Every time one of my foreign friends sees my Nepali passport, they are fascinated by the number of visas I have in it. They flip through the pages and say, “Your passport looks like so much fun!”
What they do not know is that every visa on my passport has meant hours of paperwork filled with anxiety: my bank statement, proof of college or work, letters of invitation, hotel bookings, medical records, fee payment receipt from bank, and then the interview round.
Those privileged enough to be born in the West who can just get up and go to any country of their choice, whenever, will never understand that there is no such thing as spontaneous travel for us.
First, we cannot just buy a one-way ticket to anywhere, a return ticket is another requirement, and overstaying can mean being deported immediately or banned from the country.
A person just picking up a passport, rushing to the airport in a cab, buying a ticket over the counter, breezing past security check, and hopping into a plane just before the flight attendant closes the hatch – that only happens in movies.
Before I travelled internationally on my own, I thought everyone had to go through the same process, so I did not mind the extra work. I had no idea about all the excruciating paperwork that was needed.
One of my first experiences as a citizen literally from the ‘third’ world was during a trip to Italy from Ireland with my American classmates. They all breezed through immigration at Rome, just showing the photo pages on their passports. I was pulled aside, while my friends looked on with concern, they could not understand why the trip was getting delayed because of me.
I had to hand the immigration officer a folder with my entire life history in it. He even wanted a letter from my school that said I was a student, and guaranteeing that I would promptly return to Nepal before my visa expired.
My friends quizzed me later about my ordeal, and I told them this was SOP for Nepalis, and that I was used to it. They flipped through my passport, and found it so interesting that it was filled with colourful visa stickers and stamps from so many countries.
Whenever my friends ask me if I want to go somewhere on a whim, I cannot say yes because travelling anywhere means weeks (sometimes months) of careful planning, laboriously filling online visa application forms, and an in-person interrogation with some stern looking person behind the glass. And even having a visa means more questions on arrival at the destination airport after an 18 hour flight.
And for a Nepali, especially a woman travelling alone, the hostile cross-examination starts even before we leave Nepal at Kathmandu airport immigration, with questions that are so irrelevant as to be a farce. There are horror stories of people with legitimate travel documents being harassed and prevented from leaving by our own country.
I have been fortunate enough to travel, see places and meet many people, and am looking forward to doing more of it. However, it does not come without developing a thick skin, and being prepared to be treated degradingly like a third-class citizen from the third world every step of the way.
This is the reality of people in developing countries looking for a better chance at life, there are more hurdles than one can imagine. Most developed nations have become fortresses with moats and drawbridges — those who do get to be allowed in are made to feel fortunate. This situation is only set to get worse — just look at the images from under the bridge at the Mexican border, or Kabul airport.
Next time you see someone with a passport filled with stamps, try to look beyond just the exotic stickers to the untold hours of uncertainty and hope, and for the millions of people around the world whose hopes for a better life are never fulfilled.
Even with so much experience of international travel over the years, I have never quite got used to being made to feel unwelcome everywhere I go. But I have made up my mind that if I enjoy seeing the world, I will have to jump through those hoops first.
That is a part of life, and the accident of birth in a specific country comes with its challenges, we have no choice but to overcome them to get to do what we want. I am not whining – travel is fun, having a Nepali passport is not.