Rajesh Chouhan had covered 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) in five days. His legs were swollen and his blisters had burst. A piece of Styrofoam trash he'd found on the roadside was soaking up the pus seeping from his feet.
But he didn't stop walking. He couldn't.
The 26-year-old migrant worker was in the heart of India and only halfway home.
When India announced its nationwide lockdown on March 24
to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, despite having less than 450 cases
at that point, its cities ground to a halt. About 100 million
rural Indians have moved to cities for work. Overnight, many like Chouhan were stranded without jobs, food or savings.
With no way to survive in the cities, and India's vast railway network mostly shut down, many made the extraordinary decision to walk thousands of miles back to their families.
Many didn't make it. In one incident, 16 laborers were run over by a freight train as they slept on rail tracks
. Roadside accidents took the lives of others. Some died from exhaustion, dehydration or hunger. Those picked up by police were often sent back to the cities they had tried to leave.
Chouhan knew the risks. But on May 12, he decided to defy India's strict lockdown laws and begin the 1,250-mile (2,000-kilometer) walk from the tech hub of Bengaluru, formerly known as Bangalore, to his village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
He'd hoped to hitchhike much of the way, but with police checking trucks for stowaways, drivers were demanding fees beyond Chouhan's budget. For 10 days, he'd have to dodge police check points, survive on tea and biscuits, and walk on aching feet.
"I don't think I can forget this journey through my life," he says. "It'll always carry memories of sadness and anxiety."
A 3 a.m. getaway
Chouhan moved to Bengaluru last December to work as a mason on a construction site.
In his home village of Tribhuvan Nagar, on India's border with Nepal, he earned 250 rupees ($3.30) a day. In Bengaluru, he could double that.
He and his brother, who worked in another state, sent home about 14,000 rupees ($185) a month -- enough to sustain their family of 11, including Chouhan's two young children and his elderly parents, living in a thatched roof house set amid sugarcane and wheat fields. His nephew Arvind Thakur joined Chouhan in the city as soon as he turned 14, the legal age to work in India ...