Dr. Kaushik Sridhar

What was it like travelling overseas during the pandemic – Part 1

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Anyone who knows me will tell you that travelling is what I live for…it’s been my passion, since I was 2 years old (yes, that young!) visiting over 40 countries since coming into this world. My passion for travel happily ‘affected’ my wife who, along with me, have been to six continents since getting married nearly 7 years ago.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would, one day, dread or wish not to get on a plane or wander through airports smelling the sweet smell of adventure. Sadly, that day came (hopefully a temporary phenomenon) in December 2020. Many of you have been asking me the question; what was it like travelling overseas during COVID? Is it hard; arduous; tense; annoying; adventurous; inconvenient; tiring; adrenaline-fuelled; abnormal; pain in the ass; not worth it? My answer: ALL OF THE ABOVE.

This is part one of a two-part blog post on my recent trip from Australia to India and back, IN A MONTH!

Run because there’s no time to crawl

Travelling for unfortunate reasons is never easy, but I had to make the trip to India to, at the very least, put a smile on my mom and dad’s face as they had been ‘to Mars and back on a broken spaceship’ in 2020, and the ship and its inhabitants were about to implode.

I had heard terrible stories of people struggling to get out of Australia even when faced with family tragedies overseas. My Dad having been in ICU twice within two months gave the Australian government enough compassion to grant me a permit in less than 24 hours from the time of my application. I then spoke to my local travel agent who’s quick work got me on a flight from Sydney to New Delhi on December 14th (followed by a 14 hour layover) and then to Chennai. This was a week from the date when I knew I needed to travel; quick work, right? I was fortunate to go to Sydney (from Melbourne) on a work trip and felt things were falling into place (on the travel front).

On the first day of my travel, Melbourne, which (by the way) was just recovering from a lockdown, welcomed me with an empty airport; Sydney, which was going about life as usual at the time (be careful what you wish for), greeted me with a crowd everywhere. After being locked down in our Melbourne apartment for many months, being in Sydney reminded me of civilization and gave me joy seeing people living in some degree of normality.

While my parents were constantly in the back of my mind, I spent four days in Sydney in work mode and completed what needed to be done. It was the first time I had been in the office of my new company and meeting my team and colleagues was a breath of fresh air; a more wonderful bunch of people I couldn’t have asked for more. So far, so good…

Now, when did the trip start getting interesting? On Thursday evening, out at a team dinner, I was informed my flight from Sydney to Delhi on Monday was cancelled; and so was Delhi to Chennai. This was a shock and the first taste of what COVID travel looked like. My ‘Speedy Gonzales’ of an agent got me onto Emirates, departing a day earlier, and I took it! What did this mean? On Friday evening, I checked out of my work hotel and checked into my other hotel. I then made a checklist of what I needed to do prior to getting on the flight on Sunday. And boy, was it a laundry list!

On Saturday morning, I went and got my COVID RT-PCR test, to happily find out I was negative that evening. That was the easy bit! Needing to be negative 72 hours before my trip, the timing was OK…I then spent a few hours filling out various forms to let the Indian (Federal and local) government know I was coming and that I was COVID free! That’s when I got my first QR Code; note: everytime you let a country know you are coming and COVID free, they give you a QR Code (upon successful submission of the forms) and scan this when you arrive.

After completing the forms at midnight Saturday, I went into the office on Sunday and printed a whole bunch of work documents as I knew work was what would keep me sane for what was to come. After returning to the hotel and packing my bags, I jumped on public transport, got to the airport and checked in with the airlines.

It’s not what it used to be

The check in process completely changed, with significant scrutiny. It’s not enough to have a ticket and relevant passports anymore. Passport: check. Overseas Citizen of India card: check. RT-PCR Negative Test. Check. Air Suvidha declaration: check. Chennai Health declaration form. Check. Docs to exit Australia including permit: check. That’s the bare minimum! One positive from all of this; the Australian government, keen to get people out of the country as quickly as possible, gave me one of the quickest immigration checks on record (<10 seconds)!

I then spent a couple of hours in an empty international airport with shop owners and workers looking forlorn. My heart went out to them as this pandemic has impacted the travel and tourism sector significantly. I needed a few minutes to ‘be emotional’ when I saw a couple of workers at a well known salad brand constantly eyeing me hoping for an order. I got my dinner (and breakfast and lunch) from them even though I know my contribution was insignificant.

The flight to Dubai was on time and I slept 95% of the way. The layover in Dubai was 11 hours. If you have been to the Dubai airport, you would know it for it’s hustle and bustle, glitz and glamour…and gold. Not this time. Same issue as in Sydney, empty stores and cafes, passengers being wary of each other, and a depressing mood in an artificially glitzy environment. The surprising aspect, though, was that the check in/customs area between landing and going to the main airport was buzzing like a market…hundreds of people crowded in a tight spot to get their bags screened. Masks aplenty…yes…but could COVID or any other illness spread in this gathering? Absolutely!

I finally got on the flight to Chennai, landing there at 2am. Dealing with intense paperwork and conversations during travel was becoming second nature by this time. I ended up having a pleasant 60 second chat with the immigration officer fielding all his tough questions with smiles and apt responses. He then quipped saying he hadn’t met a stress-free passenger like myself since early 2020! Thick skin, a ‘given up attitude’, call it what you may…I became that creature.

After picking up my bags, I came out into a country that was one of the most badly hit with COVID. I saw nothing around me except the ‘ah, finally, he is here’ look on my mom’s face. After a warm embrace, and feeling her intense mental pain instantly, the slightly painful trip became insignificant for me. Did I risk my life to travel here? Some may say yes. I didn’t care…I went straight to the hospital and saw my Dad, and for the first time, since I was born, I couldn’t recognise him. That first impression, I am sure, will change me forever. However, this story is not about my family. It’s about the trip.

So, I had made it. It wasn’t so hard in the grand scheme of things. Apart from a few flight cancellations, annoying paperwork, tiring interrogations at various countries’ check in and immigration counters, depressing looks in airport shopfronts, I came out in one piece.

The trip to India was easy compared to the trip coming back to Australia. Check out part two for the fun bits.

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