Stranded During Covid-19

ELYSIAN writer Lucie Grace was stranded during Covid. Read on to learn how she overcame the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of being stuck in a foreign country during a global pandemic.

Stranded During Covid-19

In June 2019 I had a near-death experience that left me hospitalized for two days in my hometown of London. Laid up in the hospital with an extreme allergic reaction and anaphylactic shock, I decided that life was too short to keep pushing through a backbreaking Ph.D. having never traveled the world. All I could think about was seeing the pyramids and hiking to Machu Picchu, and I resolved to take a sabbatical year to work my way around the globe. I’d dreamed of long-haul backpacking several times before but never acted on it. In a high school classroom, a college dorm room and even a restaurant on my 30th birthday, I’d hatched plans and routes that never emerged.

It was only in that hospital bed last year that priorities snapped into focus. So while I can’t call my move to travel throughout 2020 a sudden notion, it only took me five short months of selling, saving and working seven days a week, hustling hard and fast, to gather enough funds for a year on the road. “Won’t you get lonely?” my colleague Amani asked when I told her my plan. I assured her I’d be fine. I’m a pretty seasoned solo traveler, never being away for longer than a few weeks at a time but enough to know how to navigate new places. I’d learned a few things about myself over the years of travel—like how to enjoy my own company and spend time alone, but also to respect the need to socialize and meet new people. Both are valid while exploring by yourself.

stranded during covid
Grace overlooks the Hawa Mahal or “The Palace of the Winds” in Jaipur, affectionately nicknamed the “Pink City.” Constructed in 1799 from red and pink sandstone, the iconic palace is a must-see in the Rajasthan area, where Grace spent the bulk of her time in India. Photograph by Briar Jones.

The first trick is to stay in places where you’ll have opportunities to meet people. The second is to travel as lightly as possible, so nothing is holding you back from heading off on an adventure. I’d come to love solo traveling, the freedom it brings and the self-confidence it grows. I finally left the U.K. on the first day of February, with a tightly booked itinerary that would take me from Egypt to Machu Picchu in Peru, via India, Nepal, Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and the United States. It all started marvelously: I had a wonderful weeklong tour of Egypt’s great sights, including my coveted pyramids, before taking a week in Alexandria to pen an article.

The travel writing plan was off with a bang, and I had pitches accepted by some of my favorite publications throughout February. The dream was happening. However, as February unfolded, the global ramifications of Covid-19—weeks earlier just an abstract health scare in distant Wuhan—were becoming apparent around the globe. China closed its borders, my much-anticipated trip to Tibet was curtailed, and I headed straight to India. There, things would only become more surreal. I flew into Mumbai in February, full of excitement. Hostels are the best way to meet other travelers in this vast country, so I checked into Horn Ok Please Hostel, a brilliant spot where I spent a week writing two articles I’d had commissioned.

stranded during covid
Standing in the barren courtyard of Nahargarh Fort, Grace admires the medieval structure against the stone ground. One of three forts built to defend the city, Nahargarh never came under attack and remains a captivating tourist site offering stunning views of Jaipur below. Photograph by Briar Jones.

I got to know the hostel management team well—they mentioned they had a sister branch in Jaipur, and I said I’d visit on my travels (this turned out to be more than fortuitous). I spent a wonderful month in India, heading down to Goa for some yoga, then to Chennai to write a couple of stories, before flying up to Rajasthan for a few weeks that would become four months. In mid-March, I was writing in Udaipur when the news broke that the world was officially in a pandemic and that both India and the U.S. were to close their international borders. It became apparent that I would have to make some quick decisions.

I had two possible options: fly back to the U.K. via Mumbai and Dubai, potentially endangering my 70-year-old dad and 90-year-old grandmother, or find a safe place to stay and potentially lockdown in India. I had no desire to spread illness to my family or to give up on my dream, and India seemed a safe plan—so I set out for Horn Ok Please in Jaipur, which was kindly hosting stranded travelers. Hysteria rose and “foreigners” were being heckled and blamed for spreading the virus, so I opted against public transport and booked a taxi for the seven hour drive from Udaipur.

stranded during covid
Grace stands underneath Patrika Gate, a site in Jaipur that is famous for its beautiful architecture and artwork. The picturesque gate guards the entrance to Jawahar Circle, a park that sits within a highway traffic circle. The rainbow walkway beneath the gate has become famous due to its bright and cheerful aesthetic. Photograph by Briar Jones.

On arriving in Jaipur, I decided to immediately self-isolate and prepare for the rumored lockdown, so I ended up in a building for six weeks, having never seen the city outside. A very strange feeling, but I was safe. While this global pandemic is the saddest and most frustrating situation I’ve lived through in my lifetime, I’ve not once felt trapped by my decision. I’m “stuck” in India—but I’m constrained to a situation of my own making. I chose to wait it out in Jaipur, to see this pandemic through alone, and there’s empowerment in that. During lockdown, I owned my decision and kept a positive state of mind, developing a tight routine to make the days pass faster, full of things that make me cheerful, from reading fiction to treating myself to daily watermelon salads.

I soon stopped feeling imprisoned and decided to see this time as a pause that perhaps I needed. Numerous people suggested going home, but I knew that capitulating to that powerlessness would be worse for my mental and physical health. Of course, I’m lucky that I had wonderful hosts at Horn Ok Please, who let eight guests stay for lockdown despite pressures to close and have us leave. I’m so grateful for that nest we took refuge in. India’s lockdown was one of the strictest in the world, with stringent laws against going outside. A quick dash to the shops was permitted but no walks or daily exercise. Thankfully, we were well looked after: A local doctor came to visit us regularly to check on our health, and all our groceries were collected by the hostel’s receptionist, the long-suffering and ever-patient Anish.

stranded during covid
Grace visiting an ancient temple in Jaipur known for its intricate carvings and colossal elephant statues. Photograph by Briar Jones.

As my friends back home in the U.K. struggled with the isolation, I found I had too much company in what was essentially a large apartment. But the payoff was immense, as we watched Jaipur reawaken throughout May and then outright blossom in June, as palaces and cultural sites reopened. Having these sites to ourselves to explore was a privilege I’ll never forget. Jaipur is a wonderful city, and we found it full of friendly, optimistic folks who were happy to be slowly getting back to business. After four months in Rajasthan, I decided to make a break for it and head north to cooler climes.

The summer heat was stifling, with temperatures regularly hitting 110F, and we were held hostage by it, dependent on the air conditioning to keep us comfortable. Movement between states was slowly becoming possible in India, provided you were willing to quarantine on arrival (as individual states have different entry policies and rules, which takes some canny navigation). My gut instinct said it was time to make the move to a new place to call home for a while. I made for Rishikesh as I had a couple of friends living there, and after months locked down in a city, I was desperate for wide-open skies, walks in nature and to see the River Ganges for the first time.

It was absolutely the right move—not least as there’s a vast community of stranded travelers in Rishikesh who’ve created a haven of learning for themselves, exchanging their skills in workshops and classes in cooking, crafts, dance, massage, yoga or just about any pastime you can imagine. The thrumming hub of creativity is a really inspiring outcome of a global catastrophe, and I’ve enjoyed it all—particularly the women’s circles and art exhibitions. Being witness to Rishikesh evolving in this uncertain time has been humbling and just the reminder I needed that human positivity can save the day.

The main things I enjoy about Rishikesh, though, are the quietest and most solitary: the fresh, fragrant wafts of pine, cedar and eucalyptus; the sounds of birds; the restorative din of a rushing river. It’s a big town but maintains a village feel; shopkeepers and dhaba owners greet you twice daily. You even come to recognize the local dogs. This pandemic may have put the brakes on my travel plans, but I’m so grateful to be exactly where I am, for however long that may be. I’m still not exactly sure if it’s possible to sit out a pandemic, but I’m giving it my best shot.

Written by Lucie Grace

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