Chennai dwellers are notorious for being travel junkies, with some equating happiness with booking a ticket and knowing their next holiday is on the horizon. This is because while Chennai is a lovely place to call home, it doesn’t have much variety in terms of entertainment and of course, weather. The seasons could be categorised as Hot, Hotter, and Hottest. So, whether they are popping over to Bangalore for some cool weather and bar hopping, or taking their children to Singapore for a bonanza of eating, shopping, and theme parks, you can see why Chennaites rack up those frequent flier miles.
If this description sounds like you, I hope you will be pleased that this month’s column is a travelogue. If you didn’t already know, I am a unique brand of ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) who ended up settling down in India despite being an Americanised brat to the core–the things we do for love! Therefore, my travel tradition was to fly back home to the U.S. once a year, though after having children the frequency has reduced to once every 3 years. I had a ticket booked in March 2020 that obviously got cancelled, and since then I’ve felt a homesickness that had me bingeing reality TV shows and podcasts, all for the comfort of hearing American voices. So, when one of my oldest and dearest friends announced she was getting married in San Francisco in October 2021, I said “Covid be damned, nothing will keep me from this wedding!” And I began to plan my trip.
My parents live in Tampa, Florida, so that was always my usual destination, but the sweltering summers don’t feel too different from Chennai’s. It was time to move away from the familiar and see how I fare in other states. My sister lives in Atlanta, Georgia, a proper Southern city and state with a rich history. Autumn is a perfect time to visit, with sweater weather and leaves changing colour. In the past I have zipped all around the U.S. to visit my friends who are scattered throughout, and the trip left me needing a vacation from my vacation. It is easy to forget how vast this country is, and how long inter-state travel can take. Thus, I kept my itinerary simple, telling my fellow New York University alumni that sadly I would not make it to New York this time, but instead planned a road trip to North Carolina to meet a lifelong friend at her father’s luxurious mountain cabin. My trip would conclude with the wedding in San Francisco, so in all I’d visit three states in three weeks.
The first thing to confront in the planning stage is the reality of pandemic travel. My family already treated international travel as a stressful ordeal where we must start packing one month in advance, reach the airport hours in advance, pack innerwear in your carry-on in case you get stranded, and check your purse every 20 minutes to make sure your passport is still there. Now add Covid protocols in the mix and it is enough to deter us from traveling at all! But since I was not planning on bringing my children and only had myself to worry about, I pushed onwards. I booked my ticket on Qatar Airways, voted best airline in 2021 by Skytrax. Their website has easy to use features, where you enter your departure and arrival cities, and it gives you the requirements for each one. I checked this page repeatedly, as well as the official travel regulation websites of each country.
From November 8th the U.S. will allow people from other countries to visit, but at the time of my booking it was only open to U.S. citizens and their families. Otherwise it was interesting to see that they did not require any vaccine certificate to enter but only a negative RT PCR Covid test. You must take the test within 3 days before departure time; they purposely made it 3 days instead of 72 hours (like the Indian government requirement) to give the traveller some flexibility. I made sure to play it safe the week leading up to my departure, not meeting any friends to say goodbye, because I knew I couldn’t relax until I had the negative result. I took my test at Metropolis Healthcare and got the result later that day, which was both reassuring and impressive. In contrast, I was aghast to see how much I would have to pay in the U.S. to get an expedited result for my return to Chennai. Unfortunately, people like to make hay when the sun shines, and companies are exploiting the international traveller’s predicament by offering a next-day result for the price of $300 or Rs. 22,000. Even if I don’t go for this and get a regular test with results taking 1-3 days, I have to pay $250 because I don’t have insurance in this country. India – 1, U.S. – 0!
Aside from the negative test result, the airline requires you to fill out a couple of forms, which they will provide at the counter but which my fastidious self, had already downloaded and filled out, with extra copies just in case. Other than this and wearing a mask, there was nothing different about my departure from Chennai. This however depends entirely on the destination, and fortunately the U.S. seems to be one of the more relaxed ones. To enter Dubai on the other hand, there is a great deal of paperwork, and you have to take an additional instant Covid test at the airport — I learned this from my poor friend who had to wait 4 hours for this test at the airport with her 2 small children in tow. This might be something to take into consideration when planning your trip, so first read the fine print and book your ticket after that!
When I arrived in Atlanta, no one asked to see my Covid test result, nor was there any temperature screening. I was out in a jiffy and on my merry way. After hitting the hay and recovering from the journey, guess where I went first? An outlet mall? A nice steakhouse? Nope — I went to the grocery store! Other expats will understand this one. Grocery shopping in Chennai means navigating tiny aisles and visiting at least 3 different stores to get everything you need. Whereas patronising the famed Publix grocery store is such a pleasurable outing that many mothers of young children count a solo trip as restorative “me time”. It contains spacious aisle after aisle of every conceivable foodstuff, a bakery section brimming with seasonal goodies, and an excellent sandwich counter. You younger readers may be scratching your heads, but with age, these are the things that excite us!
Another favourite aspect of visiting the U.S. is being able to kill time by simply taking a walk. Is there any better combination than a sunny day with crisp, cool weather? And in the South, it is normal to warmly greet anyone you meet while walking. I got my steps in while admiring the Halloween decorations that several houses put a lot of effort into. Otherwise, my time in Atlanta quickly went in a flurry of shopping, eating out, and catching up with some old friends. A combination of food delivery apps, first class GPS, and Uber makes it so that you can drop into any major city without knowing a thing, and still have a grand old time with ease.
My long weekend in Waynesville, North Carolina was when I really got my dose of nature and all things cozy. My friend’s grandparents had bought this property shortly after immigrating to the U.S. from Germany, and they cleverly purchased the lot in front of it also, so that their view of the Smoky Mountains would remain unobstructed. Her father rebuilt the house to maintain a cabin feel while providing every possible luxury like an elevator, sauna, and hot tub. Safe to say, it’s the kind of house you don’t want to leave! But we still ventured out to tackle a challenging hike that had me huffing and puffing as we ascended the mountain. The view from the top was worth the ache in my knees, giving me a moment of perspective on how vast and beautiful the world is, and how important it is to remember that when I fall into the pattern of thinking everything begins and ends in my tiny Chennai bubble.
The next day I took a morning stroll through the dewy grass in the backyard. I ventured into the woods and “forest bathed” until a loud buzzing insect scared me off. That evening we lit a fire and roasted marshmallows to make s’mores, a camping tradition I have always wanted to do with my children. Speaking of children, it was remarkable to contrast American parenting styles with ours. I started off by looking after my first son without a nanny and sleep training him rigorously, but that went out the window when I had my second son so soon after. Now, I marvelled at seeing my friends’ toddlers wander about the house without someone shadowing them, and at how they were put down to sleep in a dark room by themselves, with any crying ignored until it stopped. Not to mention how hands on the fathers are! There was a constant back and forth between the parents where one would request or suggest the other parent help out with a diaper change or feeding, and it was amusing to see how gently and diplomatically they made these requests. Because both parents work, they share parenting equally as well, and it clearly takes this type of polite communication to maintain the balance.
As I write this, I’m back in Atlanta and preparing to fly to San Francisco the day after tomorrow, where I’m honoured to be giving a speech at my friend’s wedding. I look forward to rocking my saree dress from Saaksha and Kinni, and to experience even colder weather that will make me happy to return to my sultry Chennai. I can’t wait to hug my children and husband and show them how refreshed and restored I am after reconnecting with myself and my roots. I know I am uniquely lucky to have been able to take a trip like this, but I hope all of you get the chance to take to the skies soon, and make up for lost opportunities from the height of the pandemic. Bon voyage!
– By Priyanka Acharya