…

I did the COVID test 13th morning and once again, as per routine, filled out all paperwork relevant for the Maldives and Australian governments. Completed and uploaded everything in the nick of time…countries were aware that Kaushik Sridhar was coming across their borders, and COVID-free as at 13 January, 10am.

14th came. It is the most important day in the Tamil calendar, celebrating the festival of Pongal. However, I had a flight to catch, much to my parents’ sadness. Upon arriving at the airport at 3am, I checked in for my flight to the Maldives. The check in staff asked me if I had a visa to get into Maldives to which my response was “I’ll get it on arrival”. I had done no research but my response was with confidence that he said “OK”! After clearing immigration, I had a smooth flight to Bengaluru. Boy oh boy, does India take COVID travel seriously. We have to wear a face shield, mask, white coat, sanitiser etc…that’s a requirement for all to wear and use. I don’t even want to think about the waste being created from this pandemic!

Hollywood ‘Immigration style’

After getting into Bengaluru, the Silicon Valley of the East, I transferred to the International terminal, and once again, had the airport nearly for myself. I got on the flight to the Maldives and upon arrival, I went to immigration. The officer raised a fuzz about my not having a visa and while I tried to explain I was only in transit, she was adamant that I could not leave the airport, let alone stay in transit as my flight to Melbourne was a different ticket. My knight in shining armour, a male senior officer, came and spoke to her and discussed my paperwork. I am about to say something and please don’t misunderstand this…this is actually what happened. They both had a flirtatious conversation in front of me (what?) for about 3 minutes…he played with her hair and she kept wiping something of his shirt. The officer then finally stamped my passport and let me in. This was the most bizarre experience I have encountered at a country’s immigration point. A tense moment turned into a movie-like moment. I then spent the night in Maldives; while you hear the glamour stories, I stayed in Hulumale, a man made island which wasn’t so glamorous and frankly, quite dead (except the million coffee shops lined up along the one street there; and I had a juice instead of a coffee just to be different).

Which QR Code?

15th… I arrived at Maldives airport next morning to depart, and had to go through a paperwork check before I could even enter the airport. They scanned a QR code that I had received upon uploading all my documents on their portal (my unique code to state I was COVID free prior to arriving in Maldives). This was scanned when I arrived in Maldives and I was wondering why they scanned it again. Letting it go, I then checked in, had a royal treatment for flying business class, and felt this was a sign of good things to come. Was I wrong!

I went up to immigration, and when the officer checked my paperwork, he asked for the QR code. I gave him the code and he said it was invalid. Apparently, I need two QR codes: one for arrival and one for departure. I asked what’s the difference and he didn’t respond. Instead he said to go and fill out the form and get the new QR code. I said I don’t have wifi and the airport wifi wasn’t working well. His response: “this is not our problem; please leave the airport, get the code and come back. Otherwise, you cannot leave Maldives”! I went back down, took a breath and tried the wifi. It didn’t work twice. I then went out and, in between a Coffee Club and a car park, I found a signal that was free! I logged in, went to the Maldives Health Declaration portal and filled out the lengthy form, on my phone. It asked me to upload a photo on a white background; in a pink airport, where do I find that white wall?

I finally found a patch of white paint. I ran to an airport staff and asked him to come with me to that white patch which was around the corner and requested him to take a photo of my amazingly tired face. He smiled and knew what was going on (inside joke?) and took the money shot. I uploaded the photo and submitted the form and, boom, got the QR code. I ran back up, met the officer in the eyes, and gave him the QR code. I purposely removed my mask and showed him my smiling face…he smiled back and realised he had met his match…

After an hour in the lounge, I got Sri Lankan Airlines to Colombo. It left 45 mins early. Reason? They didn’t want the local cleaners to come in and clean the flight as, according to the airline, these cleaners from Male might be carrying COVID. That’s how bad the situation is in Male apparently.

Viveka

Being the only passenger in business class (yes, I was the only passenger) I was treated royally by the flight attendants. The head attendant, Viveka was very kind and we spoke for about 30 minutes regarding COVID, travel, vaccine, life during and post COVID and also her trials and tribulations as a flight attendant. She told me she had travelled with 20 COVID-positive passengers from London (in March 2020) and didn’t know this until they reached Shanghai. She can’t hug her own daughter because of her profession. However, she doesn’t want to quit because she loves what she does. After loading me up with snacks and bottles of water, she bid me farewell as I disembarked in Colombo.

Finale

Rather than going to the gate or airport terminal, we were stuck in the airport bus for 30 minutes. Reason? The people who need to come and disinfect the gate were running late. They then came just as passengers were about to erupt, and sprayed disinfectants on our bags, shoes (and my arm accidentally). We were then escorted to a gate with no lights or air conditioning. That’s all. The whole airport was empty and we would be stuck in this gate for the next four hours…yes, the Colombo – Melbourne flight was delayed by 2 hours. It was coming from London loaded with members of the X-Men (sorry to my London friends)…

After waiting nearly four hours, and redoing two security checks, I got on the plane to Melbourne. Is that all? Well for the trip, yes. Once in Melbourne, I went through at least 10 stations prior to getting on a SkyBus, that was parked on the tarmac next to Etihad Airways! We taxied the bus through the runways, out onto the road and into the city. From the time I landed in Melbourne, it took me 4.5 hours to get into the hotel room!

As I write this article, I am 8 days into my 14 day hotel quarantine in Melbourne. It has been a walk in the park compared to what I had just been through with travelling across various countries.

So, tell me, what are these tennis players whingeing about?!!

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