R a c h e l S t e t e n f e l d
They’re “social distancing” us at the hotel restaurant in Mumbai—guiding us each, individually, to tables six feet from one another. From my corner, I can hear Britney laughing profusely with an Indian woman…
I glance over and watch her guffaw carry across the six feet, and then some. Britney, a young circus performer dressed in tie-dye, stares bright-eyed into the bashful eyes of a sari-wearing woman. This “isolation” just can’t capture all of us.
We are a group of Americans who’ve been stuck in Goa, India, for the past month trying to get back to the States in the midst of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Our small group of six travellers has been living at a yoga center: Britney, the fire-spinner from California; Ale, a Spanish-American who’s been teaching in India for many years; sisters Grace and Rose; Morgan, a corporate-turned-yogi from Dallas, and me—a bored escapist from Wisconsin.
When Britney and I first arrived in Goa, she turned to me and said, “Nothing in my life has ever felt this right.” A week later, the country was on lockdown.
Police officers barricaded the streets, threatening to beat civilians with bamboo sticks. Open markets closed, and we went home-to-home, by motorbike, looking for food. There were no more flights out. On a rice and oats diet, we contacted the government every day for repatriation.
Now our small clan blends into the larger mass of families, solo travellers, couples, and crying babies who’ve been assigned a governmental bus from Goa to Mumbai. In Mumbai, we’ll wait for a flight to Atlanta. From Atlanta, we’ll have to find our way “home home” which, for many of us, isn’t home at all.
Many of these travellers have created lives in India to escape the States. They are the siblings who’ve asked to be uninvited to Easter and are grateful for the lives they’ve created outside of society, because at home, they feel much further “outside.”
Britney waves me over from the table and we dump plates of nuts, cereal, and muffins into small bags for munching at the airport. We gather with the others in the lobby and prepare for our journey to the U.S. Consulate for final health checks.
We wander into a mass of brightly colored Americans—loud, impatient, and pontificating about Trump. We’re not in India, anymore.
After health screenings and a signature locking us into paying the U.S. government $2,000 for the flight home, we sit in the waiting room for the final bus to take us to the airport. We’re lined up in plastic orange chairs and offered clean drinking fountains and air-conditioning. Solo travellers wander between chairs looking for someone to talk with. A dad plays with his child, threatening the boy with an ominous fist. The baby’s face lights with joy.
Each person dons a unique mask…yellow, turquoise, homemade, government-provided. We’re a mouth-less tribe of loud eyes, waiting to be carried.
There’s a twenty-something hippie, wearing a bindi and a floral face mask, talking about her visions for the future. In one moment, she spouts, “It is the revolution that will separate us all. We have no power over the new-world order. They’re DIVIDING US into the new world order. It’s all downhill from here.”
In another breath, she sighs, “My hope and yogic mindset separates me from everyone back home…how will I re-integrate? They are the culture of fear.”
Her friend replies, “It’s pathetic. They’re taking away the only true currency we had in this corrupt world…our connection to each other.”
I want to ask her, “Can they really take that away?”
Behind me, an Indian-American businessman chats with a white yogini, dressed in scarves and Indian-style kurtas.
“This is the first time I can’t stand behind Trump,” he says.
“It’s appalling,” she replies. “He’s going to get re-elected. Or we won’t even have an election. They’re all conspiring and how do we come together?”
They silently glance at one another in a suspended moment, until she dejectedly adds, “We are pawns…we are pawns…we…are…pawns.”
The baby’s laughter continues to fill the room.
A couple sleeps with their heads and masks resting against one another. Lines of pot-bellied men cross their arms with elbows touching. Bags of hotel-packed lunches lean on each other. Longing eyes search the faces of strangers. A mother guides her triplets, hand in hand, to the bathroom.
Thanks to fortune and perseverance, I’m on the first bus to arrive at the airport.
A group of 30 of us are counted off to wait in a private room where we’re asked to sit two chairs apart from one another. When we’re invited onto the bus, we’re crammed inside. A Euro-American yells at an Indian man, “You people have no idea how to make space.”
I’m the first one through security—walking lonesomely through a seemingly post-apocalyptic desert of packed-up, duty-free goods and dark Starbucks shops. After trying every vending machine for food, to no avail, I settle down at the gate to wait and listen.
A man with dreadlocks announces, “I’ve always wanted to drive across the United States. What better time than now?” And a woman from a few chairs over snaps, “Why can’t you see how that’s the problem? You’re the problem.”
They tell us that physical-distancing is impossible on our flight, so we’re crammed into every available seat. I’m at the center of a sea of single Moms and their children. When I ask them where they’re from, they all hesitate to say. When they finally respond, I get, “My parents are from…” or “We haven’t been in the U.S. in years.” I hear one woman explaining the flight map to her child, saying, “This is India, where we live. And this is the U.S. where Grandma and Grandpa are.”
One mother explains to me that when her daughter was born, it was the first time she went back to the States after leaving for Asia in her 20s. She says the initial return to her abandoned Montana bar town was bleak. She’d spent years deciding she was better than it all, that her growing career in yoga therapy was something no one there could understand. Within a few months, for her own sanity, she built a yoga studio in the town. She wanted her own space to practice and decided it would be worth it if anyone visited. Many did, and she watched the culture of her space grow and shift within years. When she decided to move back to India, she trained four students who continue to run the studio today.
I tell her, “Can you imagine what would happen if every angsty-twenty-something who left their small town out of spite went back to create a yoga studio?”
She looks at me with complete surprise. “I didn’t even think about that…I was really just doing it for myself.”
I look out the window and wonder how often people genuinely reflect on how their actions influence others…how my actions have influenced others.
Since my college years, I’ve routinely left America to avoid job, relationship, and general life dissatisfaction. Nearly every relationship I’ve ever left started with the words, “I’m flying to…. What do you want to do about it?”
I’m not sure I’ve ever really wanted to leave, but I wanted to hear what they’d say.
“Can I go with you?”
“I don’t want to live without you…”
“You can’t. I won’t let you. I love you too much.”
But in reality, they’d said…
“You’re a narcissist.”
“I won’t be here when you get back.”
“I’ve already been sleeping with someone else.”
Friends would add, “You’re a wanderlust cliché,” and “Everywhere you go, there you are.” I bargained with jobs, telling them I’d be back as soon as possible.
“OK, Rachel,” they’d say. “We’ll try to keep a spot for you.”
That’s all I wanted, really. Tell me that I have a home. Tell me that I have a family. Tell me that I have someone or something waiting for me. Once I’d get that, I’d usually look into whether I could cancel the flight.
The tricky thing about making my identity about being an outsider is admitting just how much I want to be inside.
When the plane lands, 17 hours later, everyone takes out their phones to film the event. There’s clapping and cheering as we’re told, repeatedly, to stay in our seats. There’s no doubt we all know we’re part of something important, part of something strange. The strangest part I can’t help but reflect on is that once we leave this plane, it won’t be socially acceptable to be this close to strangers.
Before leaving, we share final drabs of food and contact information. There are nods instead of handshakes…and many who’ve taken off their masks, put them back on, along with gloves.
As my group meets up at baggage claim, I’m the first who needs to leave in an effort to catch the earliest flight to my something-like-home. I’ve never hugged with such hesitation before. After each embrace, I find myself looking around to see if the police will scold me, and I quickly remind myself to cherish these touches as sacred reminders of the inside.
When I walk outside Immigration to the domestic terminals, I think about all the travellers in the world who’ve relentlessly searched for that daydream feeling of family, and then somehow stumble upon it when stuck with a stranger on that overnight bus from Rishikesh to Dharamsala. My heart rests heavy for the (self-)abandoned travellers who I’ve waxed poetic about feeling alone, unseen, and desperate to share the hidden pieces of self.
I wonder about the power it takes to step outside our homes to try, with whatever means possible, to make that bashful inner vision a reality. Is it power, fear, or privilege to run outside?
In the age of the pandemic…in the times of “stay home,” what does it look like to live our dreams inside?