Thank you Bharti, Naushad, Pappu, Rachael, Shail and Smit! Without your support we would never ever have made it! This is as much your story as it is mine!
When the lockdown started in India I was at the Treehouse in Madla.
I live there.
It’s a place where “social distancing” is pretty easy. Because there is nobody there.
The food supply was in place.
I had a permit to ride to Panna to get fruits and vegetables for Janwaar.
I felt it was a good place to be during the shutdown.
And a safe place.
So I was pretty much relaxed and ready to wait and see how I could leave the country on April 22.
The day on which part of my visa terms would end.
But – as usual – life took a different turn. As John Lennon famously said: “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans!”
When India locked down, I had two guests from Germany.
Inge and Ulli.
They’d been supporting us for the last two years.
Now they came to visit Janwaar to see our work at first hand.
We managed to go to Janwaar once.
Then the lockdown set in.
They were “trapped” at the Treehouse.
And they desperately wanted to go home.
Which I could understand.
Yet, I couldn’t always understand how their despair was expressed.
We all passed a restless week with some extraordinary tensions.
And – at least I can say this for me – a lot of learning!
Germany and Europe were shut down as well.
No regular flights in sight.
So the only option was the evacuation flights – organised by the German Embassy in Delhi.
Inge’s and Ulli’s first attempt to catch a government flight was on the day after the shutdown came into effect.
It was announced by PM Modi.
Only no one really knew what it meant.
No plan in hand.
Everything was “work in progress.”
Nevertheless the police acted very strictly.
They used their lathis (bamboo sticks) frequently on those who didn’t follow the rules.
People were confused and scared.
Many didn’t even understand what was going on.
In the midst of this uncertainty I had to organize a car for Inge and Ulli.
A car for safe passage to Delhi.
I called our car service and they told me that we’d need a permit.
Issued by the local police station.
So I went to the police station in Madla.
It turned out to be quite an endeavour.
Finally, after multiple discussions and four long hours later, Angele, the head of the local police station, told me that they would issue a permit and let them pass.
So I thought.
Another two hours later my phone rang.
It was Manoj, the driver.
By this time he should have been at the Treehouse.
But he was stuck at the district barrier.
Right at the police station where I had been two hours earlier.
Manoj asked me to come because they wouldn’t allow him in.
We had the first glimpse of what might occur on the way to Delhi.
When the phone rang, we’d just started dinner.
Pappu had brought some delicious food.
It was our final dinner together.
At least this was what we thought.
Ulli and Inge had packed their bags and were ready to leave.
So Pappu and I left the table, jumped on my bike and drove to the police station.
It’s a 10 minute ride.
By the time we arrived, the checkpoint was packed.
It was chaos.
A huge fuss.
At least 100 migrant workers plus 20 cars were standing “in line”.
It was a colourful mix of truck drivers, migrant workers, policemen and plenty of bystanders.
They all had their own stories to tell.
And they all had their own opinions to share.
India at its best 🙂
Besides all these confusion, it didn’t seem that anything real was going on.
And as day turned to night – the light added its part to the scenery.
Pappu and I tried to find Angele.
In his soft and gentle manner, Pappu didn’t succeed.
We had spent an hour and hadn’t achieved thing.
The chaos had lost its charm.
I became impatient.
So I simply called her.
And – surprise, surprise – she took the call.
And in no time she told one of the police guys to let Manoj pass.
10 minutes later we are back at the Treehouse!
I could see the sheer relief in Ulli’s and Inge’s eyes when the car arrived.
The journey back home would soon to start.
Meanwhile it was almost nine in the evening.
I went back to the dinner table and ate the leftovers.
I was hungry. The food was cold.
I offered Manoj some food as well.
He was happy.
Overlooking Ken River in the dark, we enjoyed the meal.
Everything seemed fine.
Yet, for some reason a discussion started about wether it would be better to leave next morning in order to avoid the night drive.
I spoke with Manoj.
I got a room at the Treehouse ready for him.
So we agreed that they would leave early next morning.
After a short while Manoj came and told me he would go to the village and come back later.
I asked him not to come back too late.
He left with the car.
And he never came back.
Instead Neeraj, his boss, called and told me Manoj wasn’t willing to drive any more.
He wanted to stay at home.
He was afraid of the police.
He was afraid of going to Delhi.
He was afraid that he couldn’t return back home once he had left.
And, Neeraj said, no other driver would go.
So that was that.
The first attempt to reach an evacuation flight came to an abrupt end.
Reality wasn’t working out well for Ulli and Inge.
I guess that was the moment when they felt: “We’re stuck!”
Everything was out of their control.
The next days weren’t relaxing.
It was like being on a rollercoaster.
Except that I never knew what to expect next.
Emotions flew high.
And it was very difficult to accept the situation – especially for Inge.
Not having control.
Living in absolute uncertainty.
Dependent on others.
It became a challenge for everyone.
Pappu and I did our best to keep them happy somehow.
And make them feel comfortable.
We had food.
We had more than enough outdoor space.
And no one was there – so the infection risk was low.
The situation wasn’t hopeless – I felt.
For sure there would be more evacuation flights down the line.
So it was “just” a matter of time.
And a matter of finding a car and a driver.
While Inge and Ulli were waiting for the next flight out, I was using the time to get a better understanding of the entire situation.
A situation which was changing on a daily basis.
It quickly became obvious that the local police station was no longer in charge of issuing permits.
It was now a “top level” job.
Meaning I needed to meet the Superintendent Police (SP) and the Collector (administrative head of a district) in Panna to get all the papers.
So once again I went to Panna.
Pappu came with me.
We reached the Collectorate in the afternoon.
We were told that the SP and the Collector were in a meeting.
With an open end.
We decided to wait.
I became impatient.
It was slowly getting dark.
We were just about to leave when the two of them came round the corner with their entire entourage.
Lucky me that I was white AND an older woman, so I could address them.
An Indian woman would have been ignored.
When I started to talk to them, one of the bystanders said the magic word: “Janwaar”.
Then the two of them knew who I was.
And they listened and helped.
The SP called Angele in Madla and gave all the instructions.
Once again we seemed to have everything ready and in hand.
It was sobering to think how little help we got from the German Embassy during this entire process. They didn’t show any interest in the procedures we had to follow given us by the Indian authorities. We had to do this all on our own. I wonder if any tourist would be able to get in touch with all the people needed to get the job done. I very much doubt it.
Pappu and I also succeeded in finding a car and a driver.
It was the priest of Madla, Babaji, who had driven us before.
He was ready to go. Actually he is always ready to go 🙂
“No tension” is his mantra.
“Just call me when you’re ready to leave”, he said.
It took another “endless” five days.
During this time we heard all kinds of lockdown stories.
Foreigners were blamed for bringing the virus to India.
Some Americans were attacked, beaten up and even arrested.
Roads were blocked because millions of migrant workers were on their way home.
Bribery was the name of the game.
This all made it clear that it wouldn’t be an easy trip to catch the next evacuation flight.
No matter if we were had the right papers or not.
It had become a “street issue.”
Power was with the officers at the barriers.
Then I heard from Rachael, a friend in Bombay, that new evacuation flights were planned.
Operated by Air India.
We called the German Embassy and they confirmed.
A few emails between them and us went back and forth.
And finally we all were scheduled to leave.
I had made up my mind to accompany my guests.
Simply because without me they could not make it.
It was a tough decision for me. I would have preferred to stay with the kids for another few weeks.
But at the end it was only way to get Inge and Ulli out. Babaji would never ever have left without me. On top of this the encounters on the way would have been quite challenging for someone with no experience of India.
Having heard all these stories I felt it was easier to get to Bombay than Delhi.
For Delhi we would have to cross multiple state borders.
For Bombay it was only one.
Even though it was twice as far.
Knowing our departure date and final destination I once more went to see Angele.
At Madla police station.
And once more yet another surprise.
She told me that things had changed.
I had to go to see the Collector once more.
I was stunned.
She said we would need his signature on the permit.
I told her that I had met the Collector and that he had told me that she should write the letter.
Very hesitantly she called the SP and he confirmed that she should write the letter.
I was advised to show gratitude.
After two hours I had all the papers together.
All the papers for the car and driver.
Copies of our passports and proof that we were staying at Madla.
The route we were planning to drive.
Our final destination.
And proof that we were scheduled for a government flight.
They allowed us 52 hours to reach Bombay and for the driver to come back to Madla.
It seemed like mission impossible.
This roadtrip to Bombay.
Equipped with the best papers available, we started on March 31 at 11 am.
Babaji in the driver’s seat.
Me right next to him .
And Inge and Ulli on the back seats.
Ready to go.
The papers we had got us easily through the first checkpoints.
At some points the police made a note of the license plate number.
Others just checked our papers.
We moved on from district to district.
The situation was relaxed and promising.
The police guys were friendly.
The procedure became monotonous through repetition:
Bring the car to a stop.
The police guys outside would say: “Foreigners!”
The sign for Babaji to take all the papers.
Get out of the car.
Show his permit.
Have a little chat.
Then come back.
And we would move on.
Slowly we were driving into the night.
We had reached Bhopal.
And our Babaji was still going strong.
We had reached the border between Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
It really looked like complete shutdown.
Honestly, it reminded me of the Jordan-Syria border during the war.
Excitement was in the air.
Once again Babaji took all our papers.
And left to go to the police officers.
When he returned, he simply said: No, we cannot enter!
After 19 hours on the road this was a real blow.
Why?, I asked.
Babaji said that one signature was missing.
I called Bharti, a friend in Delhi.
Luckily she picked up the phone at this time in the early morning.
She spoke to the police guy at the border.
And then explained to me that a signature from the Collector in Panna was missing. Angele turned out to be right … !
Bharti also said that the border guy wasn’t a senior official.
So he suggested that we should wait for three hours for his senior to arrive.
Which was impossible, because we had to reach Bombay within the given timeframe.
Inge who was sitting on the back seat and who had stretched my nerves to the breaking point over the last week, all of a sudden came to life.
It was a perfect example of very bad timing.
She suggested that she and I – two strong women, as she said – should talk to the police officer.
I was stunned.
BI passed over her comment and said clearly: “No, no way. You stay in the car.”
I called the embassy hotline.
I surely woke up the guy.
A tired, crumpled voice was answering.
He wasn’t amused.
I explained the situation.
His first reaction: “Pay him! Money always works!”
I thought for a second.
And asked him to stay on the phone.
I walked over to the border control guy.
He was alone.
I put the phone on speaker so that he could hear.
The Embassy guy spoke in a very distinct loud voice to him.
“The German Consulate here.
These people need to pass.
There is no way you can stop them.”
I wasn’t sure if the border control guy even understood English.
While he was listening to the Embassy I put some cash in his hand.
He shook his head.
But kept the money.
Meaning: It wasn’t enough.
I gave him more.
He said: “Go”.
…. the Embassy guy was still talking to him ….
With my mobile in my hand I ran back to the car.
But Babaji had disappeared.
We found him after a few anxious minutes.
We passed the border.
And made it into Maharashtra.
Back on the highway.
Another long six and a half hours to Bombay.
No more checkpoints.
No more controls.
Instead a mighty bang.
The right rear tyre was gone.
And the spare tyre didn’t look promising either.
I am sure it wouldn’t have lasted all the way down to Bombay.
So our next job was to find a new spare tyre.
With all the shops closed.
10-15 km down the road we found one.
By then we had also learned that there was a shortage of diesel.
Running out of diesel – what a nightmare would this be?
There was no time to relax.
At Thane the greater Bombay area starts.
The Embassy had told us that in this area all police stations were informed and asked to let foreigners pass.
And they did.
There were many checkpoints and at each of them plenty of police.
Many were holding their lathis in their hands.
But luckily they didn’t use them – at least while we were there.
The procedure had changed.
Babaji stayed in the car.
Now it was my turn.
I spun down the window.
Grabbed the papers.
Said the magic word “airport.”
Added “government flights.”
Waited for a while.
And it worked.
After 26 hours we reached the Airport Hotel in Bombay.
It took quite a load off my mind.
We finally had made it.
Inge and Ulli were completely exhausted.
But needless to say – yes, they were happy.
From the moment we’d reached the hotel things became super easy.
Probably 300 people were there.
Many of them came from Goa and Gujarat.
The Embassy had arranged buses on these routes.
An hour after we arrived we had to register for our flight.
We got a rather grotty health check.
And then the Embassy staff explained the procedure for the next day.
The bus which would bring us to the airport was scheduled to leave at 10 am next morning.
We were asked not to leave the hotel room.
But this didn’t matter – I didn’t feel like going anywhere.
I had some tasteless food out of a box.
The only food they served.
I missed a glass of cold wine.
But I had a hot bath instead.
Shortly after I felt asleep.
I was knocked out!
When we arrived at Terminal 2 the next morning, the departure hall was completely abandoned.
It looked like a scene in a science fiction movie.
White, huge empty spaces.
The staff was wearing protective clothing.
The good news: no waiting lines.
Check in was easy and the plane took off on time.
It was now April 2, 2020.
Nine hours later we landed in Frankfurt.
When I turned on my phone I received the message that Babaji had reached home as well – safe and sound.