When I was in eleventh grade, I went to a small, nondescript office in Connecticut to get my passport. The passport was issued on November 19, 2002, with a ten year validity. In other words, about a week ago, I realized, “Holy shit, my passport is about to expire!” I still have a month, yes, but with six weeks of winter break on the horizon, and me trying desperately to get on a Birthright trip, or at least book it to Honduras, I came to the conclusion that I should act fast.
I go to the US Travel Bureau website: Apparently, it’s as simple as filling out a form online, getting a photo taken, writing a check, and sending all that, along with your old passport, to the government, where they’ll happily issue you a new one.
Forms I can do. Photos are my forte. I don’t mind parting with a little of my hard-earned cash for the privilege of future travel. But wait. Excuse me. Did you say YOU WANT ME TO GIVE YOU MY PASSPORT?
Just as there are many ways to measure a year, there are countless methods of creating travel memories: Pictures, souvenirs, spider bite scars, lung x-rays, hospital bills, pregnancy scares, new languages, broken marriage proposals, failed relationships, recipes overheard and scrawled on bar napkins. You can buy patches and postcards, or write a journal entry in every airport, train station, bus terminal, and taxi. You can tape receipts into notebooks, peel off beer bottle labels, hoard pamphlets, organize strange European business cards in a Muji business card organizer. You can buy jewelery in markets and wear it under your clothes so you’re always connected to lands afar. Tattoos. Tunics. Turbans. Photo albums, collages, scrapbooks. Traveling is something you will never forget, but it’s infinitely enjoyable to have these triggers of specific moments on a trip.
But for me, at least, while I love all of my crazy photos, cheap string bracelets and spider bite scars (Morocco, 2008, forever stuck with three creepily symmetrical circle scars on my right elbow), my favorite souvenir has always been my passport. It’s a compact, concrete testament to everywhere I’ve ever been, and it’s the way I was able to get there. More than a Mastercard, this specific blue rectancle was everywhere I wanted to be.
The first trip I took abroad, the reason I got the passport in the first place, was to Nice, Avignon, and Paris, with my high school French teachers and a group of twenty or so students. I don’t remember what kind of clothes I brought, but I assume very specific outfits were chosen. Ditto for when I moved to Paris to study in 2006. I do remember wearing a black Gap bathrobe on the plane, as well as giant sunglasses. When you first start traveling, you want to cultivate a look, you want to be someone abroad. With every subsequent trip, though, you pack less and less, realizing that the only thing you ultimately need is that passport (though I’m still a proponent in looking fabulous while foreign-frolickingly; I just think you need far fewer articles to do it that I used to).
I love rifling through the pages and thus my memory bank. Page 9, my student visa: I remember running from class at Hunter to the French Embassy to get it, with stacks of paper proving I wasn’t going to work, four family members’ bank statements needed to attain the amount they required your funds to be. Page 18, the British Virgin Islands: I went to work for three days as a part of a juggling/unicycling troupe and in the stamp it specifically says “Employent Prohibited”; we were terrified. Nine stamps in and out of Mexico, with car, bus, and plane icons on all the different locomotions. Page 22, the deep red stamp from Morocco that bled through onto page 21, tiny Arabic squiggles. The front and back covers, plastered with my luggage tickets and security stickers so you can’t even see the golden eagle on the front anymore.
I learned that if I report the passport as lost or stolen, I can keep it. I also have to go to a passport office, which are often in USPS offices. I have to wait longer, and pay more. Is this tiny square really worth all the trouble, especially when I need to passport sooner rather than later? As someone who allegedly values intangibility, the value of memory, and, above all, the power of the written word to recollect our experiences any more than an arbitrary entity ever could? I write what happens to me, methodically and obsessively document all experiences, here and abroad; the passport should, ostensibly, mean nothing.
Maybe I’m crazy, and this is the beginning behavior of a hoarder. But I do find it incredible that I’ve managed to hang on to it, never misplaced it for one second. This coming from someone who has lost countless debit cards, broken cell phones, misplaced many articles of clothing, gotten cameras stolen, and cash physically pulled out of her bag (forcefully, Guate/Mexico border, 2012). When I’m traveling, I’m on a high that things don’t matter. The only thing that matters is me and that passport.
Also inherent in this is the fear that I will never travel anywhere ever again. I’m in grad school, which doesn’t lend itself well to motion or external exploration, and while I’m all about diving inwards and reading and becoming a brilliant intellectual, the reality of grad school is I’m in class for 5 hours a week, of which I spend half on kayak.com checking flights to Rome and Roatan. What if I get a new passport and don’t fill it up? And it’s not about vacationing and filling pages, but what if all the human growth of my life has already happened? Were those the golden years? Am I drifting, choosing a life that’s comfortable but not what I ultimately want? Did Jack Kerouac go to grad school???
I know the new document will be the beginning of something bigger and better, an incoming 10-year period of travel informed by all prior voyages. It’s the potential to learn Arabic, to go to Israel, to travel India, to go from Mexico to Argentina (for two years, in two years). It’s going to be going back to Paris, and hitting Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. It’s Southeast Asia, it’s Australia, it’s everything I wanna do and more.
It’s bittersweet, but I’m going to send it in. I’ve also taken pictures of every single ink-marked page, which I plan on Instagramming and printing and laminating and framing. For curious eyes, here’s my life in photographs.
Viajamos por viajar.
Bendita sea en tu viaje.
Je ne suis qu’une fille du port; une ombre de la rue.
(Milord, Edith Piaf)