Imagine taking a vacation to your dream holiday destination and then being told that you’d have to stay there for three months contrary to the three weeks that you originally planned. Elated, excited, scared, apprehensive--how would that make you feel? Oh wait, there is a catch: you aren’t ‘staying' at the place, you are actually ‘stranded’. Sounds like a nightmare that you’d want to wake up from, right?
Well, for marketing professional Neha Aniket Pednekar, this turned out to be a true story back in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic was in its initial bouts. Blissfully unaware of what 2020 had in store for them, both Neha and her husband Aniket Pednekar, left for a long-delayed trip to Bali and Singapore on March 3rd. Sometime around the same time, I was busy frequenting the Delhi mall which just explains how unaware we were about what was coming.
Initially, for Neha and Aniket, it was a fun trip. They found easy entries in most of the tourist spots that otherwise remain over-crowded and the experience was almost seamless. As Neha shares, “It was all normal. We did see some people wearing masks at the airport but other than that everything felt fine. Yes, Singapore did feel a bit deserted but we thought that it was the ‘off-season' and did not pay any heed. The journey from Singapore to Indonesia was pretty normal as well. It was in Gili Islands that we felt the fear building up for the first time.”
They saw a huge queue on the Gili harbour. Panicked, Neha and Aniket asked the locals about what was happening and they were promptly told that the island was shutting and would be under a lockdown soon enough. By that time, it was too late for them to get on the last ferry. They spent the night in apprehension torn about what to do next. The next day they were asked to make a tough call: they could either return to the country or travel to Bali. Taken over by the spirit of adventure they chose the latter.
The couple then travelled to the Nusa Island and within three days, Nusa was also getting shut. The island authorities had closed all the commercial trips to Bali and the couple then had to take a secret ferry to the island which was arranged by a local hotel. By then, they knew that the situation was getting out of hand and it was time to take their return flights. However, the very next day a country-wide lockdown was announced in India and their return flight was cancelled. Neha and Aniet were now officially stranded in Bali. Here’s what happened next:
Following the lockdown, Neha and Aniket spent a month downgrading their hotels in order to save a little money. Things were getting difficult, no one could tell how long it would take for them to return to India, and getting frugal with their resources was the smartest way to survive. This is when the couple met a restaurant owner from Delhi. This man understood their situation and offered them free meals for weeks. “A guy from Delhi owned a restaurant there, who offered us free food for a few days. He did help us to his full capacity and then he could not continue. We are absolutely thankful to him,” Neha recollects.
Neha and her husband also had days when all they could get access to was dried-up chapatis and runny dal to eat. There were days when they’d wake up late to have just one meal instead of a separate breakfast and lunch. The ration was limited and so was the money which was getting drained by the day. It was almost after a month that Neha and Aniket realised that they weren’t alone and an entire group of 50-60 Indians was also stranded in Bali. They quickly reached out to the group.
As soon as they were united with the group, Neha and Aniket realised how the adversity had broken everyone’s shell. “We were worried about each other. We wanted to help,” Neha shares and adds, “We started a community kitchen where we’d take turns at cooking. Not everyone knew how to cook and thus we had to divide the responsibility between a handful of people. Each one of us would make at least 40-50 chapatis in one go. However, challenging as it was, it also taught us the importance of community.”
Soon enough, Neha and Aniket made friends in the group. There were couples who were on their honeymoon, elderly people who just wanted a retirement break, and also people who were stranded all alone. “We supported each other through the tough time. There was a woman whose husband had to take a flight before her and thus she was stuck with us all alone. We made it a point to always support and help her whenever she needed it.”
But the worst was yet to come. Two months later, an elderly uncle passed away and as sad and heartbreaking as it was, the entire group was worried that it could have been COVID-19. However, it was soon revealed that he had actually died of a heart attack. “It really broke our hearts. By then we had all become like a family and uncle’s death left us quite shaken. But the experience also strengthened the community. It made us more aware of each other's needs,” shares Neha.
“We returned to India on May 29th and irrespective of the ups and downs, it would always be a trip to remember,” says Neha. In fact, she would not have it any other way. Neha’s husband is a Navy officer and this was the most time that the two of them have spent with each other to date. The trip brought them closer as a couple. “We fought, we made up, we supported each other--we did it all on the trip. It helped us understand each other and for that, I am really thankful.”
Both Neha and her husband are also still in touch with the friends they made in Bali. As Neha says, “They are almost our family now. Yes, we had limited means but the experience taught us the value of friendship, of human relationships that we do not pay much heed to as we get engrossed in our everyday lives. Yes, we learned it the tough way but I am so glad we did. It really did open my eyes to the bigger picture in life.”
Featured Image: Neha Aniket Pednekar