Alone, stranded and scared: Diary of British mother in India captures horror of travellers trapped in coronavirus lockdown

'People being thrown out of hostels because they cannot pay. They are sleeping in the streets or on beaches. Some are running out of vital medicines, others cannot get into shops for food'

Colin Drury@colin__drury
Friday 03 April 2020 18:16
Samantha Smith
Samantha Smith

Tens of thousands of Britons are stranded abroad after borders around the world were closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Airlines have grounded planes, leaving UK nationals trapped in dozens of countries across the planet, from gap year travellers in South America to holiday-makers in Asia, Australia and Africa.

And, while the Foreign Office has insisted the government is doing everything it can to get them home, many are reporting a complete absence of help and vacuum of information

One such person is Samantha Smith.

The 47-year-old mother of three, from Lancaster, was on the trip of a lifetime travelling around India for two months when, with unprecedented speed, the global travel industry started to shut down last month.

Since then she has been living, under curfew, in a basic guesthouse in the northern city of Rishikesh, while keeping a diary of her attempts to get home.

Here, she shares excerpts with The Independent in a bid to offer a glimpse into the fears and frustrations felt by the tens of thousands like her.

20 March

As the coronavirus has spread, I have started to become anxious about my flight home on 30 March from Delhi to Manchester. Will it still go ahead? I've checked the airline's website and it says the flight remains scheduled but I am worried and want to come home earlier.

So today I phoned and emailed to try and reschedule but their numbers are ringing out and emails going unanswered. My travel agent isn’t responding either. I called all five British embassies in India to try and get some clarity on what might happen but no-one is picking up at any of them. I called the Foreign Office in London who said I should wait for my scheduled flight in 10 days. It seemed like the exact opposite of good advice but, for now, I don’t know what else to do. So, I will stay in Rishikesh in my guesthouse room and try to remain calm.

I am fortunate that I am a seasoned solo traveller and that I am in such a peaceful place but there will be many British people in India and around the world feeling far more vulnerable than I.

23 March

I have received an email from my airline telling me my flight has indeed been cancelled and that I have to get in touch with the travel agent to get a refund. The only problem is my travel agent isn’t answering. For now, it seems, that money, is gone. I do not want to book a new flight online and have that cancelled, and lose even more so I have made a decision. Tomorrow I will make the five-hour trip to New Delhi, to the closest international airport, and will pay for the first available flight I can get back to western Europe. I feel positive having come up with a plan of action. Tried calling the embassies again for information. No pick ups.

24 March

India has gone into lock down and people are not allowed to travel between states. That means I cannot get to New Delhi or any other international airport. I phoned the foreign office in London to see if I could get some certificate or right-to-pass but they told me it was impossible. So, now, I admit, I am starting to panic. I am trapped here.

A daily curfew has been announced too, which will last at least until 31 March. We are allowed out only between 7-10am to exercise and buy essentials but the atmosphere is unpleasant. Police are stationed in the streets armed with bamboo sticks and not afraid to use them. Locals now appear wary of foreigners like me. This is a disease from another land and it feels like we, as strangers, are being held responsible by some people here.

Samantha Smith

25 March

I emailed my local MP Cat Smith and she replied within a couple of hours. She said she would bring up repatriation in parliament questions and get back to me. What a relief to actually get through to someone who appears to care. I just want to be home.

To take and stay productive, I spent hours today scouring the internet and social media for any information that might help. I have been in contact with people from the UK all over India, and no one appears to know anymore than me about how they can get home. There are stories of people being thrown out of hostels because they can no longer pay. They are sleeping on the street or beaches. Some people say they will run out of vital medicines if they cannot get home soon. Others report not being allowed into shops to buy food or provisions. It's a mess.

Then, in the evening, a possible way home! I found out there were several buses from the German embassy already in the city, here to pick up German nationals, and that other Europeans were being allowed on board. But the moment of hope was over as soon as it arrived. The buses, I learned, were virtually ready to set off – and leaving from the other side of the city. I’d missed my chance of escape.

26 March

Joy! Someone answers at the embassy. Can she help? No. She scolded me that I should have gone home days ago. I said I was trying to do that but pointed out borders were being closed and flights grounded. Her reply was to tell me to hold tight, and keep reading the FCO website. She appeared annoyed I had bothered her.

I keep trying to stay positive. In the morning today I bought coffee and sat with it alone on the river bank looking at others doing the same. It was a beautiful day. At least until the police came and shouted at everyone to leave. I stayed indoors after that.

29 March

Today, I have struggled. I have done everything I practically can to try and find a way out of India and back home but I keep hitting only dead ends. I am fearful for what lies ahead if I have to remain here indefinitely. I do not have unlimited money. When that runs out, I do not know what will happen. What if I catch the infection and die here? What if I never get to see my children again? It's all too much. I feel suffocated and completely alone. And yet I know I’m lucky in many ways. I have a room, food and water, for now. Still, I struggle to stop crying.

30 March

I spoke to my children today, Hannah, Joe and Livi. They reminded me that it's good to cry and to get it all out. Doing so made me feel better: stronger and more resilient.

I’m resigned that I will probably be here for months. I've let go of the idea of getting home. I will keep trying and emailing the embassy but I have accepted it may not happen.

I heard from someone who was on the German embassy’s buses. She made it back to the UK. They were all put on flights back to Frankfurt, and, from there, she could make her way home. Meanwhile, the British embassy continues to ignore phone calls and emails. It is embarrassing and shameful.

This all came before I then heard Dominic Raab telling a press conference that he and FCO staff have been working round the clock to get Brits home. Really? Because tens of thousands of us don’t only remain standard but haven’t heard a single thing form the government. We have been cut adrift.

2 April

An email from Cat Smith. She says the government are working to make some flights available for us to buy next week. There are no more details than that.

There is still nothing from the embassies or the Foreign Office itself so there are many unanswered questions. India is a huge country. Where will these flight leave from? Will I be able to get to the flight if the state boarders are still closed? Will they even be affordable? I have told myself not to get my hopes up; and yet I can’t help hoping.

The Independent has contacted the FCO for comment.

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