After a year without travelling, it was with some trepidation that I undertook an official trip to the U.S. But it was a necessity and could not be avoided. The news in India was just beginning to get grim whereas things seemed to be falling in place extremely well in the U.S. Hence, in a sense, it was a trip from bad to good.
Initially, the most tiring undertaking before the trip was to get the paperwork right. Covid-19 had put many constraints, and we had to work assiduously to figure out which country we could fly through and what protocols to follow. Ultimately, my colleague and I chose the simplest solution of flying directly in a United Airlines flight from New Delhi to Chicago, and the only exceptional document required was an RT-PCR report, of a test done three days before the flight. The thing to remember was that the RT-PCR report should have the passport number and date of birth clearly mentioned. The interesting thing which I learnt was that the onus of ensuring a Covid-19-free passenger was on the aircraft carrier, hence all scrutiny was done during check-in at the airport.
My colleague and I had got seats which were separated by the aircraft’s pantry; hence I had no line of sight to him. It was comforting to note that inside the cabin everybody was wearing masks, and the only time these were allowed to be taken off was during meals, in spite of the 14-hour-long flight.
Once we landed in Chicago, I got out on the aero-bridge and waited for my colleague. Worryingly, he did not come out with the first few passengers as expected. After a while I called to find out what had happened and he tensely told me that he was detained, and told not to step out of the aircraft. We both wondered what it could be about, and whether there was any lack of documentation which had been discovered at the last moment.
After about 30 minutes, when all the passengers had alighted from the aircraft, my colleague staggered out with a look of anguish on his face. He had been accosted by a senior official of the airline. What had transpired was that he had not put on his mask after a meal and had been spoken to by the airhostess. After a few hours, he again forgot to put his mask on after having a drink, and had pulled it up on seeing the airhostess approach him.
The airhostess had said nothing then but had gone and reported him. The official who came to reprimand him told him that because of this wilful negligence they were planning not to let him get off the aircraft; alternatively, they would allow him to disembark only after a fine of $35,000. After a proper dressing-down, and an explicit warning about maintaining Covid-19 discipline throughout his trip, my colleague was let off.
It was a lesson my colleague would not forget throughout the trip. He later jokingly told me that such was the fear which had set in, that he did not take off his mask even when he was alone in his hotel room.
But we discovered this strict discipline to be very characteristic of what we encountered in all the three cities we visited, in the states of Minnesota and Illinois. The offices had strict distancing rules of who sat where, the shops would not allow anybody without masks to enter them, and hotel lobbies had numerous stands of hand sanitisers which were supposed to be used before and after every point of contact.
During check-in, the staff was masked, though not gloved. They took our papers and credit card without hesitation. There were no health-related questions, but after check-in, all the questions were geared towards precautions. The front desk specifically asked us if we wanted a full cleaning of the room every day, or only the washrooms and towels to be taken care of, or nothing at all. The entire Hilton chain of hotels had tied up with a renowned local hospital to work out a sanitisation regime, where every room was completely sanitised and sealed, so that when we entered a room for the first time, there was a seal at the door which was broken only when we entered the room.
At our hotel, the breakfast was served to us by masked and gloved hotel helps, rather than it being a self-help buffet. The fruits, the bread, the waffles, and the condiments, were all handed over to us rather than us reaching out to them.
The discipline which was exhibited in official and public places was not in isolation, as we later discovered. When I went to visit a friend, we all sat with our masks on and the dinner table was specifically set with a distance of six feet between everyone. In my conversations, it was clear that it was not the fear of a reprimand or a fine which made everybody wear masks and wash their hands, but an intrinsic discipline which they had inculcated in the course of the pandemic.
The conversations always began with an incantation of the hell through which the whole world had gone through. In offices, in private, the pandemic had not lost its potency. But what we encountered time and again—with taxi drivers, with ushers— was the pride they took in having their vaccines done. But when we talked about the change coming by since Joe Biden came in as President, the response was more nuanced. Rob, our driver for the trip, was unequivocal when he said, “What new has he done? He is only catching the last part of what Trump had already started. And now he wants to take credit.”
Long conversations always drew the contrast between what it was in the previous regime vis-à-vis what was exhibited now. The Democratic or blue states, even earlier, had far greater consciousness than the Republican or red ones. We were told that if we go to the red states, we would encounter a great deal of cynicism and a very grudging adherence to rules even now. But there was a drastic change as to how precautions were consciously being taken now, even in those states.
I used to go out for my early morning walk, even whilst I was in the U.S. On my second day, I saw a man with a beautiful golden retriever on a leash. I had my mask on, even though it was seven o’clock in the morning and there was nobody in sight. The man with the dog did not have a mask on. I smiled at him and said, “You have a beautiful dog,” and I bent down to pat the gorgeous creature on its head. By the time I stood up straight, the man in front of me had two masks on.
But come Saturday, it was an interesting story. During the weekend, both my colleague and I eschewed all forms of entertainment, but when we came down from our rooms to go for a night stroll, we found the hotel lobby milling with people. It was -1° C outside, a gas fireplace was roaring, and there were bunches of people sitting all around, drinking, singing, laughing—masked and unmasked. On Saturday night, Covid-19 seemed to have taken the day off!
On the way back, we had to get an RT-PCR test done again. And we were spoilt for choice. We could do a drive-in test in, say, Walgreens (a chain of pharmacy and wellness stores) or make an appointment at a recognised hospital or medical clinic.
The news from India, however, kept on becoming worse, and I suggested to my boss that we should possibly stay for two months in the U.S., until the worst was over. Of course, it was a joke, but it was with extreme unease that we made our way back to Kolkata with a four-hour layover in Delhi. Comfortingly, it was extremely strict inside the Delhi airport, and the examination of the Covid-19 test report happened multiple times. But as we waited in the lounge, we just could not avoid thinking with extreme apprehension as to what awaited us in Kolkata, with the elections in full swing. At that time, we just could not imagine, in our wildest dreams, as to how distressing the situation in the country would turn out to be.
But then, I thought of Natasha T. Miller’s immortal poem, “To Existing Being Enough”:
“On days like today you’re just existing,
and that’s fine.
The ocean is not always a tsunami.
The wind is not always a tornado.
You are no less powerful
in all your stillness.”
Irrespective, it was good to be back home.
(This is an updated version)
Views are personal. The author is Executive Director, Corporate of the RPSG Group, which also publishes Fortune India magazine.