On September 3–8, 2016, Kyrgyzstan is hosting II World Nomad Games. It’s like biennial Olympiсs for ethnic sports practiced in Central Asia, Mongolia, Siberia and Far East of Russia. Disciplines include hunting with eagles, mounted archery, wrestling, horse racing, horseback wrestling, some board games, and — my favourite (kidding!) — an analogue of polo with lambskin.
As cool as it sounds to be a nomad by heritage, in our present reality it is hard to be a nomad when you can only travel freely to 59 countries… Kyrgyzstan holds 68th place in the passport power rank, compared to the leaders Germany and Sweden whose citizens can travel to 158 countries without visas.
Once my friend Grace said that living abroad taught her two things. First, that she was tired of being a foreigner and wanted to live in the US closer to her family. Second, how privileged she was to be an American citizen. American passports are #4 with 154 visa-free countries in the basket.
When she spoke about privileges I felt like a second-rate human being from a third world country (well, in fact Kyrgyzstan is not). It feels like this sometimes when you can’t go abroad on a spontaneous weekend with friends because getting visa even for three days requires upfront application. Or when a potential employee would rather hire someone less qualified than you but with the European work permit. Or when all your education, work experience and skills are devalued merely because they were obtained in a little-known country with an unpronounceable name.
That’s why all those dreamy posts by Western bloggers “Quit your job and travel the world” and #inspirational Pinterest boards preaching that “you haven’t lived if you haven’t traveled” and you need to “just pack and go” are not relatable to the majority of the world with powerless passports.
I think we need more stories in international media spotlighting the voices of those travelers and writers who have to go through visa application process and strict immigration officers. Like a blogger from Philippines, Aileen Adalid, who shares her experiences and tips on traveling with a “third world passport.”
Although I have had various visas multiple times without any problems, I fully acknowledge how restrictive visa policies are. An acquaintance of mine from Bishkek, Ruslan Tokochev spent 588 days traveling around the world. In his blog post he wrote that initially he planned to visit 38 countries but because of visa issues managed to go only to 17. He didn’t manage to get into most Latin American countries.
Getting a visa, let’s say to Schengen area of the European Union, is a rigorous and costly procedure. For application to be considered one has to pay a non-refundable fee of 60 euros, show plane tickets (note: purchasing them without any guarantees of being granted a visa), accommodation booking, and bank account statement, on which there must be at least 500–600 euros per one week of stay. Some embassies may request additional documents like proof of absence of criminal record or an invitation letter.
One can also be rejected a visa without an explanation. Risk groups include young unmarried women from developing countries who are believed to be hunting for rich husbands; young men without any “ties” in their motherland such as property or a permanent job; citizens of some lower-income African and Asian countries; citizens of countries involved in any kind of war conflict or political instability.
After all, trying to get a visa can be so challenging that when one finally is granted it, they make the most of their trip. They try to visit as many cities as possible, they try to see as many place as possible, they shop and eat to death, they buy ridiculous trinkets.
However, since I know what it takes to get into another country, I never judge or laugh at tourists who are taking hop on-hop off buses, spending half an hour on a location and taking a zillion of photos of everything around before hurriedly moving on to another spot. For many it might be their first and last time in this destination, as they don’t have an opportunity to surf in Lisbon one weekend and fly to a concert in Berlin next weekend. They have two weeks to see everything, and they probably won’t be able to extend their stay without breaking the immigration law.
So, indeed, traveling is a privilege. And sometimes I feel extremely privileged having had an opportunity to live abroad and visit more than 20 countries. There are many other passports who have it worse than I do.
I have a friend from Iraq, Rait, who has been living in Turkey for many years. A few months ago he was rejected a visa to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to attend a media forum. Even an official invitation didn’t help. Rait always likes my photos from trips that I share on Facebook and sends me messages saying how much he wishes to be able to travel. I feel guilty that I have this privilege to move, a conditional one, but still… And for him the world is closed.
In airports I have noticed how African people or people dressed according to Muslim traditions take a bit longer time to go through passport and security control and have to answer additional questions of immigration officers. I have met many Turkish citizens who have never been overseas and even don’t own biometric passports. Maybe the reason is that Turkish passports are the most expensive in the world.
As I look at my not-so-powerless passport, which has only two blank pages left, several years of my life pass in front of my eyes. Every visa and every stamp document my journey carrying so many memories of different places, events, and people.
So I decided that I am fine with visas as long as I get them easily and the only questions I hear from curious officers are “Where is this country?” and “Do all people there speak English so well?”