Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The Afghanistan Debacle

Twenty years ago a person leaped from a skyscraper in the hope of flight, as fire engulfed everything above and below.


As an army transport plane ascended into the skies above Kabul, a spec fell off the fuselage. The spec was a young Afghan footballer clinging to freedom only to find death in return.


These moments of humans suspended in air, bookend twenty years of horror, death, destruction and the human capacity to lay waste extraordinary amounts of treasure and beauty.


Another glaring example of madness that we are prone to succumb, justifying it all along with a false sense of righteousness.


A crack was left inside me, the day planes struck towers in my city. Every moment from that day is as vivid today, as it was two decades ago. What I could not foresee though, was what was to come.


In my naivety I thought the horrors experienced here would lead us to reflection, pause and perspective.


But what it lead us to is a twenty year long war fueled by vengeance, resulting in the extinguishing of countless innocent souls across the world.


The carnage that began on 9/11 still continues, as America cuts its losses and departs a war-torn nation, leaving behind the same people in power it forced out, decades ago. It is stinging to realize, that it leaves behind a Taliban, better militarily equipped than before.


Afghanistan has been at war for 42 years. Twenty of which were under the auspices of the United States.


Empires have come and gone, but Afghanistan has remained true to its core. An ungovernable, fractious country, divided along rigid ethnic tribal lines.


Four presidents later, this much is apparent, the American experiment has failed miserably. As we witness unimaginable suffering caused by sheer shortsightedness, bad planning, deplorable deals and appalling execution, one wonders what was it all really for?

Does a hunt and assassination of one person justify such colossal waste, death and destruction?


To any sensible person the response is obvious. But American presidents, have always framed the invasion of Afghanistan as the “just war.” A place that needed sweeping and fixing, so America could be safe. But all it turned out to be is a sink hole for human greed, where corruption made military contractors and politicians rich, while leaving the affected people with a false sense of prosperity and a secure future.


Most wars are engineered and executed on a bed of lies. This one was no different. From the beginning it was known that Afghanistan would turn out to be a quagmire, yet the officials in power misled the public. And yet again no one will be held accountable, so that the next war could be orchestrated without a hitch.


When Kabul was taken by the Taliban without a shot fired, it became apparent how hollowed out the propped up Afghan establishment truly was. The so called 300,000 strong US trained Afghan army was either a lie, or a delusion of an adamant president.


When soldiers have no reason to fight, a war comes to an end. After 42 years, the will of the Afghans to fight had perhaps reached its nadir. And so they went home, rather than die for a lost cause.


As America departs, assessments on what will emerge are running wild. While we celebrate on CNN the valiant efforts of the American soldiers as they evacuate hordes, there is also a narrative being sown, that the Taliban this time will behave. As they need the hand outs to govern their country.


Another scenario is that civil war will return as the various warlords will get back to doing what they know best. Meanwhile American will keep bombing via drones to keep every rag tag terrorist group from taking hold. And the ISI from Pakistan will get back in the driving seat pulling strings from across the border.


Empires always leave chaos when they depart. History is replete with instances, the most recent one being the hurried US departure from Saigon, over the dead bodies 58,000 soldiers and countless Vietnamese civilians. So what we witness in Afghanistan now is predictable history. What will emerge will only be clear decades from now.


This summer, I spent time in the land of Homer, Aristotle and Plato. The cradle of western civilization, the birth place of democracy. While I visited the ruins and sat in the shadow of the towering Corinthian columns, it was awe inspiring. It did not escape me for a second, the capacity of humans to create such beauty in majesty and magnificence. The layer upon layer of history was overwhelming and rich to grasp.

What was equally staggering to realize, is that the ruins I was standing within, eons old, were not all caused by nature’s fury. The destruction brought upon the Parthenon and the temples of Delphi and elsewhere, were engineered by invading humans and empires. 

It is what it is.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Cuban Covid Conundrum

In a nation where people barely eke out an existence, the pandemic has dealt a devastating blow. Things have become so desperate, that something unusual and extraordinary happened in July. People across Cuba poured in to the streets to protest. Their living conditions had become untenable.

In a country known for repressive crackdowns on dissent, the rallies were widely viewed as astonishing. It was the first time that so many people had openly protested against the Communist regime since the so-called Maleconazo uprising, which exploded in the summer of 1994 into a huge wave of Cubans leaving the country by sea, headed for Miami.

La Habana was home to me for two weeks in the summer of 2018.

In 2019, Cuba celebrated 60 years since Fidel Castro Ruz along with Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos overthrew the corrupt US supported Fulgencio Batista government in an armed revolution whose lore has defined everything in Cuba.

Every where I traveled across this land, banners, stencils on walls and murals reminded you of that “glorious” day.

The communist regime that was setup after Fidel Castro assumed power, is still intact and in control. Though the Castro family does not directly hold power anymore, the person they left in charge promises to uphold the revolution and all that it stands for.

Cuba’s defiance of America, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the continuing economic embargo and the numerous plots to overthrow the regime are celebrated as the greatest accomplishment of the revolution.

There is a whole museum in Havana dedicated to the revolution called the Museo De La Revolucion. It tells the story of the struggle in massive displays of faded photographs and artifacts.

It spins a narrative of how the CIA plotted to subjugate its people by poisoning their livestock, infecting their tobacco fields, murdering Che, downing one of their airplanes in 1976 and plotting to assassinate Fidel Castro 600 times.

There is no doubt that successive American governments since Castro took power have tried to dislodge him and failed time and again. Therefore the Cuban people do feel a sense of pride in standing tall, even though deep down many know, that the reason for their misery is not America alone.

As you would expect, the museum conveniently omits that which does not serve the myth that bolsters the regime.

It is quite otherworldly to imagine that a three-hour flight from New York can land you in a place so suspended.

Florida is just 103 miles of the coast of Cuba, but the only thing American here are some TV shows and the cars from the 1950s, which have become emblematic of this city and country. They are the Gondolas of Havana and are used as taxis for the public and pleasure rides for the tourists.

Cubans get daily free rations from government run depots. A display on a wall announces what’s available for the day. I saw very basic necessities like eggs, rice, lentils, cooking oil being distributed to people showing up with government issued ration cards. The store was as sparse as can be.

The pharmacies which hand out free medications and other items are barely stocked.
For a poor country, Cuba’s free national health system is something to emulate and the development of their own Covid vaccine is remarkable.

While Cubans have resigned to a meager existence with grace, humility and a smile, there is a beaten down sadness you cannot touch but can see from a distance. With a determination on their face and music in their soul, Cubans go around their business of living with little protest.
Waiting for hours at bus stops, getting in line early morning outside banks, going to a public park to access internet, shopping at scarce markets, unreliable cellphone networks and trying to find cover from the afternoon sun and thundershowers when umbrellas are a thing of luxury, are just a few discomforts Cubans contend with everyday. The pandemic exacerbated the daily grind beyond the pale.

People are free spirited here no doubt. They smile, dance and play drums like nowhere else in the world; their culture is an exquisite amalgamation of European and African influences and their history is older than that of North America.

At the nightclubs people party late into the night, but Cubans are not free to speak their mind. Politics is something they are not allowed to engage in. There are government spies they constantly need to be weary of.

Dissidents are jailed and there are limits to what you can and cannot say. There is no free press. The state controls every aspect of one’s life. While some private ownership has been allowed in the recent years, the regime’s hold on everything is as firm as ever.

The Internet is regulated by the state by allowing access an hour at a time via scratch cards that allow Wifi access only at hotspots in public parks, upscale hotels and some houses. The eight channels of commercial free TV, only show what the regime wants you to see. As to be expected, the extreme state control has spawned a black market for everything.

So when the protesters came out on to the streets, as expected the response from the regime was brutal and immediate.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba’s economy went into free fall, as it was completely reliant on Russia for aid. Fidel Castro declared that Cuba was entering a “Special period in the time of peace” or known as Periodo Especial.

Drastic austerity measures were put into place. It is said people lost a third of their body weight during this time, which lasted four years during which many Cubans deserted their country. Not since then has the situation been as dire and desperate as is it is today.

A real glimpse into what Cuban life for the ordinary people is like, was given to me by my gracious companion and driver Julio. He used to be a radiologist at a government hospital, but decided he could make a better living driving a taxi for tourists.

When I asked Julio what people make of the daily dose of nationalist propaganda on TV and elsewhere, especially the younger generation, he replied, “No one cares. Everyone just survives here. We live under the boot of the regime. They decide when to press hard or when to release”. When I asked what his young adult boys felt, he responded, “Given a chance they would leave Cuba.” He followed that sentiment by saying that “but things are going to change very soon. They have to. And the young people will have many opportunities, if only they could see it coming, rather than give up.”

As a tourist most places seem more romantic than they are. As the struggle of daily life is not your concern, you only focus on that which is quaint and beautiful. Meeting people, you barely scratch the surface of the daily grind. But you do get a sense of the possibilities and an understanding of that which is alive and that which has been lost.

Much like his many friends Julio probably had a chance to leave Cuba, but decided to stay. I could not tell if he regretted that decision, but he never expressed any deep resentment, just a resignation that is all too familiar here.

I wonder what he might be thinking today.

It is what it is.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Absurdity of Humanity

I came across a friend at the corner store. I had not seen him in a while. Invariably my second question to him was,

“Did you get your vaccine?”


Other than the fact that he was deliberating on getting one, he was waiting to see which one would be ranked number one in the opinion poll. He said he could not make up his mind on which one to get. Of course he wanted to know which one I had gotten and if I had had any side effects.


I told him if he was afraid of pin pricks, he could walk down the street where the Johnson and Johnson vaccine was being given for free. And he would be done in one “shot.” He said he had heard unsettling things about the J&J vaccine and was not inclined to get it.


Immediately the absurdity of where we are in this battle against this scourge, became abundantly clear.


Even though the United States has seen more people die from the virus than any other nation in the world, many are still hesitant to get the vaccine. The mixed messaging and conspiracy theories strewn by social media, have warped people’s understanding and belief in facts and science. The slogan “we are all in it together” no longer holds true. I wonder if it ever did.


The low vaccination rates in so called “red states” in the south, is leading to infection spikes driven by the highly contagious Delta Variant. Dr. Anthony Fauci eluded that two Americas are being created due to vaccine hesitancy, putting the whole nation in peril.


While we are far from seeing an end to this epidemic, the sudden decline in infections in affluent nations, as a result of pockets being vaccinated beyond 50%, is certainly lifting spirits. Stadiums are again being allowed to pack, restaurants have lifted capacity limitations, travel restrictions are more relaxed and mask wearing has become voluntary.


The vaccines seem to be working and even though there is a threat of variants lurking, studies are showing that wearing a seat belt is better than flying blind.


While in the United States, a vaccine menu can be ordered at your local pharmacy, in other large nations vaccine shortages are acute. In India where the virus ravaged relentlessly, a third wave is is being braced for, as vaccine supplies struggle to meet the demand. With very low vaccination rates, Australia is still employing lock downs to combat the virus.


The lack of a unified global response from the start of the pandemic exacerbated the problem, leading to untold death and desperation.


The same approach is now creating a world of the vaccine “haves” and the “have-nots.”


I was in India in March, just before the second wave engulfed the nation in despair. While browsing through the news paper I came across a headline- “Vaccine Package Tours.”

The rich in India were being offered all inclusive trips to Dubai to get the Pfizer vaccine. The Louis Vuitton of vaccines.


For an exorbitant price, a packaged tour offered to fly you in a chartered jet to Dubai. After your first dose your accommodations for the requisite twenty eight day waiting period would be taken care in luxury. After the 2nd jab you would be returned home safe and sound.


This report exposed the disparity which now seems to have become the norm. While rich nations vaccinate even those who are least at risk, poorer nations wait in line to save their vulnerable, leaving large swathes open to outbreaks.


In the meantime the World Health Organization pleads for haste in delivering much needed doses to Africa, Asia and the Far East. As everyone knows the virus sees no borders and if let up will mutate making it harder to cap.


While party conversations in America begin with people identifying themselves as Pfizer or Moderna campers, like Beatles and Stones fans, China and Russia have been shipping their vaccines to eager buyers.


AstraZeneca from UK has deployed widely after some initial hiccups.


India has developed its own indigenous vaccine and Cuba is working on an array as well.


With all these vaccines at our disposal humanity still cannot come up with a decisive and collaborative strategy that would be beneficial to all equally.


The inability of the world to work as one to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, leaves us vulnerable to this one and to the others waiting in the wings to deploy.


The lack of transparency and sharing of information and know-how leaves humanity in a precarious position. The politicization and polarization of discourse around science, exposes the dangers brought about by non-cooperation, stubborn denial and ignorance.


The fracture caused in the belief in science and scientists, by a world fragmented by misinformation, only makes us regressive.


So the next time someone asks what shot did you get? The response should be, my favorite flavor of the month vanilla with a dash of chocolate.


It is what it is.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Religious Tribalism & War

I was born in a country that was ripped apart by the violence of religious tribalism. In 1947 the British ended their colonial carnage by drawing a line and dividing a people, leading to unimaginable slaughter and animosity.

Seven decades later, the wounds are still fresh, and the status quo feeds an arms race and incessantly widens the gulf between India and Pakistan. Peace between the two nations is fleeting and elusive as ever.

Around the same time the British withdrew from India they spawned a similar outcome in another part of the world. 750,000 Palestinian Arabs were displaced from their homes to form the Jewish nation of Israel.

The conflict that ensued as a result of this mass displacement in 1948, continues to this day with periods of quiet, but never peace.

And so like clockwork war returned again in May, sparked by the age old land dispute, religious zealotry and militarized dominance.

By the time it simmered down, 68 children were added to the bottomless slaughter list, extinguished by shrapnel and concrete. Most of them died in one the world’s most impoverished and choked of places. They died because of where they lived. The virus of hate got them.

For the fourth time in 13 years, Israel had launched a major military offensive on the Gaza Strip in response to rockets launched by Hamas. In its latest assault that began on May 10, at least 242 Palestinians were killed in Gaza and 13 in Israel.

Between 2008 and 2021, at least 5,739 Palestinians and 251 Israelis have died due to the war. 23 Palestinians for each Israeli, according to the United Nations. Over the same time period at least 121,438 Palestinians and 5,682 Israelis were injured. Many Palestinians have continued to be displaced over and over again in their own land.

As I watched buildings pulverized to rubble in Gaza on TV, it reminded me of the Twin Towers that came down in my city, in a heap of concrete and mangled steal.

Israel said these buildings were harboring Hamas leaders/terrorists who were endangering innocent civilians. Out of kindness they said they had given people fair warning before leveling their homes to dust. We only had the “trustworthy” words of Benjamin Natenyahu to take for it.

The “collateral damage” doctrine was at play. Much like their overlords who had killed thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of fighting terrorism, Israel saw itself well within its right to do the same.

Then in response to the shifting public opinion, pushing for an immediate ceasefire the American President spoke, stating “Israel had a right to defend itself.” Meaning Israel can commit war crimes until we say it is not acceptable.

The Palestinian right to defend its citizens is only an after thought, as in comparison they have no real power and Hamas that rules over Gaza is a terrorist organization. Gaza for all practical purposes is a large prison camp, whose life line is in Israel’s mighty grip.

As rockets took flight indiscriminately from Gaza over the walls and into the “Iron Dome”, a few managed to pierce through reciprocating the terror all too familiar in this region. So a democratic state saw itself well within its right to fight a terrorist group with overwhelming and disproportionate force with little consequence.

While there is a lull in the blood letting for the time being, nothing has changed. The deep seeded hatred on either side of the wall has only gotten worse.

The illegal occupation and usurping of Palestinian land continues unchallenged only because the US turns a blind eye and arms Israel to the teeth.

In direct violation of International Law and UN resolutions Israel and its army of zealot settlers are on a religious mission to take more and more of the land. Which they believe is unequivocally theirs as it is written in the Bible. If this continues unabated the two state solution will become untenable and that seems to be the ultimate goal.

The hardliners and religious zealots on both sides benefit from the violence. As does Iran, the US and other proxies that take advantage politically and financially from blood money generated from an endless conflict.

Being critical of theocracy in Saudi Arabia and Iran, white nationalism, authoritarianism, Trumpism is all kosher. But criticizing the oppressive tactics of Israel amounts to antisemitism. This double standard absolves Israel in the eyes of many of its supporters no matter how much destruction the armed forces unleash.

According to , Israel is “committing crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution” against the Palestinians.

It is known that Israel faces formidable enemies that wish for it not to exist. But anyone who wishes to acknowledge reality, knows this is a fantasy. Israel possesses nuclear weapons and has one of the most well equipped and battle ready forces in the world and the unwavering support of the US.

Using this argument justifies the status quo and allows Israel to arm itself to no end and as a response emboldens Hamas and its backers to do the same. The more Israel unleashes terror the more justified the existence of Hamas becomes to those who live in its shadow.

In 1993, Yossi Beilin, the Israeli deputy minister of foreign affairs, recruited two college professors, Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundak, for back-channel negotiations with the Palestinians to find a viable path to peace. He specifically told them, “if you get caught you will be charged with treason and espionage and I cannot protect you.” They took the cue and decided to dream the unthinkable.

The 2018 HBO documentary “” takes you an intimate journey revealing how close the negotiators came in achieving the impossible.

Told through the diaries of the chief negotiators and interviews of others involved, the documentary charts the journey to the Oslo Peace Accords and shows how Yitzak Rabin and Yaseer Arafat agreed to set aside their deep mistrust and hatred to bring an end to decades of bloodshed.

Through secretly filmed footage from the time, the film tells a gripping story of how peace was within grasp before it was wrecked by an assassin’s bullet. The hardliners won by killing Yitzak Rabin and quashing the dreams of millions of Israelis and Palestinians who wanted to live side by side in peace.

As ground realities shifted Benjamin Natenyahu came to power defeating Shimon Peres by a slender margin. The Oslo Accords were abandoned. Hamas became a formidable force and more than 16,000 people have lost their lives since.

The people who dreamed of peace are still around. But the audacity of hope seems to have vanished.

At the end of the documentary, Shimon Peres, who was one of the chief negotiators of the Oslo Accords and later became Prime Minister after Yitzak Rabin’s assassination and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, is asked if he is optimistic about peace. He says,

“I don’t think there is an alternative, neither for the Palestinians nor us. The only alternative is an ongoing war. In war there are no victors, only victims. No war is ever finished. Unless it is being replaced by peace.”

This was his last interview. Shimon Peres passed away in 2016.

In the end only truth and reconciliation can achieve peace. History shows us over and over again, that a system of Apartheid is untenable. If Israel wants to be a modern democracy, it cannot build walls and discriminate people based on their ethnicity. It is antithetical to its very origin.

It is what it is.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Has America really turned a page?

 “MSP (Minneapolis/St.Paul) people, stay safe” was a message that crossed my WhatsApp feed on April 20th. The concern was not for the virus, but because the George Floyd murder trial verdict was imminent.


Many were expecting a verdict that would enrage people enmasse. Minneapolis was boarded up and the police and national guard were on high alert. Cities across the country were bracing for violence.


Derek Chauvin, the policeman who snuffed out George Floyd’s life in full view of the public, was convicted of all charges. The nation breathed a sigh of relief. Nothing burned, and America seemed to have turned another page in it’s complicated history.


When I arrived in the US in the early 90s, another video had gone “viral”, this was probably the first of its kind. There was no social media then, but every television channel showed the grainy images over and over again until it was seared into everyone’s conscience.


The images were of Rodney King brutally being assaulted by a gang of Los Angeles policemen. When the story behind the video eventually emerged and the severely bruised and swollen face of Rodney King with a blood shot red eye was published, the horror of it all, shook America to its core.


Like George Floyd, Rodney King was not docile or compliant to the police, and so began his troubles.


It was March 2, 1991 after a night of watching basketball on TV and heavy drinking, Rodney King and his two friends left home. Around 12:30 AM a couple of Los Angeles policemen spotted them speeding down a highway. The officers pursued the car which turned into a high speed chase.
Rodney King had enough alcohol in his body to get arrested for drunk driving. He was out on parole for a prior theft and an arrest could send him back into prison and he did not want to risk that.


After approximately eight miles, with several police cars and a helicopter on his tail, he gave up. The police asked his two passengers to exit and face down on the ground. They complied. When Rodney King was asked to do the same, he acted strange, giggling and waving at the helicopter above.


King then grabbed his buttocks and the officers thought he was reaching for a gun. At this point one of the officers drew a pistol and King complied by lying face down. Four other officers proceeded to hand cuff him at which point he began to resist causing one of the officers to fall. The officers withdrew and King got back on his feet and an officer deployed a “Taser”.


The electric shock immobilized him but not completely. The officers then proceeded to pummel him with their batons, hitting him hard on his joints.


After 56 blows and 6 kicks and surrounded by seven officers he was subdued, cuffed and dragged on his stomach to the side of the road for an ambulance to arrive.


Unknown to the policemen the whole incident was captured on video by George Holiday from his apartment window. A video camera in a citizen’s hand for the first time had unlocked the doors to what was to come.


The trial that finally got underway had the nation gripped. The color line grew thicker and wider and the justice system was under a microscope to see if the officers would be prosecuted for their brutality. The graphic video to many seemed enough to condemn the white policemen.


A year later an all white jury acquitted the officers of assault and hours later an already simmering city burst into flames. The “LA Riots” as it came to be known ignited the “City of Angels”. It was certainly not the first race triggered incident, but the extent of it was wide.


By the time the US Army, Marines and the national guard controlled the violence it was six days and 53 people were dead and $1 billion dollars worth of property was damaged by looting and arson. Most of the violence took place in poor Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Smaller riots were reported in San Francisco, Las Vegas and Atlanta.


Why a jury convicted Derek Chauvin and not the LA policemen is the sign of the times we find ourselves in today. There has been a shift and the hope is that it is permanent.


Rodney King lived to tell his story. George Floyd’s story was captured in excruciating detail on crystal clear video.


But what makes their story similar are the circumstances in which they found themselves in, by who they were and how they behaved and looked.


What is abundantly clear, is that if a video did not exist of what transpired, then these assaults would have been checked off as routine police encounters with black men who are not considered “model citizens” and therefore deserve the treatment meted.


While the conviction of Derek Chauvin may give some policemen pause, what would not have changed is the basic nature of policing in America and the infestation of guns that plague this nation.


The militarized police will always be quick on the draw, whenever a black man or boy makes the slightest of moves, as it is assumed a gun will be pointing back at them. This equation is not going to change anytime soon.


Since George Floyd’s murder, there have been many police encounters where black men have ended up dead. Donald Trump has been relegated to the trash bin of history for the time being and the new president is trying to make some changes on the edges. He is speaking of “systemic racism” in speeches and has a bill in congress named after Gorge Floyd which promises to bring some change to policing in America. Whether the bill will pass in a divided government and in a climate that has significantly changed, is anyone’s guess.


While there is still some energy left in people to protest, the Covid induced pressure cooker is releasing and with it is the momentum and passion we saw last year when people poured into the streets.


Rodney King and George Floyd are no heroes. They were never meant to be. They were flawed like any of us. They had prior run ins with the law. They did not have Ivy League educated parents or grand parents to look up to. They were products of their circumstances.


But they did not deserve to be treated the way they were, especially by men in uniform. Even in their state of indignity they deserved dignity just for being citizens of this land.


The HBO documentary series “Exterminate all the Brutes” by Raoul Peck, is a powerful sweeping work that examines the origins of white supremacy and the horrific historic destructive nature of racism, colonialism and imperialism, whose impact is felt to this day.


In the series Peck re-enacts the slave trade by flipping it. A gang of chained white children are whipped and dragged through the African jungles by black slave masters. By asking the viewer to entertain an alternate history, he challenges our sense of morality.


Unless we are able to examine the narratives we have been conditioned to believe and sustain, change will only occur at the edges. To bring about systemic change the truth must first be confronted and acknowledged.


Many in power, find the truth threatening.

It is what it is.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Travels in a New Reality

February 2020, I was at the Dubai airport transiting. I was returning from India after visiting my aging parents. We were corralled like cattle down a corridor for a security check. Everyone was literally breathing into each other’s faces. A handful of people were wearing masks. A virus shutting down a city in China was headline news. But everyone seemed confident it was a crisis, taking place in a far off place, much like an earthquake or a violent storm. 

Four weeks later the whole human world came to a grinding halt. 

A year later it was time for me to make a trip back.

Having been vaccinated and hearing from friends who had made the journey, and infection rates reporting low in the region, it felt safe to travel. I had not heard of a single outbreak on an airplane since the pandemic began, which was encouraging. The air-filtration systems supposedly were doing the trick.

As I began to research Covid travel protocols and other restrictions, it seemed like a daunting and unpleasant undertaking. Only two airlines guaranteed arrival and departure of which one was the national airline, AirIndia. An airline I had vowed never to board after a prior miserable experience.

Only Indian citizens and non-citizens with OCI cards (Indian equivalent of a Greencard) were being allowed entry into the country.

 A negative PCR Covid test 72 hours before boarding was a requisite. Rapid tests were not acceptable. Copies of one’s passport and negative test result had to be uploaded to a government website which generated a form that had to be printed and presented at the airport.

Out of abundant caution I got my Covid test done early, so I would have my results in time to follow through with the procedures.

We arrived at JFK all prepared and confident, with paperwork neatly arranged in a folder for prompt retrieval. Terminal 4, which handles most international travel was practically empty, except for a long winding line of every shade of brown.

After an hour of inching along, we arrived at a checkpoint. A man in a suit and a badge asked me to show my Covid test report. I pulled out my folder with confidence and handed him a paper, which said in bold letters “Negative”. He said, “Sorry you cannot board. Your Covid sample was collected 80 hours ago. The rule says 72 hours.”

And so began an arduous and exasperating journey to the motherland.

My vaccination cards did not offer any relaxation to the rule. A small minority of passengers was in the same predicament as we were in. I was told if I had arrived early enough I could have taken a shuttle to Terminal 1, got a rapid PCR test for $370 and would have been allowed to board. I was beside myself.

The plane ascended without us. AirIndia’s agents did their job as mandated by the Indian government. There was no room for discretion. I thought to myself, if only Indian bureaucrats and law enforcement were so honest and diligent as these AirIndia agents, the nation would be far more orderly in so many ways.

The only option left was to take the pricey rapid PCR test at Terminal 1, and catch the next AirIndia flight out of Newark Airport. So that’s what we did paying a high price.

The barebones service one is accustomed to on AirIndia was even more stripped down. The flight attendants, in literal Hazmat suits seemed on edge and not very courteous. Passengers sitting in middle seats were asked to wear white lab coats and plastic face shields, for reasons I could not comprehend.

I put on the white synthetic coat, but refused to put on the face shield. There were some passengers who were paranoid enough to comply and some didn't. A 14 hour flight with a mask was about the discomfort I was willing to tolerate.

There was no beverage service. There were two meal breaks. Airline food which is most often an excuse for a meal, was even more watered down with two options, veg or non-veg with water, soda or wine. We were allowed to unmask for nourishment.

As the plane made its final descent into New Delhi, it felt like a “mission accomplished.” After three days, the sight of Indian soil from my window brought much needed relief.

As we exited the plane, there were men in uniform flanking the corridor. We were asked to show our boarding passes again and again, for reasons I still cannot fathom. A police officer rubber-stamped it. Passengers were guided to bins to discard the white coats and plastic shields. The plane littered with plastic water bottles now had face shields added, waiting to be added to a landfill somewhere on our ever-expanding plastic planet.

The Delhi airport was a ghost town. An army of airport employees was lounging with nothing to do, probably that’s why they were asked to repeatedly check boarding passes of exiting passengers. The floor salesmen at the Duty Free were advertising enticing discounts on perfumes and whiskey. The food court was sparse.

After a day’s layover at Delhi we arrived in Hyderabad. An hour and a half was spent filling out forms in triplicate and showing negative Covid reports again, and at the final window a man rubber stamped my hand, “Home Quarantine” and sent me along into the city of my birth.

As our taxi climbed the highway, from my window I noticed a wedding taking place at an opulent venue in the distance. The palatial structure was dressed in bright lights and fancy cars were dropping off guests in their flashy finery. A large crowd was partying with very little social distancing or masks. And here I was being asked to home quarantine after vaccinations and negative Covid tests. I had arrived in India.

Hyderabad seemed open for business. Restaurants and tea stalls were crowded, traffic was at its maximum and people were going about their life as though things were back to normal. A few people wore masks, and news continued to report of sporadic outbreaks around the country.

India’s astonishing low death rate was international news, with very little evidence to explain why. So theories were being floated that maybe the population is resilient having been exposed to countless viruses and vaccinations, the Indian demographic is largely young and probably inaccurate data was being collected as many Covid deaths were not being reported.

These were theories, but a clear sense of complacency and fatigue had definitely set in.

For a nation as dense and economically and socially diverse, physical distancing is a luxury afforded only to the rich. There is also a sense of fatalism that most Indians carry, prompting many to not be paranoid about yet another disease added to a long list of endemic viral killers.

I was concerned for my parents as they were in the high risk category by age. My 89 year old father was doing all he could to stay distanced. My mother on the other hand was far less concerned. Some of my relatives were extremely paranoid.

As I arrived, India was also beginning to roll out an impressive nation wide vaccine campaign. The Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine producer, with the help of the Gates Foundation had scaled up its capacity and was not only meeting India’s demand but was also exporting world wide. India is only a handful of nations manufacturing and exporting vaccines. At the same time there was widespread vaccine hesitancy fueled by rumors and misinformation spread on social media.

While developed nations like Canada and the EU are struggling to get vaccinations to their people, India is ahead of the curve. Within a day, I was able to get my mother vaccinated by filling out a quick form on the Internet. As soon as she was jabbed, a personalized PDF landed in her phone from Prime Minister Modi, thanking her for being a participant in the fight against Covid.

A day before I was to leave, I took my PCR Covid test. Unlike New York my result was delivered within 24 hours.

As I was leaving headlines were reporting about an alarming rise in cases around the country. A new mutated Covid variant was being blamed. Some experts were saying a third wave maybe sweeping the country. Mumbai was coming close to a lock down and the general trend seemed worrisome. The Serum Institute was asked to stop exports in order to make more vaccines available to Indians.

Meanwhile large election rallies were being held and Tweeted about by the Prime Minister and other politicians around the country, exposing the utter hypocrisy on how the pandemic was being confronted.

I touched down at JFK, collected my bags, filled out a single form stating I was tested before boarding and was home, with only the Brooklyn traffic irking my tired body along the way.

I fear this way of traveling is going to become the norm for sometime to come. It is going to take years to vaccinate the planet and until then there will be peaks and troughs and Covid will become endemic. There will be those who will not take the vaccine, putting forth the usual baseless selfish arguments and vaccine passports and tests will become the norm for travel.

After 9/11 we got accustomed to an invasive and uneasy security regimen. Going forward an additional layer of probing will be added to make everyone feel “safe”.

It is what it is.

 

 
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