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Rahul Saigal says he was keeping a close watch on all the updates the Indian embassy was putting out on social media.
Rahul Saigal says he was keeping a close watch on all the updates the Indian embassy was putting out on social media.

Back in Delhi after 54 days stranded in Manila

Rahul Saigal was vacationing in Palau when the lockdown was announced

I am very relieved to be back in India after being stuck in Manila for 54 days. I was one of the 250 people who boarded the Air India flight from Manila to Delhi on 12 May. It was part of the first phase of government’s Vande Bharat Mission to bring back stranded Indians. Now I’m staying at a hotel, just 8km away from my home in Gurugram, eagerly waiting for the mandatory 14-day quarantine period to end.

I never imagined how expensive a weeklong diving trip to a tiny island country, Palau, off Manila, would turn out. It’s been a drain, both emotionally and financially. I remember waiting for my transit flight from Manila that was to take off on 18 March. By then India had sealed its borders. It was a painful wait-and-watch game after that.

I had been keeping a close watch on all the updates the Indian embassy was putting out on social media. I also was getting news from WhatsApp groups that were created by people like me who were stuck in Manila. Sometime last week, I saw a Twitter feed about the Indian government getting flights ready to bring back people from the Philippines, so I filled the online form.

Five days before the flight, the embassy sent an email to 250 of us. I could see the long list of other emails ids tagged with the mail, informing us about an email we would receive from Air India. This meant my name was there in the list.

Three days before the flight, Air India’s mail came with the payment link, which was active for 30 minutes. The ticket cost me almost 30,000; my earlier return ticket was 35,000.

Since I was heading to Delhi, my flight was on Day 3. The first flight, which left from Manila on 10 May, was for Mumbai and the next one was for Ahmedabad.

To get to the airport, the embassy had arranged buses to pick us from five to six pick-up points, along with numbers of taxi operators. A friend dropped me to the airport on Tuesday. We had been told to arrive at the airport at 9am for the 6:30pm flight.

As soon as we arrived, our temperature was checked. After that, it was an endless loop of procedures. We first checked in, collected our free lunch, which the Indian embassy had arranged, and then we proceeded to extend our visa, which cost $100. After the security clearance, we were given a safety kit, comprising a sanitizer, mask, gloves and a face shield. I got the aisle seat and thankfully, the middle seat was vacant. Once the flight took off, we were given a big food packet.

Unlike the usual habit, where people jostle to get to the exit once the flight lands, we were clearly instructed that only 20 people would be allowed to leave at a time. Each one was given a number. I was H6. When my group’s turn came, we were escorted by security personnel for a thermal screening, followed by immigration.

The security was quite strict; even to use restroom you had to take permission. After collecting baggage, which had to be done one by one, we were asked to choose whether we would like to stay in a government facility or pick a hotel from a list provided by them for the mandatory quarantine. I chose a hotel. While providing our details, we had to submit our passport and also download the Aarogya Setu app. I am guessing I will get the passport back after I finish the quarantine period.

There were nine people, including me, who were heading to Gurugram in the bus. Three of us are staying in the same hotel. When we reached the hotel, the cops took an undertaking from us that we wouldn’t step out of the room. Our temperature was again taken.

It’s like a four-star jail, for which I’m paying 62,000. I get three meals and the food is decent. The staff rings the bell and keeps the set meal outside the door in disposable plates and cutlery. We have been given garbage bags, which tie and keep out. When I asked for an extra chair, the staff came in full PPE suit.

It’s been painful because of all the procedures but the government is doing a thorough job. I can’t wait to see my family.Rahul Saigal runs a shopper marketing and brand activation agency.As told to Rashmi Menon.

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