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Erasmus Shenanigans "Not all those who wander are lost"

The Journey from London to Chennai mid-Pandemic

INDIA | Friday, 19 March 2021 | Views [70]

    My alarm rang at 8 am - a full 7 hours before my 3 pm British Airways flight from London Heathrow to Kempegowda International Airport Bengaluru. I was ready for the journey by 9.30 am and was settling down to have breakfast, when my taxi company called to inform me that Heathrow tunnel was closed. ‘Will I still be able to get to Terminal 5?’ I asked worriedly, reminded of what had happened the last time I booked a taxi to Heathrow a year ago. ‘Yes, although we’re advising customers to leave an hour earlier due to road works’. After circling my entire block to locate the taxi which was barred from view due to HS2 construction work spanning my entire street, I shoved my oversized American Tourister suitcase into the boot and listened as the driver apologetically explained how he couldn’t help me due to health and safety regulations. The windows had to stay rolled down throughout the full 1-hour drive for ventilation and, of course, we wore masks. I was glad I’d tied my hair up when we reached the Westway.

    I reached Heathrow 4 hours before my flight and sat at the entrance observing the changes. Every other seat had large red signs telling people not to sit there and to maintain social distance. The normal check-in counters were closed and the employees at the Bag Drop counters were boxed in by plastic sheets, the way Barbies are packaged. While in the queue for the temperature scanner, a British Airways employee asked if I had filled out the ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19): declaration form for international travel from England during stay-at-home restrictions’ form – something the British government had deemed mandatory the week I was travelling. I nodded, walked through a temperature scanner and queued to check-in. Here, I was asked for my negative covid test result which I had done 2 days prior. Next was security – endless empty lanes with friendlier-than-usual staff. I had roughly 3 hours to kill before my flight, but nowhere to go. All the usual retail outlets were closed. Curiously, a few employees sat inside the barricaded stores and I wondered if theirs were the easiest jobs in the world. A handful of duty-free stores and coffee shops were all that remained open. I realised that I’d walked the entire length of Terminal 5 when I found myself at the edge of Area A overlooking the aeroplanes outside.

    Once my gate was announced, I took the intra-terminal train to Area C and waited at gate C63. British Airways staff handed everyone a face shield which we were to wear for the entire flight over our masks. The plane was at two thirds of its full capacity, with gaps between each set of travellers. I carefully entrusted my ukulele to a flight attendant, having never travelled with a music instrument before. 8 hours and 45 minutes later, I landed in Bangalore Airport. We were made to disembark in small groups. Three excited flight attendants waited at the plane’s exit, one of them holding my ukulele. ‘That’s me!’ I exclaimed while grabbing my baby a little too hastily from their grasp. When I joined the queue for the covid test, a red-eyed man in front of me turned around and said he didn’t understand how to fill in the self-declaration form handed to us on the flight. After explaining he needed to write his Indian address in the section he was pointing to, he strangely asked if I could fill it out for him. ‘As if I’d know your address’ I thought and declined, seeing that he’d already filled out half the form.

    I was at the front of the queue when two airport workers started yelling for a passenger named Swathi. I watched them yell up and down the queue for a few moments and hesitantly told one of them that my name was Swathi. ‘Oh this is Swathi!’ she said to her co-worker in Kannada. Meanwhile her co-worker had brought another Swathi to the front of the queue which left us all confused and unable to figure out which Swathi was needed. ‘There’s a good chance her name isn’t spelled the same way as mine’. I peered at her declaration form and said ‘Yep, mine ends with an I not a Y’. They told us both to go up. ‘What’s going on? Why do we need to go?’ I asked, making the other Swathy stop. ‘Someone needs assistance or something like that’. Swathy responded ‘Oh that’s me then, I know the person who needs assistance’. I slowly backed up into the queue again and rolled my eyes in exasperation at the woman who’d sat near me during the flight.

    A trained worker swabbed my tonsil and nostril for which I then paid Rs. 800 (£8). Compare this to the £120 I paid for the exact same test at Boots! Next was a temperature scan followed by a pulse oximeter test. It was here that I was branded like cattle by the man behind the counter. He stamped ‘UK PASSENGER 12.03.21’ on my forearm. I started laughing and looked at him; all he said was ‘Don’t sanitize for 10 minutes’. Finally, I reached immigration where the fingerprint scanner refused to work. 24 hours of no sleep was starting to take effect when I momentarily misplaced my boarding pass, making the officer at the desk was visibly angry. I followed the signs to the designated waiting area, where I braced myself for a 7-hour wait as stated on the Bangalore Airport website. The cramped waiting area made me uncomfortable, especially coming from a lifestyle of keeping two metres apart in my lab since July 2020, when I had returned to work on my PhD. Employees from various food outlets were taking orders; I bought an iced coffee and a sandwich while I worked on refining a protein model on my laptop.

    I noticed a steady stream of people leave the waiting area and overhead the elderly couple sitting behind me saying they’d received their test result. ‘Were you on the London flight?’ I asked, ‘Yes and we got our results so check your email.’. Worried because I’d already used up the 45 minutes of free Wifi, I re-attempted connecting to the internet and miraculously found the email with my negative covid test result. I managed to leave the waiting area in under 3 hours, instead of 7! I hatched a plan to surprise my mum by taking an earlier connecting flight from Bangalore to Chennai. This proved relatively easy. I felt a twang of emotion when I saw Chennai written on the screen at my gate and thought about how difficult making this journey a reality had been. I was almost home. Again, the airline staff handed us all face shields before embarking the plane. This 1-hour flight was even emptier than the British Airways flight – there was no one else in my row of 6 seats.

    The only check I went through at Chennai airport was a temperature scanner aimed at my forearm. I collected my suitcase and wondered how I’d get home since all the taxi counters inside the terminal were closed. I stepped outside and was offered a taxi by a driver waiting near Arrivals. On the way home, we chatted in broken English and Tamil about the coronavirus situation in Chennai and the new rules and regulations. Certainly, things seemed better here than I’d left them in London. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I arrived 15 minutes after my mum had to my flat – a lucky break indeed! She was shocked but overjoyed to see me as I’d arrived a full 6 hours earlier than I’d told her. I now had a 14-day quarantine ahead of me but was more than happy to spend it at home after being away for 14 months. 

    Today marks the 7th day of quarantine. The government called in the morning to ask if I’d been staying at home and to inform us that they’d be sending someone to swab me. Three people in an auto were waiting for me outside the gate. One of the men asked for my name, age and phone number. The woman sat inside the auto sloppily swabbed my mouth and then nostril. The whole thing took less than 5 minutes. Now I have to wait for a negative result, else be institutionally quarantined. 7 days to go! 



Checked during journey

British Airways Passenger Information Form

No (but emailed)

British Airways Passenger Declaration Form

No (but emailed)

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Declaration form for international travel from England during stay-at-home restrictions


72-hour negative covid test


Air Suvidha Self Declaration form details for international arriving passengers


Tamil Nadu E-pass


Branded like cattle

Branded like cattle

Tags: bangalore, chennai, coronavirus, covid-19, london, pandemic, quarantine

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