Expat Life In India During The Covid-19 Second Wave

Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with another episode of the Expat Focus podcast. You’ve no doubt heard about the devastating second wave of Covid-19 that India’s currently experiencing, and how it has overwhelmed the local health system. Many foreigners have decided to leave while they still can, as countries put bans on flights to try to prevent the spread of India’s Covid mutation.

One foreigner who is staying put in the country, is YouTuber Ben Jenks. An American, he has been based there for the past couple of years, and he’s joining me in this episode to describe what the situation is like where he is, in South India, why he’s decided to stay, and how he’s keeping safe.

A heads up, there are a couple of sound glitches in this episode, but they don’t last very long. If you would prefer to read a transcript of the interview, head to expatfocus.com/podcast.

Ben, you run a YouTube channel offering India travel tips, but I’m guessing that role has been a little bit different for you over the past few months.

Ben: It’s been a little different over the past year. Yeah. There was a change. I had been not travelling too much anyways, but I was planning to travel, and [I] did a three-week trip with my family, 3,600 miles around India, just before lockdown. Their flight actually got cancelled once. They found a flight home before it was fully locked down. But yeah, since the lockdown, I have been in a small town in South India and hoping things open up at some point.

Carlie: It’s a scary time to be in India. I was looking at figures online just before our chat: 4,000 deaths a day. Now, you’re in South India. Tell me a little bit about the geography in India. Where are you compared to where these hotspots are at the moment?

Ben: So, the cases are rising down here as well, but when it was first starting to rise a lot, Delhi and Mumbai – the huge cities where there are tons of people – were getting tons of cases and shortages in the hospitals – not enough oxygen in some places in the hospitals. Now, when that was happening, everything was still continuing as it has been down here.

Now, a week ago, or maybe a few days ago, we did just go into a … not a full lockdown. In the morning, we can go out for essential items, but once noon comes around, then you’re supposed to stay at home. And so, I’m in a small place. It’s a tourist town, but most people don’t know about it, and it is a city – it’s like 150,000 people – but it’s not on most people’s lists.

Chennai is a larger place, and it’s a big city, like Mumbai or Delhi. They’re having more cases as well, from what I’m hearing. But on the ground, day-to-day, my life looks pretty much the same as it did beforehand. I’m able to buy food and [go to] open markets. People are wearing masks for the most part, and people are taking precautions, but aside from that, things in my world look the same, pretty much. It doesn’t seem super scary from what I’m seeing, but I know it does exist.

Carlie: Where I’m from in Australia, they’re arranging repatriation flights to get Aussies in India home. Is the US doing the same? And did you consider being repatriated?

Ben: There were commercial flights up until very recently. The US state department put out a bulletin, as well. If you were in India … The way that they worded it, it was not like you have to come home, but it was like, if you want to, you should come home right now, because they might stop commercial flights.

I haven’t checked if they have started them, but I know that in the previous lockdown, there were repatriation flights going. So, even though there weren’t commercial flights previously, I could always get home, no matter what was going on. So, from the way I looked at it, I did consider it. I was getting messages from family members.

Carlie: I can imagine.

Ben: I did think about it, but then again, I just looked at my world and thought, do I feel like I can be safe here? I can go out. I can buy vegetables a two-minute walk away. I can have my food delivered. It seems safe where I am. Okay. Then what would my backup plan be? Let’s say I were to get sick. What would happen? So, I know of some hospitals here, even though it’s a small place. Bangalore’s four to five hours away. Chennai, another big city, four to five hours away. And I could get on a flight in Chennai and fly home. My approach was, it seems safe now; if I feel unsafe, then I’ll fly home.

Carlie: I did see a video you posted on YouTube recently of looking to get a vaccination. But on that particular day, you weren’t successful. Have you been successful since?

Ben: I have not been successful since. What happened was they told me … In three days, we started a full lockdown. So, I’ve just been staying at home. And once things open up again, then I’m going to re-look into that option, because I would like to get vaccinated.

Carlie: You said you’re in South India in a tourist area. Are there many other expats where you are, and are you kind of sharing resources and knowledge?

Ben: Yes, there is a significant number. I don’t know, maybe 50 to 100 of us around the area, just a ballpark figure. And there’s a great Facebook group. Any information I need to know gets posted on there by people who’ve been here way longer than myself. So, I feel like I’m always up to date on information, even though I don’t spend too much time having to read through everything and get up to date myself.

So, that’s really helpful, and that makes me feel safe in a sense, too, that there are people I could go to that would be able to show me who’s a good doctor, where’s the best hospital, what would the price be that I could pay that’s reasonable, and that sort of thing.

Carlie: It is scary. I mean, I’m reading about oxygen shortages, not enough beds. People are literally dying on the street in front of hospitals before they can get help. I think, if I was an expat in India, that would give me pause and make me think, if I get sick, are there resources here and services here that I know I can be supported if it gets bad?

Ben: I can understand that. I can understand. I was staying with my girlfriend a while back, and she had more of those sorts of fears, and she decided to leave and go back to Canada. And if I felt the same way, then I would probably go home as well.

Carlie: So, what is it that you love about India? What brought you to India?

Ben: I came here for a retreat. Some friends who I met online … There was a spiritual retreat. I read a book, a famous novel called Shantaram, an epic novel. On reading that novel and having that opportunity to go to the retreat, I came for a few weeks, and I was like, ‘Oh, I could live here. This place is pretty nice.’ And then my lease was up a year later, and I was like, ‘I can work online.’ I was still thinking about India.

I was living in Austin, Texas, and it’s a really cool place – great restaurants, great music. I was getting more interested in film and video and spending time watching classic films at home or making little videos near the river and was just thinking, my life wouldn’t be that much different in India to how it is right now. So, I’m going to go. I’m not getting any younger. I’ll give this a try. And it’s worked out for me.

I’ve been here over two and a half years and would like to stay longer, depending on how things go. I could also go home and be happy. It would be nice to see my family as well and to be back in America. But, you know, I’m still kind of planning to stay longer, if that’s the way things work.

Carlie: You said your life now is very much at home, with food delivery, shopping, and open markets. I’m guessing you’re being pretty safe. What were you doing before the pandemic? What was your Indian travel adventure like?

Ben: Well, so like I mentioned, my mum and my aunt came, and so we had an epic adventure. They’re both recently retired and trying to do some wild adventures. And so that was a lot of fun. We went to the Taj Mahal. We went to Varanasi and took a boat on the Ghats and walked through the burning gas and went to Carola, another beautiful tourist destination. We took a boat on the back water.

So, we just did a bunch of epic things that were really fun to do. My life previous to that was basically working here and living here. I would go to a beautiful beach city that is not too far, that was colonised by the French. It’s got some great food. So, I’ve been there.

I’ve been to Chennai – a big city, a cosmopolitan city, not too far away. Then to Bangalore, which is like the Silicon Valley of India. So, I’ve taken some local trips before that. But aside from that, I’ve mostly been working online here and exploring the local culture down in the South, aside from that big trip.

Carlie: What have you found most surprising living in India that perhaps you didn’t know before?

Ben: Most surprising? When I first came and I stayed in a hotel, working online was a super pain, and the hotel wifi … A lot of places say they have free wifi, but it’s terrible. Once I’d made a friend and figured out how to rent a house, went to a nicer hotel, I found that the Wi-Fi speeds were pretty good. I’ve been able to work full-time, same as I would in Austin, Texas. It’s been surprisingly easy to do.

The questions I get from a lot of people … People are like, ‘Wow, I would like to do that, but I need to have regular calls’ or things like that. And I had regular Skype calls in my job, and with minimal inconvenience. There was a little bit, but it was minimal inconvenience, and I was able to make it work. So, I thought that was surprising.

Carlie: And what do you love about the people and the culture?

Ben: I think there’s a real resourcefulness that I look up to; the way that people problem solve and come up with ideas. My landlord, just being one example of it … The way that he’ll fix things around the house in a way that I wouldn’t have thought of. And there’s a big friendliness. You feel very warm.

My mum and aunt, they felt like celebrities to have the school kids come up to them and want to sing songs with them and really make them feel important. And so, I think there’s a real warmth about most Indian people that is super obvious and different to the Western type of culture where I was from.

Carlie: Being in India when this devastating second wave is happening, seeing how it’s being reported in the news globally, I’m sure you’re getting a lot of concerned messages from friends and family. Is there anything that isn’t, in your opinion, being adequately reflected?

Ben: I think that’s a difficult question. I think they’re accurately reflecting certain places that are having a really horrifying time. When I made a video about what was happening here – mostly just for my family, because they were asking questions – I just basically made what my life is like, so they could get a sense that it wasn’t as horrifying as what they’re seeing in the news.

Some Indians also commented, [saying] that was their experience too, that things weren’t that bad where that they were. But aside from that, it does seem like things are bad in certain places, and it is really scary. And I can imagine being in a situation like that with myself and my family and being very scared as well. So it’s difficult to say.

Carlie: Did you have thoughts of going home when the pandemic first started a year ago?

Ben: I had more thoughts now than a year ago. But mostly because now it’s been another year, you know? So, at that point, we weren’t sure what … I mean, it could have been over in a couple of weeks. We weren’t truly knowing what was going to happen. Now, it’s been a year. This was a gut punch, definitely. We just had a year, and this is much worse than what it was, so psychologically, for me, it was quite difficult in that sense, because …

I mean, my problems seem very low. I’m almost hesitant to say … I mean, I’d like to travel or see more of India, have a travel channel that talks about travel as opposed to … So, in a sense, those are small concerns, but those were my psychological feelings of, yeah, it’s tough. And it’s just tough to see when can we go outside and have a normal life again.

Carlie: I think there’s definitely this element of Covid-19 fatigue – absolutely acknowledging that people are still dying and that it’s still a very serious situation, especially with these new mutant strains of the virus. But I was talking to some friends in London, who are also Australian and have decided to pack up their lives in London and move home, and there is this element that one of the joys of being abroad is experiencing things and seeing places. And if you’re not doing that while you are in this other country, you sort of start to question, why am I here?

Ben: Yeah, that makes sense. Did I question, why am I here? I questioned a sense of responsibility. Like, was it safer worldwide? Am I helping the greater good of all people if I go home or stay here? I eventually decided that it doesn’t seem like that’s going to make any difference: me being in Michigan versus me being in India. But I did consider that.

And there is the question, too … I’m okay with a quiet life here. It doesn’t bother me as much as I know it might bother some other people. In fact, at first, there was an element that I kind of enjoyed it. But, obviously, I would prefer this wasn’t happening.

Carlie: Yes, I think we all would. Ben, I’m curious, lots of people have taken up new hobbies in the past year … What have you gotten into the habit of during lockdown? Have you read a hundred books or binged a few Netflix series or become an expert in something that you weren’t before?

Ben: 810 movies on the 1,000 movies to see before you die list. No, I don’t think fully during that period … I probably watched some of them before.

Carlie: Wow, that’s an achievement.

Ben: That’s maybe over the past couple of years. I really kind of was like, ‘I’m going to watch better movies.’ And I just start watching movies off this list. So, that’s been keeping me busy. Yeah. What about yourself?

Carlie: Oh, you know, for me, it’s been all about gardening. It’s a little bit lame, but I have really enjoyed growing my own food. And, you know, the weather has been terrible this year to get seeds going here in France. But that is something that has really been mentally calming. Not the fighting the slugs element, but other than that, it’s been really nice, and it’s something I never stopped and took the time to do before. But with so much time at home, I actually had time to do that.

I do see those memes sometimes from people that are like, ‘You’ve had all this time now, and if you haven’t mastered another language or gotten that degree, then you were never going to do it.’ And I think that’s a bit harsh.

Ben: That is a bit harsh. Sometimes it seems difficult to work, in a certain sense. I almost feel like … When I grew up in Michigan, there would be snow days, you know? And so, on the snow day, you thought you were going to school and now you’re not going to school. So, you wanted to go have fun. And in a sense, maybe it’s the opposite of that. Especially recently, it’s just been harder to work and harder to be productive, because it’s tough mentally with everything that’s happening. But that’s cool that you all got into gardening.

I’d eventually like to have a house and a little bit of land and a garden. So, that would be the one reason why I would be looking forward to eventually going back to the USA, or at least that hemisphere, and buying some land.

Carlie: Looking at your videos, you do seem to be in a kind of chill countryside sort of area. So what sort of living situation do you have? Are you in an apartment or a house?

Ben: It’s a house; two floors. I have the top floor. Plenty of space. There’s a garden. They call a yard a garden, which maybe you guys call it as well. So, I could garden if I wanted to, but I killed a few plants that I had because I neglected them. So, one day, maybe in the next pandemic, I’ll conquer that, but it’s nice out here. It is nice. I’m a little bit away from town, but not too far away. It’s quiet. I can hear the crickets at night.

Carlie: And just finally, Ben, what are you most looking forward to doing in India, when the world finally does return to some kind of normal (acknowledging absolutely that that is not going to be anytime soon in the country you’re in)?

Ben: It has been fun making a channel about India and interacting with the audience there. So, I would love to meet people that have been watching the channel in all the different places in India that they are. So, I’ve seen some of India, but I would like to see so much more, so that’s the big dream. Hopefully sooner rather than later. Hopefully, we get through this and as many people are as okay as possible.

Carlie: Yeah, definitely. Well, please keep safe. And I’m looking forward to watching more episodes in the future.

Ben: Thanks so much. Appreciate you having me. Thanks everybody.

Carlie: That’s it for today. You can check out Ben’s videos about India by searching ‘Benjamin Jenks’ on YouTube. If you want to share your own expat experience, hit us up on social media – we’re ‘Expat Focus’ – or join the conversations in our Facebook groups.

Remember to check out our other episodes, including the recent one with Denee Savoia. She talks about repatriating from Turkey during the pandemic. And if you like what we do, please subscribe or follow us on your podcast app of choice. We’d also love it if you could also leave a review. And I’ll catch you next time.