Vasundara Devi Gohil, the founder of the travel company called Girl With The Backpack went around the world during the Coronavirus outbreak. Here’s her story. By Kumar Shree
Q. You just came back after covering five continents in 10 days. Tell us more about it.
I have a travel company called Girl With The Backpack. At the time when the pandemic had just started, I had already left India for Chile, where my group was supposed to join me. Then, there wasn’t even one reported case in South America. In 10 days, we went from almost nothing to every country across the globe closing its borders to any form of travel. Luckily, all this happened before my group arrived.
Although I said that I went to five continents, I only stayed in Chile. It was mostly my route of getting to Chile and coming back home that took me all over the globe. To get to Chile, I flew from Mumbai – Dubai – Paris – Atlanta – Santiago, while the route back was Santiago – Sao Paulo – Addis Ababa – Mumbai. Literally around the world in 10 days!
Q. How was the experience of travelling in a time like this when the entire world has come to a standstill because of the Coronavirus?
There was an amazing difference between the time I left and the time I got back. When I transited in Paris, I remember speaking with the airline staff about the situation. Nobody was wearing masks. They seemed very cool and casual about it. They clearly said that travel had not been hit yet and that only flights to and from East Asia had seen a hit. Three days later, I heard on the news that France had been hit hard by the virus and that no country was allowing French travellers into their borders.
Interestingly, on my route flying to Chile, no country except Chile was doing any form of checking for Coronavirus (Dubai, France, US) at the time. They were already doing temperature checks and had forms to fill out as you entered the country. I was pleasantly surprised to see how they had started securing their borders early on.
I was there for about a week. Every night that I went to bed, I would wake up to a new horror of the virus’ global expansion. I felt very disconnected from a lot of the stuff that was going on because, in Chile, everything was business as usual. It is one thing to hear and read about the virus but a whole other thing to be living in a high-risk country. It was only when they started shutting down national parks, restaurants and other establishments that I decided to head back home. However, by the time Chile had decided to shut down, I had flown to the Atacama Desert. My flight back to Santiago had already been cancelled, and I decided to catch a 22-hour bus to return at the last minute. By this point, the severity of the situation kicked in. There were many travellers around and everyone was very confused about how serious the situation is. When you are travelling, you are fairly disconnected from what is happening in the “real world”.
Q. Tell us about the on-ground situation at these places.
My journey home was very different from my journey of getting there. When I left Chile on March 19 to return to India, nobody was wearing masks yet, and there were no talks of self-isolation. By then, they had shut all commercial establishments, restaurants and tourist spots. When I left, I hardly saw any people wearing masks or using hand sanitisers. When I came back, it was a very different world. Almost everybody was wearing a mask, gloves while some were even dressed in transparent raincoat-like outfits. Looking at the airport felt like I was on the set of some sci-fi movie. It was so bizarre!
Q. How was the journey back to India? Did you face any quarantine-like situation upon landing here?
Coming back to India made me very nervous, especially because I was worried that I would get quarantined in some government facility en-route. I had heard of some crazy stories, and seen terrible videos of where people are kept. I specifically chose a route home that took me via Brazil and then Africa because there are no red flags on these countries. It seemed like a logical thing to do, and it paid off. I think my flight was one of the last international flights to land in Mumbai for at least a week due to the lockdown.
I landed at 7 am on March 22. The airport was almost empty and I went through all the basic checks quite easily. They asked which countries I had been to, and if I had any symptoms. After that, they cleared me and sent me to the immigration desk, and I was free to go!
I did notice that some people who had been to affected countries were getting a stamp on their hands stating that they were self-quarantined for 14 days. Although I didn’t get the stamp, I am doing the same for myself, just in case. But, from the sound of it, so is the entire country!
Q. What inspired you to travel around the globe during such a time?
As I mentioned above, I run a travel company called – Girl With The Backpack. I act as a tour leader for my groups that come to South America. At the time that I had left, things didn’t seem so serious and we thought our plans would go on as usual. It was about 48 hours after I arrived in Chile that things started to get worse across the globe with every passing hour.
Q. How different were the elements in your luggage this time than your other ‘usual’ trips?
The only two extra things that I packed this time were a few masks and two bottles of hand sanitizers.
Q. Did you come across any tourist destinations at these places that were closed because of the current situation?
Within a week of my arrival in Chile, things started shutting down one at a time. First, they closed the borders. By the following day, it was all the National Parks. By day three, they had started closing all commercial establishments. During my last three days, Chile went from everything working to a total shutdown. There was a lot of confusion and panic, especially for travellers like me because we did not expect things to happen so fast. And, right till the end, we were always wondering if we should wait till things normalise, or book tickets and just go home. I opted for the latter option.
Q. Where would you like to travel to after this scenario clears up?
I would, of course, go straight back to South America. That part of the world is in my heart and it feels second home to me, especially Peru, where I couldn’t make it to this time.
Q. Tell us the top three destinations that you would recommend to our readers to explore once the situation clears up.
Chile, Peru and Argentina in that order. This part of the world is different from anywhere else that I have ever been to. From the food to the people and the culture. Each country has its own unique way of living.
Chile is one of the thinnest and longest countries, starting with the arid dry Atacama Desert at the top going all the way down to the green and lush Patagonia in the South. As you travel from one end to the other, you can see how the country changes every few 100 kilometres.
Peru is exotic. It is very close to my heart. The people there are the friendliest I have met, and the food is outstanding. It is such a warm country, and it really feels like travellers are welcomed with open arms. There’s so much history and mystic to be discovered in this country. Travelling here is more like an expedition.
Argentina is wild. I say that because of the sheer size of the country. It is grand and has numerous climatic regions. You could drive for hours and end in the south, and not see a single living thing. The highest mountain in the continent is here. It reminds me so much of what I would imagine the Wild Wild West to be like. Buenos Aires is known for its food, dance and people. You must go here to understand why I use the word ‘wild’ to describe this country.