Returning Home: An American Expat Evacuates India During COVID-19

Returning Home: An American Expat Evacuates India During COVID-19

Robin Stremlow

Read about a difficult journey home from India during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Robin And Bodhi Waiting Outside American Consulate In Mumbai
Robin and her son

It was scary at times. The waiting. I wasn’t sure if we would make it out on the U.S. government evacuation flight in two days. India had implemented travel bans on all roads and authorities weren’t shy in enforcing them. The taxi drivers I contacted told me they were too frightened to drive the 45 minutes to the pickup location, hearing of their friends being beaten by bamboo sticks or afraid their tourist driving permits would be ripped up, preventing them from making money once the bans were lifted.

Sitting under a bulbous half moon and a pair of palm trees, hearing the buzzing motors of a few rule-breaking scooters speeding by my balcony, I asked God for help. Surely someone could assist my toddler son and I in returning to America, to a country whose confirmed cases were literally 108 times that of this South Asian nation. In all the heightened fear and quick developments of the COVID-19 pandemic, I also questioned if we really would be safer in Michigan. After all, Indians seemed to be adhering to the total lockdown order. That would flatten the curve, right? That would keep us safe?

We were living in a one-bedroom apartment above a 12-person household near the beach in north Goa. Amidst my prayers, one of the elder brothers shouted up that he had found a driver. We would be leaving at 7 a.m., before the police stand guard on the Siolim bridge.

I barely slept that evening. My son woke to me putting the last of our beach belongings into our only piece of luggage—a big black backpack (we only intended to be here a few weeks and left near everything else we own in western Rajasthan, our home for the last 15 months). The 2-year-old, all innocent and sleepy-eyed, asked what we were doing. 

Grabbing his shoulders and giving a kiss on his head, I told him, “Well first, we’re going on a short taxi ride then we’ll take a super long bus ride and sleep in a big hotel tonight. And then, tomorrow, we’re flying on a plane all across the world to see grandma and grandpa!” I feigned excitement to keep his, and perhaps my own, spirits up. Truth be told, the traveling made me perhaps more nervous than anything else that would await us in the next few days. I also lied, knowing we wouldn’t see his grandparents for at least 14 days after re-entry to the U.S.

We were one of the first groups to arrive at the pickup point. The other, of course, were the police. They were monitoring our activity. Several took pictures of a water bottle offered from gloved hands to a weary American backpacker (per the usual Indian way of showing off any proof of altruistic acts). Within two hours, there were nearly 60 of us stranded Americans clustered around piles of luggage, most of us with masks and scarves tied tight around our faces. A few people kept to themselves, honoring the world’s call for social distancing, yet knowing full well we would be packed onto buses and filed into lines at the consulate, and surely sit side-by-side on a plane bound for Atlanta in just over 36 hours. We were aware of the risks. Emails from the embassy in Delhi told us social distancing would not be possible and to consider this when signing up for the flight.

My son fell asleep just after the small parade of full-size Mercedes-Benz buses arrived, already half-filled with tourists from other Goan cities in the south. The State Department’s assistant regional security officer, Mark, was dressed in a casual pair of khakis and soft cotton blazer, with no mask. He asked us to queue and wait for the local doctors to arrive who would check our health before boarding, an attempt to speed along the estimated 15 checkpoints en route to Mumbai; two were completely closed except for food-delivery trucks.

More Checkpoints

We were first in line for the health checks, my son being the only child at this pickup point. I watched the doctors’ confusion in trying to establish what determined “health” for each of us. To my surprise, it was only a self-declaration that we weren’t experiencing the top two symptoms of the novel coronavirus—fever, dry cough—and an arbitrary listen to the lungs. The doctors were nice enough, but this frivolity made my anxious stomach tighten. 

Aboard the buses, we were asked to close our window curtains and be prepared for very few bathroom breaks and no food stops. A box of military-style MRE meals sat next to the driver. Without checkpoints, we had an 11-hour drive. My child occupied with an iPad and cashews, I slept whenever I could.

We stopped at only four checkpoints while I was awake. One time a police officer climbed aboard to count us, but the rest were dealt with by Mark and a few Indian nationals charged with assisting the safe passage. The villages were near empty, the expressways void of cars and tractors. The stray farmer collecting kindling for cooking fires gawked at our convoy, surely confused at how there were tourists moving about. The front and back windows of each bus bore signs reading “Essential Service Evacuation of US Citizens from Goa to Mumbai”—if this wasn’t American privilege, I don’t know what is.

Fifteen hours after departure, we pulled up to the Sofitel luxury hotel in Mumbai, walking distance from the American consulate. The government organized special rates, $80 for a single room (half my budget for a month’s lease near the beach).

At 2 p.m. sharp the next afternoon, we were asked to line up outside the consulate as we were handed a mask and a form to sign. At this point, I saw just how many of us there were, around 250. My son and I were again put at the front of the queue (having a young child has its perks) for the health check consisting of another self-declaration and, this time, a forehead temperature scan. 

Inside the consulate we were corralled into groups by last name. R through V was the most full, and soon there were over 30 of us just in our group alone standing shoulder to shoulder awaiting the American worker behind the glass to call “Next!” and invite us to sign our government promissory notes. This evacuation was not free and we had to promise to repay the full cost of the one-way plane fare and ground transportation, estimated at upwards of $2,000 per traveler. This would be my son’s first flight with an adult fare, the most expensive flight of either of our lives. 

Departing the Mumbai Airport

With the plane scheduled to depart Mumbai at 10 p.m., some travelers became antsy after four, five, then six hours waiting in the building. A large flat-screen played 101 Dalmatians to the delight of the dozen young children climbing on their parents or strapped into strollers. I found a quiet place for us near a group of millennial-age Bollywood dancers who played Yu-Gi-Oh cards and talked about how strange it would be to drive after seven months away. 

Finally, my section was called and we lined up outside, this time a few feet between each numbered circle that counted the heads about to board the final set of buses to the airport. I sat next to a posh American woman in her 50s returning to Aspen, disappointed that her planned year abroad came to an end so abruptly. 

The distance from the American consulate to the Mumbai International Airport isn’t treacherous or long, but this brief 30-minute drive will haunt me. Never have I seen something so eerie. A city of 25 million, quiet, empty. Each billboard and brightly lit LED sign now white, with red lettering, displaying simple cartoons with prevention tips like how a sneeze into a tissue will stop the spread. 

The airport was completely empty except for those tasked with assisting our evacuation: four police checking passports outside the doors and one scanning foreheads for fever, one set of operational check-in counters, two people scanning bags, plus a small group of security officers. Ours was the only flight departing that evening. 

Just before 10 p.m., we boarded the Delta chartered flight. Some passengers scored first- and business-class seats at the same price as those of us in economy. We were told there would be limited services during the 17 hours in the sky. A flight attendant told me this Atlanta-based crew flew here on this same plane, empty, just to bring us home. The crew all wore masks and gloves and were incredibly gracious despite the escalating nerves of many passengers on board. A short, older man one row ahead of me started to panic. His brown duffel bag apparently disappeared from the overhead bin, no one nearby knowing where it went. Niceties were gone at this point as a handsome flight attendant shouted to our section that we couldn’t take off unless someone located this missing bag as now we had a security issue. The man’s bag was under the seat beside him. He claimed he had no idea how it got there.

To my surprise, the young woman sitting beside me, who never wore a mask, grabbed her pillow and phone and left the seat just after takeoff. Her friend was seated a few rows away with a (rare) empty seat beside her. My son and I now had a whole row to ourselves. 

I kept my mask on the entire flight except while eating from the two meal boxes offered up, filled with packaged croissants and yogurt, a banana, some rice pudding, and limp chicken sausages. Alcohol wasn’t offered onboard, nor was hand sanitizer or the privilege of using a first-class bathroom when all others seemed to consistently be in use. I was aware of how oddly quiet everyone seemed. No crying babies, no coughing elders, very few announcements from the captain. My son and I slept with a blanket over our heads. 

Back in the United States: A Road Trip Begins

At 4 a.m., we touched down in Atlanta. Half the passengers clapped, a few shouted praises, and more than a few clenched their jaws. Clearly, the sentiments of us vacationers and expats were mixed. We were now on the ground in one of the hotspots of COVID-19 and as soon as we stepped off the plane, we were on our own. All onward travel, via plane or otherwise, was up to us. Also, shockingly, the U.S. government did not require, or request, any of us to quarantine.

I rented a car and opted to drive the 14-hours to northern Michigan. Waiting in the Atlanta airport for an almost-sure-to-come flight cancellation to Chicago or Detroit seemed too risky. We would drive. The rental car shuttle drove seven of us who shared our travel plans—Charlotte, Tampa, southwest Michigan—and light-hearted camaraderie. We were home, sort of. 

By 7 a.m. my son was strapped into a car seat for the first time in months and we were off. 

Astounded by the number of cars on the road in Georgia, I opted not to stop for water until reaching Tennessee. In this state, more of the same. Why wasn’t anyone wearing a mask? Why weren’t the gas station employees wearing gloves? And why were there people everywhere?

The lack of precautions and isolation witnessed on arrival in the U.S. fueled my anxiety. Did I really make the right decision to bring my son back here? In India, people were at home, only, and covered up when they couldn’t be. But here, it seemed like people wanted to pass around the virus. Did Americans really want to test the healthcare system already calling out its overwhelm? Was the government right in not enforcing stay-at-home orders? I gulped, and continued to drive.

Small purple flowers appeared among the budding green trees of springtime in Kentucky, a lone fisherman on an aluminum boat in a roadside lake. I eased into the recognition that this is America and the simple pleasure of scenic drives or morning fishing would not be taken away no matter what invisible dangers exist. 

Starting to feel the drag of our bodies still operating on India Standard Time, 9.5 hours ahead of Eastern, I opted to sleep early at a hotel in northern Indiana. I chose our stops deliberately, hopeful that rural locations offered less likelihood of picking up, or passing along, the virus. I was asked, and offered, little of our travel story. I was taking precautions best I could, but I knew we were part of the problem. We traveled farther than nearly anyone during this pandemic.

Awake early and energized by the idea of home, we left again at dawn. Michigan made me proud. It was quiet. We were often alone on the roads, and I saw masked faces in the rare instance I saw humans at all.

By afternoon, I had dropped off the rental’s key at an empty Enterprise counter at the Traverse City airport and had picked up my Jeep parked outside by my parents. 

I pulled into the dirt drive of an old centennial farm and smiled seeing the familiar yellow brick and sagging window ledges of a house built in 1906 by my great-greatgrandfather. The house has been empty the last five years, owned now by my father’s cousin and best friend who lives downstate. He offered this home as our quarantine pad, and my parents and sister came by just hours earlier to clean, stock the fridge, and turn off all the security cameras. 

My dog, an aging golden retriever named Jax, was now here as well. I rounded the drive and he perked his ears from the outdoor kennel. My little family was together again.

My son is still confused as to why we’re not at grandma and grandpas (it’s only been three days), and I’m still not sure where home will be next month or if we’ll return to our tiny house in Rajasthan before the year’s end (or ever?). While we haven’t yet shown any symptoms of COVID-19, and while the number of cases continues to skyrocket in the U.S. while only creeping upward in India, I am confident we do need to be here now. 

As the jetlag comes to a close and I’m no longer waking at 3 a.m., I’m settling into this new collective reality. Most everyone I know is tucked into homes with those closest to them, awaiting news of a reprieve—a vaccine, a leveling off, a safe passage onto reopened roads and into workplaces, a return to our comfortable chosen ways of life.

One thing I am still sure of is how scary it can be at times. The waiting. For Americans here and those left abroad, and the countless Indians, Italians, Spanish, Chinese sharing in this unknown, together.

Read more from Robin Stremlow.

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