The sunset from Mt. Sinai
It’s a little cliche for someone who is relatively well-off, white, and a Westerner to talk about how travel changed their perspective. Goodness knows I wouldn’t want to get all Eat, Pray, Love on you. Since my most recent trip, however, I can’t stop thinking about what an amazing thing a US passport is. This little blue book entitles you to effortless passage into 159 countries, and with a little planning ahead and an application for a tourist visa, you can get access to almost all others. No wonder I feel a sense of infinite possibility when it comes time to plan a new trip.
But for many others, the possibilities for travel are not nearly so limitless. Let me share two recent experiences.
While I was in Egypt last month, I met with a local man through a tour. Despite his good job and economic stability, despite the fact that he has a wife and children and deep roots in the community, and despite the fact that he is fluent in English and works in tourism, he has tried and failed several times to get tourist visas to go abroad. When it comes to visiting countries like the US and Australia, it turns out that even middle-class Egyptians may find it close to impossible. So my friend has never left his country and has become resigned to refusing the invitations of his international acquaintances.
Back in Japan, I started working on an article about Burmese refugees living in Tokyo. I interviewed several of them, and almost everyone mentioned the difficulty of travel. Particularly before they are granted refugee status, a process which can take decades and is far from certain, it is not feasible to leave Japan. Often, they do not even have a passport and cannot obtain one because of the political situation in Burma. Of course, even if they had permission to travel and could afford to do so, they couldn’t go to the one place they most want to go: back home.
In meeting a man who cannot leave his home and people who cannot return to theirs, it struck me what an under-appreciated liberty the freedom of movement is. With my American passport and nationality, I have been invited to make a home for myself here in Japan, yet I can freely travel back and forth to the country of my birth. I’m free to pack my bag and leave on a grand adventure round the world tomorrow, and if some far-flung destination appealed to me, I would probably be able to find a way to stay there and make yet another place my home. All because I am lucky enough to hold a US passport.
The unfairness of it is staggering. It makes me want to grab every American without a passport by the scruff of the neck and shake them, screaming, “Don’t you know how lucky you are?!” And to my less-fortunate international friends, I can only apologize and offer to write a letter for your latest visa application.