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The Bluegrass Journeymen Raced COVID Closures to Return From India

When the pandemic swept the world a year ago, the Bluegrass Journeymen were 8,000 miles away from home.
When the pandemic swept the world a year ago, the Bluegrass Journeymen were 8,000 miles away from home.
Elliot Siff
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One year ago, as concern over COVID-19 reached a fever pitch in the United States, I was in India, touring as a guitarist for Denver band The Bluegrass Journeymen.

The group, led by mandolinist Patrick Fitzsimmons, leaves Denver about once a year to go on cultural/diplomatic-outreach missions all over India, collaborating with Indian musicians. These tours are filled with cross-cultural, collaborative performances that display the best of what both countries' musical traditions have to offer.

On this tour, we were joined by representatives from the United States Embassy in India. We collaborated with Hindi rappers in Dehradun, performed at the International Yoga Festival in Rishikesh, and even played for the United States ambassador to India at his residence in Delhi. Our tour started in late February 2020 and was set to end on March 11.

We felt the tension through much of that tour. As foreigners, we were put under extra scrutiny at every hotel, checkpoint and airport. Every night, hotel security took our temperatures before we were allowed inside, and they required us to fill out forms documenting our recent travel history.

Throughout the tour, we discussed whether or not we should cancel our travels early to get home. Ultimately, we decided to stay until the end of the scheduled shows. Our final gig was on March 10. We played in Chennai, a coastal city on the southeastern edge of India.

By that point, we knew it was time to leave. Rumors of border closures, travel suspensions and lockdowns were spreading, and we suddenly felt the weight of the fact that we were 8,000 miles from home and had a 36-hour journey ahead of us — if we were even allowed to complete it. The fear of getting stranded somewhere in between was real.

On our trip home, there were multiple moments that brought the severity of the situation to our attention, making our race against the clock even more urgent. Starting in Chennai, we took three flights and traveled through four international airports. On every TV along the way, news anchors repeated the same plea from the Centers for Disease Control: "Cancel your travel plans and stay home."

Below is a brief chronicle of that moment in time.

The Bluegrass Journeymen take regular trips to India to collaborate with local musicians.
The Bluegrass Journeymen take regular trips to India to collaborate with local musicians.
Elliot Siff

March 11, 2020: Chennai, India

On a warm, humid morning in the seaside city of Chennai, after two weeks of playing shows all over the country, we gathered in the lobby of the hotel with seven instruments and a massive pile of luggage.

"It was so good to have you in Chennai," says our representative from the United States Embassy. "Last night's show was a great success. I hope you all got good rest?"

"It was good to be here," says Patrick. Everyone shuffles their luggage into the van.

As we drive to the airport, I see on my phone that the annual bluegrass festival WinterWonderGrass, scheduled for the following month, has been canceled because of rising COVID-19 cases.

March 12, 2020: Flying Over Pakistan

It’s midnight. We are 36,000 feet over Pakistan, flying from Delhi to Newark, New Jersey. The plane is at 25 percent capacity. We are on the second hour of a fourteen-hour flight through the night. The travelers on this plane have chosen to cross the Atlantic even as borders around the world are closing down.

A hostess walks down the dimly lit aisle, checking on the passengers scattered around the cabin. I have a row to myself. She stops and asks me how I’m doing.

"I'm fine, thanks,” I say. “How are you?"

"I'm all right,” she says, then adds, “Listen, I just heard some news, and I've been dying to tell someone.”

"I'm all ears," I reply.

She lowers her voice.

"The Indian government just announced that they are closing their borders,” she says. “Looks like you guys made it out just in time."

March 12, 2020: Newark, New Jersey

At 5:30 a.m. in the Newark Liberty International Airport, I'm sitting at a table with my seven bandmates. Luggage is scattered around our feet. A few of us are eating, one is making coffee in his AeroPress, and the rest are looking at their phones.

The airport is very quiet; there are a few other travelers perched around the concourse and a janitor mopping the floor by the bathrooms. The BBC news plays on a distant TV. Every five minutes, the metallic voice on the airport intercom repeats the phrase: "For the safety of you and those around you, please practice good hygiene while traveling."

Thankfully, we only have one more flight to get home to Denver. We have been traveling for over 24 hours, and we’re all fatigued. There are three bottles of hand sanitizer on the table and a couple of masks that bandmates originally brought to guard against the air pollution in India. There has been no mention of a mask mandate, but those who have masks in the airport are wearing them.

The cellist in our band breaks the silence: "Did you guys see this news?"

"What's up?" I respond. He doesn't look up from his phone. He’s reading something.

"Looks like Trump just banned all travel from Europe," he says.

Ten minutes later, I get a call from my mother, checking to make sure I made it onto U.S. soil.

The Bluegrass Journeymen Raced COVID Closures to Return From India
Elliot Siff

March 12, 2020: Denver, Colorado
When I exit the plane at Denver International Airport, I breathe in the dry air. It is 10 a.m. While walking to the baggage claim with the band, I call my roommate, who is set to pick me up in a half-hour. Also a musician, he spends much of his year touring and performing with Boulder bluegrass band The Railsplitters.

I rub my shoulder while the phone rings. Carrying a guitar case around the world has left a bruise where the strap meets my skin.

"Hey, buddy," he answers.

"Hey, man,” I say. “Still on for 10:30?"

"Yeah. Have you heard what's going on around here?" he asks.

"No, what's up?" I ask.

"I'm not sure," he says, "but I canceled fifteen gigs this morning, and cancellation emails just keep rolling in."

"Wow" is really all I can muster. I'm so tired. I have a few of those emails on my phone, too.

After 36 hours of traveling, we say our goodbyes at the DIA baggage claim. It feels like we just slid under a giant garage door seconds before it closed.

Over the next three days, we cancel our work for the entire year to come.

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Today, as we tentatively gather our optimism about the coming year, the Bluegrass Journeymen are looking forward to the day when travel feels safe, live shows are back full force, and we can return to India.

Until then, the bandmembers are excited to see live performances in Colorado popping up on our summer calendars again. We don’t plan to take those gigs for granted, remembering how quickly it all evaporated last March.

Hear more at The Bluegrass Journeymen website.

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