Long Showers, Loud Music, Deep thoughts and stranded streets – Those 70 days

March 17-May 26,2020 Manila, Philippines.

It was quiet, too quiet. I heard someone knocking on my door and realize that I was in my deep thoughts under the shower for so long.

A Guy with loud music from the next room said, Covid-19 is all nonsense, why is everyone inside the room so scared, there is a party going on here, why don’t you join me?  I said thank you, but Covid-19 is no-nonsense and it is killing a lot of people.!  he shut the door on me. The guy was stressed being inside for so long. He was stranded for a long time I thought.

Being tough, battling through this life all alone, making countless mistakes. I was tired of all of it. This was a much-needed long break to recharge life.

I was living up my dream of backpacking and traveling around Southeast Asia and a few other countries this year. Happy, free like a bird, walking around, biking around crazy distances, eating local street food, making new friends, and enjoying beaches. Couldn’t take the shock of this whole world coming to standstill.

My trip started in Vietnam on Jan 2, 2020, and I was able to travel until March 6, 2020, covering Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, March 7th, is when I landed in Manila, Philippines. I was at least able to travel around Palawan and Cebu until March 17th. I wanted to travel around a few more islands but when I heard about lockdown in Manila and other islands, I stayed back in Moal Boal for a couple of more days.

Nobody including the airlines themselves had any clue about the whole situation. the local airline agent informed that Clark International Airport at Manila which is 40 km from the NAIA (Ninoy Aquino International Airport) is still open and I can take a shuttle transport between two to reach NAIA… but it wasn’t that easy as I understood… 😦

I was pretty bummed when I first reached The Mactan airport in Cebu and heard there will be no domestic flights to reach Manila. Next moment I get to hear Malaysia is shutting down too. People looked confused; it was chaos.

I was upset and worried that I can’t move further. my traveling has come to an end. Hurts, especially when you quit your job. the whole purpose is lost!

Confused in my mind, hungry I wandered with my backpack between the chaos at the airport. I was lost like a sheep, everyone around me looked confused, lost with no clue what next.

Mactan International Airport, Cebu, Philippines

Grabbed some coffee and booked a hostel as there was no option left but to head back and wait. looked for a hostel preferer-ably one closer to Mactan airport so that I get the updates from the counter directly. But unfortunately, not all of the counters were helping people at the airport. Flights were canceled over and again.  All my money was stuck in airlines, my credit card was exhausted.

My visa was about to expire and did not know when will be my next flight. I didn’t have a face mask and didn’t bother to buy one until I was sent back from the immigration office at the door. The Door said “no mask, no entry” and then when I went in search of the mask, Unfortunately, masks were out of stock☹

The immigration officer denied extending my visa beyond 7 days when neither he nor I or this whole world knew how long will it have to be extended:-)…officer did not bother about the situation. The charges were heavy. I was sent to the cashier to pay 2500 Pesos for just 7 days (about Rs 3750) which pinched my pocket as I already ran out of money.  

Unfair I thought! I came out of the office and called the Indian Embassy in the Philippines. They insisted not to pay since Immigration is going to roll out an advisory and shall waive off the fees for aliens who are stranded. I never went back to the BI officer (Bureau of Immigration). it was strange, but I was happy I did not pay and lose that money.

Moalboal was the only beach place in Cebu which was still open for travelers. Everyone seemed to be waiting at the bus terminal to head back to the beach. so, did I. But after 4 long hrs. of wait in the queue, I gave up.

HQ Hostel was in closer proximity to the bus terminal. It was clean and cheap where I could afford to stay longer especially in such a situation. 7 Eleven and a few fruit vendors were still open for essentials. Many of us from diff national including locals were stranded. We all waited patiently, busy looking for flights and talking the same subject every day. I was hoping March 25 via Singapore will work this time. But that too announced its closing.

A Bangladeshi Guy from the hostel was going to the airport. I and another Indian guy quickly jumped into his car to check if there is any other option to fly back home. I was also considering to fly to any other country if possible. At the lobby, we got to know that Philippine airlines are arranging sweeper flights from Cebu to Manila helping people stranded on various islands to fly back to their home country. provided the passenger has the confirmed flight tickets with the max stay of 5 days at Manila and also confirmed hotel booking. Without these two confirmations you are not allowed to board the flight,

Well, I decided to take this flight and go to Manila, considering India and Malaysia will lift the lockdown by March 31st and we can fly after. And also since Manila has better connectivity being the capital of the country.

March 24th, we land in Manila. It was a mistake I felt! Streets were haunted. So empty and stranded. I shared a taxi with two other guys from Turkey and reached “The Leaf House” The accommodation was boring and 4 times expensive compared to Hostel in Cebu. There was no other option as everything was shut because of lockdown. Felt ridiculously bad. ☹

The empty streets of San Juan City in Manila during lockdown

Well, here I am. So stuck and so helpless. India kept extending lockdown as the number of cases went rising and I eventually ended up staying 70 days in the same place.

People asked me …

How does it feel being stranded on an unknown island for 70 days? How am I holding up staying all alone for so many days? and what about food, stay, and money? What do you do all day? Many thoughts travel through your mind when you are alone at such times. Holding on to only positive ones is difficult. Especially when you are locked in a room of 10×10 feet with a small window that opens into a dead wall and no good view.

Well, for once I wished if I were to be stranded for so long then why didn’t God put me by the beach closer to nature?  it was tough! In such times when you have a lot of time, it’s tough to be holding up, to slide away negative thoughts, and stay calm all the time.

Having said that, Lockdown In a way was good at times. 70 days is a lot and enough time to Introspect your own thoughts and feelings? I started asking all the big questions about life. My past and present. The future just looked pitch black!  I do try and wish many things, but nothing comes easy for me. I Have to believe “Trust in destiny”. 

As the days passed, every day I gave up a little in my mind. What is the hurry? who is waiting for me? few questions came to my mind. My whole perspective changed the way I looked at life. All your expectations/ wishes go down to just basics. only if you reach home safe and live healthily, will you make your wishes come true. As said “Jaan Hai Toh Jahan Hai”

A number were reaching sky high. so many deaths every day. it was scary! who knew this pandemic (Covid-19) will spread so rapidly, takes away so many lives and the whole world comes to standstill? The way media flashed the number of deaths every day, the crazy number of cases rising up thousands In Italy and other parts of the world would make me think. what would I do if I get infected? I don’t know anyone so close that they will come to help me in this country. No clue whom to contact for medical help etc. But I was hopeful and somehow had confidence that I will be fine and shall reach home safely. For this time, The Sense of life and death crossed my mind!

To keep calm, I started my day with sun salutations and stretching a bit. Cup of tea and a walk around a small stretch kept me healthy. Spending time reading online books, watching some TV series. San Juan city was pretty crowded despite many cases around the area. But for a certain time in the morning hours. People didn’t bother to stay home. I went out once in four days to buy some food, grocery etc. from 7 Eleven. Stocked up some cup noodles, peanuts, fruits.

Romel is my running friend who introduced his friends lived in Manila, Philippines. Smita and Abraham are lovely people and they helped me a lot throughout this whole journey. They both took care of my food and guided me on an Indian restaurant who delivered food. I had limited cash on me for daily essentials. Since I had no clue when India shall announce repatriation flights, I borrowed some money from friends and siblings.

Tried all possibilities to move from this place. Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea were still open. but were unlisted by many countries to enter. With the rising numbers of the corona, the rule of 2 weeks quarantine was implied as well. It was rather difficult to make any decisions.  

I got in touch with India in the Philippines through their Facebook page and a few others using messenger. Apparently, there was a WhatsApp group with about 200+ people excluding students. The Indian embassy was part of this group. The embassy was helpless until the Indian government took any decisions for repatriation.

People were frustrated and impatient. Everyone seemed stressed. Group messaging was helpful but it was stressful at times. People were restless, too many opinions and speculations. There were few who wanted to discuss Indian politics at such times. Blame on the Indian Modi government and rest would rise up and react.! Who would be interested in listening to such crap and their opinion in such stressful situations?  

India’s lockdown kept extending and had no clue on international flights. Will I ever go home? What if I didn’t for this entire year? How will I manage living here and what would I do? I was ready to even take up some work if Manila offered me. Difficult it seemed.

I stopped reading news and constantly looking through Messages as it was too disturbing. I was shocked to see thousands of Indian migrant workers walking back home with no means of transport due to the lockdown, trying to reach their loved ones. Many of them dying from starvation, exhaustion, road and rail accidents, police brutality, and no medical care, etc, I stopped complaining about myself about my situation when compared to them.

The Indian Embassy in Manila was very helpful. In fact, when the face masks were out of stock in the market and I didn’t have one with me, the team came all the way to my door and delivered masks and hand sanitizers.

I was constantly in touch with the embassy through their phone and social media. They were pretty active on twitter. My brother’s friend who is a retired Indian army personnel suggested me to open an account on Twitter and follow all the updates on Vande Bharat Mission.

I started following, India in the PhilippinesMoCA_GOIHardeep Singh PuriDr. S. JaishankarAnurag SrivastavaS. Suresh KumarCM of KarnatakaPMO India, and AirIndia. and a few more who I thought would also be helpful in this situation.

When the Indian government announced of repatriation flights, The Indian embassy sent out a bulk email to all Indians stranded in Manila. Tourists, students, business travelers, etc.

I then registered myself with all the details and signed an undertaking form which stated that I abide by all the rules set by the Indian government for 14 days quarantine upon arrival in India. Followed by which Air India sent out an email for the confirmation. It was on a first come first serve basis based on their scheduled departures to various cities in India. The first flight of the Vande Bharat Mission started was Manila to Mumbai.

I waited long to get a flight for Bangalore. There was no flight to Bangalore in phase -1 which was May 10-17. phase-2 schedule luckily had one flight May 24 to Bangalore via Mumbai.

I followed the embassy’s web page every day for any news. since Manila was in ECQ, No aliens were allowed to go out during this time. provided you have an ACR card with you for any emergency. The visa extension fees were meant to be waived off as per Embassy’s advisory rolled out sometime in March, but when I was about to take my repatriation flight. I was charged for an extension fee of about 7310 PHP for 90 days. I wasn’t in a position to argue, all I wanted was to go home.

The visa extension was carried out at the airport itself. We all were expecting the embassy to pitch in and request the authorities to waive off the fee for all of us as we already spent a lot on our overstay. but that is at the BI’s discretion anyway.

Saw AI flight landing. I was happy. I got a pic of my album too. Many Indian students who studied medicine in manila were going back home. We all took photos and waited patiently. The waiting lounge was full and there weren’t enough seats. I sat on the floor near the staircase. Slowly, others joined me. There was no social distancing in the lounge. 

The flight was scheduled at 6 pm and the waiting time went beyond schedule. Are we really flying today? Soon there was an announcement. There was some technical issue with the plane. The embassy was kind enough to provide food and accommodation at the Holiday Inn. They arranged another flight the next day. And FINALLY, AI takes off. 

Appreciate the entire team from the Indian embassy & Mr. Ambassador Jaideep Mujumdar for their efforts. The team was helping Indians with pickup from their respective places to food, Masks, Sanitizers, and any other issues with their immigration documents, etc.. They were available at the airport morning until every flight took off to India.

My experience flying the Repatriation flight arranged by the Indian government under Vande Bharat Mission. Manila, the Philippines to Bangalore via Mumbai.

Boarding the flight: My flight was at 6 pm. but as per the embassy’s instruction, I reached the airport at 11 am. It was a long wait outside. Our bags were sanitized and A basic thermal scan was conducted at the entrance gate. Social distancing was maintained while we checked in and our bags. We got our boarding passes and packed meals arranged by the embassy. We could either eat before the immigration or eat after while we wait for the flight.

Masks were handed over before boarding and a pack of snacks while seated on the plane. I was hoping there will be a seat gap between the two as per news channels to maintain social distancing but no, the flight was full. There was no gap between seats. Many weren’t even wearing the plastic face shield that was given to them. and people ate the snacks without any sense of responsibility. I was seated between two men and they both dint bother to wear the face shield. We were asked to avoid using toilets on the flight if possible.

Arriving in Mumbai: As we touched down on Indian grounds, I breathe a sigh of relief. We can’t get off the plane and be instructed to be seated in the plane until they collected our boarding passes of the flight already traveled (Manila to Mumbai). Mumbaikars got off the plane.

Arriving in Bangalore:  Yes Finally! Here I’m in Namma Bengaluru. I could literally sense the earthy scent. Happy to be home. Bangalore airport was much stringent in following the social distance practice. A basic check on the oximeter was conducted at the entrance and we were asked to fill a form with the choice of 5-star, 3-star, or budget hotel (Oyo rooms) for 7 days quarantine. There was one hotel listed in each category. TajHotels for 5-star at 4,900 INR per day and Lemon Tree for 3-star at 1,850 INR per day. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were included in the room price.

Downloading Arogya Setu app was mandatory. After the payment to the hotel and the bus, we were then shuttled to our hotels.

At the quarantine hotel: There is a long procedure at the hotel again, we waited on the bus for long until the hotel was ready to receive us. Our bags were sanitized before entering the hotel, Sign forms, and pay for the room. you can use the card, if you don’t have Indian currency after landing.

Settled I felt. But, not yet! The so-called 3-star hotel bed woke me up in the middle of the night with a bed full of bugs. I was shocked at the sight of the bugs and had to clean all my bags and change my room in the middle of the night after such a tiring journey. I have to complain, Hotels are taking advantage of people in this situation. Looting money for calling it as five or three-star but with bugs!!! not fair. 😦

Swab test was conducted before 7 days and given a clearance certificate to checkout. Unlike other cities like Mumbai, there were no charges for testing. A letter/pass was given by the hotel for us to go home with home quarantine dates mentioned in the letter. Students I met at Airport came along with me, Rahil and team came to see me off and we got a selfie too. but with the mask:-)

Here is my advice for everyone who is currently stranded in any part of this world:

Stay in touch with your embassy for any help. Follow their social media and twitter accounts to get updates regularly. Check on your visa extension rules with the embassy and local authorities. You may have to extend your visa when your repatriation flight is confirmed or the lockdown is lifted, but reach out to the immigration office soon.

Stay away from people and take extra care when you go in crowded places.

You have money to suffice, good. Otherwise, borrow some from friends or family. You can always pay them back later. only think of your health and safety at this moment.

Yoga, a few stretches, and a bit of walk have helped me stay fit. Don’t skip food. You must maintain your immunity. If you have a notepad and a pen, please write your thoughts. It helps reduce your stress. Internet these days connects to your folks in any part of the world. Talk to them. Talk to your fellow travelers to understand and help each other in such difficult times. Indulge yourself in reading, writing, or learning new things.

The only mantra that works in this situation is, stay isolated from people and you are safe.

Must say this was one crazy and a heck of a trip in my life that never ever can I forget. A most memorable and most expensive one. A unique experience with a lot of learning.

Thank you, my dear friends and family, who were constantly checking my safety, through Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram these difficult times.

Thank you, Smita & Abraham, Romel, Vivek Borse, My family, Sissy’s and Bro, my cousins Ashu, Rishi, and their little kid Naksh. and my fellow travelers, Kata, Rachael, Andrew, Nikki, Muhit, Arjun, Jeff, John, MS, Choo, Ms. Irene. and the Leaf House. to keep me motivated and keep going.

Stay safe. Love and Prayers

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