Inspirational quotes are everywhere. I see them printed on postcards, posters, books, bags, mugs, stickers, cutting boards, pillows cases, shower curtains. They popp up on every social media channel, they appear in magazines, they are scribbled on toilet doors and lecture hall tables. Sometimes they make me think, sometimes the make me smile, oftentimes they make me roll my eyes and snort. Quotes related to traveling form their own little sub-category of inspirational quotes. Many of them are wake-up calls, asking people to leave their safe and boring 9-to-5 jobs and follow their dreams instead. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all, they say. In the end we only regret the chances we didn't take. Or simply: JUST GO. Printed on pictures that show the beauty of far-away mountains, deserts, forests, and oceans, they make our feet itch, invoke bitter-sweet Fernweh, make us long for what lies beyond the blue mist on the horizon.
I certainly belong to the kind of people these travel quotes are written for (and by), so for a long time, the only thing I felt when reading them was a strong urge to run away into the wild. Only a few years back, it slowly dawned to me that, though seemingly wise and deeply human, many of these quotes are extremely one-sided and oftentimes very problematic. Let's take one example, one that I was reminded of recently when one of my Facebook friends posted it. Of all the books in the world, the best stories can be found between the pages of a passport. It is a very popular one that travellers and adventurers (both actual and wannabe) love and thus share on social media. But here's the thing: whose passports, whose travels, whose books are we talking about?
I worked with undocumented migrants for a brief period during my Bachelor studies but it wasn't until I met S. that I actually realized what an absurd amount of privilege my German passport grants me. S. is a dear friend of mine and a refugee from Afghanistan. Before he finally got asylum in Sweden, he had been on an endless and exhausting journey across Asia and Europe, searching for a safe and legal place to stay. S. did not possess a passport. He had have no choice but leave it with the authorities that had rejected his asylum case. Otherwise he would have been detained and deported immediately. In fact, he possessed next to nothing. By the time we met, he was 27 and all he called his own was a bag with a few clothes. Collect moments not things. As an illegalized Afghan refugee without any documents, he basically did not exist. He lived a shadow existence in constant fear of being caught and deported. I met some of his friends and many of them faced a similar situation. These were young, kind, strong men who spoke up to 8 languages due to their oftentimes year-long journeys fleeing from war, terror, persecution, and hopelessness. While I had spent my twenties going to university, traveling, figuring out love and life, finding myself, and moving around, they had been on the road. Only that their road wasn't backpacks and hostels and beaches and romance. It was fear and hiding and hunger and deportation. They had slept in bushes, not eaten or drunken for days, run miles and miles through darkness and wastelands, lost friends and family, crossed borders clinging to the bottom of trucks. Adventure will hurt you but monotony will kill you. During that time, I read something about the infamous hippie trail and it seemed such a bitter irony that not even a decade later, masses of people would travel the reverse route in their desperate searches for better and safer lives. Life isn't about finding oneself. It's about creating yourself. So live the life you imagined.
In summer 2015, when the press was full of pictures of exhausted refugees arriving on the shores of Europe, I was living in Copenhagen, frequently traveling to Germany and across the Örseund border to Sweden. I noticed the unsually high number of Arabic-speaking people on busses and trains, in stations and waiting halls, looking insecure and confused, trying to deal with unfriendly staff, hostile fellow passengers, and decipher incomprehensible speaker announcements, bus schedules, ticket machine menues, and railway station displays. Not all who wander are lost. On their way to Sweden, hundreds of refugees stranded at Copenhagen central station. On the 10th of September, 2015, I entered the station hall to find a massive first-aid action going on there. Dozens of volunteers, most of them immigrants themselves, had set up a space for arriving and passing-through refugees in which they provided the exhausted individuals and families with water, clothing, medicine, advice, translations, and emotional support. Live the life that people write novels about.
All of a sudden, the newly-arrived refugees were no longer anonymous masses you only saw in the news. The pictures turned into real human beings that were a mere arm's length away from you. The borders suddenly became visible for everyone. The police started massive controls on trains and busses from Germany to Denmark as well as from Denmark to Sweden. Several times I witnessed people without valid documents being taken off the bus and detained by the border police. Everyone who looked at the slightest suspicious was throroughly checked and controlled. On February 28, 2016, I posted on Facebook:
Rødby, on the way back to Denmark. A Lybian man is led off the bus by the German-Danish border police. Everyone stares. The bus drivers giggle and make stupid jokes. Passing the Swedish, Danish, and German border frequently, I have witnessed this situation several times before. I wish I'd be the one to stand up and at least make an attempt to do something. I delve in my feelings of guilt, shame, helplessness and self-loath, hoping that they will help me to become a person who speaks up instead of looking away. There is a responsibility that comes with owning a piece of paper that grants us so much privilege in this world. Let's think of more ways to make use of it!
A sad attempt to make me feel better, to free myself from shame and guilt by sharing my feelings with others. My mix of German passport and female East-Asian appearance usually made the police only cast a glance at my identification. I could even get away twice with showing them only my driver's license because I had forgotten to take my passport. Other Germans aren't as lucky; just recently I read an article about a German guy with a Honduran mother who is thoroughly controlled every single time he crosses the border between Germany and the Netherlands (where he goes to grad school). Journalist Mohamed Amjahid just published a book about his experiences with racial profiling in Germany as a German of Moroccan origin. So again, privilege comes in many different shapes and shades. In my Swedish course, 80% of the students are Syrian refugees. All of them are male and well-educated and certainly used to enjoy a lot of privilege in their former lives. But now they are here, their country has been torn apart, they have lost family and friends, some of them have been wounded in the war, and they have to start over on the lowest rank of the social ladder. What would they say if someone told them: Life begins at the end of your comfort zone?
I guess it is absolutely fine to find inspiration in travel and life quotes. If I feel low or anxious, a beautiful quote can help me to get through the day as something to hold on to. But maybe we can take a step back before we claim something as a truth and at least try to change perspective for a minute. Letting go of a life and its conveniences like housing, possessions, savings, friends, security, work, and so on requires to have these things in the first place. Traveling with nothing on you but a backpack and your passport is always a challenge but how much greater is that challenge when your passport basically declares that you as a person have no worth or value to any country. The German passport ranks on the top of the most powerful passports in the world. It grants me visa-free access to 176 countries. Afghanistan? Sharing the lowest rank of over 200 countries, together with Syria, Pakistan, and Iraq. Spin the globe, wherever it stops, that's where we go.
All of the above things have profoundly changed the way I look at my passport. Metaphorically as literally. Oftentimes when I am traveling, I hold it in my hand and stare at it, this slightly tattered piece of paper, thinking of all the things it enables me to do; wondering how much many people would give for possessing this piece of paper with their name and picture on it, and how this would change their lives. I flip through its pages and look at the entry stamps from all over the world. All the countries I chose to visit. All the stamps I got without the blink of an eye. All the money I spent on these journeys. If you don't have to think about it, it's a privilege.