Recently I was checking that one of my son’s passports was up to date, as he’s soon to take a trip. I came across mine, opened it, and realized with a shock that it expired last year. Such a revelation may be of no consequence to most of you, but having recently spent thirty-five years abroad, for me it was absolutely unacceptable. My passport is my freedom to travel. I have been living in the States for the past three years, true, for the sake of my sons, but I always entertain the notion of traveling again. This makes it imperative for me to renew it as soon as possible, even if I cannot make use of it immediately, because its presence reassures me that I have the ability to resume my journey at any time.
The present crisis reminded me of how important my various passports have been to me over the years. And yes, there have been several. Just before I sat down to write this I undertook a search through my scant belongings and came up with three other expired passports besides the present one that I need to renew. One is a passport I obtained in Athens, Greece, before this present one, and another I obtained in Rome, Italy, before that. Neither of these has many stamps, because our family lived for long periods of time without moving within these two countries.
The third old passport I have is another story. It’s from the late seventies and early eighties, and it is packed with entry and exit stamps from various countries. There is even an addition of extra pages that pulls out like an accordion, and this too is loaded with stamps. These stamps are plastered all over the pages, some sideways and upside-down, in black, blue, green, and red ink. Though some have faded and smeared with time, I can still make out others. There are stamps from the United States, Pakistan, Iran, India, Nepal, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. Yes, that passport is a treasure trove of memories, all right.
But it’s not even the passport from my past that had the most stamps in it. That honor goes to the one preceding it, the one that was stolen in Iran, forcing me to beg on the streets in Tehran for two weeks before I had enough money to replace it. I had always thought that U.S. embassies would extend helping hands to travelers in distress, but when I showed up broke and without passport, although I had a police report proving the theft, I was summarily told “No money, no passport,” and shown the door. My only other option would have been repatriation, for which they would have sent me a bill upon returning to the States; and the hell with that after I had already traveled so hard through difficult and dangerous circumstances to get where I was. Anyway, that passport, if I remember correctly, had two accordion extensions, and represented my journey through Mexico and Guatemala, my hitchhiking circuit of Europe, my first trip across the Middle East to the Indian Subcontinent and back, and my second crossing of Europe and the Middle East. Then it was in Kerman, a small town in southeastern Iran, where a Pakistani fellow traveler made off with that passport.
From the very beginning of my globetrotting I was aware of the value of my passport and the need to guard it carefully. When I realized I was going to be doing some serious traveling overseas, before I left I had a passport pouch of thin, strong, stiff leather made. It had a leather strap that fit over my neck so that my passport nestled under my armpit. The passport, along with my international immunization certificate, fit into it so well that it took effort to push it in or pull it out. Once I was jammed onto a commuter train in Bombay so tightly I couldn’t move, and when I got off the train I realized that my shirt and the passport pouch had been cut open with a razor by pickpockets, but the passport was still there. Evidently it fit in too snugly to be extricated clandestinely.
All this to say that my passports and I have been through a lot together, and without a valid passport I feel naked and constrained. In a sense I have become a citizen of the world, and I feel as at home in Greece, for instance, as I do in the United States. To not have a valid passport is an intolerable situation. Passport renewals take weeks to process, and I need to know I can take off on my next adventure whenever I have the urge and the opportunity.