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Travel writer: Your nationality at the airport matters Special

By Ernest Dempsey     Mar 13, 2011 in Travel
New York - Poet and writer Sweta Srivastava Vikram loves to travel and write about her travel experiences. In a world plagued by terrorism and cultural sensitivity, Sweta finds traveling to foreign cultures not free of bothersome, often biased checking.
In a post 9/11 world, terrorism and widening cultural disparity have made it harder for many travelers to get through airports without being bothered for undergoing security producers. Travel enthusiasts like writer Sweta Srivastava Vikram, author of Kaleidoscope: An Asian Journey of Colors, has been in many different countries across the world and has experienced quite a few differences in the way people at treated at airports on the basis of their nationality/passport. She respects the various procedures passengers are made to follow for security reasons. But she makes the point that one can be austere without being cold. In the following chat, Sweta tells about her traveling experiences and how her Indian-American nationality relates to her identity during travel.
Ernest: Sweta, you have traveled widely and have been to different continents and among different cultures. What nationality or nationalities do you currently have?
Sweta: I was born in India and then raised between India and North Africa. But I have lived in New York City for over a decade now. As clichéd as it sounds, you could call me a global citizen I guess.
On paper, I am an American citizen. But my heart, mind, and spirit embody an Indian-American flavor. How could they not? I grew up with a mesh of cultures and India was a big part of it. Giving up my Indian citizenship was an emotional journey that can’t be articulated. Even today, after returning from visiting India, I get homesick. Maybe because it isn’t that I abandoned India or my family; it is that I embraced America and newer prospects.
Having said that, starting my life in New York City was perhaps one of the most memorable moments in my life. Just 10 days outside of New York, and I start having withdrawal symptoms. I miss my house, husband, couch, family, friends, and life. My New York! It’s a weird quandary. But I have accepted that I have two homes, two mothers asking for my love: India and the United States.
Ernest: How have your different nationalities influenced your travel experiences to foreign lands and cultures?
Sweta: I have this uncanny luck of walking into unforgettable travel experiences. I am not saying they are necessarily good, but definitely something I would always remember. Perhaps, share them with generations to come. Each one of these journeys has taught me a valuable lesson.
Ultimately, the good comes with the bad. While the modernism and infrastructure of the west is incomparable, the warmth and hospitality of the east is a voyage every human needs to undertake. No culture is perfect, but every country has something unique to offer. It’s up to each individual what they want to focus on. Problems arise when people have unrealistic expectations and extend no flexibility.
Most importantly, I’d like to believe that different nationalities have definitely made me more open-minded, empathetic, pragmatic, and broadened my horizon. I have learnt to not take anything for granted.
When 9/11 happened, my husband and I were in Paris. We were sitting in a café on Champs-Elysées when I saw three young Arab men reading a newspaper. The front page had the image of a plane going into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. I knew something wasn’t right with NYC—since we were on vacation, we hadn’t bothered to watch the television earlier that day. Around this time, my husband had walked inside the café to bring us a few napkins. Since the newspaper was in French, I turned to these men and enquired about what was written. They blatantly laughed at me and chuckled at the horrific picture in the newspaper. One of them said, “You have a Christian accent. We can’t help you.” Before I knew it, tears flooded my face. When my husband returned, I told him what had happened. He read the headlines and told me that America was under attack. I can’t even tell you how helpless we’d felt at that moment.
We rushed back to our hotel. The manager, a wonderful man, comforted us with hot chocolate. He asked us to maintain a low profile, as the danger on America and Americans wasn’t over. When I told him that I was Indian, he said I didn’t sound or look like one, so it was imperative I exercised caution. Moreover, since we lived in New York, we would be considered Americans and not Indians.
The nationality of your passport doesn’t make you a good or a bad person. It doesn’t change your ideologies overnight either. I think it introduces you, if not reinforces, certain basic realities and stereotypes consuming the world.
Ernest: You speak of your recent ravel to Turkey where your American nationality became the focus of attention at the airport. What exactly happened there and how do you interpret it?
Sweta: My American passport has brought many interesting experiences.
I was in India a few months ago. On my way back, I flew Turkish Airlines. With a sixty-minute or so layover at Istanbul airport, I was hoping to grab some baklavas and coffee at the airport. I was excited. But then the flight from Mumbai to Istanbul was delayed. Forget stuffing my face with baklavas, I barely had time to grab my carry-on from the airplane. I was so sure I was going to miss my connecting flight to NYC. And that wouldn’t have been fun.
Now let me preface by saying that I love Turkey: great food, rich culture, tremendous hospitality, and marvelous history. My husband and I were there a few years ago, and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay. But whether you like a country or not, being stranded in a foreign nation is no fun.
Anyways, after sprinting across the terminal and going through multiple security checks, I finally reached the travel desk. The gentleman behind the counter, with a warm smile, assured me that I wasn’t late; the flight to NYC had been delayed.
A couple of minutes later, this official asked to see my passport. The minute I handed my US passport to him, the smile on this man’s face morphed into resentment. He asked me to step aside. And then he shot a multitude of questions at me like I was some sort of convict. I was convinced he would not let me board the flight and maybe just detain me forever. I was baffled. The Turks had been so nice to us the last time we had vacationed there. What went wrong this time?
Fortunately, while dishing out the cold words, the official flipped over my Person of Indian Origin Card tied to my passport. I tell you, at that very moment, he gave me a look of “genuine love.” He asked me about India and chatted for a few minutes. I stood shocked through it all. I wasn’t sure how to respond. I quietly boarded my flight.
When I narrated my experience to my co-passenger (she’d worked for one of the American airliners for over forty years), she said to me: “It’s sad, but we are not liked in many parts of the world.” For a second I was confused; I couldn’t decipher what “we” represented: Indian or American. Eventually I realized what she meant by “we” and the “responsibilities” my new, American identity brought along with it.
That’s when it dawned on to me, the last time I was in Istanbul I was still considered “an Indian” on official paper. Perhaps that’s why the local folks showered generosity.
Ernest: Has your Indian nationality ever been the object of unusual attention anywhere during your travels?
Sweta: I don’t think I’ll be exaggerating if I said that every passport carries a baggage. And that every passport is tainted with some sort of prejudice.
With an Indian passport, planning a trip was indescribably painful, more so in the recent years. I almost always had to get a visa for the countries I visited, along with an invitation letter explaining the reason for my trip. And that too months in advance! Putting all the paperwork together and taking time off my work to apply for a visa was always an arduous task, and often ridiculously expensive.
But the passport by itself was never an object of speculation once the visa was approved. The locals were intrigued and hospitable when I told them about my background. And I almost always ran into a fan of Bollywood or Indian cuisine. I never had to fear for my safety on any of those trips. Despite all the political mayhem between the two countries, I even traveled to Pakistan on an Indian passport. Not once, but twice.
Ernest: Do you study the culture of your travel destinations a little before setting out?
Sweta: Honestly, not in a lot of detail. I am sure it comes as a surprise because I am an obsessive-planner otherwise. See, I am of the school of thought that books can teach us the technical know-how of a culture. The true learning happens in the environment: observing, communicating, traveling, interacting with the local people; taking cues from others around you; keeping your emotional quotient vigilant. Absorbing experiences and translating them into stories. All of these facets are education.
The world is so global these days that you can learn a lot from peer interactions and news. It is like a book waiting to be discovered. All it requires is staying tuned to your environment. For instance, I had heard several people warn me that the French don’t appreciate mispronunciations, so I stuck to English when I was in France in fall of 2010. However, when I was at a residency in Portugal, my residency director advised me that the Portuguese like foreigners learning their language. It didn’t matter how terrible your pronunciation when you said obrigada (Thank you in Portuguese). So every time we would go to the grocery store, I would greet and express my gratitude in Portuguese.
I’d like to believe that I am a reasonable, civilized human being with no intention of offending anyone or rubbing them the wrong way. But I always try to remain aware. As a raging optimist, I like to think that most humans are gracious if they sense sincerity. I know I feel thrilled when I hear a non-Indian speaking in Hindi.
Ernest: How do you compare treatment of passengers at Indian airports versus those in America or Europe?
Sweta: American airports, overall, seem better organized. After all, America and most of the Europe are developed nations. They have better technology and infrastructure. However, the newer airports in India are getting better with their lounges, the amenities, etc.
India has always been rigid about multiple checkpoints. When I was much younger, the rigid security checks at Indian airports would bother me. I wasn’t sure why they had to put their passengers through vigorous screening. Most airports don’t allow visitors inside the departure terminal. Only passengers with a valid ticket and passport are allowed to enter the departure area. In smaller cities, a huge entry fee is enforced to discourage people from crowding inside the airport.
It seemed that the Indian government didn’t want to take chances, so they reduced accessibility. However, the officials at the airports were not intimidating or rude. Just because they were suspicious of a few, didn’t mean the rest of the passengers were treated as threats. Forget airports, most malls, and hotels require every person, including employees to walk through a metal detector at the entrance. All of that is done with a degree of politeness.
Needless to say, when I moved to America, I was amazed at how “trusting” the airport system was. In the pre-9/11 days, when my brother would visit us from Singapore, my husband and I, like the other folks dropping off passengers, were allowed to go until the point at the gate where passengers show their boarding pass for one last time before they board the plane. I would always wonder how and why visitors were given such easy access.
However, I have seen drastically different and stricter security measures implemented at US airports post 9/11. I understand that America is dealing with a lot of newness. The September 11 attacks have changed life as we knew it. I am cognizant that the east and the west work differently. And that we should respect the differences. But I am observing as a traveler on humanitarian grounds.
Lack of trust has become an issue for America. Granted there are more people entering the United States with a motive to settle down compared to India or any other nation. There are ongoing threats to the country too. But I wonder if it is necessary to pigeonhole every person entering the US with suspicious looks? Or doubt anything and everyone unfamiliar. Or to profile based on ethnicity?
I am all for safety and security. Bear in mind I come from a country where manual, body checks were mandatory. But the rule applied to every one entering the airport. I have seen women in burqas get singled out at JFK for a body check. Women wearing salwaar-kameezs were asked to step aside because the new equipment couldn’t gauge their body contour. Is the Indian system proactive while what we have in the US more reactive? I don’t know. But one could be austere without being cold, right?
Ernest: That makes sense to me! So what is your next destination? Do you also seek a destination based on any particular topic you want to explore and write about in that place?
Sweta: I don’t have a definite answer for that, unfortunately. Not because I am a traveler with an unplanned destination. It’s just that I have applied to writing residencies and conferences. Depending on the most conducive opportunity, I’ll make my decision.
I don’t set out in search of a particular story. For me as a writer, each place becomes a story. Each day is a learning experience, each minute a research opportunity. The landscapes and the people make the story.
When I was in Ireland and Portugal in 2010, I found so many similarities between their cultures and the Indian heritage. Ireland and India were British colonies and Portugal’s pride, Vasco Da Gama, landed in Goa, India.
I cherish each of my expeditions. I strive to grow both as an individual and a writer every time I travel. As Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
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