Stay at home, folks!

Recently, I happened to travel from Pune, Maharashtra to Vadodara/Baroda, Gujarat by bus to look at some urgent family affairs. Though I was afraid to travel out during this corona times, but the urgency of the situation urged me to go out and visit my family. Based on the experience I had during travel to and fro, I decided to write a post to request people to #StayAtHome. Please!

During lockdown, we all were compelled to stay at home. The fear and uncertainity along with enormous escalation of infections and deaths in some of the most advanced countries like USA, Italy and Spain had convinced us to stay safe indoors. But as soon as the lockdown was lifted, and in India, where the unlocking phase began, we started moving out of our homes. Ofcourse, people eventually got bored staying inside home, and for a developing economy like India, where the WFH culture is not yet accepted, and not even feasible, it was inevitable for us to move out for work or daily necessities. Also, looking at the rising number of new Covid infections inspite of the lockdown, it looks like the lockdown did not work, and on the other side, severely hampered the developing economy. Hence, nowadays, when the media or medical experts advise us to stay at home, we somehow ignore them.

So, I decided to travel inspite of the new zenith gained everyday looking at the number of Covid infections and deaths. I booked the bus – Gujarat travels from Pune to Vadodara, with return ticket as well. My journey from Pune to Vadodara was overnight travel, in a sleeper coach. With a naive intention to save some money ( as we all are in that saving mode nowadays due to the possible fear of upcoming recession), I booked the Non-AC bus. This turned out to be a colossal mistake as I would realize later. Luckily, I booked the return from Vadodara to Pune an Air Conditioned one, but it was a day travel, and it had its own version of problems as I would experience soon.

Thus, I packed my bags, and boarded the bus. The booking was done through RedBus, and it was told that the bus operator will allow only the passengers who had worn mask. The thermal checks will be done before boarding, and everyone will be given hand sanitizer. Besides, social distancing (6 ft) will be maintained inside the bus. But when I boarded the bus, neither was I checked for mask, nor was the thermal check conducted. Even hand sanitizer was not provided. But I had worn mask, and carried enough hand sanitizer with me. This was just the beginning of the violation of Covid rules by the bus operators.

Then, I saw that the compartments were just separated by a thin curtain, and the distance between each compartment was surely less than 6 ft. They should have made alternate seating, but they did not. I was still safe because I had booked the single compartment with one bed on the left isle. But on the right isle of the bus, there were a large compartment with two beds near to each other. I assumed this must be reserved only for the family. But it was not. They had allowed anyone to sit near each other. This was really a gross violation of the social distancing rules.

Then, the bus conductor took the Aadhar details from everyone, and worst, was that he had worn mask beneath the nose. Afterall, the mask is meant to be put on the nose and mouth to cover. Why would anyone on the earth wear mask below the nose and mouth? I had no answer for this. He had not worn any hand gloves, and the pen and paper used to write the details, were common. In India, when the government boasts of the “Digital revolution” brought about, but the bus operators were still using the traditional way of pen and paper. Rather, they should have taken the pics of Aadhar card for verification, or the RedBus should have allowed the passengers to provide these details in the app itself. How would the pen and paper which was shared with all the passengers be more safe and better during a pandemic than the app? This showed the lack of seriousness in the bus authorities.

As I mentioned about my mistake to book a non-AC bus, so I suffered from lack of ventilation, and due to small compartments, closed by curtains, I had to open the window during the night to allow some fresh air. But being an overnight journey, coupled with monsoon rains and traffic jam in the Mumbai area, I must have inhaled more pollutants than fresh air. Also, I feared for the sneezing and coughing from any passengers, which would make the closed, non-ventilated environment inside the bus an ideal breeding ground for Covid infection. Due to all this, I could not sleep much and thus, the night journey turned out to be quite a disaster.

Finally, after the hustle and bustle, I reached Vadodara. After visiting my relatives, and spending a good weekend with them, I started my journey back to Pune. I was comforted with the thought that this journey might be a lot better than the previous one due to the availability of AC as well as an upper deck. But barely did I knew at that time what experiences would soon lay before me!

First of all, the bus got excruciatingly delayed by more than 2 hours. I was assuming I will board the bus around 7:45 AM, and reach my home by 8 PM. But with this delay, I boarded the bus at 10:20 AM. I did the math again, and now, I would reach home by atleast 10:30 PM. But I had no option but to bite the bullet. The waiting at the bus stop was an awful experience. It was early morning time, and so I happened to be the only passenger at the stop. Also, the Gujarat travels authorities seemed to lack the most basic sense of civility in every possible way. They not only displayed the behavior potraying of the complete lack of responsibility, but also did not seemed to convey any information about this delay. I remembered my days in U.S, when any delay in flight or bus, would be conveyed immediately with sincere apologies by the responsible authorities. I compared both, and could not deny the fact that however India might have progressed as an IT giant, and risen under the strong leadership of PM Modi, but its gonna take a long way to go as the basic mannerism and civility are yet to be imbibed in the common Indian masses. Ofcourse, it would be ridiculous to extrapolate one experience or incidence to all the Indians, but as we know, every small thing matters, and after all, nations are made by people!

Soon, my bus came, and I immediately boarded the bus with a desperation to leave that bus stop ASAP. Again, I saw the same environment inside the bus as I had seen while traveling from my home. No thermal checks were conducted, and no social distancing. But the bus was more comfortable due to AC, and having secured an upper deck, I felt to be on the top of the world!

After few hours, I witnessed an amazing experience. It was afternoon, and the bus had reached the Gujarat-Maharashtra border. The bus stopped at a local restaurant. We all stepped down for restroom, and to sip some tea. But after sometime, the bus operator told the passengers on the right isle ( which had two seats adjacent to each other) to step down, and get into the car. I was on the left isle with a single seat, so I did not step down. Around 10-12 people from the right isle stepped down. It didn’t take me long to realize what the real matter was. The bus operators had clandestinely allowed 34-36 passengers to board the bus, when only 24 were allowed ( 12 on the left isle and 12 on the right isle). Hence, now at the border to enter Maharashtra, police officials were going to check, and so to hide this, they let go the extra passengers into another car.

Then, we crossed the border, and the police checked that the total number of passengers in the bus. After looking at the excellent observation of social distancing rules (??) inside the bus, they let us go. Ofcourse the police were not naive, and they did know things were staged. But then the bus operators also knew how to handle them, and so, things went smoothly.

Then after entering Maharashtra, the bus stopped after some time, and those 10-12 passengers boarded back again. I was stunned and no wonder why Covid cases are rising in India. When on one side, the govt is unlocking everything, and on the other side, the Covid virus is also getting unlocked. Adding fuel to the fire are incidences like this, when the utter disgusting actions by the bus authorities to earn more money has made things go out of hand. For them it is always business as usual, even amidst the pandemic. The pressure to stay in business, and make money becomes more important than the fear of getting infected, and even death. For them, the losses incurred during lockdown need to be recovered, and hence, no matter how many rules are broken, or how many human lives are put in danger, everything is secondary in front of surviving in the job or business. Period.

So, after reaching home late at night ( I reached at midnight), I contemplated over these thoughts, and decided to write a post about this. And so I urge everyone to Stay at Home, unless something is absolutely necessary to be done. Things are real bad out there, and many people do not care for life anymore. All they care is business or getting the job done. We cannot blame them entirely, as the fear to die from hunger is more than Covid. The fear of losing job or getting bankrupt in business is more than getting ill by infection. Hence, it is our responsibility to take care of ourselves. These are not normal times, and hence, the luxury of travel for leisure are a thing of the past ( atleast for few years!). Today, we need to stay safe and healthy, and then only we will be able to travel for leisure in future when things become more safer.

Next day, I tweeted about this experience to RedBus, and they reached out to me immediately. Then, I was told that they had taken this very seriously, and reprimanded the bus operators with a strong feedback. I do not say that this will stop immediately as old habits seldom die. But I also hope that things will ameliorate as more people share their experiences on social media, and act as aware citizens. We cannot depend on any organization to tackle this pandemic, but its a collective responsibility now. This pandemic is a test of human patience, and unity as well. The more we collaborate and support together, the weaker the virus will become.

As Steve Jobs famously used to say – Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish. Now I think the time has changed, and the more relevant message for us will be – Stay Home, Stay Safe.

Travel during corona times!

Finally, the day came for which I had been contemplating. I started my journey from US to India on Aug 18th, and landed in Mumbai on Aug 19th. Traveling during corona times is indeed dreaded by most of us. And so did I. But I had taken the decision to return back and so I kept my decision firm. It wasn’t an easy move, but some changes are never easy and also, I believe that sometimes, it becomes necessary to bite the bullet.

The travel by Vande Bharat mission was not the best one, but still considering the pandemic situation, I would say the airline authorities did a very good job. I had been quite used to air travels for business in the last 2 years, but this air travel during pandemic was unprecedented in itself. Earlier, the only three things we need to do at the airport were check in, baggage dropoff and security inspection ( with immigration as another for international travels), that’s it. But now the list has few more add-ons such as temperature checking, 6 ft social distancing, frequent hand washing and sanitizing, and thermal screening. This is like the new normal for air travels now.

Even inside the flight, the job of cabin attendant has been reduced to just escorting the travelers to their respective seats, and keep the food/water on the seat beforehand. The always cherished hospitality by the cabin attendants and air hostess ( in particular) has become a part of history now. No longer are any drinks served, not even hot tea/coffee. Known for their elegant uniform, hospitality and courtesy, today, the stewardess have to wear the nurse uniform with dress, apron and cap. Ofcourse, this is the need of the hour, and in no way, does this demote the role of flight attendants. But the charm and sophistication which used to associated with air travel has been replaced by seriousness and fear of safeguarding ourselves. I hate to write this but nowadays flight journey feels like a flying ambulance!

The Vande Bharat mission has been doing an incredible job of bringing back Indians who are stranded abroad, or want to return back to their country. After my registration and booking on the website, I was told to sign an undertaking which stated that the decision to fly is my responsibility. When I reached the New York airport ( which was quite empty), I underwent temperature check, and they noted down my temperature on the undertaking document. After the usual formalities, I was again thermal screened at the gate before boarding the flight. Inside the flight, as I mentioned before, we were already provided food, water, masks, hand sanitizer and face shield. Everyone was seated with alternating seating inside the flight. The flight was non-stop due to the restriction to not land in any other country. Hence, the journey was long – 14 hours and hence everyone knew that it was not going to be very comfortable. Moreever, no in-flight entertainment was provided which made the journey somewhat monotonous.

Thus, after 14 hours of arduous journey, I landed in Mumbai. Again, we were thermal screened and then began a long and slow process to reach home. It took me 8 days to reach home after I landed at the airport. Meanwhile, a lot of things had to be taken care of, which included successful exiting of airport after immigration, travel arrangements and quarantine accommodation details to be given to the officials. Even at the airport, all the airport authorities and govt officials were inspecting and watching us so that we do not leave the airport before competing all the required formalities. I had to book a taxi/cab to go to Pune ( my hometown, which is 3 hours drive from Mumbai) after I got an e-pass with the police verification completed. Luckily, my father had already acquired the permit for this travel, and so this saved me some time of hassle at the airport. But at the exit gate of the airport, I was again asked about the taxi details, and the officer requested me not to exit the airport until the taxi driver arrives. Then, he took the taxi driver details from me, and contacted him over the phone. When the taxi arrived, he personally escorted me till the taxi, to ensure I did not meet anyone apart from the designated driver.

It was raining, and the monsoon season had ushered in. While traveling to Pune, I saw some of the most beautiful scenic beauty in the Ghats, especially in the Lonavala-Khandala region. Then after reaching Pune, I had to meet the Govt officials again to check the availability of hotels for my 7 day quarantine stay, which were designated as isolation centers. I selected one of the good hotels in Pune, and stayed there for the next 7 days. I had to carry all the bags with me to the hotel as I was not even allowed to drop my bags at home, which was not faraway from the hotel. The most important thing is that I was not tested for Covid during or after my 7 days stay. When I inquired about the Covid test, I was told that it was optional and I had to pay out of my own pocket. Even the isolation centers were quite expensive, and the bill was charged to my name. I wish they allowed Covid testing at the isolation centers ( as they were supposed to be meant for). No wonder why India is seeing the highest Covid infection rates in the world, and the nexus between govt officials and hotel/isolation center authorities cannot be hidden!

Finally, after this once in a lifetime pandemic overseas evacuation travel experience, I came back home. I was nervous about a lot of things as I had witnessed during and after the travel, but on the other side, I was delighted to be at home, in my country, with my family. Fortunately, I was not showing any symptoms related to Covid and after completing another 7 days home quarantine restriction, I was free. I did learn a lot during this travel. After seeing two countries which are equally affected by this virus, and seeing the troubles people are taking to reach and stay close to their family, or loved ones, I started realizing with mixed emotions, that however this pandemic might have changed our life, but the virus is a lot weaker in front of human strength, determination and courage. Kudos to the brave, hardworking pilots who are working so hard to fly tirelessly day and night to reach us safely to our destinations. Hats off to the flight attendants, airport authorities, taxi/lyft/ola drivers who inspite of the risk of virus infection, are working hard to keep the daily operations running smoothly.

The virus might have locked us down in our homes, but it hasn’t locked down the humanity within us. We will surely overcome this pandemic, and we can hope again, that the travel in future won’t be driven by fear or for evacuation purposes, but with happiness, joy and leisure. Good times are not faraway!