My thoughts on the U.S. when it comes to travelling
The normalcy of international travel in Qatar
My experience with country-hopping in Qatar
My feelings about opportunity, travel, preparedness, and anxiety
Turtles can be travel savvy too, yah know.
This is going to be a very short post, you guys, about a topic I’m clearly passionate about. What topic, you may be wondering?
Not just any travelling, though. This post is specifically about the ability to country-hop in Qatar as an exchange student. It’s one of the things I didn’t expect, but wound up doing twice, and if I can fandangle it, I’m sure you can too.
Reflections of the U.S. when it comes to travelling
Compared to the other half of the world, Americans have a different habit and outlook on international travel, and I’d like to think there are a few reasons for that:
Geography. The U.S. is big. A nonstop flight from New York to California is about 6 hours long, while a flight from Egypt to England is about 5 ½. When your country is a big as the U.S., seeing the opposite coast can be as much of an adventure as seeing another country.
Time. Most of the world’s countries are an ocean away from the U.S. and crossing that ocean typically takes at least 8 hours, not including all the unavoidable connecting flights and obvious differences between how far a country literally is from where you are in the U.S. Even though in the grand scheme of things 8 hours is an incredibly fast when it comes to crossing an ocean, Americans—and maybe just humanity in general—are often turned off by the idea of spending that much time on airplanes and in airports. It’s an understandably exhausting experience.
Money. Because over half of the world’s countries are quite far from the U.S., plane tickets to get there and back are almost always $1500 and up.
Isolationism. The U.S. is awkwardly isolationist when it comes to being aware of what the rest of the world is doing. It’s the reason why there’s rarely international music played on U.S. radio stations, why many Americans had never heard of Eurovision, why international soccer tournaments can come and go without a single advertisement, and why the option of attending university abroad doesn’t cross advisor’s minds when talking to graduating high schoolers.
Then you’ve got to think about the relationship between specific groups of Americans and travelling. Let’s be real: Practical things (like money) and social things (like the kinds of people we think of as travelers) are just two reasons why leaving the country isn’t on the mind of a lot of Americans. African-Americans, for example, are still recovering from that whole 400-years-of slavery thing, which means that world travelling isn’t yet financially feasible for much of the community. Then, from a social standpoint, African-Americans don’t have a recent history of adventuring too far from where they were raised (again, because of slavery), so—as odd as it feels to say—we kind of forget that the world is bigger than the U.S., and we forget because there’s usually no one around us (or in recent generations) who has travelled outside the country. Then, even in fictional scenarios like books and movies, people of color aren’t the ones we see represented in international adventure narratives.
Of course, there’s a lot more I could talk about and a considerable amount of nuance to be highlighted, but I trust you get what I’m saying. America is weird, and at times complex, when it comes to our presence in the world stage, and I think my experience with this as an American and an African-American played a huge part in my decisions, desire, and ability to country-hop while in Qatar.
The normalcy of traveling in Qatar
In Qatar it was so normal to meet people who were physically, mentally, and emotionally accustomed to travelling. What I mean is, many people were used to flying on planes, familiar with all the processes & paperwork involved in travel prep, and who naturally felt that travelling was something easily accomplishable. I kept running into people who’d nonchalantly say things like, “Oh yeah I forgot I went to the Maldives last year,” or “Why don’t you go to Oman for the weekend?” or “Yeah, we spent Christmas Break in London,” with a dismissive shrug. In many ways, international travel was like a norm in Qatar and I think there are lots of reasons for that. To name a few:
Lots of people in Qatar have money, and money means you can travel anywhere anytime
Most of Qatar is expatriate, which means they’re living away from their passport country. This means that they’re naturally going to hop back and forth between Qatar and their home country a few times.
Qatar is geographically close to a lot of other countries. 5 hours from Greece, 7 hours from England, 9 hours from Japan, etc. All these things make it insanely easy to travel abroad while abroad.
All that said, I traveled to 2 other countries while I was in Qatar
At the Corniche one night in Doha
VCUQ always offers at least one international service-learning trip every semester, as well as departmental field studies (though it rotates through each department every semester). I wound up on the Greece spring break service-learning trip and my presence on that trip was a combination of celestial energy shining in my favor, preparedness meeting opportunity, a right place/right time scenario, and just a smidge of blind luck. See, the whole reason I was able to attend the trip is because two students dropped out last minute and in order to fill those spots, the department needed people with U.S. or European passports (because those passports didn’t need a visa to enter Greece). Ultimately, the only things I ended up paying for was overpriced food, snacks, and tchotchkes, an epic deal considering the full price of the trip was about $2500.
The other country I went to while in Qatar was Turkey. I left in late April (after finishing all my work early and getting my teachers’ permission to miss class for a week) and returned in early May before Senior Showcase and graduation. This trip was essentially a vacation—my first ever vacation—and the trip was so doable, three out of four of us exchange students visited the country during our stay in Qatar. Tickets were reasonable, the flight was short, AirBnB’s were affordable, and food & souvenirs were hella cheap. I went with a friend and we essentially just split the bill.
The only thing missing from this collection are my passport and another ISIC card. Student ID’s, International ID’s, and National ID’s get everything done (including discounts at museums abroad!)
I know, it can be intimidating
Qatar was only the second country I’d ever traveled to and at times it felt a little overwhelming to be a novice traveler, a broke student, and a black American surrounded by people who had essentially been worldly travelers since birth. To add, I typically don’t make big decisions—like country-hopping—unless I feel 100% prepared, but when these unexpected travel opportunities popped up while I was in Qatar, I had to allow myself to pursue them without my usual level of obsessively thorough preparedness. My awareness that I’d be back in the U.S. in less than four months with no inkling of when I’d ever get the chance to travel again also inspired a sort of “do it while you can” anxiety, and that anxiety manifested into snatching up whatever international opportunity came my way.
That said, though, it’s undeniably not easy to turn anxiety, fear of regret, and concern about the future into international adventure fuel. Let me tell you, though: As I write this, I’ve travelled to five countries in two years and each of those experiences had a lot to do with simply talking to people. Talk to people about the opportunities themselves, but also talk about the parts you don’t feel fully prepared, be it financial preparedness, emotional preparedness or even just logistics. If you just so happen to be at VCUQ, there are lots of people who will be more than willing to help you out and make things happen.