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.