As of a few weeks ago, I am home.
There’s a lot of joy and sorrow in that sentence. I left India about three weeks ago within 48 hours of receiving an email requesting all IJM field interns to return home. The week leading up to our departure was already a bit odd.
Every news station seemed to favor any and all virus-related news, simulating an overwhelming, surround sound system of VIRUS VIRUS VIRUS. At that time, about a month ago, it hadn’t really hit India. There were maybe 20 cases in the whole country, however, in anticipation for what was to come, a decision was made to close the Indian border to tourist visas (this didn’t include our visa).
Towards the end of that week, our director made an announcement that the following week, all of our offices will be working from home. I’m thankful that IJM was ahead of the game in making that call. Even though the immediate impact of the virus hadn’t felt tangible in our neighborhood, our leadership team knew that there was a battle on the horizon.
After a weekend of bulk shopping for our week (possibly weeks) at home, we settled in on Monday to begin working from our apartment living room. On Tuesday morning, Kyla got sick. Some sort of stomach bug/food poisoning. By 9:00am, we had received the dreaded email from IJM headquarters:
“The COVID-19 Core Team has decided to direct all deployed international Interns and Fellows to return to their home countries immediately.”
At first, we just stared at our screens in disbelief. Shaking our heads, we took turns mumbling, “this is a joke,” “this can’t be real,” “we can’t be going home.” After contacting a few members of our leadership team, the message was confirmed. The IJM intern team had to make the difficult decision of sending us all home in case the countries we were located in began implementing lockdowns. Our office admin team handled the whole situation with such patience, understanding, and care. They made this incredibly difficult situation much easier to bear in the moment.
We had to pack up, book a flight, and say goodbye to India. With the uncertainty of the virus, we had to pack e v e r y t h i n g due to the possibility that we might not be able to complete the internship.
The shock carried us through those 48 hours. That Thursday, our departure date, Emma got sick. It was similar to what Kyla had, but even in the midst of their illnesses, we still managed to pack up our entire apartment.
I would be lying if I said our bags were the acceptable airline weight. Even after sacrificing a few items here and there, leaving behind memories I had hoped to bring home, I still ended up having to pay extra for overweight baggage. That incredibly dense fee was well worth it in the end.
Jeshua and I, the two interns from the US, were the first to depart. Emma could barely stand to give me a hug goodbye. Tears rolled down my cheek as I tucked a handwritten letter into her backpack. Kyla walked us down to the car. More tears.
The ride to the airport was surreal. I didn’t want that to be the last time that I drove down those streets. I played memory over memory in my head, not to reflect, but to engrain them into my mind. I feared losing the memories made with the lack of closure from the season.
As we approached the airport, our driver signaled for us to put our masks on.
The airport was empty. The big glass doors slid open exposing an even emptier interior. The airport, once full of such excitement and adventure, was now tainted with warning signs and frightened faces. One single line formed in the middle of the building – an international flight to the US. No other line in the sight.
We slowly pushed our bags to the counter. After checking our bags, we shuffled through security. There were no fever checks or sanitizer zones or questionnaires. Everything felt too normal. We slowly made it to our gate, then onto the plane.
A few empty seats sat between the masked passengers, but the flight was almost full.
As the plane took off, I peered through the smudged window. Tears welled up in my eyes. I watched the city until it got smaller and smaller and smaller. My eyes lingered out the window, even after the clouds covered the fading lights.
“I’m so sorry,” I thought to myself. I’m not sure why, but I felt the need to apologize. Maybe to India, maybe to my parents, maybe to myself. At that moment, I felt like I had failed. I didn’t make it to the end. I couldn’t keep my promise of living there for a year. There were a multitude of things I wanted to do and places I wanted to go and friendships that I wanted to deepen. Within 48 hours, all that changed.
I’ve always had high expectations for how I spend my time on an airplane. It feels like such an intentional time to sit and think, but no part of me wanted to reflect during those 16 hours.
After a few movies and meals and ginger ales, the plane landed. Walking into a US airport felt so strange. It was just as empty as the airport we flew out of, if not more. Going through customs took about an hour, but waiting with all the other masked passengers from our flight wasn’t that bad. Anytime I felt the urge to sneeze or cough, I swallowed it with all my might to avoid the death glares from those around me.
I’ve never had to run to a gate before, but on that day I had to. Out of all the days I’ve spent in airports, that was not a day that I was in the mood to run from one end of the building to the other. Thankfully the airport was empty so I didn’t have much of an audience. The “Doors Are Closing” announcement was made as I practically threw my body down the escalator leading to my gate.
I entered the plane to see only 6 other passengers. The flight attendant told me to sit anywhere I would like. That flight was the most miserable 2 hours I’ve experienced in a while, which is saying a lot – let me remind you of my throat fungus.
I was on the verge of throwing up almost the entire flight, a mixture of turbulence, nerves, a migraine, stress, and sleep deprivation. From the moment we took off until the moment we landed, I muttered the name of ‘Jesus.’
My mom greeted me just outside baggage claim with soup, making even the car ride feel like home sweet home.
IJM staff followed along with my whole journey home, making sure I had what I needed along the way. They reimbursed part of the flight cost, and even offered further financial assistance for those who didn’t have a place to return to. Our admin team in India did everything they could to get us home safely as well, including connecting with our landlord to tie up all loose ends with him.
There are many more loose ends to tie up, but for right now, I’m home and that’s really all that matters. I hesitated even looking in the general direction of my laptop when I first got back to the US, because I didn’t know where to begin or what to say or who to call, but I’m realizing that no one really knows what’s next – and we’re all calling everybody at this point out of a desire to feel some sort of connection.
Honestly, I feel quite disconnected. But I know things won’t be like this forever.
If you’ve made it to the end of the blog, I’m impressed. In the next few weeks, I’ll be writing much more, processing things like being home, Covid-19, and, everyone’s favorite, the future.
Until next time – stay safe, stay healthy, and keep muttering the name of Jesus through the turbulence.