Oh, if our passports could talk! A quick look at the numbers and some stories and lessons behind my newly-fattened American passport.
“This is it. After this, no more.” — An American embassy employee in Berlin hands back my passport with a third – and undoubtedly final – set of extra pages.
What do you think of when flip through your passport? Countries visited? Number of visas and passport stamps? Possibilities?
When I shared my glee of getting a third extra set of pages in my passport on Facebook, a friend asked how many countries it had been through. I really had no idea. So I pulled out my passport and began paging through, counting, and recounting. My hands ran over pages thick with unremovable sticker visas, dug-in staples and stamps in red, blue, green and black ink.
A handheld travel chronicle in mixed media art.
My thoughts moved to the processes we went through to get all those visas, to gain passage — not so much the bureaucracy (that’s not terribly interesting in itself), but instead the people and the experiences and what they taught me about relationships with, stereotypes of and assumptions about the world.
This is my passport, in numbers and a handful of lessons.
My Passport in Numbers
- Pages: 96 pages (originally 24 pages, but I've had three extra sets of pages added)
- Stamps: 109
- Countries traveled through: 45 (see list of countries on left sidebar for full list)
- Visas: 23
- Total Costs of Visas: $1,616 (check out this visa cost chart for all details)
My Passport in Lessons
1. China: Who’s Rich?
“Wow, $120!? That’s a lot.”
When I expressed sticker shock at the visa window of the Chinese Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan about the high cost of a Chinese visa for Americans, the clerk responded: “No problem for you. All Americans are rich!”
The premise was absurd then. It’s patently absurd now. But dated stereotypes will always die hard.
2. Bolivia: Wait, Wait. We Are the Good Guys, Aren’t We?
On our fourth and final trip to the Bolivian embassy in Lima, Peru, I examined more closely one of the notices on the wall that outlined visa fees. When it came to visitors and visas, Bolivia seemed to divide the world into three distinct segments: good guys who get free passage, OK guys who have to pay, and the dregs, the bad guys who have to pay a bunch and cough up lots of paperwork.
The first two lists were long, encompassing virtually the entire world.
Who were the “bad guys” in the third category?
Oh, a short list, including places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Congo, North Korea, and you guessed it – the United States.
3. Bangladesh: Don’t Judge a Country by Its Bureaucrats
We applied for Bangladesh visas at the Bangladeshi Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. The worn-out bureaucrat behind the counter wanted absolutely nothing to do with us. He rejected our application (we weren’t residents of Malaysia) and wouldn’t allow a single question. He shooed us out of the way like we were flies.
Nice way to treat a couple of wide-eyed tourists who’d like to visit your country and give it some much-needed exposure.
Dejected, we looked at each other and wondered, “Do we really want to go to Bangladesh?”
We stepped outside the embassy, a little lost. Sensing that we needed some help finding our way, a man approached us and walked with us all the way to the metro station. He boarded the train with us and even made sure we got off at the right stop. He was a migrant worker, of limited English and financial means, but he didn’t want anything from us.
He simply wanted to help. He was Bangladeshi.
The world over, government officials and politicians often act one way while ordinary people act another. Thank heavens for that.
Note: Given the horror stories we've heard from people who have applied for visas to the United States, I’d ask non-Americans to keep this in mind during their next visit to an American Embassy. Ordinary Americans like us are really much friendlier than our country’s bureaucratic visa process might indicate.
4. Turkmenistan: Beyond Reputation
I was nervous about applying for a visa to Turkmenistan. My impression of the country was of one that was on the edge, where people mysteriously died in jails. So when we set off to apply for the visa at the Turkmen embassy in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, my stomach was in knots.
We climbed a long hill to a large white building in the middle of nowhere, the edge of town. We sat and we waited. Sure, we had our Letters of Invitation, our beautifully pressed dollar bills and all the other paperwork we needed, but my gut told me something would go wrong. Maybe we filled out all those forms incorrectly? What if they find out about my former employer? I almost expected to be carried away in shackles.
However, instead of facing a wall of angry bureaucrats waiting to call the secret police on us, we were welcomed with smiles and a surprising flexibility when it came to the details. We were even offered tea while we waited.
5. Republic of Georgia: First Impressions Matter
It was the ungodly hour of 3 AM. After the arrival of our flight from Riga, Latvia, we stumbled in haze of post-flight exhaustion towards the Georgian immigration/passport control desk in Tbilisi airport.
“Have you been here before?” the Georgian official asked.
“No, this is our first visit,” we replied.
The official – at 3AM no less — flashed us a smile, perhaps the biggest we might ever see at an immigration counter, stamped our passports with verve and exclaimed, “Welcome to Georgia!!”
Someone had clearly been trained. We felt a lift. We were going to like this place.
Friendliness and hospitality: the themes that carried the day in Georgia, one of our favorite destinations to date.
Next up: A few quick tips on how to keep your passport in good condition so it lives to see a 96-page lifetime.
What stories or lessons would your passport tell if it could talk?