The post below is the story of the Guest Writer Guilherme Soares Dias, who has kindly shared his experience with us about how it feels to be a black body travelling.
The first travels
During the first part of my travel, which lasted for 9 months, I was stopped by the police in the streets of Venice and Jerusalem. At the Italian city, the policemen who had seen me in one of the channels, wanted to check my passport, to know when I arrived and where I was sleeping, and wrote down my name on a record. When I asked them why they stopped me, they said it was a common procedure. I was very sad after this episode. I cried after it because of the racism which curbs our right of wandering peacefully about the streets.
In Jerusalem, I was with a Polish friend and we were going back to the hotel when two policemen armed with machine-guns asked us: “where are you from?”. I froze. My friend answered “from Poland and Brazil”. They asked the question again facing only me, making absolutely clear that I was the “suspect”. I repeated: “from Brazil and Poland”.
In many different borders I passed, I was often thoroughly checked and questioned many times. I travelled from Brazil to Chile by land, crossing by north of Argentina. It was seven days and three police searches. When I arrived in San Pedro, I met another traveller who had spent three months travelling Argentina by land. I spoke about the searches on the buses. “Ah, but they will only search those who look suspicious”, he said, a white man, son of doctors. I said: “yeah, I was searched three times within one week”. He changed the subject.
Every time I went from one country to another (and it has been 23 so far) I feared the processes I would have to go through. I don’t even like football, but I bought the Brazilian national team shirt just to go through immigration borders. In my opinion, in spite of all the problems, Brazilians are usually treated with kindness on borders. Furthermore, I am always careful about having shaved. The bigger my beard, the more I am identified as an Arab and go through searches. In Australia, I was “randomly” picked for an anti-bomb test. I cannot forget these experiences on my travels. I realised how “different” I was in some places. In some more tourist like restaurants, there were only white people around me. I was not always served when I should. In some others, I received some suspicious look.
…I was the only black man wandering around the streets. A friend of mine of an Asian look who travelled in the country with me, read in a magazine handed out on the train from the airport to the metro that, black, Arab or Asian look tourists should avoid speaking their own native language out loud in the streets of Moscow. That really changed our experience over there. We had just met each other again after a long time and, despite the excitement, we were afraid to talk aloud in the streets. It took me a while to feel comfortable in the country.
To be different also caught my attention, but in another way. It was in Italy that my nose, larger and African look, was considered sexy for the first time in my life, during a flirt on the stairs of the metro. My nose?! Who comes from a family who has always seen our nose ugly and whom even thought of making a plastic surgery on my adolescence. It was interesting to realise it could draw attention in some other way on a different part of the world.
One of the most terrible faces of racism…
…is to put us, black people, on the negative statistics, such as on the high numbers of unemployment, incarceration, homeless and so on. And take us out of the positive ones, such as people with graduation, high position and even travelling. I have met with many Brazilians on my way, but, as I said previously, few were black. From all the travellers who has crossed my path, I remember a black Brazilian, who bought a tour with me in San Pedro do Atacama, Chile. The other black woman I met was in Morocco, where one of my tour fellows was a girl from Ethiopia who was born in Scotland and lives in the United States. Commonly, both of us were mistaken as locals. And that is it. In nine months, 23 countries.
I began to realise how peculiar it is to be a black traveller. On Facebook, I found a group called “Wanderers of colour” (formerly “Travellers of colour”), who brings together about 1 thousand people of “colour”, black and Arabs from all over the world who portraits their experiences as travellers. “We know that our experiences as people of colour travelling can be very different from our white counterparts, especially in less tolerant and diverse countries”, says the description.
In one of the stories,…
…one traveller says that tourists on a boat in Amsterdam were taking pictures of her while she walked on the streets. Another group, the “viajantes negros” (black travellers in Portuguese), was created on the last April 17th and has a bit more than 100 people. It means to be “a space created for black people to be seen as leisure travellers too and not just work travels”.
Yemsrach Tekletsadik, an environmental engineer, who lives in the United States, whom I met in Morocco, considers her experience different from a white traveller. “Sometimes better, others worse. In Morocco, I felt people treated me as part of their family. Everybody was nice to me. But, in Vietnam, I saw people taking pictures of me. It was weird. I believe they do not see many black people. Though, in Bali, Indonesia, a man did not believe I was black”, affirms her. And she added: “It is very interesting knowing you are writing about it as not many black people travel. I have only met you and, perhaps, another two black people in seven months of travelling”.
The historian Amanda Silva, whom I met in Atacama, reminds us that, as she is black with a whiter ton of skin, all the looks towards her “blackness” is generally confined to her curly hair. “In Bolivia, for instance, many people asked me if I liked my hair that way, in a clear evidence that this is not beautiful to the eyes of whom was seeing it. And that attitude even against the “exotic”: can I touch? Though, in general, wherever I have been, I was always treated well”, she says.
Towards the end of my ninth months travelling, I decided I wanted to be a digital nomad and that I would find a job which would keep me on the road. While the dream was not becoming a reality, I went to San Pedro do Atacama, in Chile. It’s the city which most receive tourists in the country. It is full of tourist agencies and hotels, and brings together many travellers pursuing jobs. But, it has its own social segregation amongst the working classes.
It is interesting to realise that receptionists of tourist agencies and hotels (the face of these establishments, thus well-paid due to the commission), are all white. The “atacamenhos”, the local indigenous with a darker skin, work as drivers, small businesses receptionist and manual work. Some people who live in the city, refer to them as atacamonkeys. Despite the fact of joining the words atacameños and monkeys to relate in a pejorative way to locals, nobody believes this is racism.
The black community
The few black people in the city (you can count on the fingers of one hand), majority Colombian, work as waiters, deliverers or hunters. It is that person on the streets calling people to buy tours or go into a restaurant. The Bolivians are the great majority and mostly illegally working and/or responsible to provide for the family in their country. They work as builders, room maids, cleaners or in the kitchen. They are exploited, doing shifts of more than 10 hours a day and earning ridiculously low wages and some threatens.
In my case, when I arrived, I was just offered to be a hunter. I refused to accept this role specifically for have been travelling the last months and avoided the “harassment” of these people while I was calmly walking on the tourist streets of different places. I persisted and ended up working as a receptionist in an agency which was just opening. The owner always dreamed to have “a Brazilian with a good look” working in this role. He believes that it would attract more people and therefore sell more. There are at least four agencies which work focused on the Brazilian public in town. In all of them, there are white females who welcome the tourists. Chauvinism and racism explain.
On my everyday travels,…
…this daily racism is a lot more present and stronger than when I lived in Sao Paulo, in the centre. As my skin is not very dark, on the streets of the city, I was just another one. At most, I was mistaken with a homeless. However, on the south of South America, where there aren’t many black people, or in Europe, where Islamophobia is strong, or in any immigration border in the world, I must be attentive. I know that, at any given moment, I can draw attention for the “wrong reasons” and get into trouble simply for being: to be in an airport, going into a restaurant, buying things in a store or just wandering in the city.
Perhaps, it is not really easy for a non-black to understand or to capture all the subjectivity of this text. I remember a friend visited Malaysia, a Muslin country. She did not feel comfortable going around in shorts on a beach side, getting many looks. That’s when I realised that is not usual, just after she told me. In fact, I had also visited the place and did not perceived that way.
We, black people,…
…can and should dream of being a traveller, digital nomads, tourists and goers of places that are not reserved for us, although they are also ours. Even if we are not simply travellers, but black travellers – which means to problematise certain questions – and with our presence fight for the occupation of new places until we are no longer exceptions. After all, travelling freely is necessary – and it is for us as well.
Guilherme has published a book called “Dias pela Estrada” (all in Portuguese), which brings stories from this time travelling. You can find info about it in here.