Being Invisible in Foreign Countries

Perhaps my days of traveling abroad are numbered. Wait, no, never. First, let me say hello and I’m back from my three week jaunt through Central Asia or more specifically the Republic of Tajikistan. I’ll get to the meat of the matter on why I was there and what I was doing over the coming days, but it was a real experience to say the least.

My first two weeks strolling Rudaki, the main drag running through the capital city of Dushanbe were pretty cool. As a foreigner I stuck out as one would expect and children, women, and men all stared as I’d pass by. Even if they didn’t look directly at me I could feel the amount of effort it took for them to walk by without glancing my way burning off their being. Maybe the handful of stares I was getting had me paranoid. I started thinking everyone was starring at me. By my final days of the third week I was wishing only to blend in, to go unnoticed as I ducked into internet cafes and to be invisible on foreign streets. Was it too much to ask?

As an African-American woman traveling I never know what I’m going to get or what to expect. For starters there is very little diversity in Tajikistan and black people are an extreme rarity. (I counted 7 total during my time there.) And there are several very clear occasions were I found my presence was shocking more of the locals than their culture, appearance, or environment was shocking me. For instance:

  • During the 15th Independence Day celebrations on September 9 many Tajiks were more interested in taking pictures of my hairstyle and me than watching the show. The KGB ran into the stands where we seated to swat the young boys with camera phones away.
  • Young children chased me down the street with camera phones trying to snap my photo. (I wondered about their age and why they had cell phones anyway.)

A lot of people asked if I was African, Ethiopian, or Canadian and basically guessed anything but American. One guy I knew joked saying they probably thought I was a rapper as it’s pretty popular among the youngsters, but by that time I was just a wee-bit tired. “Okay, the freak show is over you can all move along now,” I thought. Please don’t mistake this rant for a sob story of sorts. I’m sure the same feeling comes over Caucasians trekking through Africa over periods of time. I don’t know. Does it? Have you ever been burnt out on being the odd man out in your travels?

Travel learning experience for me: Being the center of attention is swell on occasion, but no one wants to be gawked at everytime they open their front door.