Columns From Quarantine: A hectic international trip back home in search of safety and comfort

A sudden and hectic trip back home only exacerbated the chaos brought about by the pandemic, but Science and Health Editor Sameera Pant has found peace, and her dog named Coffee, in coming home. (Courtesy of Sameera Pant)

By Sameera Pant

April 27th, 2020, 2:17pm

This post was updated April 27 at 2:39 p.m.

The coronavirus pandemic has drastically upended life in the most unforeseeable of ways. At UCLA, our community is remarkably united by similar feelings of loss, confusion and concern, but also by light, hope and perspective that the pandemic has brought to the forefront. In “Columns From Quarantine,” Daily Bruin staffers and community submissions highlight the personal stories that mark this unprecedented moment. If you have a quarantine story to tell, you can submit it here or email [email protected]

(Andrea Grigsby/Illustrations Director)
(Andrea Grigsby/Illustrations Director)

I woke up on a late January morning to the news that the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health had confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in Los Angeles County.

At the time, the coronavirus was just a story to me, a short news brief to write and follow up on. Nevertheless, as days passed and the disease threaded its way throughout the country and the rest of the globe, it became more of a constant. It hovered at the edges of articles I edited, got dissected in my film class and made me paranoid about my roommate’s cough.

My family’s concern grew alongside the case count in LA, with loved ones texting and calling me at odd hours to see if I was OK and asking when I was planning to come home. When UCLA first made the decision to move classes online until April 10, my parents decided to get me home before the situation worsened.

My first reaction was to fight them. As an international student on an F-1 visa, my ability to remain in the United States at the time was contingent on full-time, in-person enrollment. With online classes, my future seemed murky as is.

What if in-person instruction started up again and I couldn’t return to campus? What if everchanging travel restrictions meant I was stranded at an airport in between flights? What if I was forced into a government quarantine facility? What if I made a relative sick?

In retrospect, my fears felt overwrought – just the caffeine-addled, late-night ramblings of a stressed student before finals week.

Then, all the anxiety boiled over early one morning. I had been woken up by another call – my aunt checking on me – and I couldn’t help but sit down at the foot of my roommate’s bed and cry.

Staying put or going home was a decision that still hurts to think about. Luckily, I didn’t have to make one.

Upon UCLA’s announcement that remote instruction would continue throughout spring quarter, the UCLA Dashew Center for International Students sent out an email stating F-1 Visa statuses would not be terminated as long as students maintained full-time enrollment, even with online classes. I could spend spring quarter home in New Delhi with no fear of halting my future in Los Angeles.

I rented a storage unit and after some more compromising with my parents, decided to fly home Friday of finals week, only after my exams were finished. That did not happen.

As finals week began, it started seeming more and more likely that the Indian government would start sealing its borders. Despite familial anxieties rising again, I managed to finish an exam and store half of my things by March 18. That night, I worked on packing everything else; by the time I slept it was 3 a.m. on March 19. A little over a day before my flight home.

My mother woke me up with a call less than four hours later. The Indian government had banned incoming international flights starting from March 22, when I had been scheduled to arrive.

Although I’m sure a small part of me had braced myself for the worst, I couldn’t help but panic. My parents had booked me on a 3 p.m. flight out of LA, giving me less than six hours to finish packing, get to Public Storage, come back to campus, leave campus and reach the airport in time.

I pulled everything off my walls, pins flying everywhere. Whatever clothes and belongings I couldn’t fit into my one suitcase were thrown into my last box. Whatever couldn’t fit in the box went into plastic bags I held in my hands. My blanket and sheets, still warm from the sleep I’d been shaken from, were the last to go, ripped from my bed and stuffed into my laundry bag.

A week or so later, my roommate would send me angry texts about the pins, the dust bunnies on my desk and the fact I didn’t vacuum.

But the afternoon of March 19, as I pulled into Los Angeles International Airport with a mask tight on my face, all I was thinking about was how this wasn’t how I’d planned to say goodbye to the city, the campus and my sophomore year. This wasn’t how I’d planned to leave.

When I arrived in New Delhi, I realized that my return wasn’t going to be anything as like I’d planned either.

I landed late March 20, roughly a day before the ban was enforced, to an airport choked with citizens coming home from every part of the world. With every giant line, people swelled with an agitation that seemed infectious in more ways than one.

The tension was understandable. Hundreds were packed into tight hallways, stretching from immigration to the food court where a medical facility had been set up. Airport security had taken our passports, returning them only after we’d been checked by a doctor.

It took me six hours to see one.

I felt myself holding my breath so I wouldn’t accidentally sniffle or cough. I had imagined someone pushing a swab down my throat or interrogating me about my eyes, puffy and red from travel. Instead, I got a brief interview regarding my travel history and any possible symptoms.

Pulling my suitcase out of the airport, the back of my hand freshly stamped with the fact I had to be self-quarantined, I couldn’t help but think – that’s it? That’s going to be enough to protect a population of over 1 billion people?

Then I saw my mom, masked and gloved, waiting to bring me home. Over my next two weeks in self-isolation, a local police officer would call our home to check whether I’d contracted any symptoms. India’s travel ban was augmented by a national lockdown on March 25. Though it was only meant to last three weeks, it was soon extended to May 3.

Maybe that’ll be enough. But maybe it won’t.

On April 19, dozens of residents of the apartment complex I live in came out on their balconies to play a socially distanced version of bingo. Standing on the grounds below, a person yelled out numbers through a megaphone for players to scratch off. To signal a win, a family would have to bang whatever they could – pots, pans, whatever was noisy enough – against their railings.

I hadn’t left the house in five weeks and was caught off guard by how nice it was outside. The sunset painted all the buildings a golden pink, the streets were ridiculously free of cars and my old beagle had squashed himself next to me.

(Courtesy of Sameera Pant)
Pant with her 10-year-old beagle, Coffee. (Courtesy of Sameera Pant)

Being back home feels a little different, but it’s still home.

This is where I grew up, where I’ve laughed and cried and lost. This is where I got rejected from the first internship I applied to and by the first guy I ever really liked. This is where I got into UCLA and where I wrote my very first article as a sixth grader.

In a time of such intense uncertainty, there is so much I am lucky to be sure of – safety, sunshine and a home to come back to.

Sameera Pant is a second-year pre-economics student from New Delhi and is the Science and health editor for the Daily Bruin.

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