Arts·Pandemic Diaries

I tried to get home to Saskatchewan from India to be with my mom — and my life became chaos

Photographer Sara Hylton was one of the thousands of Canadians stuck in India and struggling to get back on a repatriation flight.

Photographer Sara Hylton was one of thousands of Canadians in India struggling to get a repatriation flight

Sara Hylton in Mumbai. (Nirvair Singh)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

"I've looked at clouds from both sides now"
– Joni Mitchell

I was born in Regina, Saskatchewan in the 80s. I grew up on wide open skies, humility, and tacky tracksuits. I had a basic childhood, kind parents involved in social justice and advocacy, and a twin sister that I fought with often. As soon as I graduated high school, I left Regina without looking back.

Over the next two decades I would live in Toronto, London, New York, Delhi, Mumbai, Kampala, rural Northeastern Uganda, and a few other short stints across Europe here and there. Since leaving Regina, my thirst for adventure and my desire to witness humanity has taken me across the world as a visual storyteller. I've documented stories about gender, conflict, human rights abuses, environmental degradation, sexual abuse, migration, and much more. My entire being has revolved around trying to shake the world awake, focusing mostly on other communities and countries.

If I'm lucky, I see my mother — my best friend and soulmate — once or twice a year. During those moments, I'm usually so distracted by the project I'm currently working on or the grant I'm applying for that I barely remember or ingest our sacred time together. The further I've progressed in my career, the more I've yearned for a pause, a breath, a sense of simplicity and space to be. It turns out, the very thing I've attempted to escape is the place I've most yearned for: the Prairies.

Sara Hylton's mother in Saskatchewan. (Sara Hylton)

When the pandemic hit, I was living in Mumbai, India. The Narendra Modi government announced a 21-day lockdown on March 24th to take effect four hours later. No flights in or out. Before the lockdown had been announced, one-way flights back to Toronto were $7000 — an astronomical cost for a freelancer living paycheck to paycheck.

At first, I convinced myself that I had a sense of duty to be in India. I have an intimate relationship with the country — a place that taught me how to make pictures, introduced me to my first love, and helped me to heal from my father's sudden passing. I felt a sense of duty to be there and not bail when it got hard. But the more I understood the gravity of the situation, and that I could possibly be indefinitely cut off from my mother, the more I yearned to be near her and back in the country that shaped me.

I spent a few days grieving for the life I had in order to move forward with the decision I knew in my heart I needed to make. I registered with the Canadian embassy and soon learned that thousands of Canadians were stranded in India. The Canadian government had been repatriating citizens across the world in what seemed from the outside to be a seamless manner, but what ensued in India over the next few days was a cocktail of mismanagement, ineptitude, and lack of information.

Sara Hylton in Mumbai. (Nirvair Singh)

The organization of repatriation flights was outsourced to a travel agency that I was told had six or seven employees, who were meant to manage the travel of over 3000 Canadians. These Canadians were situated across the country, some in rural areas. Travel in India, at the best of times, is uncertain. I was also told that demand for flights far outweighed the number of seats being offered. As panic began to build, I called the travel agency upwards of one hundred times and was told to "remain calm" while repatriation flights were cancelled and rescheduled, with no guarantee I'd get a seat. I spent the next few days in a state of panic and uncertainty. I thought money might help, so I made a payment of $2900 for a one-way flight — a privilege that many families and individuals could not afford — and I waited.

On a Sunday, I was given final confirmation that I was on a flight the next night. I had heard stories from my fellow passengers who were situated in Goa, many of whom traveled to Mumbai on a rickety old bus for over 18 hours. The bus driver had never been to Goa, and over Google Maps, these passengers navigated their way through winded streets, only to discover upon arrival to Mumbai that their flight had been rescheduled. Some travelers were completely left behind.

It took me over 48 hours, a maxed-out credit card, and four flights to reach the wheat fields of my childhood.

During these 14 days that I've been in isolation under Canada's Quarantine Act, I've had some time to reflect. As documentarians, there are moments where we are asked to put down our cameras and be human beings above anything else. Those moments allow us to tap into the very reason we became storytellers — to connect, to create, to witness humanity and beauty. If we are unable to witness in our own home, we've lost the plot.

And so, with that, my mother (whose company is a rare gift), Joni Mitchell, and the crisp Saskatchewan air have become the soundtrack to my current creative life. I am grateful. Sometimes, it turns out, our own stories are worth telling.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Sara Hylton is an award-winning Canadian freelance artist. As a medium format film photographer, Hylton uses her craft as a tool of defiance against the current political, social, and economic reality in which we live. Her intimate, feminine, and heart centered approach aims to capture the resilience, humanity, and quiet beauty in the lives of her subjects. Ultimately, she stands in solidarity and love with those represented in her images, demanding that viewers do the same.

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