If I were a fish, I’d be so upset with myself for getting caught in this net that I would have wiggled and shaken and fought like hell to break myself free only to find myself more entangled, left with not an ounce of strength to my name, only able to wait until morning when the fisherwoman would return to see that my lifeless body is of no use and cast me back into the sea.
I’m sitting at a Burger King in the Lisbon Airport right now, slurping down a coke and staring at some fries. I’ve been denied access to the terminal since my flight technically doesn’t take off until tomorrow. This means I won’t be able to sleep in the lounge my friend suggested I locate and rest in for the evening. It also means there will be little point in venturing out into the city since it’s the middle of the night and I have my pack with me. And so, here I sit. And here I write.
I’m sad right now. I’m allowed to say that on the internet, right? I don’t have to pretend to be happy all of the time and post pictures of all of the flashing things I do and pretend everything is always spick and span?
I’ve just landed in Lisbon, Portugal, essentially the only city that flies directly to Cabo Verde where I’ve just spent the last 11 days visiting an old friend from high school who is posted their as a U.S. diplomat. I’m in a bit of a unique position (in that, I have never been in this kind of place before) where I’m arriving into the European Union, which I would be legally allowed to do no matter what the case was since I hold a U.S. passport, but I also hold a long-stay visa, meaning I’m allowed to exist here for a year. This is the visa I was granted this summer, that I worked hard to get my hands on. But when I landed here a few hours ago, my stomach didn’t feel right. Something wasn’t sitting well with me.
There was something weird happening energetically on the plane I was on for four hours from Africa to Europe. The man sitting to my right was “man spreading” so badly and the announcements in Portuguese kept throwing me off, pushing me further and further down the rabbit whole of anxiousness. I tried to distract myself with the books I had brought with me, but none of them were comforting, with two of them being about the middle east and one of them being about living in a garbage dump in South Africa. As we approached Lisbon, I couldn’t see anything out of the windows since I had an aisle seat, so I had no reference as for when we would be landing once the turbulence started to pick up and the flight attendants all vanished into their seats. I think the metaphorical aspect of turbulence was bothering me, for some reason. But then we landed, and the seat belt sign clicked off and more passengers than I’ve ever seen before managed to scramble into the aisle almost immediately. The man-spreader to my right stood directly over me, his arm a mere two inches from my face as we waited for the plane door to open. He didn’t seem to notice he had majorly invaded my personal space, of which, I couldn’t create anymore, since I was still sitting in my seat. And so that discomfort sunk in for a few minutes before we were eventually let off the plane.
Then, checking into the EU, going through immigration, fetching my bag, and stepping out into the night air of Lisbon, I still felt uneasy. While in Cabo Verde, I was communicating over the internet with one of the refugees I had worked with this past spring. He was having a rough time and I had nothing to suggest to him, no advice to offer. It is so very difficult to relate to his experience. I carried him in my heart onto the airplane, certainly. Borders are tricky things when you’re an asylum seeker. So are visas…and passports…and police papers…and…any part of yourself that can be used against you in the case of racial profiling. For me, flying in from Africa, I stepped up to passport control, feeling off balance, handed over my passport without saying a word, and the man scanned it. He then started at the beginning of the book and peeled through each page one at a time, searching for an empty spot to put a new stamp. He came across what he must have assumed was a blank space, not noticing that the two stamps I had from Mexico last November were faintly marked in the booklet, and he stamped me into the European Union. This means he never even got to the page with the massive blue visa sticker with my face on it that indicates I’m allowed to be here long-term.
And that, my friends, is white privilege. Or, white advantage, if you’re with me.
This situation isn’t shocking to me. I’m not going to pretend like this is something that’s hitting me like a ton of bricks all at once. But, the fact of the matter is, while I worked diligently this summer to secure legal access onto this continent, it wouldn’t have mattered either way if I had or had not. I do think; however, for a person of color, it would have mattered that they do the work, and if they were lucky enough to secure the same visa that I did, they would certainly at least need to present it to the passport control personnel upon arrival.
I unexpectedly had to check my bag when at the airport in Praia. It was free, which meant I didn’t have to worry about dragging it around, but it did mean I had to leave the airport in Lisbon in order to collect it before turning directly around to check back in for my next flight, which leaves for Madrid in ten hours. I stood outside for about an hour for seemingly no reason. It’s raining right now, so I found an awning and just rested my bag up against the wall I was leaning on, taking most of the weight off of my shoulders. Once in a while, a security guard would wander outside to smoke a cigarette near the receptacle to my right, or an airport worker would pass by with a line of luggage carts, pulling them along like they worked in a grocery store parking lot. And the rain fell, and I just stood there and let myself feel my feelings. No explanations needed.
I think traveling is one of the most mindful “places” I ever find myself. Both in airports and on planes, I seem to find myself more “in the moment” than I typically do elsewhere. I find myself more content just listening to the hum of the airplane than reading or watching movies. And in airports, I’m more than happy to stare out the giant windows at the planes shuffling around each other on the tarmac. So, for me, standing just outside of the airport watching the rain was an inviting feeling. It’s kind of hard to believe, though I won’t get to see it, I’m gulping in the Portuguese air, which, unofficially, is the 20th country in the world I’ve now visited.
And yet, here I sit, at a Burger King that appears to be nearing closing time. I’ve got three hours until the clock officially clicks over into “tomorrow”, which means I’ve got to find a place for myself for a while before I can officially check back into the airport. How will this next trip through security and immigration look? Will anyone even glance at my passport since I’m traveling within countries that exist within the same borders? I think I’m shaken a bit by the expansiveness of this whole human existence. I’ve left my friend behind in Africa once again and I’ve got a journey ahead for myself now that I’m not entirely sure about how it will shape up to be, who will be a part of it, what the timeline will look like, what it will entail, etc. That’s a little intimidating to think about. And then, of course, not being able to rest properly tonight will keep me on my toes.
I do have hugs waiting for me at the end of this traveling ordeal when I arrive tomorrow afternoon though. This is something that is keeping me going. Some of my people in the capital city have already contacted me and I hope they’re prepared for me to squeeze them so hard that their heads pop off!
Until then, there’s just something about international security that rattles me now that I’ve worked so closely with refugees. There’s a sadness that lurks between the eyeballs that stare at you through the glass booth and the hurried traveler on the other side. If I get confused in airports (which have signs clearly labeled in English just below the Portuguese!), how are other people suppose to pass through here as cool as a cucumber?
Okay, that’ll have to do it for this rant. Here goes nothing, ten hours in Lisbon, then a 6:30am flight to Madrid where I’ll change planes before boogying onward.
Check your privilege. Count your blessings. Shed some gratitude.