In 2006, I went on a group overland trip across Egypt and Jordan. After two weeks in Egypt, we were getting ready to board a ferry from the Sinai Peninsula to Aqaba.
I handed my passport to one of the crew members and saw that familiar look of confusion on his face. I tried to convince him that, yes, the country listed on it did exist on this planet, but all he did was thumb through and look at me skeptically. The group leader saw that I was having problems and tried to mediate, to no avail.
In the meantime, while I was shunted to the side, my British and Australian travel mates crossed the threshold ahead of me. They all looked back with awkward sympathy.
I felt pure joy when someone called the captain and he told the crew member that not only was Trinidad and Tobago real, but he’d actually stopped there once on his way to Rio de Janeiro.
If it’s one thing I hate, it’s labels.
Labels constrict. They force those proverbial square pegs into proverbial round holes. When someone labels me based on just the color of my skin, my nationality, or my accent, I feel royally cheated.
You don’t know me and you don’t want to get to know me at all! I want to shout.
Things get pretty complicated when labels change depending on the different contexts I find myself in.
I’m from Trinidad and Tobago.
Back in my multi-racial/multi-ethnic home country, I’m not black or a “person of color.” Rather, I’m “Indian” because my skin color and facial features reflect ancestral roots that span more than a century.
There are other “Indians” like me in my country who wear this identity proudly, even though technically we’re not Indian at all; none of us were born on the subcontinent or have parents with Indian passports.
I, on the other hand, don’t care for this restrictive identity. When I tell fellow locals that I’m not Indian, not Indo-Trinidadian, just Trinidadian, they shake their heads and laugh. They don’t accept that at all. Several times, I’ve had fellow Trinidadians expect me to be the expert on all things Indian and Indo-Trinidadian.
“Oh wow! You’re not Hindu? But you look like a Hindu!” “You can make roti like a boss, right Suzanne?” “What’s the name of that chutney song again?” “Did you see [insert name of the latest Bollywood movie]?”
They are usually dead wrong on all counts.
When I travel, things get a bit blurrier.
The labels people attach to me change according to different environments. Border control is particularly hairy.
Pre-9/11 and after my A-level exams, I traveled with my family to New York for a short vacation. At JFK airport, the immigration officials were chatty, even joking that the barcodes over our passport pictures looked like face tattoos.
Post-9/11 was a totally different story.
Travel through the same airport was no longer a piece of cake. Instead, it meant longer delays. While travelers with powerful passports breezed ahead of me, I had to undergo embarrassing iris scans and fingerprinting because I possessed a powerless passport from an “unimportant” geographic location.
When I say “powerless passport,” I mean a passport from a country that no one really recognizes.
A passport that requires frequent trips to embassies and consulates to get expensive visas. A passport that makes international travel a lot harder than it should be.
In the UK, airport officials classify me as single, South Asian female. When I attempt to go through security, the interrogations inevitably follow:
“Did you pack your bags yourself?” “Are you traveling alone?” “Are you meeting anyone?” “What are you doing in the UK?” “Where are you staying?”
I plaster on my most convincing smile and try to act confident. Though I’m never doing anything wrong or illegal, their suspicions make my heart race every time.
Traveling with friends who have powerful passports can be exhausting.
On my first trip to Asia, things went smoothly until my uni friends and I decided to take a day trip from Hong Kong to Macau. Once they showed their powerful UK passports to the immigration officer, they sailed through the gates.
Things weren’t so simple for me. The agent took one look at my passport, and another summoned me to follow. I started to panic.
What had I done?
While my friends watched anxiously from the other side, the officers took me to a small room, closed the door, and told me I had to purchase a visa on arrival because I came from Trinidad and Tobago, a country which (unlike the UK) did not enjoy visa-free travel to Macau.
So much drama for nothing. I thought as I dutifully paid for my visa.
There have been times when my ambiguous skin color and features have worked in my favor.
In fact, they have, in many cases, allowed me to blend right in.
For instance, on that overland trip across Egypt and Jordan, border police frequently stopped our truck for routine security checks. On more than one occasion, the officers checked everyone else’s passports except mine. My sunburnt skin and dark eyes made me pass for a local.
When I walked through the dusty streets and souks of Cairo and Dahab, many of the shop vendors instinctively spoke to me in Arabic. When I couldn’t respond, they became curious and asked in English, “Hello! Are you Egyptian? Arab? Spanish? Indian?”
Some were very friendly. They offered steaming cups of sweet mint tea and tried to teach me Arabic. Some claimed that Suzanne was an Arabic name.
Others made outrageous, laughable offers.
“Ninety-nine percent discount and 20,000 camels for your hand.” “10 million camels and the death of your boyfriend.”
There was even one wrinkled old vendor who showed me a picture of his wife and said that I looked exactly like her. Although I good-naturedly shook my head in agreement, I didn’t see the resemblance.
Traveling to the “motherland” (India) in particular makes me feel the full weight of the identities I straddle.
When I landed at Kolkata airport on a trip there in 2015, one immigration official looked me straight in the eye and began to speak rapid-fire Hindi.
“No Hindi! Only English!” I sputtered, confused. He raised his eyebrows quizzically, and gruffly asked for my passport.
When he saw that I was not Indian at all, not even an NRI (Non-Resident Indian) from abroad, he instantly became hostile, stamping my visa page haphazardly, and shooing me off. I was completely floored. What had just happened?
On the street and at tourist attractions, I often got the local price (as opposed to the tourist price) before I even opened my mouth. When shop owners automatically spoke to me in Hindi or Kannada, I waggled my head like the locals did and pretended to understand.
Sometimes, it worked. Other times, not so much.
When I’d explain that I wasn’t from India, but from the West Indies, they’d say, “Ah! Chris Gayle! But you look Indian…” and get this faraway look in their eyes, as though they had been duped. They couldn’t believe that — even though I looked like them — I wasn’t one of them.
As a traveler from an unfamiliar island nation, it’s been hard to deal with the prejudices people have and the labels they try to attach to me.
In spite of this, I think it’s important to debunk the prevailing Western narrative that international travel is cheap (or free) and easy for everyone.
Many times, when I read travel tips or travel advice written by people from the global North, I think, Well, that certainly doesn’t apply to me!
Many travel writers need to realize that they write from privileged backgrounds, and that not every traveler — particularly those from the global South — will share their travel experiences.
Weekend warriors and global nomads who travel with friends with powerless passports: Support your travel mates and try to understand their experiences. Support them when immigration is giving them hassle for no good reason. Understand that their reality may be different from yours, even if you’re on the same trip together.
And for everyone else: Speak up and encourage others to do the same.
Beautiful article.. I can identify on all counts… such Are The Trials And Travails Of A world Traveller
I’m so glad you can relate, Risha.
Great article Suzanne! I’m British but have been travelling in South America and living in countries along the way and have made so many local friends who, like you, struggle to travel because of the country they’re from. It has really checked my privilege (I’m a white Brit) and I now similarly get annoyed with the blasé way travel bloggers talk about how easy it is to travel. Good luck to you and thanks for sharing your experiences.
Hi Steph, thank you for being more mindful of your travel privilege and for understanding the plight of folks like me. Continue to spread the word!
Great article! I’m a full time traveller and have many friends I’ve made around the world who are in your position. Unfortunately, I also meet plenty of people with “everything is wonderful/everyone can travel/if you aren’t travelling you’re not trying hard enough” values. Hopefully as they travel more they’ll learn and realise it’s not that easy for everyone.
An extra note on your point about the UK. I am a white Australian and I get hassled in the same way whenever I enter the UK. In fact, even when I was living there and had the visa to prove it, I was still interrogated. Sometimes I would be asked for my postcode, the address of my office, and even to describe the location of where I lived!! I’ve been to more than 50 countries and I’ve never come across another border quite like the UK. I’ve got other Australian/US/Canadian friends who have had similar experiences.
Wow, Amanda! I can’t believe you get hassled in the UK! Interesting! That goes to show that every individual, no matter what country you come from, is not immune from travel woes when crossing borders. Thanks for sharing!
Gosh, I never realised (perhaps I am guilty of not thinking) that you’d have such difficulties when traveling. I’ve not been to Trinidad, but I have been to Tobago and it remains one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. It’s a beautiful country x
I think it’s safe to say that each individual has a unique travel experience. On another note, I’m so glad to hear you were able to visit Tobago. It is quite a lovely little island!
A piece worth saving and sharing with friends!! Loved every bit of it. And so sorry that you literally have to go through all this trouble. I can imagine only a part of it because in my first trip abroad I was alone and was being asked suspicious questions. Same as you I replied with a smile and confidently. But facing it every time is surely horrible. Thanks for sharing such a thing so common yet not accepted.
Hi Shibani, thanks for your feedback! I don’t face discrimination every time I travel but it has happened sometimes. I just wanted to let more travelers out there understand that it’s not always rainbow and unicorns.
This was really interesting to read. For one, I’m shocked that so many people haven’t heard of Trinidad and Tobago… That just seems crazy to me. Not know where it is or much about it, sure, but not even have heard of it? Nuts. I’m sorry to hear about the post 9/11 stuff. I have an American passport and I even hate going through customs so I can’t imagine how you must feel. Powerful, thoughtful post! Loved it.
Hey Christie, people’s ignorance of other countries like mine is shocking but so commonplace. I guess world geography isn’t a popular subject in schools these days!
It was really interesting to read about your experience as this is an issue I had never really thought about. I think I take my U.S. passport for granted a lot, but this made me stop and re-evaluate. I’m so sorry that you have to deal with this when you travel, people can really be ignorant, huh?
So I love this post so much, I literally want to do an interview with you and feature you on my blog. If you are interested let me know because I love breaking stigmas and boundaries and challenging what people know. I’m being dead serious and am not trying to spam you AT ALL, but I really enjoyed your post & hope to help educate more people about your country. xoxoxoxo (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Very interesting post. How come people don’t know your country ? It’s not an unknown land. Never realized how difficult can be for people from little countries to travel, I thought it was just a matter of visa. Glad to hear that there are also some good sides. It’s nice to see both side of things. 🙂
It must be difficult with the T&T passport if you need more visas than a European Passport would to travel. I have a UK passport but I often get asked a lot of questions and often face rude immigration officers, the US especially LA have rude immigration officers. They often think my passport is Irish which I just agree with instead trying to explain it to them.
Oh my goodness!!! I totally relate to you! I’m from India and there are very few countries that provide visa on arrival for my passport! Applying for visa is one heck of a process and sometimes the kind of paperworks that I end up doing is ridiculous! Believe me when I say for our last visa application, we emptied 2 cartridges of our inkjet printer!!!!
That must have sucked. But I guess that happens to almost everyone, depending on where they go. People have a natural tendency to stereotype and in general, many people remain ignorant about the diversity any country possesses. Nevertheless, I wish the whole world had played cricket. Then everyone would know West Indies, and by extension, T&T.