Shahnaz Habib and her husband planned a Parisian getaway, a special vacation before the birth of their first child. After suggesting the vacation and booking airfare, Habib’s husband promised to handle the paperwork for her visa. In addition to her Indian passport, the application required numerous documents, including her itinerary, proof of accommodations, three months of bank statements and a letter from her employer.
“This is what my husband needed for his application: nothing,” Habib writes. “He did not need a visa at all. He could simply walk into France, straight off the airplane.”
In Airplane Mode: An Irreverent History of Travel, Habib threads her personal experience with a thought-provoking examination of the business of wanderlust. Her research comes from myriad sources and is synthesized with her own experience as an Indian woman who has traveled the world and immigrated to New York City. As she found when applying for a visa, travel isn’t a democratic experience.
After consulting with an immigration lawyer and submitting a “nesting doll of paperwork,” Habib was rejected because her hair covered her ears in the photo they submitted. Habib weaves throughout this anecdote a detailed history of the passport and how it has empowered some—namely, white people—to move about the world freely, while constraining many others. While this and other histories may read as rather academic, Habib shows us that to understand her experience is to understand the experience of people like her throughout modern history. “Our stories end up sounding like strings of bad luck rather than the result of a calculated move to stop peasants from coming to Paris,” Habib writes of the failed trip.
The word “travel” derives from “travails,” she explains. And in medieval times, that was an accurate description. But today, travel is a privilege and an industry. Tourism can help power an economy and support local people working in the industry, but it’s often at the expense of their own culture. Habib turns her attention to her home state, Kerala, which sits along the Malabar Coast of India, to powerfully depict the differences between a travel destination—lush, charming, romantic—and an adjacent, non-tourist town—all business, no charm. In doing so, she finds plenty to praise in the workaday environment.
Habib’s personal anecdotes help make this sometimes-dense history more accessible and readable because her stories illustrate why all of this matters. Frequent travelers won’t find comfort or justification for their own travel bucket lists in Airplane Mode. Instead, Habib’s analytical tour of travel’s history invites readers to engage more thoughtfully with their journeys and to consider who is and is not able to take part in these adventures.