Traveling the world on a not-so-powerful passport
This is the second in a series that is part of WTTC’s Freedom To Travel campaign, titled ‘I Am Travel’. We are publishing a series of perspectives from travellers of different nationalities on what travel freedom means to them and their own experiences travelling with restrictions. The following is Shivya’s experience of travelling the world with an Indian passport.
I waited with baited breath on a warm summer day at the German embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia. Countless emails and phone calls later, I had passed over my stack of documents — confirmed flight and hotel bookings, bank statements for the past six months, income tax returns for the past three years and travel insurance — to the visa officer across the counter. The fate of my upcoming blogging trip to Germany and Switzerland, on invitation from the Council of Europe, rested in her hands. Four Schengen visas and four Euro trips later, I knew the drill by heart, but as an Indian passport holder applying for a Schengen visa outside of my home country, it meant one extra hurdle — obtaining special permission from the German consulate. Luckily for me, a visa was finally stamped on my passport.
Tedious visa processes to enter most countries in the world is frustrating, but like with my fifth trip to Europe, doesn’t compare with the joy of losing myself on the charming European countryside. Truth is, if I had let visas curtail my freedom to travel, I would never have kayaked to the villages of Spreewald (Germany) which even in this modern age, are connected only by water; or experienced Sunday afternoons with pizzas fired up in traditional stone ovens, followed by a group siesta, in Umbria (Italy); or hitch-hiked with kind farmers through the rural countryside of Maramures (Romania).
Four years ago, when I quit my cubicle-bound job for a life on the road, I knew the challenges of traveling with an Indian passport. I also knew that they are not an excuse for forfeiting a life of travel, for everyday on the road is an adventure and a lesson — and applying for visas, though it makes me long for a borderless world, has simply become a lesson in patience.
According to the Passport Index, which ranks passports based on their global mobility, India stands at #59, with visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to a meager 58 countries. In comparison, American and British passport holders can enter 147 countries without a visa, raising the pertinent question: Is it fair to limit the life-altering nature of travel based on the color of your passport?
I remember being a nervous wreck one year ago, in the interview room of the United States embassy in India. I had heard numerous stories of how, more often than not, single women and freelancers were refused visas. I (proudly) fall into both categories, but perhaps I had filled up enough pages in my passport to prove that I didn’t intend to overstay my time in the country. I scored a ten-year, multiple-entry visa, which also opened my doors to several countries in Central and South America.
In exchange for the long and trying visa process, I witnessed the magical fall colors of New York and California, lived with a Mayan family in a small countryside village in Guatemala, had a Robinson Crusoe adventure on the remote island of Guanaja in Honduras, got a rare glimpse into the secret lives of the Bribris — one of Costa Rica’s last surviving indigenous people, and found my own National Geographic set with playful dolphins and jumping sting rays in Panama! On the other side of the globe, I realized that despite the differences in our language, culture and appearance, our soul is the same — a realization that keeps me curious and traveling, fighting for my freedom to experience the local way of life across the world.
Visa-wise, things were no rosier from the other side of the lens — visitors traveling to India were subjected to tedious visa processes too — but in 2014, the Indian Ministry of Tourism started an e-visa facility for citizens of 43 countries, eliminating the need for in-person applications at the Indian embassy. I hope we will see reciprocity, for it is only when people can travel freely that we realize that despite the differences in our ethnicities, we are all citizens of the world — and isn’t that the single greatest lesson on the road?
Shivya Nath is a 20-something travel blogger from India, who quit her corporate job and gave up her home to live a nomadic life. She tries to glimpse the lives of the locals wherever she goes, and aims to inspire her readers to step out of their comfort zone too.