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Flying solo

  • Published at 06:55 pm September 9th, 2019

Maliha Fairooz shares her thoughts on the perils of travelling

Travelling has always been something we aim for – an escape from reality, with the added benefits of learning about numerous countries, experiencing various cuisines, and getting a taste of multiple cultures. But what we often fail to acknowledge is that not all trips overseas are as smooth as we’d like them to be. From deep-rooted racism, to internal conflicts resulting from discrimination, to a lack of security, there are many aspects that could go wrong. Maliha Fairooz, a Bangladeshi travel enthusiast currently living in Sierra Leone, talks about one such incident she faced overseas in a now viral post on her personal travel blog, http://www.maliharoundtheworld.com/.

We reached out to her this month, and she offered her two cents on the matter.

When did you start travelling, and how often do you travel solo?

I got on my first long-haul flight at the tender age of four, on a Biman Bangladesh airplane from Dhaka to London; and ever since then, there has been no stopping me. So far, I have travelled to 86 countries on a Bangladeshi passport -- shattering stereotypes and, hopefully, shaping a positive image of my country of birth. I went on my first solo trip to Rome at age 20, and since then I have travelled to almost 50 countries alone. I mostly travel solo -- it’s my favourite way of travelling, I feel like I am much more uninhabited and much more open to experiences that way.

People often don't get to hear about the dark side of travelling to far off countries. How often have you had to face problems like these?

I am in the process of writing about some of my worst experiences while travelling. I face problems often. As you know, just recently, I was detained without cause or reason in Cape Verde for 17 hours, racially profiled and finally released. Similarly, I have faced my fair share of harassment, across the world, although I suppose I share mostly the positives.

How prevalent is racism in the countries you've visited so far? Are there any such experiences you'd like to tell us about?

Very prevalent, depending on where you go and who you are. I suppose racism exists everywhere, but who you are makes you susceptible to certain types of racism in certain places, as opposed to others. For example, I found Mexico extremely easy to travel in, because everyone thought I was Mexican or Latin, but I have heard from some black travellers that was not the case. Similarly, I found Hungary horrible to travel in as a brown person, because some people thought I was Middle Eastern and perhaps a Syrian refugee -- so they were not very kind. In Egypt, I got yelled at for not speaking Arabic because some people assumed I was Egyptian, and there are standards they thought I should be adhering to as someone who looks somewhat local. I suppose it goes to show how unique everyone’s lived experiences are and how much it depends on who you are and what you look like. So while one place may be racist for me, someone from Bangladesh who is lighter or darker may have had a completely different experience.

What do you think this usually stems from? Is it reserved for solo travellers, or do you think there are other factors?

I think it comes from a place of fear and ignorance, which is why it exists everywhere. People are afraid of what they don’t know or understand, so they reject anything dissimilar to them. I feel that the right wing politics that’s sweeping across the world also has a role to play in this; people are being brain-washed into thinking that anything different from them is a threat to their existence, and so that’s how they act. I think there are several issues that affect this -- it is certainly not reserved for solo travellers, but it is more difficult when you have no one else to find comfort in when these things are happening to you, if you are a solo traveller. I suppose, though, I am subjected to this more from immigration officers because people often can’t imagine why a single Bengali girl will be travelling on her own -- so they think I must be an economic migrant instead.

Why do you think these issues are overlooked by so many people? Do the authorities of the particular countries take these seriously?

Most of the travel media that’s available feature white people from Europe or other ‘western’ countries, so when the media we consume is so very white, it is natural that these experiences will never be highlighted. I found myself growing up in a world which told me I can only travel if I am white, so naturally, I decided to shatter that stereotype. This is why I started blogging, because I did not see anyone in the media who represented me or my experiences as a Muslim woman of colour travelling on a green passport.

It’s very difficult to prove to the authorities that something was racist. I have never pressed charges; I was told by a lawyer in Hungary that the police would not do anything, because I am brown. I guess in some countries these might be taken more seriously, but I suppose that’s the thing about being transient -- you don’t stick around anywhere long enough to find out.

How do these incidents add to the overall experience of a traveller? Has this helped you to better understand the nature of people from different parts of the world?

I think it has definitely increased my empathy, made me question my belief system and internalised racism within myself. I learnt more about the construct of race, gender, sexuality and their inherent neo-colonial and white supremacist nature through travelling, experiencing and learning from my own encounters as well as that of others. I think it also makes me reflect on how racist Bangladesh can be to people of certain countries. I don’t know why we are so okay with throwing around horrible judgements towards Africans, for example, or why we make it okay to talk badly about dark skinned people -- so casually as if it’s acceptable to berate someone for something as ridiculous as skin colour.

Keeping the negative aspects aside, what was the best, most memorable part of your trip to Cape Verde?

Possibly staying with one of the most wonderful and inspiring women I have ever met in my life. This lovely Portuguese woman, who had never met me before, took me in and let me stay at her house. I feel that, no matter where you go, you come across wonderful people. I met some lovely Cape Verdeans who were kind and spoke to me with curiosity about my country and culture -- that was nice too!

Do you have any tips for travellers who may face harassment in a foreign country? How do you think we can prepare for this?

Speak out about it. Write about it, make videos, make podcasts, find one way or the other to get people to know that this is happening so that a) others know that they are not alone, b) people realise how difficult it can be for a person of colour to travel, c) maybe some way or somehow it will reach the right ears or eyes -- as it did with my Cape Verde piece. We forget the power of media and how we can sometimes control our own narratives, if we try.

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