Traveling to every country on one of the worst passports in the world

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Maliha Fairooz said her first memory of traveling was from Bangladesh to London when she was four years old. 

“Most kids, when they’re on an airplane, they’re crying and throwing tantrums,” she said. “But not me — I was so excited. I remember flying through the clouds, looking down at the sky and thinking ‘I’m basically a bird.'”

She’s just as excited to travel now, she said.

Fairooz has traveled to 102 countries and is more than halfway toward her goal of visiting every country in the world.

But the reason she won a NomadMania Award in October is that she’s made it this far with a Bangladeshi passport, ranked the eighth worst passport globally in the Henley Passport Index

The Bangladeshi passport only allows visa-free entry to 40 countries. In comparison, Singaporeans, who hold the top passport in the ranking, can enter 193 countries without a visa. 

Fairooz has traveled to 102 countries and aims to visit almost as many more.

Maliha Fairooz

That makes traveling much harder, with more red tape to manage, she said.

For example, before Fairooz could apply for a visa to visit Kyrgyzstan, she needed an official letter of invitation from a travel agency in the country. To get the letter, she had to buy a travel package with a Bangladeshi travel agent first.

Then she waited five to six weeks for her visa to be approved, she said.

At 16, Fairooz left Bangladesh with her mother and lived in various parts of the world, including East Africa and the United Kingdom. She now resides in Berlin and works for a human rights and democracy non-governmental organization.

Traveling as a woman of color

For her, a major challenge she faces while traveling is the stereotype that Bangladeshis are illegal immigrants, she said, pointing out that countries with stronger passports tend to be wealthier, which adds to the mindset that those travelers are explorers and adventurers.

There are also many challenges that solo female travelers endure, Fairooz said, but it gets even worse when one’s nationality is added to it. 

Fairooz won a NomadMania Award in October for being so well traveled despite having a passport that opens few doors.

Maliha Fairooz

“I’m extremely privileged — in terms of class, education and financially,” she said. “In spite of all these things, people still see me as a number or a statistic.”

Fairooz said one of her most traumatic experiences while traveling was being detained in an airport in the African country of Cape Verde. 

Even though she had the required visas and paperwork to enter, she said officials didn’t let her enter after they saw her passport. According to her account of the incident, the authorities threatened to deport her to Senegal, where she had come from, even though she no longer had a visa to return.

CNBC reached out to Cape Verde’s tourism authorities but did not receive a response. 

“The reason they gave me was that nobody would travel there for just three or four days, even though they are just a small island,” she said.

Maliha Fairooz in Ghana.

Maliha Fairooz

Fairooz said she was detained for 17 hours. Officials finally let her go after her mother, who works for the United Nations, contacted the U.N. office there, she said.

“They gave me a really difficult time,” she added. “I was extremely traumatized.”

The anxiety and feeling of being trapped in a cell was a horrifying experience, Fairooz said, adding that she’s now afraid whenever she goes to an airport.

Still worth it?

However, bad experiences haven’t stopped her from traveling.

Fairooz said she believes her positive experiences outweigh the negative.

“There’s just so much beauty and kindness and generosity in this world, and I feel so privileged to have been able to connect with so many people from so many places,” she said. 

Maliha Fairooz in Slovenia.

Maliha Fairooz

“I travel when nothing’s happening in life to make something happen in life, and I travel to disconnect from the world,” Fairooz added. 

Some people save money to buy a house or a car, but not her.

“I get paid better working as an expat than I would be if I lived in Bangladesh,” she said. “So whatever money I make, I spend almost all of it on travel. And it’s the best.”

Her advice for those who want to travel the world? Start somewhere. 

“The daunting thing we do to ourselves is to set this goal, and from the beginning this goal is such a terrifying thing,” Fairooz said. “But start somewhere small — travel within your country alone, travel to nearby countries, and then you will slowly build up the courage to do more.”

“Surround yourself with people who care about you and who also believe in your goal,” she added. “That will be what keeps you going as well.”

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