The other day I was helping a Guatemalan friend get through the airport in Lisbon. I waited for her as she checked in, as it was only the second time she’d flown in her life. She stood at the check-in desk for possibly ten minutes, and when she finally left it she had a very confused look on her face.
“They asked me so many questions,” my friend said, a petite woman in traditional Guatemalan clothing. She seemed frazzled as she described the types of questions that were directed to her. Simple things like what she did for a living, and more curious ones like if she planned on “accepting anything” before arriving in her home country.
“Why I would they ask me if I’m going to accept anything? Why are they so insistent that I not take anything?” She asked me.
After some thinking, I realized that what my friend was going through was something I would probably never have to deal with. During her trip from Lisbon to Guatemala, she would have to pass U.S. borders, and there is no doubt in my mind that the questions posed to her were not required to leave Portugal, but to enter, albeit only briefly, U.S. soil.
I couldn’t help but feel incredibly uncomfortable realizing that my friend was having her first experience with something that would happen so many more times in her lifetime, and probably never in mine.
As an American, I often forget the privilege that I have in the skies, simply because of my country of origin. I’ve never been required to provide a letter of support and a visa application in order to visit Haiti, as my Haitian family needs to do anytime they want to come to see us.
I’ve never had to answer a long series of questions about my destination and my travel intentions, as my Guatemalan friend did.
I’ve never had to navigate an airport where there was no English translation written alongside the local language — I wonder how my non-English-speaking family members in Portugal get anywhere when the reach the USA.
Sometimes I stop and think about these things and it makes me grateful and sad at the same time. The peacemaker in me wishes everyone could travel as freely as I do. The skeptic in me wonders if that will ever be possible.