Greetings from the Middle East! Yes, as I write this, I am enjoying the sights and sounds of a hustling-bustling Dubai outside my hotel room window. Why is that special? I’d never have imagined that I’d be able to get out of the country this year at all. Had given up completely on international travel, and had come to terms with not meeting an immigration officer for at least another year! The pandemic had put on hold all our travel plans. I’d resigned to the fact that travel would be constricted only to domestic sectors, that too whilst wearing a mask and one of those God-damn uncomfortable plastic shields.
Life has an uncanny way of evolving, even in the face of an unimaginable plague like Covid-19. When India started opening up its skies to the rest of the world, one of the first places that became available to us was the UAE. With convenient flights from major Indian cities to Dubai, many decided to escape and experience some degree of normalcy in the desert capital. For me, it was a long-overdue work trip that pushed me over the edge and forced my hand at leaving our fair shores. Armed with a ten year US visa (that allows me to take a UAE visa on arrival), I booked my tickets, made the other travel arrangements and did all the necessary research into what I was to expect when landing at Dubai.
It wasn’t too tough, but I confess to taking the help of a travel agent, without whom I fear I may have probably been sent packing back to India as soon as I’d arrived here. For those wanting to get a break and visit Dubai, there are only a few things you need to know. The government here has decided to use testing as a deterrent to the virus. They’ve come to terms with this dreaded flu; their numbers are under control and declining… what they ask of travellers and tourists coming to their country is simple – get tested thrice! Once before you board your flight (96 hours before departure), as soon as you land at the airport, and when you’re returning home (48 hours before take-off).
This simple system, they believe, is the key to keeping COVID away from spreading. What makes matters even more convenient is that Emirates offers to take care of almost all your quarantining costs, if one of your tests turns out to be positive. They even, morbidly though, offer to take care of your funeral costs if you were by chance to succumb and die after having taken one of their flights. All this, though pragmatically simple, does play havoc in the back of your head. No one wants to be stuck in a hotel room for 14 days, no matter who’s footing the bill.
This became evident to me when I was escorted out of my plane and taken straight to their testing desk, right before the immigration counters. Here, agents took hold of my negative report from India, made me fill in forms and download an app. A giant swab was shoved deep inside my nostril, far more than what I had experienced while taking the test back home. I was then instructed to stay indoors till I was sent an SMS on my registered phone, telling me that my test had come negative. Based on their workload, this can be anywhere from 24 to 48 hours, they told me. Fearing a false positive, my mind soon began playing tricks on me. The smokers’ cough I had, morphed into a sure shot sign of COVID in my imagination. The first 24 hours were thus a pure nightmare. The worrying didn’t let me sleep at all.
The next day, in the morning, I received my much-awaited text. I was negative! God’s be praised. And with that, I escaped my confines and hit the streets of Dubai with a vengeance. Post work meetings, I would attack the Dubai Mall, where friends had given me lengthy lists of shopping to pick up. There were things to stock up on, coffee pods, toiletries, clothes to buy, shoes, restaurants, watches and other goodies to contemplate about. The last eight months had starved us of all these luxuries. We’d been denied these material possessions through a lockdown, and they’d seemed like faraway dreams.
Dubai offered all that and more. Safety first, was their mantra, and if you were caught not wearing a mask, you’d be given a 3000 Dhs fine. Security personnel kept pointing out people who had slipped their masks beneath their noses, they fined others for masks that were deemed unfit, and generally policed social distancing, requesting people to not congregate in groups anywhere. In restaurants and bars, things were very different and more relaxed. You could take off your masks at your table. I visited the Sunken Garden at the Ritz, where people from varied nationalities were enjoying Sheesha. At Shanghai Me, a popular Asian restaurant here, I saw couples drinking and smoking without a care in the world, as they enjoyed their Tuna tartare. At the Armani Hotel in the BurjKhalifa, guests sat outside watching the famous water fountain dancing to Pavarotti’s NessunDorma. This was how life had been before Covid-19. This was how we all had lived all these years.
The difference between how things are in Dubai and back home is Hyderabad, is astounding. There’s a sense of responsibility here that’s hardly prevalent in our city. People are enjoying themselves while still practising all the safety measures that are required to keep themselves and others safe. In Hyderabad, it’s a combination of extremes – to hell with COVID and masking or complete isolation and safety. There’s no middle path. Two days away from taking my flight back, at the time of writing this, I am dreading the test I have to take tomorrow morning for my flight back home. What if I come positive? Will I be quarantined for 14 days? That would be a great travesty and send me down a spiral of depression that I fear more than the virus itself. Till then, I’m just hoping my cough isn’t anything more than some extra cigarettes and praying for that much-coveted text proclaiming that famous, beautiful word – NEGATIVE. – Vishwaveer