Travel Diaries

- Vineeta Pant

“There are six exits: two in the middle, two at the rear and two in front… the emergency lights will guide you ….” *……“This is your Captain. We are about to take off. We will be cruising at an altitude of your imagination. Hope to complete the flight on time. Thank you for choosing TWT Airlines. Our support crew is always there to assist you. Sit back >Relax> and enjoy the flight! We will update you from time to time.”

For a frequent flyer who enjoys hopping flights and living off suitcases, the world suddenly changed mid-March 2020. An abrupt grounding as all flights were terminated due to the unseen, unforeseen onslaught of a microscopic virus that made the ‘’C’” word look more formidable and more dreaded than the F words that have been floating around.

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Well, bumping into strangers, elbowing for space in the middle row, ordering in flight  goodies (if you are on corporate allowance or eyeing them if not), frowning at the not so savvy fellow travelers,  “look who’s travelling ..”, purposely smirking at the smart trim skirts of the cabin crew just because your mid rib extra fittings wouldn’t allow the belt  to hold your flab, rushing to deplane when the plane halts or deja vu   … rushing to board as if the flight may just leave mid boarding  or maybe there were some national award for deplaning or boarding first!!! Well, all these suddenly seem part of the good old chaotic world (Tedha Hai Par Mera Hai).

Let me just change course here and take you to the late 1980s when my marriage was, well, “fixed” to a space scientist. Like our fellow women tribe I had soaring expectations. I was building castles in the air of me in a space suit travelling to the next planet or star or moon. Well, being a space scientist’s better-half: “Itna to banta hai” (that’s the least expected)! Of course, on landing in Trivandrum or rather tumbling out after a three-day journey, the ground reality hit hard. My take offs and landings were in auto rickshaws and special commentary was haggling with “autopilots” in an alien language.

Fast forward 30 years: travelling by all modes: trains, buses gave way to flights as more and more flights were added cheap fares get cheaper with smart deals making coming and going easy as a cake-walk. Loved it, hated it but yes became a part of the “ rush, fly, rush hour”. The astronaut thingy however still popped in my idle musings simmering on the back burner. Let’s come back to the present time. Ah! This time, where everything seems to be suffixed, prefixed or affixed by the “C” word!  After 9th March I had to fly again on 13th Dec and no, it could not be avoided. So, we book tickets after much argument. Me reluctant: let’s book tomorrow. He: No, Now! I try to focus on what was taught in the last API documentation class. Nodding, I need to be back on 18th for my next class…and as the tickets are done, I glance at his mobile. The tickets booked are Blr-Tvm-Blr instead of Tvm-Blr-Tvm!! The mobile app is blamed, It morphed things midway! The laptop in my custody was still flashing Make my trip and Indigo example for APIs given by our ever-enterprising mentor Pallavi. He looks at the laptop and gives me THE LOOK. If I hadn’t hijacked the laptop…let’s fast forward a bit. I leave the MadCap flares , outbursts and pots and pans to your imagination. The next booking goes through careful scrutiny, drafts and revisions: ‘C’orona makes us ‘C’autious!!! Tickets finally done! Getting ready to fly the ‘lean clean flying machine’. The clean part is attractive and comforting. Already butterflies are hatching somewhere! Now begins registration with Jagratha portal of Kerala for E pass. Feeling so important … First time in three decades, my coming and going matters!!!

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Reminders to print passes, forms, self- declaration and even baggage tags! Couldn’t be that smart airline crew wrapping the tag around my bag? Well, here’s my chance to live my dreams! Packing starts: first is all the turmeric, tulasi, neem, giloy, cloves, black pepper honey- ginger concoction. Looks like I’m starting a spice factory!  Masks sanitizers gloves: …check.. 

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The night before the D day is spent tossing and turning: we booked the window seat for me and the aisle for him assuming no one would like to take the middle one. Who would like to be in a PP suit!!!! In the darkness of the night all guards drop dead and questions, apprehensions raise their ugly head .. the one in the middle row comes with a long stick asking for samples from my nose!!! Should we cancel the trip? Already lost 11k and the scenes! Daylight makes things lighter and with my pounding heart we reach the airport well before time. No! don’t touch the strollers! Our bags have four-wheel drive. There are other people there OMG! and there are strange patterns on the floor like the Onam flower rangolis or Diwali alpanas with large footprints of the Devi. I murmur my prayers! The security won’t touch your pass, place it on the glass screen …place your id card on the screen, lower your mask. I scan the premises for people who may be breathing the unseen “C” my way, quickly lower my mask, flash my smile and smugly enter the fort with a magical glass door.

No queue at any counter. The baggage tag printer is not working! A masked alien in a PP suit comes to our rescue! I hope I’m not in a hospital. I pinch myself. Follow the alien. Let’s do the familiar check in. Dreams of being the airline crew not being realized yet but her smile is familiar and reassuring. We ask her about the mid-row (nose sample demanding!) passenger. Can we get a seat change? Sorry “C” times! it’s not allowed!   Move to security check: another drill of placing your  boarding pass on the screen and lowering of mask and further the frisking by security staff in PP suit who dons tea-cozy- like- apron covering her head and face: a small opaque window showing her eyes.. No stamping the pass. Finally, we find a secluded corner, spray sanitizer and sit down.  There are a few people wearing alien protective overalls that cover their feet too. Shouldn’t we have invested in that?  Am I on planet earth? Some dreams get realized in a funny way. I wonder if these under-cover aliens are “C” positive, I ask my worse half only to get “the look”. We go back to rummaging WhatsApp and Instagram. I frown at a family enjoying some snacks!!! Insane! I feel. Using the washroom is another art.. opening the door with your elbow. Well, I can take a tutorial on this no link-in bio!!!.

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Announcement for Indigo flyers to collect their PPE kits! I grab two of these prized possessions like a school kid getting a prize and tear off the packaged goodies. Don’t we look like semi astronauts with face shields and masks? And those middlemen and women in their PP suits white gloves waddling around. I am going to the stars finally!!  The scientist with “the Look” is beside me. I’m grounded.

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As boarding is announced there is the mad rush again. Some fears don’t die down even in the face of the “C” word, what if the plane takes off without me? As we waddle down the aerobridge with the face shields, gloves and some in PP suits, I get the astronaut feeling again!  As we board my space bubble, the crew is missing, only fellow astronauts in white disposable PP coats and shields greet us. We plop down in our window and aisle seats and start wishing away each PPE passenger. One heads towards our row but moves further down. Announcement! Boarding completed! Yay… the space is free. As I let out the sigh of relief, my face shield fogs. We are reminded to keep our face shields and masks on at all times. I am amused at the reminder to remove the face mask in case we need to use the oxygen mask! As we are airborne the pit in the stomach gives way to the thrill of zooming out as the land below becomes a distant green canopy and then God’s own country disappears beneath cottony clouds. The cabin crew, wrapped in white, begin selling their wares, still smiling with their eyes and assuring voices. I barely look at them. We pass the sanitizer sachets between us rubbing our hands profusely putting all Lady Macbeth’s efforts of “out damned spot”, to shame! Could I get an Oscar for doing this part so well? And the 55-minute odyssey comes to an end after months of waiting and nightmares. Well, it was well done. Or maybe just begun.

Usually, Hatti Kappi or some such joint would be our first stop before boarding the BIAL bus and enjoying the two- hour ride but this time, both have been struck-off our list! We have researched that Ola cabs are the clean machines to drive in town so armed with the app we dash to the Ola point: twice the drivers have cancelled already. At the pick up point we are told “No Taxis”!! No buses… (some strike) we start sprinting towards the airport taxi stand which is at the other end. I should have taken part in all those fancy marathons my cousins were running and posting pics on insta and fb!! Well, the sprint was worth it. People ahead, quite a few, but that’s the only thing working! 45 minutes of dreading all those humans in the queue. The only consolation that the queue behind was getting longer. Finally we clinch our ride and zoom into our destination: Hotel X, even though my daughter, her in-laws, my sister and other relatives are all out there. Corona times!

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10: 30 pm not bad. At the gate temperature check, then bags sanitized, shoes and even the soles .. feel tempted to ask if the soul can be ….? Sanitizers with sensors and sanitizers with foot pedals adorn the walls at regular intervals. At the end of the silent corridor, we find our room 1519 a sticker taped across declaring “this room has been sanitized”! Space odyssey or “C” times? The comforting clean room looks tempting but before that we have to sanitize: masks disposed, hot water doused, used clothes packed in a bag and kept separately in a corner of one wardrobe. Unpacked my spice factory and neatly arranged all the powders near the electric kettle. Answered all queries from  worried dear ones, assured them we are “safe”, we settle down to a dinner of home packed methi parathas. Couldn’t open anywhere en route, didn’t want to tempt the “C”! 11:30 pm order milk from in- dining. I don’t know if anyone does that but turmeric pepper milk is a must. A masked alien wrapped in a disposable gown serves it outside the room!! Time to snuggle in the sheer white softness and dream of my space odyssey. Tomorrow is another day!

Day 2 – 5 Bangalore: The most looked forward breakfast time has protocols again. No going to counters everything will be served. The buffet is displayed though. We wear double masks, of course after finishing all the courses, don glasses and decide to take ola autos, they are breezier and with screens. Driving through Bangalore roads was never so easy!! The sub registrar’s office was a nightmare. Terrifying prospects: so many humans in one closed space!! The clerk taking eternity! Finally, the deed was signed, photos taken and we were out of that packed “palace of hallucinations”. People with masks around their chins, people with masks below their nose still haunt me.

Every trip back to the hotel followed the scrub-rub-ritual to the teeth. The electric kettle served more than one purpose and became our steaming pot every evening! Dinner packed and sent by daughter every evening through a double masked Son-in-law who looked more like a superhero on his superbike. Meeting my daughter, grand-daughter was another project. Masked up we saw them in their apartment garden 10 feet apart yet the look of recognition the little one and a half year old gave us, made our trip! She had seen us popping in the mobile and maybe in her imagination we lived in the box!!

Return flight to Trivandrum was a repeat of the first but this time a white clothed alien did sit in the middle row- as scared of us as we were of him!!!!  The green canopy starts zooming in and the pilot takes us out to the sea before Touchdown.

Home sweet home!!!! Ah yes, we are under home quarantine and the health department called on us the next morning! But wait, the story doesn’t end here… a day later another call. Guess who??? After enquiring our health, they clarify, “we are from the mental health department. Do call if you need help”!      

About the Author

Vineeta Pant is an educator, Business English Trainer and a Freelance Writer who loves to romance the words.

Vineeta
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