Nalika Naidu, 25, had been backpacking across India since October 2019, when she started noticing things changing almost overnight. “I don’t really pay attention to the news, and I was busy travelling across the country. The people here are so friendly,” the hatha yoga teacher from South Africa tells VICE on the phone from New Delhi. “But last week, when I reached Jaisalmer, I went on a camel desert safari for three days. By the time I came back, things had just flipped completely, like I was in a different world altogether.”
On March 22, when she returned to her Jaisalmer hotel after the safari, she found her belongings out on the streets, with the hotel refusing to let her in. The city had come under the “Junta curfew”, and every hostel or hotel refused to host her even though she had the health certificate from a local hospital that certified her as healthy. “It was insane. I felt such intense emotions from locals that it was flabbergasting for me. It was understandable because the coronavirus is scary, but I was literally on the pavement with all my things, crying,” says Naidu.
Call it chance, or just plain luck but when Naidu finally found a hostel that allowed her to take a bath (but only after confiscating her health certificate and passport), a guy knocked on her door. It was Shubham Dharmsktu, a Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker who had been in Rajasthan for the last few weeks. “He offered me to join what seemed like a ‘rescue team’ of sorts. There were other foreigners with him, and they were all going to take the last train to Delhi, before the Indian Railways shut down under the 21-day curfew. That’s how I am here in Delhi, all safe and sound!” says Naidu.
Over the last week, as the country came under complete lockdown, Dharmsktu has been “rescuing” foreigners stranded in different states. The lockdown not only suspended visas for incoming travellers but also grounded flights, allowing only the ones arranged by embassies. However, foreigners are hassled with more than just getting stranded. The growing misinformation, coupled with nationwide coronavirus-induced panic and xenophobia, have caused the locals to hurl hostilities and abuse towards several tourists who have no way out.
“I personally saw this craziness starting around March 22, when I met Nalika in Jaisalmer,” Dharmsktu tells VICE. “I just happened to find out about her, and slowly, I found out about many foreigners who’d been thrown out of their accommodations, and even thrashed. So I started using my Instagram, where a lot of tourists reached out to me. I also went to the local hospitals where I found more of them getting their health certificates made.” The 26-year-old then booked the last train from Jaisalmer to New Delhi on March 21, and travelled with around 10 foreigners. “On the train, we found even more people from different countries like Sweden, Spain, the Czech Republic and the UK. They didn’t know where to go,” he says.
In Delhi, things were no better. Every accommodation the group contacted immediately recoiled from their requests. “Even the big ones refused to let them stay,” says Dharmsktu. Eventually, one hostel called DatStop Hostel in south Delhi agreed. “Right now, we have some 35-40 foreigners here,” says Dhruvin Shah, the founder of DatStop Hostel. “They were first brought in by Shubham, and now, even the embassies have started bringing them. There are some who walked from one end of the city to here because their hostels threw them out and there’s no transport out there.”
Funnily enough, homestays, hotels and hostels are exempt from the lockdown situation, but reports say that recent news about a majority of India’s COVID-19 cases starting from those with recent travel history, or foreigners, have just added to people’s hostilities towards outsiders, even the hotel and hostel owners’. The stories of discrimination, additionally, are harrowing.
Betty Smith* (name changed to protect privacy) from the US, who has been travelling across India since September 2019, told VICE that not only were they refused to be hosted, but were also called “corona” by the locals, no matter where they went. “It was just so annoying after a while. It was so tense for us. I don’t know what their intentions were, or what kind of information they had that made them call us that, but we did not feel safe at all,” says the 27-year-old, who found Dharmsktu on the same train from Jaisalmer to Delhi, and is also staying at DatStop Hostel.
The situation, says Dharmsktu, is really bad out there. “Some of the stories these foreigners have been telling me are just so scary. They feel if they stay back for too long, people will definitely attack them,” he says. “In Jaisalmer, I heard stories of kids throwing slippers at some of them. A foreigner couple in Delhi told me that they tried to step out of the hostel to withdraw some cash, but on their way, a car stopped and some men got out to ask them several questions. They immediately ran back to the hostel and do not plan on stepping out anytime soon. People are also going broke paying hefty amounts to expensive hotels because cheaper ones wouldn’t take them anymore.”
Shah, who runs the hostel, tells VICE he has been at the receiving end of some abuse too. “The neighbours have been calling me and forcing me to shut down the hostel. They called the cops on us many times,” he says. “A few days ago, I had to drop three German tourists at the Hyatt hotel when we got stopped by some cops. They were very aggressive and called me ‘desh ke gaddar (traitor)’ for helping out foreigners. They even threatened to beat me up with their lathis.”
But despite all of this, Shah and Dharmsktu have taken it upon themselves to keep the morale of the foreigners high. “We have yoga and movie sessions, to help these guys with the trauma their ordeal has instilled in them,” says Dharmsktu. Shah says that he is lucky to have a bungalow for a hostel, instead of a flat. “If my hostel was in a flat, people in the building would have made matters worse,” he says. “But I’m a positive guy so I try to maintain that positivity inside the hostel too. There are indoors trance parties, community cooking, people doing their own jhhaadu-poccha (cleaning). They’ve made this space their home.”
In the meantime, some tourists have been able to leave the hostel and get on flights arranged by their respective embassies. But many still have to deal with staying back. “I’ve put out my contact details on Instagram so people keep reaching out to me. I’m also accepting donations to fund stays for foreigners stuck in other cities, who are running out of money since their international credit cards have stopped working and they need to buy food or medicines,” says Dharmsktu.
As it gets increasingly clear that the Indian authorities are unwilling to address or even help the foreigners, while embassies are either stuck in limbo or struggling to rescue people from their countries, the foreigners at DatStop Hostel are trying to make the best out of the situation. “Our plans to go back to our home countries keep changing because every day, it’s a different situation,” says Smith, who’s struggling to book her flight home, but is connected with stranded Americans through social media. “We would love to be at home even though we will be under quarantine. But at least, we won’t have to deal with being in a foreign country where we don’t speak their language, or be called ‘corona’, or not being welcomed at their homestays or hotels.”
Not all are in despair, though. Naidu, who has now started teaching yoga to the DatStop inhabitants, says that these are difficult times, but we can make the best out of it. “It’s great that a few people from here have been able to get home safely, which gives us hope. But we are also trying to learn something out of this,” says Naidu. “For example, I started learning the ukulele! As a society, this is a good opportunity to look within ourselves and focus on things we would generally not have the time for. I’m estimating that I’m going to be here for 20-odd days more, so the best I can do is use this as a learning curve.”
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