Leaving South Africa for what I thought would be the final time was tough. But boy was I looking forward to making it to Brazil – the first stop of my brief tour of South America – a childhood dream! Not only did hopping over to my third continent signify the final leg of my trip, these were countries I never had to think twice about. When the Bonderman committee asked me where I wanted to go, Brazil, Peru, and Cuba (though Cuba is not in South America) were some of the first destinations considered.
Anticipating the moment I set foot in Rio de Janeiro, I first had to layover in Dubai for 22 hours. I had no real idea about Dubai outside of the rich and luxurious images one always sees about the place. But I was optimistic and somewhat excited to see a new destination that I had no intention of visiting this trip. I decided to book accommodation for one night – sitting in the airport for almost a full day wasn’t going to work for me.
The most noticeable thing about Dubai on the ride from the airport to my accommodation was the immense presence of Islam in style of dress and way of life. Both men and women covered up in Islamic wear and the number of beautiful mosques and signs in Arabic brought me further into the realization that I was in a very different place. But I expected to see these elements – what I didn’t expect was modern development and sometimes luxury in regular areas.
Each home was like a gated villa and all around were luxury and sports vehicles on the road and lined up for blocks in residential areas. No garages, and if there were, it had no door or gate to keep the vehicles safe. Coming from where I’m from, where it’s automatic to not park your nice shit (or even your old shit) on the street if you expect it to still be there in the morning – I was shook! But that spoke to the overall safety of the place; a safety that was slightly eerie to be honest. I later learned from a Ghanaian expat that there is no crime because the UAE government is watching closely. Don’t know how true this was, but it certainly made the hairs rise at the back of my neck.
My observation at the time was brief, after all this was solely a pit stop before my final destination. I had no intentions of doing more than showering, sleeping, and preparing for the next leg of my trip the next morning. My US dollar didn’t stretch as far in the UAE, so as a backpacker nearing the end of my trip and therefore the end of my budget, I was not trying to do the most – Dubai is expensive! I think the highlight of that day was going to bed and meeting a fellow Black chica from NY in my dorm. Then it was lights out for the day.
I didn’t waste time making my way to the airport. I headed out in the dead of the night with my backpack in tow, getting lost while looking for a taxi to hail. I arrive and all is well. Sun up at this point, I get in line to finally board the plane to the dreamland of Rio de Janeiro – just to hand over my passport and be denied permission to board. I looked at the man like, “Excuse me what? I don’t understand what you are telling me right now.” He hands me over a list of countries and informs me that unlike the countries on the list, U.S. citizens cannot enter the country of Brazil without having a visa beforehand.
I was livid. Not at the man doing his job, but at myself for being careless. Over the course of my travels, I never had to apply for a visa in advance and I got pretty used to and presumptuous about being able to obtain one on site in the airport. I even had to check myself in my hot headedness because I was feeling like “The f*** you mean I can’t board the plane – I’m an U.S. citizen!” See that privilege? You see how at this moment, I was able to identify with the privilege my U.S. citizenship has brought me and continues to bring me when said privilege was no longer available for me? Yeah, I peeped that too and immediately nipped that B.S. in the bud. It was something to reflect on for sure though, and I continue to reflect on it because this realization marks the progression of a woman who didn’t even see herself as a benefactor of being an U.S. national (U.S. racism, financial inequality, and lack of world exposure at the front of reasons why) prior to this journey of world travel and self discovery. It’s a breakthrough to be proud of – to gain the ability to see and acknowledge what I could not see before.
After that horrible news and the realization that $700+ to get to Brazil is going down the drain, I spent hours fooling around with the airport staff getting my ticket and passport straightened out. Without thinking it through, I rushed to the nearest Brazilian Embassy over an hour away in Abu Dhabi via taxi, just to learn the obvious – I wouldn’t be able to obtain a visa the day of so I could get the hell on the next day. I was fortunate to be able to re-book at the hostel I was in the night before, but I rode back to Dubai salty af with a hurt wallet.
The next day was filled with me desperately trying to find a way out. I did not like Dubai. While I was excited to see a multitude of ethnicities and nationalities here (which took me by surprise) everything about the place felt fake and empty – an artificial shell of luxury with no substance, no community, nothing to keep the people happy, and nothing to pique the interest of a traveler like me who thrives off of nature, community, and the people and can care less about material luxuries and artificiality. It was a cold and expensive contrast to South Africa.
I tried everything I could think of to get on the continent of South America – with the intentions of applying for a Brazilian visa somewhere cheaper. But every place I tried either required a visa as well, required me to land in a Bonderman or U.S. restricted country, or was far too expensive to get to in such a short amount of time – cause lord knows I was trying to exit the UAE ASAP! Frustrated and saddened from coming up empty in my attempts to get to South America, I found comfort and fun with some pretty cool people in my hostel. I’d say if it were not for the friendship of two people in particular, I would have been heated and antisocial for the rest of my time there.
Salty at having to delay my dreams of Rio, I was thankful for my South African fam for welcoming me (again) and still having a bed for me, because the only option that was feasible economically and on short notice was to back track to South Africa – something I wouldn’t have had to do if I had slowed down and checked all of the details before I left. Travelers and aspiring travelers – don’t be like me. Check the damn visa requirements before hand and plan accordingly…
I never made it to Brazil, nor did I make it to South America. Funny, frustrating, but an important lesson to learn – travel doesn’t always go as planned and that’s ok. From my experience, it’s best experienced spontaneously anyway.
There’s no doubt in my heart that I will witness the ancient ruins of Peru, the beautiful city of Medellin, Colombia, the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the historical richness of Havana, Cuba. Childhood dreams. Everything occurs in due time.