A prolonged pandemic and a tale of re-union

By Indira Laisram
Sanjay Barbora with wife Dolly Kikon

For those wanting to be united with their partner or loved one in the time of the coronavirus, the decision isn’t an easy one and the path towards it filled with trials and tribulations.

As the virus broke out at the start of the year, Sanjay Barbora, who was in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, wanted to join his wife Dolly Kikon, who is based in Melbourne. Four flight cancellations later and after eight months of waiting, Barbora finally arrived in Melbourne last week and describes the whole experience as ‘surreal’.

In a pandemic like this, the option to get up and leave is no longer a luxury and becomes dictated by many factors. Narrating his eight-month ordeal, Barbora says he was all set to travel by April on an Air India ticket to Melbourne when things suddenly changed in a dramatic way. Countries had shut their borders and airlines were not able to provide any information on the next course of travel as they were “completely under the mercy of government decisions. There was a complete uncertainty”.

“The fear was there, but again, the human brain is so wired to hold on to things that you know. So, even though we were told there was a three-week lockdown, I believed I would be able to leave after three weeks, which was absurd,” recalls Barbora, who teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati.

As an Australian permanent resident (PR), the first thing he did was to register with the Australian High Commission in Delhi as a PR needing to go back home. Initially, says Barbora, many people like him thought that after three weeks things would be alright, with some even taking it easy. But as the months rolled out, the prospect of travel looked bleak.

Towards the end of April, the High Commission informed Barbora that there was a chartered Qatar flight leaving from Kolkata within 48 hours. Without any second thoughts, he signed up for that ‘expensive’ flight. However, what Barbora did not anticipate was the 1,031.6 km distance that stood between Guwahati and Kolkata.

“Once I bought the ticket, it dawned on me how I was going to reach Kolkata as domestic flights were completely banned,” he says.

Barbora even approached his sister, principal of an Air Force school, to see if he could, by any means, get on an Air Force plane. Of course, that was an impossibility. “There were now different protocols. It was not just one national lockdown, it was also different states implementing their own lockdown,” says Barbora.

There was a point though when he did mull the idea of travelling by road. But he was not convinced about taking a taxi all the way to Kolkata to board the flight. The reason being, had his car broken down in the state of West Bengal, he would have had to be quarantined there. Ultimately, he had to inform the High Commission that he was stuck in Assam. Fortunately for Barbora, Qatar Airways refunded his ticket with ease.

By May end, COVID-19 cases around the world had passed six million. In place of this, Barbora was forced to stay put for two more months when the Air India repatriation flights to various countries were announced for July. A former student of Barbora informed him in advance about sale of the tickets and he booked for Delhi-Melbourne departure on July 4, with as much as three weeks’ time at hand to prepare.

As the dates got closer, the excitement built up. Barbora prided himself on not complaining about anything. But on July 3, as he got ready to take the taxi to go to the airport, he received a text from Air India saying that his flight has been postponed by 10 days and will leave on July 15 instead.

“I thought it was OK, just a postponement but it actually got cancelled because there was a strict lockdown in Australia by then,” rues Barbora.

It was another three more months before he got another glimmer of hope after the travel agent told him that there was a flight in September that could take him from Delhi to Doha to Melbourne. As luck would have it, that too got cancelled because Melbourne had stopped receiving flights.

Sanjay Barbora

“So, I had booked all these tickets about four times. The uncertainty was not about us as customers but even the airlines—their idea of logistics and travel were completely messed up as well. They now had to listen to government and airport authorities. And, if you called anyone on their helpline they were just as helpless as us. Basically, nobody could give us any reassurances,” says Barbora.

Finally, the only hope for Barbora was the repatriation flights. But with thousands of Australian citizens and permanent residents stuck in India, getting a ticket was extremely difficult.

Air India did not advertise sales of the tickets, says Barbora. “I was desperate by then as we had no idea how these tickets were given. Besides, the travel agents didn’t understand the protocol in places. By that time, you also realise that the idea of travelling even becomes traumatic because from March flights were getting either cancelled or you were given a 48 hours’ notice, which was frustrating for people who are not in the main cities.”

In between, the Australian High Commission did facilitate the formation of groups for those who wanted to hire a chartered flight organised by few enterprisers such as CapaJet. Interesingly, CapaJet did receive overwhelming success with India to Australia repatriation missions, but these were very expensive.

Given the coronavirus’s swift speed and desperate to be with his wife who he hadn’t seen in months, Barbora pulled strings to get a ticket in November. “The normal way was not going to work for me. Thus, I was put on the list.”

As per requirements, Barbora got his COVID-19 RT-PCR test at IGI Airport, Delhi and was finally home-bound on November 14.

The Air India dreamliner with its over 200-seating capacity carried only 43 passengers as per the Australian government’s directive. “The flight crew were dressed in PPE kits. We were handed a big plastic bag with two packets of food to last us through the journey. There was no service, it was unsual.

“The staff was kind and allowed us to move around but they don’t encourage us to move from our seats, so if you are tested they would know who was around you etc. Details such as your seat number become important,” says Barbora.

Landing at 7 am on November 15, Sydney airport felt strange, says Barbora. “You have an entire airport that is empty and only officials from immigration and health services and the police were there. Not one taxi, not one pedestrian and just the army outside to escort us to our quarantine hotel. It felt like a war zone.”

Once at the hotel, the passengers had no contact with anyone. “They gave us food three times a day and as much coffee and tea. It felt like a nice, expensive jail. Every day, the nurses would call on us and check if we had any symptoms or any mental health issue. Our swabs were taken on day two and day 10.”

When Barbora finally landed in Melbourne on Nov 29, he felt he was in a small airport in remote India with few people around. And as he saw his wife, he realised it was all worth it.

It is a journey that illustrates the irony of distance in an interconnected world. Though memorable, Barbora says it has put him off travelling for a while because of the stress involved. “If I was to stack up all the reasons not to fly, this would be a really, really major one. Back to train,” he says, with a laugh.

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