TOP: Boarding the Rescue Flight to Australia RIGHT: Tultul on holiday in India
It was a homecoming like no other for Tultul
With Sandip Hor
From an apartment in Bengaluru to the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Sydney in 48 hours was no doubt a physically tiring journey for Sydneysider Tultul Podder, but a big mental relief to be back again on home ground after being stranded in India since late March.
She went to India late February to attend a wedding and was scheduled to fly back with Singapore Airlines on 28 March.
However, the Indian government imposed nationwide lockdown on 24 March stopping the operation of all commercial international flights. As a result all overseas visitors including thousands of Aussies were stuck inside their respective dwellings for weeks along with India’s 1.3 billion people.
Realising the grimness of the worldwide pandemic, Australian Government sprang into quick action and advised all stranded to register their presence with the Australian High Commission in New Delhi or with the Consulates in Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, so that they can be intimated about any rescue flights which the government was trying to organise for their marooned citizens and permanent residents from various countries including India.
Until now over 3000 have returned home from India either on privately chartered flights or by the ones organised by the governments and operated by Qantas and Air India.
All rescue flights back to Australia are coordinated by the offices of the High Commission and the Consulates in collaboration with respective Indian government authorities.
As soon as flights are finalised, the High Commission/Consulates notify all registrants with a link to a booking platform which unfortunately would get saturated within minutes due to the high demand.
So luck didn’t favour Tultul until recently when after several failed attempts with earlier flights she finally got a booking for the Qantas flight from Chennai to Sydney on 5 June at a price of AUD 2300.
“It was like winning a lottery for me”,Tultul told me .
Her epic journey began the day before when she travelled from Bangalore to Chennai, around 350km away, along with 45 others in three separate air-conditioned buses – each accommodating around 15 passengers to maintain social distancing rules. This eight-hour interstate journey was organised by the Chennai Consulate along with the overnight accommodation at the 5-star Hyatt Regency for a good night sleep before taking on the flight back home the following evening at 18.45 pm. The transportation, including hotel to airport transfer and one-night accommodation with breakfast cost her AUD 160 (INR 8500).
The check-in formalities, including security screening and immigration clearance at the Chennai airport was smooth and uneventful other than the emptiness of an otherwise busy airport creating a sense of oddness. While departing there was no specific health checks besides the temperature measurement when leaving the hotel. At that point everyone was given a blue wrist band to be worn at all times, acting like another valid passport allowing you to travel.
While all passengers and airport and airline officials had a mask on, adherence to social distancing was not strictly followed. When entering the plane which was parked at the tarmac instead of connected to an aerobridge, everyone was almost within elbow distance if not closer. Surely that scared a few, but the worst was inside.
The aircraft was full to its capacity with around 200 passengers occupying all the nine seats in any particular row.
“Surely the inflight experience was nowhere near to what we are used to”, Tultul commented echoing views of almost every other passengers.
There was no entertainment, inflight magazines, alcoholic beverages, duty-free shopping and even blankets. Only services were the simple vegetarian dinner served with soft drinks, tea and coffee and a light breakfast comprising of a packet of cereal, long-life milk and dried cranberries in the morning. However, none winged as the joy of finally returning home overpowered everything else and made the 13-hour voyage bearable.
While in flight mode a kind of tension prevailed in every passengers mind thinking about what they have to face after disembarking in Sydney, particularly where they have to stay in complete isolation for the next 14 days.
Well there was no drama on arrival at the Sydney Airport which was again pretty empty. Rather than scanning passports electronically at kiosks, it had to be done across the counters and all passengers after clearing customs were greeted by a host of police and defence force personnel who directed everyone to their allocated buses waiting outside the terminal building. Even at that point, it was not disclosed where they will be staying, many failing to understand the reason for this secrecy.
Finally, when the bus stopped in front of the Sheraton Grand Hotel overlooking Hyde Park, Tultul came to know where she will be sleeping for the next 14 days.
This accommodation provided by the government free of cost includes three meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner, provision of toiletries and linen to be replaced after a week and wifi to remain connected with the outside world. Leaving the room is strictly banned; only way to contact hotel staff for any assistance is by dialling no 9. Caring for everyone’s wellbeing, health officials are in constant touch with the quarantined guests and to find out how its going health wise.
“Again it’s not like a normal stay at a 5-star property, but couldn’t be anything better under the circumstances”, says Tultul. She is now happily bearing the trauma of containment in a modest room imagining how nice it would be to see family and friends again after an unanticipated gap of almost four months."
TOP: The lineup outside Chennai Terminal ABOVE: The temperature checkers