I Quit My Job To Travel The World. Then Coronavirus Trapped Me Abroad

The pandemic was barely on my radar, until I found myself running from a tsunami of border closures.
Courtesy of the author
HuffPost UK
Courtesy of the author

I loved my job. It was well-paid and I was a success – but after 20 years in the role I came down with chronic fatigue and anxiety through work-related stress. I’d overloaded myself, become completely burnt out and unable to work to the standard I expected of myself.

After surviving breast cancer in my early 40s, I had always wanted to squeeze as much out of my life as possible. But it was now time to take a real break - so I gave my work three months’ notice and left, excited to have escaped.

When I arrived in India this January, I’d already been travelling for a year. I now fulfilled my dream of visiting the extraordinary cave temples at Ellora and Ajanta, and spent three peaceful weeks on a beach in Goa. It was around this time I started to hear a bit about coronavirus, but I must admit it wasn’t really on my radar – I had made a point of not following the news while away.

Covid-19 finally entered my world when Indian states started closing their borders in March. Suddenly, I found myself running ahead of a tsunami of lockdowns. In Rajasthan, I was refused entry onto an overnight bus to Pushkar – the Indian tabloid press were blaming the virus on Westerners and other Indian passengers were frightened by me. I felt so sad, as I have always loved connecting with local people and have met with great friendliness wherever I went. But now, I could sense the atmosphere was changing.

When I finally made it to Pushkar, I found the only available flights home were crazily expensive, and would take me 48 hours via Dubai, Moscow and Amsterdam. So many airports, so many people, so many risks.

“Prime Minister Modi’s one-day curfew turned into full-scale lockdown. Like so many other travellers, I had no chance of leaving.”

The very next day, Prime Minister Modi’s one-day curfew turned into full-scale lockdown. Like so many other travellers, I had no chance of leaving. I began to hear horror stories about hotels throwing guests out on lockdown out of fear, or suddenly tripling fees out of greed. The group of travellers I was staying with – five other Brits, four Italians, one Israeli, one German – had never felt more grateful for the family running our guest house.

On the other hand, I have to say the British High Commission was a shambles from the start. Anecdotally, it felt like people of every other nationality were either being flown out or receiving clear information from their embassies. All we received were generic emails telling us to stay put and obey local laws. While we heard of further flights for other nationalities, the UK continued advising us to stay where we were and book the next available commercial flights, which we did, watching them then be cancelled three times in a row.

Eventually the UK High Commission announced repatriation flights to the UK. All of us Brits registered to be repatriated as soon as we could. This turned out to be another shambles, instead of entering our details into some sort of online form, we were asked to email in with our interest in flights home. With some 20,000 Brits in India, this created a huge amount of paperwork and only wasted more time. Knowing so many Brits had serious reasons to return home – many older, or needing health care or medication – I began to feel we stood no chance of getting home.

However, after a month of lockdown in Pushkar, with no-one allowed to enter or leave, there were no reported cases of the virus in the town. That left me feeling happier waiting there – I was safe, had really good company and my daily outgoings were small enough to manage.

I knew, too, we were lucky to be locked down as a community. Not being able to be in close physical proximity with others, not being able to hug someone close in tough times, must be difficult.

“We had all become really close, we had joked that it was like being in the Big Brother house”

Pushkar is one of the holiest places in India, and it would normally be buzzing with pilgrims and tourists. But during the pandemic the view from the hotel’s terrace, which overlooked the holy lake and temples, was deserted and beautifully peaceful. The wildlife had taken over, we were well entertained by watching the antics of the monkeys, there were cows and dogs wandering around, there was also a pair of nesting kingfishers in the bodhi tree, and giant fruit bats flying over the lake at night.

Finally, at the end of April, our group of Brits at long last received our emails offering us flights home. The cost? £544, including transport to Delhi airport 400km away, and a hotel overnight before the flight home. Though thankful for our safe stay in Pushkar, we were all incredibly relieved. While official number of cases in India was low, the virus was getting nearer – in Ajmer, our nearest city just 20 miles away, case numbers were beginning to jump.

The morning came when we were due to leave to meet our bus, and it was pretty emotional. We were incredibly grateful to the family which runs the hotel, and I knew that I would miss them and the rest of the group left behind. We had all become really close, we had joked that it was like being in the Big Brother house. Fortunately we can all be in touch via social media and I’m sure our friendships will last into the future.

While Delhi airport was super efficient, I was surprised that we weren’t screened on our arrival back to the UK. We were just told to go home and self-isolate – whereas in Australia, for example, all returning citizens are bussed to hotels for 14 days quarantine.

After a month in our bubble, now it’s time to enter our new ‘real’ world.

Sharon Little was CEO of the Greeting Card Association for 20 years, she left this role in December 2018 and spent 2019 travelling

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