Abandoned airports, visa troubles and a never-before flying experience. This is what travelling by air looks like, according to someone who’s done it. Fashion designer Vaishali Shadangule shares her surreal experience with Yahoo!
When designer Vaishali Shadangule arrived at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport to board her flight, an almost empty terminal greeted her. It was unlike anything she had experienced before. Shadangule, who works with local weavers across India, travels often to Europe and the US where several of her clients are based. However, when the lockdown began in India, all her travels had to stop. She had just opened a flagship store in Mumbai earlier this year and had been looking to expand her business. The COVID-19 pandemic put all those plans on hold.
However, she knew that she had to reach out to her clients as soon as the lockdown opened up and so she applied for special permission to travel to Milan in Italy. She already had a business visa and she got special permission from the Italian embassy in New Delhi.
But knowing that the letter could very well mean nothing to a regular immigration officer at the airport, Shadangule reached the airport sufficiently early. “It was like a ghost town,” she says. “I was used to seeing the terminal buzzing with activity. No matter what time of the day or night, you’d always find that T2 was alive and packed. But that day, the usual scenes were missing. There were no queues for boarding passes, no real activity at the baggage carousel, and even the airport employees were going about their daily work with great amount of caution. This was unlike anything I had ever seen.
“A place that was always buzzing with activity was now looking like a scene out of a ghost movie. Because the terminal wasn’t working at full capacity, the lights were also dimmed, which made the scene even more depressing and drove home the point that we were living in times like no other.
“Almost all the restaurants at the airport were closed but a Starbucks was open so you could always buy something for yourself to eat. But besides that, I wasn’t able to spot anything from where one could buy anything.”
Predictably, at the immigration, Shadangule was stopped. She doesn’t have family in Europe and so there was no reason for her to travel, the immigration officer told her. At the time, travel was restricted only in case of a personal emergency and only if the passenger had family. “So I had to explain to them that I had received special permission from the Italian embassy in New Delhi granting me permission to travel. It took me about 45 minutes to convey this to the immigration officer, who refused to let me through. However, one of his seniors saw the letter and let me pass. It was now clear that I was going to travel except I wasn’t sure what to expect on the flight.”
Since Shadangule was travelling business class, her trip was relatively different from most other people’s experiences. There were just four or five other passengers in her section of the plane. However everyone was wearing a PPE suit, with masks etc. When you travel business class, the stewards/stewardesses tend to come by to your seat at least 2-3 times even before the flight takes off. First to offer a hot/cold towel, then to offer a cocktail or a welcome drink, then with a trolley of newspapers and magazines for you to read on the flight. “None of that was happening,” Shadangule laughs, “The stewardesses brought me my meal which was a simple one, unlike earlier when business class meals used to be a fancy fare. But aside from that, the cabin crew avoided interaction with the passengers. It was obvious that the airline was trying to keep their staff’s interaction with the passengers to the bare minimum. That meant there wouldn’t be any pampering but it was also reassuring to know that the airline had our safety on their mind.”
Shadangule had to make a connection to Milan via Frankfurt. Her aircraft landed at Frankfurt where a very different scene greeted her. “Sure there were a lot of people wearing masks and going about their day’s job but aside from that you couldn’t tell that you were travelling in the midst of a pandemic. The crowds may have been slightly lesser than usual but I couldn’t tell for sure. This is how it has been everywhere I have been in Europe. Restaurants are open in Switzerland and Milan and Milan is opting for a regular fashion week instead of the digital fashion weeks that seem to be taking place everywhere else,” she says.
For the next few weeks, Shadangule will be in Milan where she will conduct her business before returning to Mumbai where she lives. “It is surreal,” she says of the stark difference in the scenes she witnessed in India and Europe. “I had only heard of ‘the new normal’. When I took a flight to Europe, I experienced it first hand.”