These times of COVID and lockdown have been tough for so many of us in so many ways. My husband’s elderly parents were alone in Punjab, my father in Delhi and my mother stuck in Mumbai with us. All of them suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure and other ailments but do not understand the need to stay away from people. My own anxiety levels and restlessness were constantly on the rise.
Nobody wanted to travel via public transport. So, as soon as the Centre removed the interstate travel restrictions, we planned a road trip – our road trip home that we always wanted to do, from Mumbai to our village Haryal on the border of Punjab and Himachal just beside the Chakki river, with a dashing view of Dhauladhaar range.
Since work and school both are online these days, it made sense for us to leave the constrained living of a Mumbai flat and move to open space. It had been six months since my mother and daughter had stepped out of the house.
On September 7, we left Mumbai at 5 am. It started pouring in typical Mumbai style. The rain was so heavy that we thought of postponing the trip. But Google’s weather app predicted worse weather in Mumbai in the coming days, so all of us gathered our courage and, after delaying for over an hour, we left.
The weather improved after we crossed Mumbai. Maharashtra is lush green in September right after monsoon. Dr Ambedkar Nagar, commonly known as Mhow, via Nashik highway is a route I have travelled often. This time around, there was much less traffic and most of the eateries and restaurants were shut, except those for the truckers.
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We crossed Nashik around 10.30; it was time for breakfast. We parked near a vineyard to have buttered bread and boiled eggs; this was going to be our breakfast throughout this journey. It is the easiest to carry and handle in the car. After stretching a little, we got back into the car and drove straight on NH52.
In Maharashtra, toll collectors wore mask and gloves; we would also wear our masks and sanitise our hands every time we crossed a toll. As we moved closer to the state border, the police stopped us. They checked our papers; we sanitised everything they touched and moved on.
Going to a public washroom is out of the question in these times. Normally too, I use public toilets only at places where I can spot cleaners cleaning them frequently, I don’t mind paying a fee. Most of the public toilets or washrooms at dhabas (truckers’ eateries) are unkempt and unhygienic.
Moreover, we knew we would not find any to use because of the lockdown, so we carried a bedsheet. We would look for a spot in the fields and create our tent wherever we had to.
As we entered Madhya Pradesh (MP), we noticed fewer people were wearing masks, and social distancing was a far cry. We saw villagers, men and women, huddled together in tempos. I figured out later that this is contractor-provided transport to take them for work on construction sites or fields.
As we reached our first overnight halt destination at my sister-in-law’s house in Mhow, we saw the shops were open but the restaurants and malls shut. It was close to sundown, and fewer people were on the road.
We spent the night at Mhow and started early morning at 5 am for our next station, Jaipur. We drove past Pithampur industrial area in MP; the site was already back in business. Early-morning buses full of the first shift of workers were coming in packed with young and middle-aged men and women, happy and content to go to work.
Morning walkers, bikers and, as the sun rose, the gadariyas (shepherds) with their flock all made us feel that normalcy is setting in. Most of them did not look bothered about Covid at all. There aren’t probably too many cases in their vicinity. The numbers countrywide tell a different story, though.
Mhow to Jaipur via Chittorgarh is a route full of diversions. Six lanes and a flyover construction are underway on NH52. In Rajasthan, nobody wore masks or took any kind of precautions. All the restaurants and highway dhabas were open.
The traffic in the markets and the city was busy as usual. The route was greener than expected but much less scenic. We reached our destination by 5 pm with three small stops for breakfast, lunch, and a loo break.
The guesthouse caretaker in Jaipur assured us about the sanitisation of rooms, but we sanitised everything from the washroom to the beds once more.
The next day, we started at 8 am from Jaipur. The Jaipur-Delhi stretch was the shortest drive of our trip and the most boring one. Between Jaipur and Delhi, it was a city drive all the way. As we reached Manesar, then Gurugram, and finally Delhi we could only see factories, offices, high-rise buildings and flyovers. I now feel Mumbai is much greener.
We reached Delhi by lunchtime. Delhi is home, it’s my city, but it made me sad to see its state. There is a lot of development, but it has taken a toll on its historical charm and greenery.
In Delhi, people roamed about with masks on their chins. Restaurants, mithai shops and markets were all open. The traffic was as usual, and the number of Covid cases is also increasing every day. We stayed at home in Delhi for three days because we wanted to avoid weekend travel.
If one is up to it, you can catch NH44 to Punjab from Gurugram and complete the trip in 14 hours. We had only one person driving, so we wanted to avoid night travel and more than 10 hours a day on the road. So we took a longer route.
On September 14, at 5 am, we began the final leg of our journey. We took the supersonic eastern peripheral highway from east Delhi to join NH44 near Panipat. Barring a few diversions because of six-laning of the highway, this route was smooth and beautiful.
As we entered Punjab, the Patiala police stopped us and asked for Cova registration (an e-registration for road travellers made mandatory during the Covid lockdown in Punjab). It took us about 20 minutes to finish the process and we were on the road again.
It was business as usual in the markets and villages we crossed, but most of the people were wearing masks in Punjab. The rice and sugarcane fields on both sides of the highway looked precisely like a scene out of a Yash Chopra movie. All through the route, roadside trees provided shade to travellers.
The white gurudwaras stood out majestically amidst greenery all around. The roads in Punjab are best compared to all the states we drove through. We were home at 3.30 pm having covered around 2,000 km, completing our dream trip in such unusual times.
And then it was time for a week’s quarantine in our home village.
Photography by Samarjit BhandralFirst published in eShe magazine