Goodbye Passport: The Demise of a Faithful Travelling Companion

The single most disgusting thing I have seen travellers do over the years – in every airport, on every continent, people of all ages, men and women alike, from every country imaginable – has been to shove their passports in their mouths as they use both hands to find their damn boarding pass. Come on, people. Stop and think about where your passport has been. You might as well stick your tongue out and go lick the handrail of an escalator.

The stamp from Turkey (May 2008) is the most colourful of all, and the most expensive. As I stood in line to get my visa I was stunned to see that Canadians paid the highest amount of all foreign nationals for visas to enter Turkey: 60$ US. It seems that the Turkish government was not happy that the Canadian government officially recognized the Armenian genocide as just that, a genocide. That was one reason, at any rate.A well-used passport is a skeletal travel diary. The places are there, but none of the stories. Each stamp exudes a memory, or rather a multitude of memories of the locations visited, the people encountered and the (often) tedious wait at customs to get through. (Mental note: avoid JFK airport in New York at all costs.) My passport is a reflection of the last four and a half years of my life. If a stranger were to pick up my passport and flip through its pages, they would quickly figure out that I did not go on fun and sun vacations, nor was I a businessman globetrotting to financial hubs to seal deals. Stamps from Iraq, Malaysia, Lebanon, Israel, Morocco, Senegal and Indonesia might leave the person wondering what the hell I did for a living.

The one from Iraq (November 2009) is the most unique in the collection. Landing in Kurdistan at four in the morning after three consecutive flights from Jakarta, I passed through a brand new airport that was infrequently used, and unsurprisingly quiet. With a sufficient dose of paranoia about landing in Iraq, knowing that I had additional insurance to cover my death in case of a terrorist attack, I was reasonably, but needlessly, spooked.

Ouagadougou (January 2011): it would be impossible to forget landing at night at a tiny airport that had been under construction for over a year. Dirt floors, no electricity, and airport employees with no idea what they were doing contributed to a sweaty and chaotic scene that brought back memories of the vibrant, alive, and utterly disorganized Africa I loved and loathed. The welcoming party of several friends, patiently waiting in the dark, made everything all right.

And of course there was Indonesia, several times over the last five years, each visit consuming a full page of my passport. My trips there were so frequent I could walk from the plane to the visa counter with my eyes closed. The unmistakable smell of clove cigarettes as I stepped into the terminal seeped through my nostrils and permeated my skin instantly. Perhaps owing to the frequency of my visits, I always got what I can only call a comforting feeling as I arrived at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. It’s almost as though I was coming home. When you’re travelling as far from home as you can imagine, there is no feeling that is more comforting.

I bid a fond goodbye to my last passport. It has taken me safely to places I never thought I would visit, time and time again. I’ll stash it somewhere in my junk at home, only to uncover it in a couple of years as I try in vain to tidy things. By then it will be a welcome surprise to see it again. As I flip through its pages, I’ll be awash with memories of a life that defined me. The new one’s coming in the mail next week, just in time for a new trip to a country I’ve never been to before: it’s going to be a great start.

I love my passport, but not so much as to chomp down on it and have all its germs seep through my lips. I felt a slight but unmistakable stab of sorrow and pain as my last passport had its edges cut off and the words “ANNULÉ CANCELLED” stamped on its first page. The most faithful of travelling companions, it has rarely left my sight while overseas, always carefully guarded in my front pocket by day or in a hotel safe or by my bedside at night. I never fully understood why some hotel managers insist on holding on to my passport until they can get it photocopied. Especially when the copier is broken. Fiercely possessive of my identity (which technically belongs to the Canadian government), I get more than a little irked when hotel staff insist on keeping my passport. The last time that happened turned out to be on my final trip with my passport, with the dim-witted hotel lackey at the reception taking away my passport and insisting he would need “for 5 minutes.” After half an hour, I went to collect it. “But sir, we have not photocopied it,” he said. “I don’t care. I was here three months ago, go find the copy you made then.” Hmph.

Top Questions People Ask Me about My Work (with Answers)

My business cards – used primarily as bookmarks, I freely admit – indicate that I am a Senior Education Specialist for Equitas, a human rights education NGO. It’s not quite as self-explanatory as “dentist” or “taxi driver,” and as a result I get a fair number of questions from people who ask me what I do. At least I have an easier time now than in my past job as an “information developer” for optical networks documentation. But enough about that. So here are some of the most frequently-asked questions about my job, in no particular order:

1. What do you do?
A basic question, and the answer is essentially: I write training materials about human rights, and I teach people about human rights. All this stuff is called “human rights education,” or HRE. I do a lot of work sitting in front of a computer and progressively losing my eyesight. When I’m not doing that, I’m “out in the field” offering training to different people like workers from community centres, government officials, and human rights defenders from NGOs from around the world.
2. You get to travel a lot. That must be exciting, right?
Yes and no. Last time I counted, over an 8-year period, I had spent the equivalent of 30 days or almost 750 hours waiting for connecting flights in airport terminals, taken over 300 cramped or really cramped airplanes, and throughout it all only flown business class once because I had enough air miles and got lucky. The rest of the time, air travel is uneventful, uncomfortable, tedious, and exhausting.
That was the No part. The Yes part is obvious: visiting so many countries is a fantastic experience.  I’m tremendously thankful for having the opportunity to see so many people, cultures, places, and different ways of life – it’s the kind of stuff that makes me more appreciative of our diversity and the life that I have.
Switching back to the No answer, the truth is I spend most of my time in a hotel. Back in Turkey in 2008, I did a mental calculation of the percentage of time spent during my trip in the hotel (either my room, the workshop room, the lobby or the dining room), and it amounted to 97% of my trip. 
3. Don’t you feel guilty using Canadian taxpayers’ money to travel overseas? Can’t the people you train do this work themselves?
OK, that’s two questions, but still closely related. No, I don’t feel guilty. When I look at the huge amount of money that is wasted here in Canada by people who spend their lives hoarding money and needlessly buying things in self-indulgent fits of mass consumerism, I have no problem spending taxpayers’ money (which includes my own) to help those who need help in other countries. Besides, the operating budget of my NGO is infinitesimal in comparison to the profit margins of multinational companies – our work costs relatively little. 
But the benefits for those who receive our training is significant. This is not my opinion – this is coming from the people we work with (overseas but here in Canada as well). I have always maintained that I want to eventually work my way out of a job. For me, that’s a sign that “capacity building” has been built and “empowerment” has led to empowered people. In some places, notably the Middle East and Indonesia, I felt I have done just about as much as possible with some of our partners. They have the same skills we have and their need for our help is not nearly what it was a few years ago.
4. What’s the most dangerous place you’ve been to?
You know, talking about human rights can only keep some people interested for so long, then pffft, you lose them. That’s when they want to find out whether or not I’ve been held at gunpoint or been thrown a grenade by a terrorist or something.
The most dangerous place I have ever been to remains New York City on New Year’s Eve 1989 when a shotgun blast blew a hole out the car I was sitting in. In comparison, my life overseas has been tame. I was apprehensive in 2004 when I had to attend a workshop in Nepal and the Maoists had instituted a bandh or a strike. All shops were closed and it was not recommended that you travel by car anywhere. I got off a plane in Pokhara and took a bus with a sheet of paper stuck in the windshield labelled TOURIST. That was not reassuring.
But honestly, I have never felt in any real danger traveling because of my job. Granted, I have been to places that have seen tsunamis, earthquakes, bombings, terrorist attacks, wars, and other nasty business, but I’m always in the capable hands of a local partner who makes sure I’m taken care of. Besides, I’ve traveled to most of those places when those conditions were not in place.

5. What difference does your work do?
That one’s harder to pin down. I teach others about human rights, and they take what they learn and replicate and modify the things I taught them about. I don’t often see a direct impact of my work. Rather, I’ll have someone who attended a workshop I facilitated tell me how they changed the way they teach others. They may also tell me that the people they educate see human rights differently: they know they have rights, they know how to claim their rights, and how to defend for their rights and the rights of others. To mention a specific example, I’ve seen trainers I have trained in Indonesia facilitate workshops using techniques I showed them; in some cases, the trainers adopt my mannerisms, which is flattering but nonetheless strange to see in someone else.

Rereading that last paragraph makes me realize it’s a bit of a lame answer. There are plenty of other examples I could mention, but in the end, the value of human rights education is not something that is so easily identifiable and quantifiable in a specific moment in time. I’m not like that dentist who says your cavity is filled or the taxi driver who says you’ve arrived at your destination. The value of education is hard to measure. Education promotes change – a change in attitudes, a change in beliefs and behaviours, and a change in actions. None of these things happens quickly.

6. What’s the nicest place you’ve been to?
I try to answer that question by thinking where I would like to take my family for a vacation. Everywhere I go, friends from other NGOs invite me to come back for a visit. There are plenty of places I would love to visit again and again, but if I had the choice to pick one and only one place to take my family, it would be Nepal. From friendly people to the most awesome tea in the world to hiking in the Himalayas, there is no comparable experience.

Having said that, I can think of two friends in particular in Egypt who would be horrified to read that last paragraph. My kids love Egypt and look forward to going there someday…But let’s wait a little until things stabilize just a little bit.

7. How about the worst place?
There was a hotel in Banda Aceh that wins the award for the crummiest place I’ve been to. I went just over a year after the tsunami, so the town was recovering but still a disaster. The hotel room had a bed that was the scuzziest thing I’ve ever slept on. Used Q-tips on top of the dresser, no hot water, an air conditioner that spewed out a toxic-smelling not-very-cool air, mothballed-filled drawers that made all my clothes reek, moldy carpets and the lousiest food I’ve ever eaten in any hotel. Ironically, the hotel had a fancy elevator that spoke with a female voice in an American accent. As for the cockroaches, one word: plenty. Couldn’t even find a beer anywhere in town other than the bar at the Sultan. Even then it was as flat as the decor.

"Human rights means you respect each other. That’s it, isn’t it?"

My brother and his family came over last night for Christmas dinner. He’s a business man, I’m not. He’s a salesman, I teach people about human rights. Our views on many things are as opposing as they come, our outlooks on life equally different. I showed him a human rights handbook I worked on. He flipped through it, liked the look, but wondered how the hell you could write so much about human rights (the book was about 200 pages). He looked up from the book and stared at me, saying simply, “I don’t know why you need to write so much about something that’s common sense. Human rights means you respect each other. That’s it, isn’t it?”

Yes. A simple question deserves a simple answer. A cursory glance at some of the headlines over the past year is enough evidence to show you that the common sense approach to human rights is not evident. The world’s poor reaction to the humanitarian crises following the earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan, China’s reaction to Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize, the continued violence in Darfur or the Congo or [insert country/region of choice here, no shortage of options], election violence in Côte d’Ivoire…the list goes on. Granted, there have been advances in human rights this year, with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi being among the most notable. But looking at the global picture of human rights can leave you wondering why we’re doing this to ourselves.

As a human rights educator, thinking about the advances and the setbacks we’ve faced in respecting human rights leaves me filled with (almost) equal amounts of hope and despair – hope does win out, as it does, I suspect, for most people who call themselves human rights defenders. I think what keeps the spirits up for those defenders is that they can effect change within their immediate spheres of influence – their neighbours, their friends and families, their colleagues, and the people in their communities.

When I think of the work I’ve done over the past year, I’m most grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to facilitate workshops for human rights defenders who are making a difference in the lives of others around them. In other words, to use overly dramatic make-me-gag-sappy lingo you’d see on sites like CNN, they’re heroes. The first workshop I facilitated this year was in Jordan in February, and the group consisted of everyday phys ed teachers in Palestinian refugee camps and people working for NGOs. They came to the workshop to learn about children’s rights and how to use games to promote human rights values. The work they do as teachers or NGO workers is unrecognized hero-stuff. They teach others to respect each one another – in other words, they ascribe to my brother’s definition of human rights. Take Thawrat, for example: a kind man with a gentle face making sure Coptic orphans in Egypt live their lives to their fullest potential.

Every workshop I’ve been part of this year has had its share of Thawrats: from Vancouver to Winnipeg, from Jakarta (twice) to Colombo to Kathmandu, everyone trying their best to make a difference in the lives of others. And for me, now in my ninth year doing this type of work, I have asked myself the following question more often that usual: Am I really needed – do I really need to do this job? Don’t think this is a cheap attempt to elicit sympathy from readers, it’s not. It’s a question anyone in “international development” should ask. A related statement would be: I should work my way out of a job. On my last trip this year to steamy Jakarta, I got the answer. My last meeting was with a group of people who have been undertaking their own annual human rights training program for the last three years. Now getting ready for their fourth year, they are well-prepared, aware of the work they must do, conscious of their fundraising needs, and fully capable of having a successful fourth annual program. The group consists of people who are part of my organization’s alumni and who needed my help and the help of my colleagues for the first three years. My role was specifically in assisting the group on the curriculum content of the program. I sat through the meeting doing absolutely nothing other than listen. I had nothing to contribute. They had everything covered. I felt unneeded. I had found my answer – at least on that rooftop in Jakarta, and I couldn’t be happier.

More end of year posts coming in the next few days…