I often ask myself what it is about travel I love so much. Initially, I thought it was all the new places and experiences. Though this is true, there’s more to it. I’ve only recently put the pieces together. The real reason I love to travel so much is because I get to indulge in a great privilege I’ve yet to taste at home.
Like every other sector in our lives, travel is also one that heavily relies on privilege. Even though I am considered marginalized in Canada, I find myself having the upper hand after leaving the western hemisphere. I, a minority, become privileged when traveling. I, the brown Muslim woman, travel with the entitlement of a white man. I may be viewed as a Pakistani in Canada here, but abroad, I am simply Canadian.
I say this because I’ve noticed how my experience is and continues to be so obviously different from other travelers.
A Canadian Nationality
Have you ever wondered why most of your favorite travel Instagram accounts are all European/Australian/North American nationals? Answer: visas, duh. Our privileged passport opens borders to possibilities. And when we do happen to need a visa, the hassle is virtually none.
Due to a major delay on Egypt Air, I missed my connecting flight from Tunis to Istanbul along with a plane full of Egyptian nationals. It was 1 a.m. and the help desk was filled with families waiting for a visa to enter Tunis in order to spend the night. As soon as I flashed my Canadian passport, the guard escorted me to skip the queue and within 10 minutes, I was in a taxi on my way to the hotel (Canadians don’t need a Tunisian visa). Moreover, there have been several occasions where I’ve had the privilege of abstaining from security checks upon my nationality being discovered.
When I was waiting for my bags in Dubai, I saw someone with a Canadian flag on their luggage. I hadn’t met another Canadian in a while so I went over to start a conversation. Turns out, he was American. He said people treated him better as a Canadian in the Middle East since Americans don’t have the brightest political reputation.
Another factor that plays a large part in travel privilege is our currency. Yes, the Canadian dollar is not the highest, but it does stretch far in most African, South American, and Asian destinations. This enables us to easily afford a $160 all-inclusive resort for a weekend a local could never indulge in.
This one is a Torontonian privilege: I always tell people if you really can’t afford to travel, to hang out in Toronto for a bit. Toronto has a corner in the city for most cultures. Before any trip, a hand full of friends with ties to that part of the world are more than happy to slide over numbers of their family members willing to host me or show me around. This may not seem like much, but imagine having the entire cost of accommodation being zapped away just because of the diversity around us. Diversity is a privilege.
I may not be white, but I am a light skinned South-Asian person. Dark enough for brown people, light enough for the white. I have the privilege of blending into a lot of spaces if I don’t open my mouth. In areas like South America, the Middle East, and South Asia, I’m treated like a local if I walk confidently and keep a low profile. This means I’m less likely to be robbed or harassed.
We had a girls night in Egypt once and an Italian girl with Rapunzel blond hair joined us. She said she would get constant stares because she looked so different and people kept asking her for money. She ended up dying her hair black that night and we noticed a major difference the next day. The gazing had minimized and she felt a much less on guard.
In 48 hours, I travelled through 4 cities, 3 countries, and 3 continents. I'm officially half way through my goal of 30 countries before 30, Turkey being my 15th. Also, love seeing some green after all those Egyptian deserts! #turkey #Istanbul #zahratravels #europe #Asia #island #buyukada #backday #whatarepants
On the other hand, I have noticed the opposite in parts of the world that are predominantly white. After tanning for three months during the Egyptian summer, Turkey wasn’t the kindest. People assumed I was Indian and namaste-ed me while walking and waiters could not give a less of a fuck about getting my order right. Whereas the white Australians beside me got drinks on the house.
I am able-bodied. I really don’t need to say much more. The privilege of mobility is something that is constantly overlooked in the travel industry and it’s extremely excluding.
My youth also contributes to my globe-hopping. I don’t have to spend a tonne of money on a resort or hotel because my body can bear the minor discomforts of hostel beds, extreme temperatures, and lack of sleep. A couple of years ago, my parents spent x on a private tour of Europe which I could have done for three times less if I backpacked.
I’ve heard many female travelers have issues with safety on solo trips but I’ve always gotten pretty lucky. I keep my head high, heels low, and phone charged to maneuver out of these situations. This by no means indicates that it’s easier for women to travel. But because of shit like patriarchy, people are often shocked that I’m traveling alone. As the “weaker sex”, I am often offered more protection and comfort. People go out of their way to accompany me to my destination, pay for my coffee, or even offer better/upgraded accommodations. I realize some of this is because there is a conception that foreign women are deemed “easy” but I’m smart enough to know when to accept and when to say ef off. I also don’t have a hard time making friends because apparently women are more comforting to approach. I can’t find a stat for this but imagine if your kid is lost. Who’d you rather help them? A man or a woman? Most often the answer is a woman.
I can not tell you how big this privilege we take for granted is. ALL major tourist sites have an English option. I’ve had people apologize to me for not speaking English when it’s not even their third language. Maybe this is because it’s still synonymous with opportunity and a better life for many. Sometimes, I feel like I should be the one to say sorry for not even learning enough of the local language to order water. English is an international tongue that people around the world have to try hard to learn. Whereas most of us reading this were born with it.
Let’s not forget that I’m single. Yes, being single is my favorite privilege! Most people have jobs with daily responsibilities, limited vacation periods, and dependent family members they cannot leave back.
There are so many other factors like personality, visual religious or cultural differences, health, phobias of flying etc. that impact our accessibility to travel or to have a positive experience while doing so. This privilege doesn’t mean we stop traveling, we can’t just ask rich white men to give up their CEO positions, empty elite schools or to stop living in big homes. This just means that we heighten our awareness of it. At the end of the day, the opportunity to see the world is a luxury. We just have to stop pretending it’s equally accessible.
If you are a part of a visible minority or a different nationality, what have your experiences traveling been like? Let me know in the comments below!