Coronavirus: Gap year tales – the power of friendship

This article was last updated on 17 April 2020.

From gap year travelling together to being in lockdown abroad – a true test of friendship.

India and Hattie have been friends for over ten years. At the beginning of March they set off on their gap year dream trip around Asia. They planned to visit countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. They managed a few weeks travelling in India, before the country’s Prime Minister announced a coronavirus lockdown. Isolated and homesick, both girls say it is their friendship that has got them through.

India

We’ve never really had any major arguments.

I knew going into this trip that Hattie and I were in a solid friendship. We already had a thorough understanding of each other's habits and tendencies. We had worked hard saving up, and spent months planning this trip. As we set off, we felt deserving and extremely excited about the experience.

Hattie and India's travels before lockdown.

Hattie

This predicament is something I would not have been able to face alone.

Our trip started off as we’d planned. We visited Goa, Jaipur in Rajasthan and then India’s family in the Punjab. We stayed with them for a couple of days in a small city called Goraya.

We had then planned to fly to Vietnam but it suddenly closed its borders, so we changed our plans to fly to Thailand instead. On the day we were supposed to leave, the Prime Minister of India introduced a three-week lockdown.

India

It led to a lot of tears.

We only had four hours’ notice of the lockdown, so we were stuck. On the second day though we managed to move from the city to a village called Dhesian Sang. I have distant relatives here, so we are staying with my Grandma’s brother and his family.

Hattie

Initially we just felt an overwhelming sense of shock. We cried a lot. Now we are a bit more settled into our daily routine. But we are both still desperately waiting for our return back to the UK.

On the days where I have felt anxious or worried, it helps knowing I am not alone. My best friend is sitting here next to me, feeling the same things that I am.

India

India visiting her family

For weeks there was no news from the UK government. When they did announce repatriation flights, we did not get a place because we are young and healthy. We are now on a waiting list – hoping more flights will be chartered soon. We understand that during this crisis the government has a lot on its plate, but we still felt neglected by them.

It has been quite difficult to communicate and involve ourselves with my family because of the language barrier. They don’t speak English and we don’t speak Punjabi. We have been trying to learn, but that is easier said than done!

But they are taking excellent care of us. My Grandma lives in Basingstoke, but is actually here in India with us at the moment. She is very pleased to be with her brothers, and me and Hattie, in a sort of strange family reunion. The communication between us is still limited, but it feels like we’re getting to know all of them more each day.

Hattie

Our contrasting personalities mean we get on well.

Making samosas

We have managed to play some successful yet confusing card games and cricket games with India’s relatives. The majority of our day is spent on a mat in the sun reading, drawing and working my way through a book of sudoku. There is also a little baby in the house who is keeping us entertained!

As clichéd as it sounds, there is no one else I could be stuck with in a remote village in India, without losing my sanity. India and I are lucky to have each other – our contrasting personalities mean we get on well. Me the stress-head, and her the laidback one – always there with a solution to my problems.

India

We have started to do some yoga and workouts in the morning to help time pass faster. Mental wellbeing is just as important as physical, and we are both glad we have each other to rely on in these strange and uncertain times.

As there’s no WiFi we can’t waste our time staring at our screens, which has been somewhat freeing. But that also means it has been difficult to find out news regarding flights and new advice from the authorities.

Hattie

Being away from your family does not make grieving easy.

Hattie and India with baby Shivani

Unfortunately my Grandma died of coronavirus in England on 29 March. Being on the other side of the world, away from your family, does not make grieving easy. It has left me with great feelings of guilt and worry. The loss is heartbreaking and has made us both restless to see our loved ones. India has been very supportive. This trip has been filled with lots of stress and problems - but has only proved our friendship even more.

India

It is bound to test any friendship.

Hattie and I spend about 95% of our day in the same room. If we were to have a fallout it would make the experience completely unbearable. We are stuck in a house so different from our own homes, and stuck in a situation so different to what we had planned.

I am happy to say we are still going strong. I feel confident that if any tension did start to arise, we would both get it squashed pretty promptly.

We count ourselves as extremely lucky to be in a safe and caring family environment, with access to shelter, food and water – unlike many other Indians and tourists.

Hattie

Hattie and her grandma

It was my 19th birthday on 1 April. We had planned to be chilling on a beach in Nha Trang in Vietnam, sipping cocktails or canoeing in the clear waters. However, the universe had a very different plan. Being stuck in a small Indian village with no access to shops, and the company of non-English-speaking distant relatives, can make it hard to throw a birthday party.

India

It may not have been the party a 19-year-old girl dreams of, but with the help of these wonderful relatives we had a feast of samosas and chole (chickpea curry). We also had a virtual meet-up with some friends on the phone. I am sure that once we are back in the UK and lockdown restrictions are lifted we can have a big celebration surrounded by friends and family. She deserves it.

Hattie

We are obviously devastated that our long-dreamed-of trip around Asia has come to such an abrupt end. But we are eager and determined to try together again once the virus has cleared and it is safe to do so.

India

I am so extremely grateful to have Hattie here with me. I honestly don’t think I could be doing it without her. Big, big love ❤️.

Hattie

The same goes for me 😊.

Hattie's birthday celebrations

Since writing this article, India and Hattie finally made it back on Wednesday 6th May – on a repatriation flight organised by the UK government. They had spent over six weeks in lockdown in a country far from home. India says: "We are both extremely glad to see our family, and eat a dinner other than curry! My Dad came to pick us up from the airport – seeing him felt quite overwhelming. This will be an experience neither of us will ever forget. I don't think we'll ever take being home and safe for granted again.

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