To India and Back: Travel In A Different World
It is possible, with reliance on science, friends, and common sense, to make a trip from USA to India and back within nine days even with changed travel conditions
Assume yourself and everyone around is infectious.
Here is the chronicle of a journey, usually routine and mundane which I have done numerous times, but now done within the context of travel conditions that will become the way we travel in the future. Perhaps this will offer some indications on how to go to India from the USA in the future. I have arranged this is a chronological order to offer perspective on the preparation for travel and the follow through after coming back home in 2020.
Preparation, October 6
Sample collected for RTPCR test at CVS Pharmacy. It has to be scheduled ahead of time, you can only schedule 48 hours out. So, I scheduled for October 6 since India requires a test 96 hours before boarding for India, and my flight was at 2135 (EST) on October 9. Results came back as negative on October 8, and were uploaded on to Air Suvida — the system offered by the Government of India (GOI) via the Delhi Airport Website (https://www.newdelhiairport.in/). This is a vital Website as well as the sites for the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Ministry of Civil Aviation. Air travel in India was shut down on March 25, 2020 and then, starting in June, the MHW and MOCA began to issue circulars that started to relax the restrictions.
The most important development was the creation of ‘travel bubbles’ and the way in which different categories of people would be allowed into India. It started with Indian citizens stranded abroad, and then proceeded to other categories.
I used to wait for the circulars that would typically be released on the first of a month. By early September it became clear to me that a trip was actually possible. These documents are vital. It is here I learnt that for a US Citizen, who is also an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI), my only way of entering India was if I had a negative RTPCR test result (this has now changed by a circular in mid-October) and that test result would also exempt me form institutional quarantine. It is important to study these circulars when planning a trip to India.
I was also reading the medical papers and talking to doctors in India and one thing that became clear is that Ivermectin (https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Ivermectin) was showing some usefulness is reducing the intensity of the viral attack (see, e.g., https://www.drugtargetreview.com/news/59414/ivermectin-shows-activity-against-covid-19-in-cell-cultures/) and decided to follow the recommendations.
Medication, October 8
Had 12 mg Ivermectin at 0840 (EST).
The Journey to Delhi, October 9 and 10
Paul picked me up in the morning at 0545 EST. The car ride was eventless, although Paul talked constantly. This could be a bad thing. To be safe, it is best to keep quiet in a closed environment to reduce viral load which is a measure of expected droplets in the air and exposure time (see, e.g., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7211635/). The more you talk the more you are emitting, so haircuts are safe if the barber is asked to keep quiet. In the car, we were both masked so even though Paul was talking I was somewhat protected. I had him turn off the AC of course. I strongly advise not to be in a car with another person with the windows shut. This increases the viral load immensely. I sanitized hand often.
Check in was as usual with United. Mask use was mandatory in the airport. TSA-Pre was as usual with the normal security screening for those who have been pre-checked by the Transportation Security Authority of the USA (TSA) given that I am a member of the Global Entry program. For the “safe” passengers, the security process at US airports is similar to the pre-9/11 days (for Global Entry see, https://www.cbp.gov/travel/trusted-traveler-programs/global-entry). There was, however, no attempt to check for symptoms or temperature at any time. Boarding was by row number from back without attending to boarding group. I had a Window Exit seat and no one next to me. Stayed masked and kept the overhead air blower on full blast to keep air flowing. Deplaning was by rows and rows are called.
Dulles arrival was fine. The airport was quite empty. Thankfully, Dulles is a familiar space to me and that was important. I cannot use the mask and the eye glasses, but I was able to navigate the airport without any problem.
My friend from Calcutta Boys’ School, Joy, picked me up from the airport and we went over to his place. There too we were attentive to masks and loads, and so mostly stayed outdoors in his backyard. It was a pleasant day and quite a nice meet up with an old friend. We went out for lunch and the drive through the deserted streets of downtown DC was bizarre, but the biryani lunch was certainly worth it. Joy dropped me back at Dulles. Check in at Dulles was smooth.
I was travelling on a single PNR from IAD to EWR, with a change aircrafts at EWR for DEL and then another change aircraft and airlines (Vistara) for DEL to CCU. At Dulles, bags got checked into Calcutta. I was afraid this could be an issue in Delhi, bit more on that later. Although the airport was generally deserted, there was an interesting ebb and flow crowd unlike the constant pressure of passenger. Security again was quick. The United Club in D concourse was closed so hung out at the gate and did the usual Friday afternoon video meeting with colleagues in the department. The boarding for EWR was smooth and on first class, the experience was similar to usual, except for mandatory use of the mask.
The United Club at Newark had limited hours and limited service and only the one next to C72 was open. Was there for about 20 minutes. I had gone out of the terminal for a vape and the reentry to terminal was smooth. I was the only person in the TSA-Pre line. Airport was mostly deserted.
Before boarding for Delhi, they checked the self declaration form that was already uploaded on Air Suvida and also checked temperature. Boarding was very systematic based on seat row, back to front. Picked up a face shield. As I finally settled was wondering — what is the scare? Getting COVID or getting stuck in a lockdown? 14 hours to ponder the question. Masks were required and the flight was about 60% full. Not a single non-Indian on the plane other than United staff.
There is always a lost day in the travel to India. This was the day; the flight was fine. I had the 30G seat but the aircraft was empty enough that the 33 middle row was completely empty and thus stretched out and slept well. The flight was shorter than anticipated with a strong tail wind, and so was in Delhi close to 2045 (IST).
The Delhi process was really smooth. Deplaning was done by rows and it was orderly; once out, there were different lines for different people and I was in the RTPCR negative line. It was quick, they checked my temperature and then stamped my wrist with the home quarantine instructions for 2 weeks. Immigration was rapid as was the collection of bags, except they pull off the bags and set them out and you have to look for your bags. I exited through green channel and then followed the pathway to exit the airport. They checked the stamp on my wrist all the way before I was out.
The stamp essentially said that I need to “home quarantine” for 14 days and this was a challenge because I was supposed to leave earlier than the 14 days. I also expected that databases were not all linked, so my Air Suvida data, which would have the stamp information, was not linked to the passenger manifesto for United Airlines that I would fly on October 18. The key was to remove the physical mark on the body. A couple of days of shower, and then vigorous application of a cotton wool dipped in Teachers Whiskey followed by rubbing with Kara brand nail polish remover took the stamp off.
The car from Ibis Hotel took a few minutes to arrive. Everyone was masked around me and I requested the car driver to wear the mask properly and roll down the windows. It is all about viral load and this way I would be less exposed. The check-in process at the hotel was slow but carefully done. They checked temperature before entering the hotel, sanitized all the suitcases, gave me hand sanitizer, and asked for the Arogya Setu App. Since I did not have the AS App working, they wanted to see the “Negative” test result and I handed them a copy of that. I was carrying about 10 hard copies of the test result, GOI exemption, and the self-declaration form and handed them out whenever anyone demanded to see it. Keeping hard copies worked better than showing it on a phone screen. The Ibis room was as usual and there were only two options for room service around 2300 hrs. and the food was good. Went to bed feeling relatively content having made it to Delhi after nearly 7 months, the longest I have been gone from India for a long time.
Reaching Calcutta, October 11
Got up earlier than wanted to, there was a lot of noise in the hallway with what appeared to be people partying through the night. Usual shower and coffee made in the room and then took the hotel car to the airport. By now, the system was already set in place — all masked in the car, windows rolled down, no talking.
Lost my eye glasses on the way. Actually the glasses narrative was interesting. I spent the entire time in Calcutta without an eye glass! It still all worked out because I am nearly blind in one eye and I realized that the luxury of India is that I do not have to drive, and there is always someone nearby to tell me what was written on a board or display screen if I could not read it.
Delhi domestic (T3, gates 1, 2 and 3) was relatively empty. I used the porter service (INR 300) to help me get into the airport. They checked my reservation from behind a Plexiglas barrier and it could have been either a paper or electronic reservation and either would have worked. They checked temperature before entering the airport. There was a little confusion about baggage. I had the same PNR from United for the entire journey and I had checked in one bag in IAD for CCU. In Delhi I wanted to check in a second bag but that would have cost an additional INR 8,000 because it is priced according to the original PNR and since Vistara is not a part of the Star Alliance they do not waive the second bag fee for Star Gold travelers. So, had to repack a little and eventually checked in only one bag. The security process was well organized overall and went through security without any difficulty.
At boarding they required wearing the face shield for aisle and window seat passengers and for all middle seat they required the gown. The aircraft was 100% full but felt relatively safe. Mask use was mandatory but appropriate use was tricky to enforce.
The Vistara flight was a hopping affair. The first leg was to Lucknow. The deplaning was very orderly and the halt was about an hour. The flight from Lucknow to Calcutta was less full with same restrictions. Interestingly, they served a very nice sandwich on both legs of the flight.
The arrival into Calcutta was perfectly punctual and disembarking was reasonably orderly, although people were not maintaining any distance. This is something I got used to rapidly. The Indian population density is not meant for distancing and those who are accustomed to maintaining a “private space,” especially people from the West, have always found this unnerving. I teach about this when I bring students from my University to India and they are always amazed by how close people get to each other in the Indian culture. Today, this is a challenge because it poses the risk of spreading the disease. Yet, this is a part of Indian life, especially in a place which also sees a significant class hierarchy with the so called, “lower class” often having a way of life that is quite different from the way the “middle and upper class” would live, as well as distinction between the urban Metro population and the non-urban. All these vectors of difference become acutely important when a nation is adjusting to a new disease.
At Calcutta airport there was no screening of the arriving domestic passengers and I was able to leave the airport in the same way I have done hundreds of time before. My driver met me, and we were off to Salt Lake. The roads were relatively empty and the temperature hovered around 90 F. Yet we kept our windows open, and I had to gently remind the driver to wear the mask appropriately and keep quiet. The class division plays a role in this as well. I quickly realized that it was possible to tell people, again who were the classic subaltern in society, to comply with the health requirements. This could not happen in other places, and it is worth pondering its merit, especially in a World where the health of all depends on compliance by all.
I reached home in time for lunch followed by a comfortable nap.
The Calcutta Phase, October 11 to 16
The period in Calcutta was marked primarily by a lot of work that required me to be at different places including government offices, private offices, restaurants, some markets and shopping centers, and a police station and so at every point there was a slightly different experience in terms of how people were handling themselves.
As I had noted earlier, the differences between socioeconomic status, class, knowledge of science, level of education and similar demographic factors all seem to play a role, although not necessarily in an even fashion, where one could classify people based on these demographics and their response to the virus.
It was heartening to see that people were willing to listen and learn, and I took the opportunity to explain over and over again why it was important to wash ones hand with soap. Even people who were well educated, but not necessarily aware of the biology of diseases, actually felt that washing hands “killed” the virus. It was interesting to remind people that a virus is not a living entity. However, people were willing to listen and talk to others as they realized how this disease works.
One of the things that became very clear is to get around Calcutta, and because most of my work was in a relatively small area a few square miles, it was best to avoid using a car, for example Uber or Ola. Instead I decided to work with an auto rickshaw driver who I picked up at random from the main auto rickshaw stand near City Center 1 mall in Salt Lake. My proposal for him was to exclusively work for me for the next several days and sort of become a rented auto rickshaw as opposed to a rented car. One condition of the deal was that he would not be permitted to take any other passengers while he was with me. This was an attractive proposition for him and as well for me and so we struck a deal and for the next few days almost all my transportation was provided by this gentleman in his auto rickshaw which he kept sanitized and clean. This was an interesting exercise because he said that he had never been made such as proposition and was confused about how to price it. Sow we spent a little time working out what his income would have been if he did not take my proposal, and then we added a 30% premium on top as sort of an opportunity cost and eventually struck a deal for INR 500 for eight hours per day. If anyone is interested and your domain of activity is within Salt Lake, I can share his information privately.
In general I found that people responded to the threat and if at times I would request somebody to put on a mask or adjust the mask they would comply and they would understand my request which is quite a bit different from the way it has been handled in the United States. My work was done within the week and I was able to accomplish everything that I had gone for which meant meeting a lot of different people in different settings including allowing people into my home where nobody else other than me and the caretakers were staying. What was really awkward is the fact that I did not get to meet any of the people I usually meet when I go to Calcutta, for example friends from my school days, family members, even my cousin and his wife who live upstairs, I waited till the very end so that I was sure I did not have any symptoms before going and talking to them. This is a big change and I believe that this change is something that we will have to deal with in the near future.
One of the things that became clear while in Calcutta, is the fact that people are taking this virus seriously and realizing that there may be ways in which to protect themselves against the virus in addition to the hand washing, mask wearing and distancing. There is evidence of the use of medicines such as Ivermectin that seem to provide some degree of protection against the virus.
Overall, the experience in Calcutta was quite good in the sense that I did not feel overly risky when I was going around because I was taking necessary precautions and felt I was in control of the situations. I had the opportunity to meet with some local scholars, my lawyer, a building person, and some other people who I needed to meet in order to get the work done.
I spent time with Swati’s mother, but always was indoors with her for short periods and masked, and had also started her off on Ivermectin.
Before leaving Calcutta I had the standard COVID treatment medicines delivered to my home.
As for the glasses, I had originally purchased them from Himalaya Optics at City Center 1 and simply called them to make a new set and it was delivered to my home the day before I was leaving Calcutta for a total price of $60 (frame and lens). The period in Calcutta was over on October 16th on which day I left for Delhi.
I had to take an Ola to get to the airport and once there, the entry to the airport was quite well organized. My suitcases were sprayed down with some form of a disinfectant, my temperature was recorded, and then the check-in process was quite smooth. I was traveling on Indigo Airlines and I had purchased the “fast forward” service which made the checking in process quite smooth and the efficient.
It was really at the security line that I felt that the situation was a little out of hand because there was literally no distancing and people were clustered together very closely. That made me a little nervous but nevertheless it worked out okay and the flight from Calcutta to Delhi on Indigo was a non-stop flight. I had an exit row seat and because the seats come at a premium there was literally nobody around me and there was quite a good amount of distancing. The rest of the aircraft was full.
Deplaning in Delhi was relatively smooth although there was a lack of distancing and then the exit from the airport in Delhi was also quite nicely done. Everyone had to walk through a sort of a tunnel where the temperature was being recorded by a thermal camera and if your temperature was normal you could exit out of the airport.
The Delhi Phase, October 16 to 18
I was in Delhi for two nights and two days. I reached in the afternoon, spent the rest of the afternoon and the evening in the room self-quarantining: watched some TV, got onto Zoom with friends. For dinner I went out to the Nehru Place Metro Station which was relatively deserted but the restaurant that I like, Dhaba, was open and it was a nice dinner.
In Delhi I again arranged with an auto rickshaw driver who was willing to wait for me and took me around.
The next day I was quarantined in the guest room, and went out only a few times: for lunch to my favorite South Indian restaurant at Kalakaji market, a brief meeting in the evening in an outside location which was again at Nehru Place, and then for dinner again went to Khidmat another one of my favorite restaurants. The day went off uneventfully and went to bed.
The last day in Delhi I stayed indoors most of the time and eventually just left for the airport to get on the flight from Delhi to Newark.
What is interesting is that I was leaving India prior to the end of my quarantine — this is why removing the stamp on the hand was vital.
The Return to the USA, October 18 and 19
In Delhi, at the airport, I again engaged a porter which allowed me to go through the entrance to the airport relatively smoothly. Here again my temperature was checked and after that I checked in with United, which was a smooth process with United. Being “Star Gold” the line was empty and I was able to check my bags in and everything was done including immigration and security quite rapidly and I was in the departure area of Delhi T3 within about 45 minutes.
The airport itself was quite deserted, most of the restaurants were closed, the duty free shop was open as well a few other shops and only one airport lounge was open. I spent the time in the airport lounge which had restricted access to food and beverages and it was actually brought to me based on a menu almost like in a restaurant. I was there for about 2 hours, made a few phone calls and then boarded the flight back to Newark.
The boarding process was smooth there was no other additional checks and I got my seat which was thankfully a window seat and there was nobody next to me and the entire row of three seats was available to me. Being a night flight, a dinner was served in economy and I slept some, worked some, and within about 16 hours (strong head wind) was back in Newark.
The flight was about 70% full and the majority of the travelers were elderly Indians who must be traveling to see their children and grandchildren in the USA. Immigration at Newark was exactly 45 seconds at the Global Entry kiosk which is now using face recognition to allow entry into the USA. There was confusion at baggage pick up but eventually I was able to get to the lounge in good time to get a leisurely cup of coffee and eventually the normal flying experience back to IAD and then to GSO. Paul picked me up again and I was feeling a little more confident with a good dose of Ivermectin in me. I was eventually home on October 19, exactly 10 days after I had left from home.
I allowed for four days for any infection to incubate and sample collected for RTPCR test at CVS Pharmacy and I tested negative. Stopped Ivermectin.
Please contact me if you would like to learn the details of making the travel arrangements to India from the USA