4 months of being at home; 120 days of staring at each other and at others through virtual calls; an eternity of wondering if this would ever end. We were done. Couldn’t work from home 1 more minute, couldn’t hear the same sounds day in and day out, couldn’t attend one more online class with the child, or sit through one more webinar. We were done.
But obviously COVID didn’t know that. It kept spreading, kept scaring everyone. As the fear of infection and dying morphed into exhaustion and frustration, we knew we had to get away.
But go where? And how does one stay safe?
How do convert Work from Home to Work from Anywhere?
Delhi had one of the worst infection rates. It meant that wherever we went, we would be subjected to quarantine– anything between 7 to 14 days. We couldn’t fly. Airports and aeroplanes were hotbeds of infection. So it had to be driving to somewhere where people wouldn’t surround us and we would be able to spend time in relative isolation.
One chance conversation with a couple opened up possibilities. The key search items were – where to go, how to find a place that we could have all to ourselves, have high-speed internet (we were testing Work From Anywhere?), and have places to walk or drive to.
Uttarakhand pretty much met all our requirements – but we had to be careful about when we reached and what were local lockdown rules. As of July, Uttarakhand required that tourists get an e-pass from the Dehradun smart city website and would have to stay in local quarantine if they travelled for less than 5 days. If they stayed for more than 7 days then they could travel around the state. It didn’t ask for a COVID test but we decided to get one done anyway. Better safe than sorry. So we got a doctor to prescribe the test for travel reasons and started prepping for the trip. The prescription clearly mentioned that we don’t have any symptoms and the test is necessary only for the purpose of the trip. Another requirement was that the test sample needs to be within 72h of entering the final district in Uttarakhand, which was Almora for us.
Prepping for the trip
7 nights out of the house felt like a dream. I was sure that it would get snatched away from me. I kept waiting for some trouble to come that would lead us to cancel the trip. But nothing happened. We set the dates to ensure that we reached our place before Uttarakhand got locked down for the weekend.
31st July came. Armed with our COVID negative test results, we prepared to depart Delhi.
Drive out of Delhi and not eat at a Dhaba? Not stop wherever we want to and drink tea? A road trip doesn’t really feel like a road trip unless you are able to do this. But COVID has ensured that it will take a long time before we feel secure enough to venture out and not feel exposed. So we packed breakfast, water, lunch, made flasks of coffee to drink during our drive. It almost felt like we were going for a full day picnic! Add multiple bottles of sanitisers, wet wipes, cleansers, masks, and we were ready for the drive.
Our couple friend had even packed groceries for our 7-day stay! Things like pulses, spices, atta, etc. so that we didn’t have to venture out too much. The baggage space of our SUV had 2 suitcases full of food, 1 21-inch screen (remember the Work From Anywhere experiment), bags full of office desk setup equipment, and some clothes (probably an afterthought).
Leaving Delhi was uneventful. We cleared the border around 7:30 am and then stopped at Gajraula for our first bio break. Our friend opened the sandwiches while we got the coffee out. We didn’t even enter the restaurant where we had parked our car. Just used the restrooms, ate, sanitised our hands, and drove out.
We had worn the masks as long as we could even inside the car. After a while, it began to feel overkill. Plus, how do you eat or drink with a mask on? So masks came off when the windows were up and we were driving. But every time we had to stop – toll, traffic, market, bio break – the masks came on. We didn’t have a Fastag. It meant that we had to pay cash at every toll. Handling cash is a big risk and also involves interaction with strangers. So each transaction felt like a routine – pull on the mask, roll up all windows apart from the driver seat, give cash, take cash, sanitise currency and hands and driving wheel, roll up driver window and then start again.
Simple pleasures take on new meanings. Stopping to buy mangoes and guavas in the market street in Bazpur meant the same routine. Mask, avoid touching anything, sanitise the fruit, sanitise the hands, and then only touch anything else.
It did mean that we felt reasonably comfortable about attempting the trip.
Entering Uttar Pradesh was no problem at all. There were no checking or security protocols in UP that we had to follow. Sadly, we also saw little mask usage or any social distancing norms being followed. However, the moment we entered Uttarakhand, we encountered check-posts. The first one was at Kala Dungi where they noted the car details, our family details, date of entering and exiting the state, test report details. We had to go through this exercise at least 3 more times before we reached our destination.
If you are driving to Ranikhet from Delhi, Google shows you a route that is not open currently. The road from Bazpur to Nainital is closed because of a landslide (or something), and hence the shortest route is via Kala Dungi and then Haldwani, Bhimtaal, Bhowali.
By the time we reached Haldwani, it was close to 2:45 pm. Here is where we had to face bureaucratic stupidity. A checkpoint blocking the access road to Bhimtaal informed us that we needed to be screened by officials, sitting in a stadium some distance away, before we could drive into the hills. Having no choice but to follow rules, we drove 14 km out of our route to the stadium. We reached there and were told that no it wasn’t required for us to be screened or stamped as we were not going to be in the Nainital district at all. Our screening was to happen when we entered Almora district. By this time, we were hungry and irritated. We drove back the way we came and stopped at the checkpoint again. This time the official was conciliatory and apologized to us for causing trouble before letting us go.
We drove on to Bhimtaal and before stopping for lunch and tea. It was 4:30 pm by the time we left from Bhimtaal. We had to stop for checking again when we entered the Almora district. All in all, it was 7:30 pm by the time we reached our destination – Hostie Sur la Montagne, Majkhali, Ranikhet. It was beautiful. The house exudes warmth and a very welcoming vibe. It has 3 rooms, a big living room, a functioning (if a little small) kitchen, a nice garden, and a beautiful big French window that lets the mountains in for the whole day!
The caretakers met us, gave us the tour and the keys, and left us to ourselves. The arrangement was that we would call them if we needed them, else we were on our own.
Blessed 7 days of peace beckoned.
The next few days
We took Saturday off for peace and quiet. Everyone found a corner to call their own (we really needed to be alone after the enforced togetherness of the past 4 months). Reading, music, singing, writing, all solo activities were on the agenda.
The group was evenly split between runners and yoga practitioners. My husband and I would wake up by 7 and go for a run, while our friends would spend an hour doing yoga in the room upstairs. My daughter ended up learning some yoga in the process.
We spent Sunday and Monday driving around. Binsar, Kasar Devi on Sunday, and Kausani on Monday. One really needs to get out to see the impact the lockdown has had on local economies. Almost everything was shut in Kausani when we went on Monday. We couldn’t even find a cup of tea!
Kasar Devi fared slightly better but that was because it was a Sunday and there were locals driving up and down. We found an old 9th-century temple called Katarmal Sun temple that we wanted to attempt going to but gave up. We also avoided the shortest paths that Google suggested, instead, we found roads that wound up and down through picturesque villages, farming communities, and valleys.
Making Work From Anywhere a success
Tuesday onwards, the plan was for everyone to attempt to work. The internet connection was going to be tested. While still being in Delhi, we had requested for the ISP/ internet speed details and were told that it’s 8*Mbps. We got it upgraded to 12 Mbps (the max) and paid the difference amount. Plan B was to get a JIO Dongle if this didn’t work out.
We had actually watched a movie on Netflix hence knew that streaming was possible, but would the line manage when 4 people were on video calls?
We probably needn’t have worried. Not only did the adults manage their calls, but the child also managed to attend classes online while being on holiday. The lockdown has completely messed up the barriers between working and resting. The icing on the cake? The looks on the faces of those on the other side of the video calls! (Me drinking rhododendron tea in a big mug with a pine jungle from the window)
We had arranged for the caretaker cook to come in during the days we were working just so that we didn’t have to spend time in the kitchen. At INR 500 a day, it proved to be quite a good idea. We had to get her supplies and tell her if we needed specific cooking, otherwise she pretty much managed on her own. Evenings were usually spent walking up the nearest hill to stare at the setting sun and catch glimpses of Mount Trishul in the Panchachuli ranges.
We ventured into a couple of shops and one restaurant Yak and Yeti Inn and discovered that staff was following mask, sanitisation, e-pass checking norms prescribed by the local government.
Friday came all too soon. By Thursday night, we were all fighting off sadness at leaving such a lovely place. The idea was to start by 8 the next morning so that we reached our houses by 8 pm at the maximum. By some miracle, we actually managed to leave by 7:45 am. We had packed breakfast and lunch so that we wouldn’t have to stop anywhere but we discovered an Udupiwala while approaching Garh Mukteshwar. Starving by then, (and craving restaurant food I guess) we went into the restaurant and ate. All the packed food had to be taken home. We bought mangoes to take home as well.
Our troubles started on the approach road to Delhi. Uttar Pradesh has weekend lockdowns. As a result, we encountered a lot of traffic once we entered Delhi. It took over 2 hours to cross from east to west and then another 45 minutes to our home. The last hour was an exercise in misery management. We had all lost our cool and literally counted minutes till we got home.
As we get ready to start another working week from our homes, the memory of the peace and quiet that Hostie gave us, will keep us going (hopefully) till we find another place to escape to.
Now that work from anywhere is possible, why not?
If this inspires you to find a quiet place to escape to, do let us know. Also, if you have recommendations for places that we could go (drivable distance, low COVID exposure, proper internet connections), please suggest in the comments below.