As part of WTTC’s Ease of Travel campaign, titled ‘I Am Travel’, we will be publishing a series of perspectives from travellers of different nationalities on what travel freedom meant to them and their own experiences travelling with restrictions. The following is Lola’s perspective.
I knew what was coming. I’d gone through this very same drill dozens of times. As many times as each of those vibrant and colorful visas in my little green book. My Nigerian passport. Even before the immigration officer pulls me aside, I instinctively pull myself aside.
He glosses over my visa. A visa I’d spent hundreds of dollars acquiring. He finds his government’s own issued visa but curiosity gets the better of him. He thumbs through the rest. Looking through the two green passports stapled together because visas were outnumbering passport pages.
“Why all these visas?” he asks.
This scene was repeated in airport after airport across several continents. The more visa stamps in my passport, the more my motives for travel were deeply questioned.
Why was I traveling?
There had to be a more sinister reason beyond the need to explore and enrich my life through experiencing other cultures. There had to be a dubious reason for me to leave my comfort bubble of familiarity and travel the world to put my life in perspective and context as a global citizen. There had to be a mysterious reason why I would want to sample local traditional foods, trace the steps of history, and marvel at intricate architecture so grand I stand awe-struck in silence.
Because that explanation — the deep enrichment travel brings into our lives — was too easy an explanation for an immigration officer reviewing my Nigerian passport.
2003. I remember taking my first bus tour through Eastern Europe right before several countries were joining the EU in 2004. In hindsight, I should have waited a year to travel. But life itself isn’t guaranteed, opportunities should be taken when presented, and waiting would have defeated the pull and wanderlust of travel.
So that meant a visa for every single country — five of them — I was traveling through on that trip — Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia. Close to $1,000 in multiple-entry visa fees alone.
At border crossings, our rowdy group of 20-something year olds fell silent each time a passport control officer hopped on board and glided down the aisle, sucking our collective air with authority. Grabbing various blue and red passports and neatly stacking them, he’d stop by my seat, glance at my green passport as if a contraband item, study my face, and push my green passport beneath the pile.
At every single border, I’d convince myself it was for easier access that mine was pushed beneath the pile. Until the officer would come back unto the bus and escort me off for further questioning with his colleagues.
Why was I traveling?
Explaining it to the questioning officer was never enough. I had to explain this unbelievable concept of me traveling on a Nigerian passport for the sole purpose of enjoyment to his colleagues too.
By the time our tour through Eastern Europe was over, I’d unwillingly delayed our bus for an average of 30 minutes at each border crossing, whereas I was the one who had paid several hundreds of dollars to have my motives scrutinized.
But the beautiful irony is that my little green book opened up the world to me.
While doors were being slammed, it stubbornly wedged itself through the cracks and got me in. It filled me with an undeniable resolve and passion to keep exploring and learning about the world around me, and above all, truly listening to people and their cultures and why they believe and live the way they do.
It forced people to see me, deal with me, and learn about me even when they weren’t ready to. And in my own way, I began to chip away at their biases, distrust, and discomfort around people they didn’t encounter every day.
Today, I work as a travel writer and blogger sharing rich cultural stories of everyday people, their lifestyles, and what makes them burn with unbridled passion for what they do and for their traditions.
Today, I work as a travel photographer within the National Geographic brand family communicating these stories visually.
I have an EU passport now.
One that came because, ironically, I found love across borders. And the ease with which I can flow through those very same boundaries and cultures is without a doubt a privilege. One I certainly don’t take for granted.
Traveling with my Nigerian passport never stopped my resolve but I wonder: How many talents lay hidden forever because they were never given the opportunity to explore, to see the world, to learn from other cultures, to be cultural ambassadors themselves, and to use those talents to make a difference in their own way?
How easy it could have been for me to become demoralized after the umpteenth border stop, after paying the next $200 visa fee, after feeling the emotional weight of never-ending restrictions simply because I was born in a certain country.
I will never forget my little green book.
It was what drove me to explore the world. To keep stubbornly pushing past boundaries and barriers in life. To realize this was the career path I was born to be on.
It was what taught me resilience and perseverance.
Stockholm-based Lola Akinmade Åkerström is an award-winning travel writer, photographer, and blogger who contributes to several publications such as National Geographic Traveler, BBC, The Guardian, CNN, and many more. Her photography is represented by National Geographic Creative. She is also the Founder/Editor-in-chief of Slow Travel Stockholm.