Planet Bombay

India's City of Dreams through the eyes of a Brit who calls it home

Travelling to Delhi During a Covid Surge — Part 1 of 3

Air India plane, Mumbai Airport, Covid-19 pandemic travel.
A flight attendant dressed in PPE carries out pre-flight duties in the tail of an Air India plane.

We went to Delhi for a wedding one weekend in November. It wasn’t the best time to travel to the capital — Covid cases had been rising inexorably and there were rumours that the city would be placed under full lockdown again, even as the virus seemed to be receding in other parts of the country, including Mumbai. There was a very real chance we’d end up getting stranded in the city — or, worse, stranded with Covid.

Despite the circumstances, we were keen to make it to the wedding. Both the bride and groom were classmates of mine in a boarding school situated in the hills of South India more than a decade ago and we had remained good friends since. D had grown fond of them too in the shorter time that she had known them.

November 20th – The Flight

It was our first trip outside Mumbai since the start of the pandemic so we didn’t exactly know how to prepare for the journey. I had spoken to a friend who had recently returned from Goa to find out what his experience had been like. But each state and union territory has implemented its own travel rules during the pandemic and these rules seem to get tweaked on a regular basis, so there was no guarantee that our experience would be the same as his.

We were notified by our airline that we should download Aarogya Setu, the government’s track-and-trace app, and show up at the airport at least two hours before departure. We didn’t bother with the app as our friend had not been required to show it at any point on his trip, and I had read that we would be able to fill out a self-declaration form instead. But when we joined the surprisingly long queue outside the airport terminal, it was immediately apparent that an airport employee was checking each passenger’s status on the app and there was no sign of the self-declaration forms.

Screenshot of Aarogya Setu Covid-19 track-and-trace app.
The Aarogya Setu app.

The app is fairly simple — it asks you a series of questions about your health and marks you as safe if you’ve not reported any Covid symptoms or been close to someone who has reported symptoms. We stepped aside for a few minutes to download the app and answer the self-assessment questions, only to find that I couldn’t login due to a glitch and D didn’t have enough bandwidth to complete the download. Nonetheless, the airport employee waved us both through after scanning us with an infrared thermometer.

The check-in concourse was teeming with travellers — almost as many as would be expected in pre-Covid times. We had checked in online — as all air passengers are required to do nowadays — but we had to queue up at the bag drop counter and interact with check-in staff all the same. Social distancing was pretty much impossible despite the regular reminders being broadcast over the PA system. And the security concourse was even worse, with passengers clustering around the X-ray machines and jostling for the plastic trays.

Because our tickets and boarding passes were in electronic form, our phones were handled by multiple people, including the security guard at the terminal entrance, the check-in staff, the passenger screening personnel, and the boarding gate agents. The thought of this lurked in the back of my mind throughout the entire journey. Suffice to say that we got through a fair amount of hand sanitizer.

When we got to the boarding gate, via a short visit to Starbucks, we found that every alternate seat in the waiting area had been marked off with an “X”, a rather pointless measure considering all the crowds we’d encountered up to that point. Upon boarding passengers were issued with PPE which we were required to wear in addition to a mask — face shields for all passengers and protective gowns for middle-seat passengers.

Air travel is an undignified, largely joyless experience at the best of times, but it’s become a whole lot worse over the past year. Being herded like cattle by airport and airline personnel, rushing breathlessly from one slow-moving queue to another, being ordered to dump personal effects onto an X-ray conveyor belt by humourless security officers, shuffling down a crowded airplane aisle and stuffing carry-on bags into a jam-packed overhead bin while bland background jazz wafts through the airless cabin, and squeezing into a seat seemingly designed to accommodate a small child or hobbit — all these things are still integral to the whole experience. But now you have the additional indignity of spending the entire flight dressed like you drew the short straw in an under-funded nuclear clean-up operation.   

Most of us removed the face shields once we were seated. The thought of wearing the damn thing for more than five minutes was intolerable, let alone the entire duration of a two-hour flight. Even some of the flight attendants wore the shield with the visor up for most of the flight, and I certainly didn’t hold this against them.

As soon as we had landed in Delhi and taxied to a halt at the terminal, a few eager passengers unbuckled their seatbelts and jumped to their feet, only to have airline staff order them to sit back down. We were told that we would be deplaning row-by-row, and I was pleased to know that we wouldn’t have to endure the usual mad, desperate scramble to retrieve bags from the overhead bins. But, while the deplaning process initially proceeded in an orderly fashion, it quickly devolved into the usual madness, with passengers filling up the aisle and frantically grabbing their belongings as though they were afraid the plane might take off again before they had a chance to get off. Once again, even the most half-hearted efforts at social distancing went out the window.     

Once we’d got off the plane and retrieved our suitcase from the baggage carousel, we went straight to the hotel. We had booked into a Radisson Blu near the airport. Thanks presumably to pandemic-induced low demand, we had snagged a pretty good deal — we were basically paying a mid-range nightly rate for an upscale hotel, breakfast included. Once we had settled in, after a much-needed shower and a hearty dinner, I took some time to work on a speech I had been asked to deliver at the wedding.

At some point in the evening, we received an email notifying us that the wedding officiator’s landlord had contracted Covid and, because the two used the same gate to access their respective apartments, there was a chance that the officiator had also been exposed to the virus. The wedding would be going ahead, with disposable masks and ample amounts of hand sanitizer provided to all guests. The guest list had already been restricted to 34 people, including videographers, sound engineers, and musicians. And, as an additional precaution, the officiator would conduct the entire service wearing two masks and a face shield. Nevertheless, the bride and groom would understand if guests decided to sit out the wedding in the light of this new development.

November 21st – Boarding School Buddies Reunited

Having come all the way to Delhi, we had no intention of missing the wedding, Covid or no Covid. On Saturday morning, after breakfast, I headed to the venue in the Green Park neighbourhood to help out with last-minute arrangements. I was looking forward to catching up with the groom, PI, for the first time in nearly a year. But the circumstances were bittersweet, as I shall now explain.

PI hails from eastern Australia. He and his bride, PD, a South Indian girl who grew up in Delhi, got engaged over Zoom in the summer. The usual challenges that come with planning a cross-cultural wedding had been exacerbated by the pandemic. Australia’s near-total ban on international and inter-state travel made it impossible for the couple to be together.

It was only when PI’s dad passed away suddenly in Ooty, where he had been a staff member at the aforementioned boarding school, that PI was granted permission to travel to India on compassionate grounds. Though he was not able to travel in time for the funeral, he was at least able to reunite with his mum in the days immediately after it. The family was still coming to terms with the loss when they embarked on the daunting task of organising a wedding within the relatively tight window of time they’d been given.

The groom appeared to be his usual chirpy self when I found him, despite having been up most of the night. He had kindly offered the spare bed in his room to J, another school friend, not anticipating that the latter would miss his afternoon flight and catch a red-eye, rocking up to the hotel sometime after 3am.

PI was in the midst of changing into his suit. J was fielding calls from a collective of creatives he had set up in Bangalore while an Amazon Echo he’d brought with him pumped Zombie by Fela Kuti throughout the room and the landing outside, to the displeasure of some of the other hotel guests who complained to the staff. Several torn-open sachets of Nescafe strewn on the counter above the minibar bore witness to a gruelling morning.

It was just like old times — J’s chaotic caffeine-fuelled energy counterbalanced by PI’s laid-back adaptability.

J and I have been good friends since our school years when we were roommates more than once. But I had not seen much of him since he moved from Mumbai to Bangalore in 2017. The last time I’d seen him was, coincidentally, the last time PI had visited Mumbai — January 2020, just before the pandemic hit.  

J styles the groom.

Another former classmate of ours, A, was staying in the neighbouring room with his wife. Though he and I had got on well at school, I had not heard from him since we graduated in 2005. Apparently, he had kept in touch with only a handful of school friends and had shown little interest in showing up for class reunions. He too had settled in Bangalore.

While I was getting ready, PI presented me with the wedding rings, instructing me to look after them until called upon to hand them over during the ceremony. It turned out that I was the only groomsman who’d been able to make it to the wedding and was, by default, the best man.

J fixed me a strong cup of instant coffee. I would be needing it.

To be continued in the next post

Sam Northcote

“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” — L Smith

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