Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Nothing tells the story of travel quite like an old passport. The one above was issued 52 years ago. It’s a green-covered booklet, thick with accordion-folded extension pages. It belongs to my husband Harold, who traveled his way through the sixties as a foreign correspondent in Latin America and South East Asia.
The ink stamps are a collage of colors ranging from vivid purple to faded hues of red, blue, and black. They take on every shape: circles for El Salvador; squares for Bolivia; triangles for Bangkok and octagons for Hong Kong. Although they all look important, their size varies, often disproportionately to the political heft of the issuing country. While Madrid and London are nondescript, Paraguay takes up a full page and comes with a decorative orange postage-type stamp.
For students of foreign policy, the passport is an artifact of how the world worked 50 years ago. This one carries the signature of Christian Herter, then-Secretary of State. Page four sternly warns the bearer that the passport is not valid for travel to Cuba, and that anyone who travels there (or to Vietnam, North Korea, China, “or to or in” Albania) may be liable for prosecution under Section 1185, Title 8; and Section 1544, Title 18 of the U.S. Code.  But international diplomacy is as riven with contradictions as any other field, and page five carries a typewritten addendum stating that “this passport is valid for one round trip to Cuba,” signed by the U.S. Consul in 1964 at the American Embassy in Mexico City. There is also evidence of several trips to Saigon.
Viet-Nam (sometimes, but not consistently, appearing hyphenated) may have been prohibited, but the full page visa suggests the country was set up to receive the scores of American reporters, contractors, and advisers who were associated in some way with the war effort. The big red stamp authorized twelve days in April 1968, just after the Tet Offensive. The elegant blue fountain pen annotations of a Vietnamese official hint at years of meticulous French training of colonial bureaucrats, layered like a veneer over a distinct culture suggested by those strange diacritical marks.
Entry stamps are a good barometer of a country’s stance on tourists. Some are matter-of-fact like the U.K., other countries see tourists as a Very Big Deal. The full page taken by the “Union of Burma” emblazoned with a purple coat of arms, carries an unfriendly looking 72-hour visa, with a foreboding stamp in red: “Landroute Not Permissible.” A cautionary blue stamp runs vertically alongside with the unfathomable warning: “Undertaking No. 2 Issued.”  
The passport carries ample evidence of global inefficiencies and pointless regulations. As a foreigner living for a few years in Buenos Aires, Harold had to leave the country every 90 days for the sole purpose of re-entering. Thus, several accordion fold-put pages bear a ridiculous succession of Argentine-Uruguayan stamps. There is no indication that the Uruguayan official felt put-upon by visitors who came for no reason other than to leave.
Many of the stamps were issued in airports with names that would challenge all but the most seasoned travelers to match to the correct country:  Ilopango (El Salvador), Toncontin, (Honduras); Tocumen (Panama); and La Aurora (Guatemala). The stamp for El Coco (Costa Rica) offers proof that not even airport names are permanent. By 1960 El Coco had replaced the earlier, all grass runways of La Sabana, but El Coco was itself renamed Juan Santamaria.
In some cases, entire countries have been renamed. The passport stamp for British Honduras is defunct for the country that is now Belize. The Portuguese visa for the “Provincia de Macau,” is a historical relic of a colony that was returned to China in 1999.
Land routes were a favored mode of travel for Harold, whose blue Chevrolet Impala was itself the object of still more stamps, annotations, and in one case, an entire letter typed on a manual typewriter, affixed to the passport and allowing him to enter the country, in this case Honduras, by vehicle. It did not go well.
He drove along increasingly broken roads until he came to a washed out bridge. Having no real choice he decided to drive across what appeared to be a shallow stream. This started out fine, but as is often the case with rivers, the waters were deceptively deep. Soon the car lost contact with the river bed and Harold watched the rising waters swirling up to the door. He scrambled out in the nick of time, leaving the poor Chevy stranded. 
But lengthy sojourns in Latin America had taught him nothing if not that life rarely throws a problem at you without also offering a solution. Out of nowhere, a posse of 12-year-old boys appeared. With much shouting and initially ineffective effort, they finally marshaled the organizational skills necessary to get the car to the other side.
There he sat, doors wide open, watching the water slowly draining away in the Honduran sun. The gang spread his suitcases on the grass and festooned the bushes with his clothing, while he hoped against hope the car would start. It did, and there were a few hours of triumph before the inevitable growth of mildew, mold, and rot. But time solves all. The mold blossomed, smelled appalling, and then slowly died off, leaving him a car slightly more used than when he bought it, and the passport chronicles his procession through a dozen more Latin American land border crossings in El Florido, Chiquimula, El Amatillo, Esquipulas, Huehuetenango, Cuahtemoc, and Tecun Uman.
Nothing beats the permanent fiesta of a Latin American land border crossing. All friendliness and free enterprise on the outside; all surliness and officiousness within.  Strolling musicians, women fanning elote grills with palm fronds, vendors hawking unlikely wares, and children running everywhere offered considerable entertainment value. But their presence also testified to the countless lost hours waiting in line, accommodating arbitrary rules no one could explain, waiting for staff to come back from Latin-American length lunch breaks, and arguing fruitlessly with guards whose sole purpose was to keep people out. Cynics point out that the old green passports were precisely long enough to accommodate U.S. greenbacks between the pages.
Indeed, the stamps bear silent witness to the army of officials whose job it was to issue them (or not).  For those who have ever sneered at TSA, welcome to the rest of the world, where computers and English break down and signs mean absolutely nothing. There are no rules. There are too many rules.
This is travel from another era, when international phone calls had to be booked, operators had trunk lines, and people dressed up for their flights. The very small percentage of Americans who held a passport in the sixties contributed a sense of awe to this symbol of exotic undertaking. 
No one travels like that anymore. Trips are well-researched, and every possible problem and inconvenience is anticipated and resolved in advance. There is no room left for serendipity, adventure, or chance. In an era of biometric passports, iPhones, and Twitter, seldom are travelers far from home. 
            This well-worn passport has a hard-earned authenticity. Its filled-up pages suggest the bearer may or may not have “passed without delay or hindrance,” as the front page message from the Secretary of State requests on his behalf, but every stamp on every page proves that the bearer is in every sense, a true traveler.  

1 comment:

  1. While I agree with you about the awesomeness of the passport, and feel lucky to have had a chance to examine it at length, I take issue with the assertion that there is no longer room for serendipity or adventure in the world. Sure, iPhones and twitter make us feel more connected (assuming we're traveling in a part of the world where our phones even work), but for the determined explorer, adventures are still out there. Avoid tours, take the locals' advice on what to see and do (rather than relying on Frommers) and be open to just going wherever the road takes you.