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Travel in the Time of Pandemics: Select Diary Entries of an Urban Nomad

By Sunil Sharma

Wherever you go, go with all your heart.

Confucius

The journey is the thing.

Homer

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Reflections, random

It was a Journey of Faith (JoF).

Most journeys are acts of faith.

A daily commute or a long-distance one, humans undertake movements that affirm the principle of belief. Belief in certain ideals.

The pull of a dream!

Kinesis is the fundamental science of change; it is the force behind the evolution of species.

You want to grow wings — and soar!

Migrations.

Birds and animals do the challenging migrations across geographies and climates –for survival.

JoF involves love. For the dear ones!

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Embark on the journey of LOVE. It takes you from yourself to yourself.

—Rumi

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Indeed! It is a similar terrain with similar topography yet varied.

And when love calls, nothing stopping the voyager.

Faith becomes the compass.

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Similarly, we began a travel across continents, deserts and sea, mountains and plains, stalked by an invisible and silent killer.

Homer could be heard in a recess of the mind:

The roaring seas and many a dark range of mountains lie between us.

Travel in the Time of Covid!

From Mumbai to Toronto via Maldives — a journey of five days.

And Love and Faith are our guiding angels.

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Exit

September 8, 2021

Kalyan

12.30 pm

It is raining hard. Suitcases are all piled up. The taxi is waiting. Few friends have come to bid us a quick goodbye.

Brief but final.

We spent months together to dismantle a secure life for the “unfamiliar”. You feel nothing. Just a quick bye — a last lingering glance.

It is over– 30 years come unstuck in a gliding instant. Joys, disappointments; tragedies and triumphs; losses-n-gains. Personal narratives unravel and evaporate, simultaneously, in that single gesture.

The anticipated moment arrives as an anti-climax.

No surge of emotions. No sense of loss.

Nothing.

And the ride begins.

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We arrive at the Hilton in the afternoon. The sky is overcast. Hotels around the airport are not fully occupied. Covid-19 is real. Third wave is expected.

Mumbai is unlocked yet locked up. There is pervasive fear.

Hotels are badly hit. We retire early. Next morning the expedition, our JoF, begins.

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We are sleepless in Mumbai.

A new home calls from Toronto.

One home traded for another — and a long arduous journey involved in the transition.

Certain things end.

Fresh things begin.

Hope. Fear. In equal measure.

Travel, real time.

No looking back now.

All set.

Foreign shores call.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

― Lao Tzu

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September 9, 2021

CSM International Airport, Mumbai

6.0 am

We are in the early-morning queue at the counter which is closed. After half-an-hour, a young female executive sits at the counter of the airline, rest are still closed. In fifteen minutes, the queue gets long, and people wait for their turn. Slow. She takes time to check every document. Finally, another staff comes to open the second counter. Nobody complains.

The jostling passengers in the serpentine queue hardly have the mandatory two meters for practicing social distancing. There are official checks but the global safety protocols cannot be implemented due to the crowds and general apathy.

Nobody minds the non-compliance.

It is India, dear!

After a long wait, we get the boarding passes.

Next, we queue for security and immigration checks. They ask some routine questions. Finally, we are cleared. We move to board the airbus. No social distancing is maintained while boarding.

.

Maldives.

Time: 1.15 pm

The small airport is full of tourists.

Maldives is suddenly full of Bollywood celebrities and hapless students on their long and tortured way to Canada.

For the former, it is a luxury getaway — beaches, sun-bathing, the over-the-water cottages; perfect Instagrammable moments, fodder for the paparazzi.

For the latter, middle-class, wide-eyed young adults separated from their small or big-city cages, it is a pricey gateway to Canada, some kind of a Promised Land, a utopia — the western Shangri-La!

Two different sets of travelers in the Corona period.

At this moment, no stars are to be seen in the airport.

Only large number of Indian students, some parents, and workers, all bunched up, bit tense, ready for the official interrogation.

It is smooth sailing for the Indians and few other nationalities, mostly Asians, at that particular hour.

People move and get directed to various counters.

The documents are scrutinized. Faces, uncovered, and covered.

The long lines are quickly cleared. Officers are polite.

Female officers, covered up, are monosyllabic but overall helpful.

There are more female officers visible here than in Mumbai or Delhi airports!

We are relieved.

The immigration officers can be tough. They might ask you reason for transiting via Maldives. Give them the truth. They may detain a passenger but normally will allow the entry.

— Our had agent informed us prior to our departure.

The WhatsApp group discussions had been confusing. Hostile officers! Some claimed. Friendly! Others countered.

That did not help.

The almost two-hour-and-half flight was spent on worrying about which 50 per cent would fall our way!

To be detained in a foreign city can be daunting. Linguistic and cultural differences, poor internet connection, a roaming number that does not work — all these factors add up to the complications in an unknown location buzzing with people from many countries. Anything can go wrong and you are in a modern limbo; incommunicado with the outside world, on your own.

Incognito!

These fears played on our minds, as we land on a sunny and humid afternoon.

Once we embarked on the adventure, there could be no turning back, Covid or no Covid.

Ready for worst, praying for the best!

Breathing easy, we headed for the exit.

Then, the bump!

Our baggage is held up for additional checks. A female officer asks, “Are there idols inside your suitcase?”

“No,” we say. She nods and asks us to leave. Idols and liquor are prohibited items.

Relieved!

“If any other country does this, prohibiting the sacred objects of a given faith, that government will be dubbed as anti-Islamic. Media will call them spreading Islamophobia. What is this? Liberal governance?’’ asks an Indian co-passenger sotto voce.

The hotel is a large property and full of the Indian students. Few whites also. The view of the ocean and sky is terrific!

A picture-perfect venue.

Chain of atolls stretches in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The sky and the ocean mirror each other, twinning in blue that electrifies the senses.

Here we saw a green ecosystem curated by the travel industry for the wealthy. The resort packs up natural beauty into a commercial package — spas; massages; food; liquors; boating and fishing; surfing and snorkeling.

Other side of Male is poor where workers and other classes live in bleak condition. Covid-19 ruined the economy, but things hope to improve now.

The barriers had been lowered. Vaccinated tourists were returning.

The hotel was on the edge of the ocean. Young Indian and foreign women swim and relax under umbrellas. Indian couples unwind. Women in swimsuits roam uninhibitedly, feeling emancipated, free, under an alien sky.

Outside, along the narrow strip leading to the airport– small stretch — women of any age get that malevolent male gaze!

We spent the night and the next day enjoying the breeze, ocean and the short walks.

And get revived.

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September11

Time: 2.30 pm

The batch of new arrivals is largely from the north of India—Delhi and Punjab. They are sitting in the lobby, bags unpacked, ears plugged in. Some are talking to parents via video calls and reporting their minor discoveries about Male. Eyes are tired but dreams, burning.

“Headed for Toronto?” I asked a strapping bearded man in early twenties.

“Yeah,” he said. “We have to come here for our RT-PCR report. It has cost us a mini fortune!”

“Same here.” I responded.

“They should have set up a lab at the airport in Delhi.”

“Who?”

“The Canadians. They know we will come, the students, via a third country.”

“Yes. No options.”

“Bizarre! We bring skills and money and that is how Canada is treating us! Making us do additional travel for entering the country.”

I nod. “It is a regular brain drain but our country does not care.”

“Yes,” he observed. “1.3 billion! Deaths or migrations, even on a large-scale basis – it matters not. The youth have to re-write their destinies there.’

He was an engineer going to do the data analytics course from Canada.

“Why you want to leave?”

“Well, for better quality of living. What else?”

“It is tough there.”

“Not for the weak, any foreign country. One thing is sure. Merit is recognised in North America. India lags behind. We do not get what we deserve. Hence, the recent exodus.”

He has a valid point.

Same grit is seen on the faces of the young women. They left the security of homes for a dream.

These are the Young Pioneers doing the Journey of Faith. For a dream of equitable society, merit driven.

The young are obsessed to find better versions of a civilization — humane, well-policed and well-regulated.

To escape the grind of a country mired in extreme corruption, casteism, communalism, regionalism, linguistic chauvinism — and subtle racism.

Each one of the group is in search of a Brave New World, mythical or real.

The Talented are exiting.

No policy maker is bothered.

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The hotel has got staff from India, Nepal and Malaysia. The food is good. Service, impeccable.

We do the PCR tests in the evening and wait.

Next morning, reports come — negative.

We are ready to leave Male for Toronto via Doha.

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September11

Time: 4.50—7.45 pm

Male airport

 The horror!

The counter at the business class had a long queue. When our turn came, the female staffer went ballistic. She asked for all the documents related to our son based in Canada. Other documents — RT-PCR reports and vaccine certificates, passports and tickets — were ready but not the papers like sponsorship letter, address, and proof of kinship. She was stern, asked us to leave the counter and return with the soft copies of the documents. It was most harrowing! We pleaded. Told her the embassy had given us visas, but she did not relent.

Paperwork.

Bureaucracy.

She was more of a controlling clerk than a sympathetic customer-care staff willing to help tourists.

Cold logic.

We had a mild shock.

Never expected this treatment from a customer-care agent of an airlines.

No relief was in sight. She was deaf to our requests.

The internet link was unstable in the airport. There was a language barrier. No other senior officials were around to help. The time zones were different. We were stuck.

Boarding would commence soon.

We were almost detained. If denied passage, our schedule would go haywire. We would be spending night in the airport till alternative plans could be made.

Uncertainty can be crippling!

We made frantic calls. Somehow, things worked out. Papers were shown. Boarding passes issued.

We rushed, exhausted but happy.

Bye-bye Male, a city of contrasts. Leaves a bad taste.

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September 12

Doha

Night layover

We tried to rest in the Lounge.  It was a crowded airport and all the lounges full for the business class passengers. It was chilly. I stretch out my legs and try to grab sleep but give up in that lit-up space. The big airport is buzzing with passengers. Few passengers managed to sleep bent over the chairs.

Lucky ones!

Middle of the journey, near dawn, I heard Odysseus singing:

I long for home, long for the sight of home.

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September 12

Doha

Early Morning

It was 8.50 am.

We had boarded the long-haul flight to Toronto — finally. The bunks were narrow in the business class. The entire flight was full. Families. Young students. Everybody in a hurry to reach their destination. About 14 hours to spend on board. It is a demanding job to remain fully masked in those tiny but pricey cubicles.

The economy class is packed.

We are slightly better in that limited area. Bit secluded and safe.

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I watched two movies. Lay down. Sat propped up. The food was not very appealing. The crew was a mix of ethnicities. Polite but bored. Most passengers were sleeping. I was unable to take a nap…instead I dreamt of the spires of the city of Toronto beckoning from afar under a bright sun in a clean blue sky, the latter a heavenly sight for the sore eyes.

I waited for that site as a conclusion to the long journey.

Like every journey, this would end soon.

And that was the award.

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Arrival

September 12

4.0pm

Destination—reached!

Almost on time.

It is sunny outside.

And a magical city springs into a startled view!

It is Sunday afternoon. And we have arrived in a single piece!

We walk briskly across the less-crowded Pearson airport. Minds relaxed. Luckily, the queues were not long. We were cleared fast by friendly officers, collected our bags, came out, tired but delighted…and united with our family, after a long gap.

At last!

It was intoxicating!

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PS: The ban on the India-Canada direct flight got lifted on September 27th onwards. But we do not mind. It was a long odyssey of love and faith on choppy waters and variegated landscapes.

We enjoyed the thrill of becoming mobile again during the endemic curfews imposed by a monarch called Corona and understood the benefits of a science termed kinesis.

Takeaways

…Third day, morning, I have this gnawing emptiness typical of a traveler: Now what?

— Next morning, the epiphany: The end of a formal journey signals the beginning of the other journey.

— Endings. New beginnings.

–That life is a series of journeys only, some within and some, without– constant flux, transformations.

— Every journey delivers this enduring message: Embrace the change, otherwise die by stasis, stagnation…you are already dead inside, if stuck up inside a black hole!

Adventures! We all need them.

Ask Alice. Or listen to Ibn Battuta:

Traveling—it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.

Or, to this shout out by Jack Kerouac for the ones restless for another expedition of body-mind-spirit:

There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.

We plan to do that only.

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