One man’s travel account to India and back during the pandemic

By Indira Laisram
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Photo by Troy Mortier on Unsplash

During May, when India was at the peak of its second wave of the coronavirus recording as many as 26 million cases—second only to the US, Melbourne-based *Arun Kumar received the news of his mother in India getting infected. It was also a time when India’s surging cases prompted Australia to announce a temporary travel ban (3-15 May) “on passengers entering Australian territory that had been in India within 14 days of the person’s day of departure”.

Kumar, whose mother is based in the southern Indian state of Kerala, was desperate to go to India as her condition had worsened and she was shifted to a hospital. With most of his siblings and other family members settled abroad, Kumar’s father was the only support system for his mother at the time.

After 15 May, when the temporary ban was lifted, Kumar wasted no time in applying for travel exemption to India. Contrary to popular belief, it took only a few days for his approval to come through. “It got rejected the first time because I had only submitted documents from the hospital and no document of proof establishing the person in the hospital was my mother,” says Kumar, adding, “Once I submitted the papers, I got the exemption in two hours.”

The next task was finding a flight to India. Kumar scouted Facebook and found a certain Raman from Flight Desk India, who did everything for him including getting a ticket all the way to Kochi to arranging an e-Pass to get him through his destination. Under COVID-19, a thin e-Pass is now mandatory to travel between states in India.

With very few scheduled commercial flights operating out of Melbourne, Kumar bought an Emirates Airlines flight that took him from Melbourne to Dubai to Kochi. Nervous energy gave way to a small sense of comfort in the thought that he could at last fly out amid what seems to be a surreal time indeed. Next, he had to get a Covid test to be able to fly out.

Flying out of Melbourne on 16 June, Kumar says Tullamarine airport looked like a deserted space. On the flight, there were just about 80 passengers, all wearing masks.

Leaving Dubai, where he had a 17-hour layover, Kumar struggled to acclimatise to the heat in the flight which was made worse with the face shield and masks given to wear. “The flight was also overcrowded too,” he says.

But it was in Dubai that Kumar believes he saw the real face of the pandemic in the faces of the weary travellers. People who had lost jobs, people with strains of mental distress boarding the flight.

“Do your own research, it is easy, everyone’s story is unique. I got my exemption in three days, but it could have been faster with the right paperwork”

Reaching Kochi was a relief but it was a few hours before he could get out of the airport having to undergo yet another Covid test.

For Kumar, as for many others, this has been a year of fear. Unfortunately, two weeks after his arrival, Kumar’s mother passed away due to COVID-19.

After completing the last rites, it was time to head back to Melbourne. Yet again, another hurdle was in the offing with the Australian government announcing it would halve its intake of citizens and permanent residents into the country to contain the spread of the Delta variant. With few passengers flying, there was also the threat of airlines stopping its operations into Australia altogether.

As an option, Kumar did enrol with DFAT to get into a repatriation flight. Once again, he looked around at the commercial flight options. Kumar got into Facebook groups such as Australians Stranded In India as also travel agents who gave him dates for the months of August or September.

Not helpful enough, Kumar did his own research and got in touch with an Australian travel agent who advised him to look up all the local travel agents. The advice proved worthy as Kumar found a local agent in Mysore who immediately gave him a ticket for 6 July from Kochi-Doha to Adelaide.

“It is not impossible to find a ticket, you just have to be flexible to take a flight anytime,” he says, contrary to the scenario that he was presented with by various people on the impossibility of finding one.

After that Kumar applied for quarantine in Adelaide, his final point of disembarkation, for which one has to pay $3,000 approximate.

At the airport in Kochi, Kumar felt travel had started to slow again, the terminal felt eerily quiet, but he was relieved to finally be back on Australian soil after flying 18 hours from Doha.

Kumar has one message for travellers during this time: “Do your own research, it is easy, everyone’s story is unique. I got my exemption in three days, but it could have been faster with the right paperwork. Same with the DFAT repatriation flight, I got my response in four days as opposed to the three months’ wait that is stated. Whatever people have told me was all wrong. Bottomline is, everyone’s story is different, so keep trying.”

Kumar is grieving for the loss of his mother, but it has clearly been a year of tenuous resilience.

* Name changed


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