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Yashovardhan Maheshwari, a freshman at the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus, was aboard one of the last planes allowed to fly to India on March 20, two days before that nation imposed a temporary ban on international flights. Here’s his first person account of traveling home.
Panicked and confused, I was housed in an Airbnb near campus in Urbana during spring break. The closure of university housing had forced us to vacate our dorms and move into a residence nearby on March 14. Uncertainty prevailed as university officials were tight-lipped on the duration of remote learning and I was stuck in two minds regarding whether to fly back home or not.
If I were to decide to fly back home to India, then coming back to the university in case of the recommencement of face-to-face instruction would have been near to impossible. So, in the apartment, I waited anxiously for the massmail declaring remote learning till the end of the semester, one which would bring clarity and respite for international students.
As soon as the massmail appeared, I set into action. First, to book tickets to my home country, India, which was to suspend all international flights in a few days. Without considering any other factor, I booked the earliest ticket available on March 20, which was the second last flight to fly from the U.S. to India. Next, I packed up my entire dorm room in a day and put all of the stuff in storage.
It was an anxious bus ride on the Peoria Charter from Champaign to O’Hare, as I was eager to embark on the 14-hour journey to be surrounded by the safety and familiarity of my country. Though, I was unaware of the challenges I would face before seeing my family.
Feared by the pandemic outbreak, panicked by their home country closing down borders and exhausted from the emotional turmoil, each passenger at the O’Hare airport shared the same pain.
To some extent, each passenger with a boarding pass was relieved — some breathing through N-95 masks — but they were worried about all possibilities on arrival to their home country.
The 14-hour plane ride was comfortable and didn’t seem unending like a routine international flight. Maybe it was the company of scared international students or the fear which made time trickle faster.
Aware that I would be screened on arrival at Delhi International Airport, I had completed my health forms in advance in hope of a smooth process but what awaited us was complete chaos, ruckus and mismanagement.
Violating all guidelines of social distancing and basic human courtesy, the crowd of passengers weren’t ready to form a standard line rather pushed each other and gathered in herds for the medical screening. With the officials unable to get the situation under control, the screening was halted and all the passengers were made to wait. After an hour, once the screening resumed, no particular order was established. People still gathered in close proximity to each other and chaos prevailed.
After the screening, I was made to stand in another queue without any information about what lay ahead. Confused and clueless officials scratched their heads as they had no answers to any of the questions. Releasing people in small groups, the process was extremely slow and mismanaged. I was released from one line to only join a larger herd of crowd waiting to join another line.
Distanced at less than five inches, the worry of contracting the coronavirus made me anxious, but in order to exit the airport I had to brace the long lines and herds of people. Further, I also had a connecting flight from Delhi, India to my home city of Bhopal, India which was supposed to depart in a few hours. I anxiously tried to seek help from the airport officials explaining to them my situation but they were blunt in informing me that it would be impossible to catch the connecting flight as there was a six-hour wait before we could clear immigration.
I felt my knees give away as it got harder and harder to stand amongst the crowd of people. My body quenched with thirst, but water was in short supply and the authorities were providing us with none. Tensed, scared and exhausted, passengers started shouting slogans against the mismanagement of the authorities. The voices increased as the chant became louder and united all of the stuck, drained international passengers.
Released again only to stand in another line for immigration and customs. This time around the authorities made all the passengers sit as the expected wait time was higher. With no internet access and mobile connectivity, interaction with strangers kept us going. Suffering together, we all had one thing in common. Finally, after an 8-hour wait, we managed to reach the immigration counter where they collected our passports and sent us for baggage claim.
Having been deprived of food and water, fatigue engulfed my body as even walking seemed like an impossible task. Some respite came in the form of protein bars I had carried with myself, but water was in no supply.
After immigration, the authorities divided the passengers into groups of 10 and I was put in a group with my fellow mates from UIUC. The group was to wait for their number to be called out before they could accompany an official to baggage claim.
Even after our number was called out, it took standing in four different lines and a total of 3 hours to reach the baggage claim.
Our bags were taken off the conveyor belt and kept with bags of thousands of other passengers. Stumbling and tripping over other large suitcases, it became impossible to spot my own bag. With the help of strangers and my friends, I managed to locate my bag but it didn’t come without an ordeal. Once we had our bags collected, our group of ten was told to wait until our number was called for the final stage which was the second health screening where the authorities would decide whether we would self isolate at our houses or be taken to a government facility for quarantine.
We were tense because no-one wanted to be quarantined in the hospital away from their families, but we knew it wasn’t in our hands. To release the tension, we talked with each other and shared our life stories. It was then some refreshments were brought to us by officials. The food packet included juice, a sandwich and water. It wasn’t enough but definitely much needed.
Once our number came, we were taken to individual rooms where we were screened with a throat examination for symptoms by health officials. Once they screened me completely, they briefed me on the importance of self-isolation and instructed me to be self-isolated at my house. It was a big relief as I finally came out of the airport after the gruesome 16 hours.
Exiting the airport at 6 a.m., my journey wasn’t over here because I had another connecting flight from Delhi to Bhopal which was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Hurried, I managed to board the aircraft and embark for another 90 minutes before I could reach my home city and be united with my family.
Screened again on arrival at Bhopal, I was authorized to go home. Relieved, drained, but jubilant and just happy to be out of an airport, I entered a city that made me feel safe and home after an unforgettable 31 hours.