I recently fulfilled a goal of traveling to 30 countries before I hit the age of 30.
Compared to other bloggers I know that isn’t much; and I also know that travel isn’t about ticking countries of a list to rack up mileage. But this is achievement for someone like me and let me explain why.
There are millions of people like me: women; women of colour; women who didn’t grow up traveling due to inherited wealth or their parents’ jobs; women from third world countries for whom travel is a foreign concept because it involves so much more than money and time off work- it involves strict visa restrictions that do more keep you out of a country rather than welcome you in.
You see, despite what philosophers and religious scholars might tell you, not all men are born equal. From the moment of birth, people start in different levels of difficulty in order to succeed in life.
My Instagram feed is full of travel bloggers accounts. Some are black, some are white, some have Asian backgrounds and some have African heritage but they all have one thing in common- a passport of privilege. There’s a reason a staggering amount of travelers and travel bloggers hold passports from the U.S., U.K., E.U., Australia or New Zealand and most of them have to do with freedom of movement. Yet here I am, a blogger too, traveling as much as I can with the South African passport I have.
One of the most requested topics I get asked to write about is how having this passport has shaped my travels and contributed to my experiences abroad. So for those of you who don’t know, here are are 5 things that happen when you don’t have a passport of privilege:
Your world becomes smaller
Although I have always wanted to travel, my ideas of where I would like to travel were limited. Almost the entire continent of Europe was closed off to me for most of my life because the Schengen visa application was too much of work, money and a general logistical nightmare for the average South African. After 9/11, The U.S. visa policy became super stricter especially if you had a brown face and a not-so-Christian name. Canada and Australia were long, expensive flights away in addition to a headache-inducing visa application for each.
Let me put this point into perspective for you visually:
The average E.U. citizen has access to these countries without the headache of admin:
Let us look at that in comparison to the average Indian passport holder:
This is how the world is and I accept that. I have queued for hours to get a visa only to be told at the front of the queue that the system is offline/I don’t have a required document despite my suitcase of paperwork/ I am not eligible for a visa. I have had embassy officials talk down to me, made assumptions on my religious/marital/racial status, talk above me but about me in their native tongue and all the while I smiled and pretended I was wasn’t grossly insulted because this is what you do when you aren’t privileged.
Although my world seems small, I took my tiny bank account and went where I could. Now that I am in a financial and geographical position to do so, I have begun with the strenuous visa applications. The questions remains to be seen about, are these countries really worth the hours you spend amassing documents, stressing, being insulted and the money it costs?
2. People will take pity on you for no reason
People ALWAYS assume that you are ashamed of where you are from. For example:
British twat: Where are you from?
Me: South Africa.
Brit: And you are traveling to Europe? Wow. I don’t think I would ever travel if I didn’t have a British passport. Who can be bothered with all the visa applications. Don’t you wish you had another passport?
Me: No. I have no wish to be anything other than South African especially if it meant being an ignorant fool like YOU!
Many conversations go along those lines. Let us get this straight people: We LOVE our countries. Do you know how amazing South Africa is? It is the ultimate privilege to be from a country most people only dream of! We may not agree with the way our country is run (my Zimbabweans friends know what I mean) and we may not have perfect English abilities (my Korean friends are agreeing) but we do not wish to be from anywhere else. It is foolish for you to think so. And if you grew up with pristine beaches, lush weather, dreamy landscapes and delicious food, you would never make those kind of daft comments.
I was recently asked if South Africa is “even worth visiting?” Well… you tell me. Here are a few of my pictures from my hideous third world country:
Who would ever want to live there? Ew. And yes- all these photos are mine- with no photoshop needed for the most beautiful country in the world
3. People are surprised that you have traveled.
Because apparently when you’re from the third world, you don’t have a passport? I was recounting a story told to me by my Egyptian friend about her travels in Iceland, to a colleague from America. He seemed very taken aback. “She went to Iceland? But she is Egyptian!” SO?
This sort of thing happens a lot. When I mentioned to an American about a few of the countries I have visited in South East Asia while I worked in South Korea, she was beyond surprised. “I didn’t think South Africans could travel that much!” Um… Apartheid ended over 20 years ago… we have no travel restrictions! (As an aside- when I said how much I loved my trip to India, her response was, “Oh of course you have been to India and loved it. You’re not white after all.” So you can only enjoy non-white countries if you’re not white? Ok then.)
We may not be from wealthy countries, our governments may be corrupt and we may even have only gotten a passport when we turned 40 years old, but do not assume that our nationality holds us back from exploring parts of the world– especially those that welcome us.
4. They will treat you… differently
In 2011 I went on a trip to the Philippines with a group of colleagues. I was the only South African amidst a group of Candians, Americans, Irish and New Zealanders. Everything was going well at Manila Airport and everyone passed through immigration smoothly until it was my turn to present my South African passport. Suddenly the immigration officer needed to call his colleagues for clarification (on what I don’t know, since the Philippines is visa free for South Africans) and as him and his cohorts discussed my unworthy passport, my colleagues looked back at me impatiently. As if it were my fault this was happening to me.
I was glad I was brown, as my face was burning up and if I was lighter, my humiliation would’ve been apparent for the world to see. However, I maintained my composure as my passport was returned to me and I was stamped into the country. I was still a newbie at traveling at that point so I actually did feel embarrassed about making everyone wait. That would never happen now.
Fast forward a few years later and the same episode replayed itself in INDIA of all places. A place where I got away with paying local prices and fitted in as well as I do in my home country. I was called aside and interrogated about my father’s profession as well as how I obtained my passport? (I later found out that they thought I was a wanted Pakistani citizen on the run fleeing with a fake passport). What the hell?
Kuwait was another example of nationality governing how you are treated. When two people accomplish the same task, at the same building, with the same staff, the experiences can be exceptionally different based on what you passport you held. For example, my friends from New Zealand and Europe were treated with the utmost help and respect when applying for their criminal record in Kuwait. When I went to apply for mine, from my face to my passport, they shouted at me and made me stand outside in the sun while everyone else was served before me (even though I had arrived first).
Growing up in the place where in South Africa- the place where Apartheid originated- made me aware of my race and nationality of course but… I never viewed them as a burden until I started traveling.
The worst part of it all is when your friends- or people you consider your friends- tell you, “Its all in your head!” simply because their privilege blinds them from seeing that others aren’t treated as they are.
5. Immigrant vs. Expat
There have been many times where I referred to myself as an expat (name of this blog!) and I was ‘corrected’ and told that the correct term I should use is immigrant. Why is this so when you are calling my German friend an expat but referring to me as an immigrant? Technically speaking, I have been an immigrant to a number of countries. I don’t think I really need to explain the semantic differences between these two synonyms. One of these terms has developed quite negative connotations while the other is something many people dream of being. I know exactly why I’ve been labelled as an immigrant- because I’m part of an ethnic minority, and because I am from a developing country which on the world stage seems… weak.
People ask me what my life was like in “Africa” (whispered in a hushed tone). Listen- my life in South Africa was great. My husband I owned our own property at the age of 26, we had two cars, excellent jobs, private healthcare and a wide social circle. Coming from the developing world doesn’t always mean that you were poverty-stricken. I was not forced to leave- I chose to move.
I always wonder about the many people who want to limit migration – the single easiest way for poor people to improve their life chances – and view growth in India and China not as dramatic progress in reducing both poverty and global inequality, but as a sinister development. Ask yourself why improving the quality of life of certain nationalities is considered dangerous but for others (for example, those within the European Union), is completely acceptable?
The truth is…
As much as these truths and incidents rattle me, I still recognise that I too am privileged because I have the choice to travel for leisure; as I mentioned, I was not forced to leave my home country due to war or conflict. I was privileged to receive an amazing level of education. I was lucky enough to have English as my mother tongue which, as we all know, is the language of travel.
My ability to speak English opens the door for me in other ways, too. As a native English speaker, I can choose where I want to work by teaching English abroad.
That’s just not an option for someone who doesn’t speak fluent English, meaning that they don’t have the option to pursue one the most economical methods of long-term travel. This can apply to other work abroad situations too, including working in a backpacker hostel or a cruise ship, since English is usually required.
Growing up in post Apartheid South Africa taught me many things. From poverty to suffering to opulence to grandeur, South Africans, like most people from the third world, have seen it all. Human pain and suffering are incommensurable in the sense that you cannot really compare one experience with another, but let me tell you something: If you’re reading this, you- like me- already have it easy. I don’t believe that admitting privilege detracts from my hard work or authenticity as a traveler. If anything, I think it makes me more real, relatable, and believable.
As for all those travel bloggers telling people out there to quit their jobs and travel the world- hold on. Think about what you’re saying. If a couple wants to go to Europe from South Africa they will spend around $150 just on their visas. Another $150 if they want to get UK visas. $300 is A LOT of money in South Africa . Then consider having to spend in Euros and Pounds, which are almost 17 times the value of the South African Rand, and you can see how, in some countries, traveling can be limited to the very privileged.
Of course this isn’t a post designed to make people feel guilty about their nationalities. If you can travel, DO IT, and don’t feel guilty just because it’s easier for you than it is for someone else. Instead, simply be aware of it, and be sensitive to those who weren’t born into the same circumstances.
Do you have a not-so-privileged passport? If so, how has it shaped the way you’ve been treated or how you have to travel? Comment below and let me know!