I am an obsessive collector. At ten, I started collecting postage stamps, fascinated by the colorful, miniature designs and illustrations. By twelve, I was also collecting stickers; Hello Kitty, Miffy, scratch ‘n’ sniff, sparkly, and those satisfyingly tactile, puffy ones.
When I moved to NYC in my early 20s, I began to collect matchbooks, which held the same fascination as those long ago stamps. I marveled at the tiny advertisements for the restaurants they represented. I collected the annual NYC Zagat dining guides, and enthusiastically ticked off the places where I had eaten.
A decade later, I moved to Japan, where I started to collect meishi, (business cards). The intricate kanji, katakana, and hiragana strokes were, in themselves, individual works of art— typography that complimented the Japanese design aesthetic beautifully.
Over subsequent years of travel, I found more to collect; such as shells, ceramics, and Lonely Planet guidebooks, from the countries that we visited. Now, these collections transport me to different periods of my life, and act as visual reminders of fabulous holidays.
The one collection to which I never gave much thought, has been sitting in a drawer, untouched, unused, and unloved, for the past nine months. My passport. A collection of ink on paper, a sometimes round, rectangular, or oval mark, that designates a country ‘visited’.
Yesterday, I dug up my neglected passport, as we are planning a trip for the holidays. The travel industry lovingly calls it ‘Festive Season’. I‘ll bet I’m not the only one who needs a season to be festive.
My passport is about to expire. I am weirdly emotional about giving up this little blue booklet that has given me such joy over the past decade. Ten years—the life of passport.
Quotes on paper
I have carried this living, breathing, essential document through airports around the world, largely unaware of its weight in my hand. Had I really considered the access and power it provides? As I look more closely, each page holds much interest beyond the dried ink—beyond the colorful stamps.
Thirteen quotes from past presidents, poets, activists, and writers, line the top of each spread. One quote, by prominent scholar and author, Anna Julia Cooper, seemed especially fitting right now. “The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race, a party or a class—it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.” As I write, the United States is on the cusp of a new presidency, and still deep in the throes of a pandemic.
Patriotic scenes and American icons live behind the mess of overlapping stamps. The Statue of Liberty, a bald eagle, and Mt Rushmore, as examples. American landscapes are reproduced in the backgrounds; cacti of the southwest, wide, open plains of the midwest, and tropical palms of the Hawaiian islands.
My travel history
What will be a surprise to nobody who has read up to this point, is that I have saved all of my old passports. I have saved my husband’s old passports, as well as my kid’s old passports (both the US and UK versions). Something about these documents, the ones that literally enable us to ‘pass’ through the ‘ports’ of the world, seem too valuable to casually discard. They unlock history—our travel history, so to speak.
No doubt, the passport system will one day be completely automated. There may be no physical record in which to refer. The stamp will be retired in the name of technology. I will miss the stamps. I will miss the little blue booklet. I will miss certain rituals of the process. I won’t miss the lines. I won’t miss the intimidating passport control workers. I won’t miss the lines. Did I already say that?
The passport I am about to give up has had a life of its own. I open up to a random page.
The full-page visa that allowed me entry to India in 2011 stares up at me, and stories from that trip start to materialize in my mind. I remember being ‘encouraged’ to ride a camel to our lakeside dinner near Amanbaugh, the resort where we stayed just outside of Ranthambore National Park. Afterwards I said, ‘I will never ride a camel again, not ever, not even for a free trip anywhere in the world. Never’. I still haven’t. And I won’t.
Later that week, I was verbally assaulted and nearly arrested after taking a photo of a monkey on a leash. Sweat dripped from my forehead as I tried to prove the photo was deleted from my camera to the monkey’s owner. Note to self: always ask permission when photographing people, or primates, and especially people with tethered primates.
I flip ahead a few pages to the stamp marked ‘Portugal’, where our VRBO’s pool turned a putrid, neon, green over the course of the week. Ear infections all around. Thank you, Portugal!
On that same trip, our rental car was headed down an incredibly steep, narrow, winding road in Sintra, when a red light on the dashboard angrily glared at us. Not fluent in Portuguese, I googled the phrase, assuming it was something benign, like an overdue oil change.
“Atenção! Falha de freio!” translated to: “Warning! Brake failure!” Was this a joke? Were we being punked in Portugal? I froze in panic, closed my eyes, and prayed to the Portuguese auto gods. Needless to say, we lived to tell the tale. In case it isn’t clear, (and how could it be?) Portugal remains one of our favorite holidays. Oftentimes, the craziest experiences make for the best stories.
Turning a few more pages, I find the ‘Botswana’ stamp, and I immediately remember the cheetah we spotted on our first game drive, just 60 seconds after leaving the lodge. I remember falling in love with our all-knowing guide, Foster, whose soothing and calming manner made our trip so extraordinary. I think back to the safari nighttime chorus of sounds, and how I never wanted to fall asleep.
Glimpses of other past travels resurface. A levitating man in magically realistic Cartagena.The Christmas market in blizzardy Budapest. The harrowing pre-dawn horseback ride in Argentina, when I thought my daughter would ask for emancipation papers.
I think of trips that remind me of my friendships and relationships. Celebrating my husband’s 40th birthday in Punta Mita, Mexico, a six-family, expat reunion in Italy, and a couples getaway to the Caribbean islands. Stories unlocked, and retold, through the stamps.
Buckets and lists
As a travel writer, this year has presented me with some obvious challenges. I have tried to find creative ways to bridge this less-traveled gap in time. I dream up future travels. I keep a ‘Travel Lust’ list on my phone, an ongoing and hopefully never-ending inventory of places to see, stay, and go, one day.
Where do I most want to go, I thought? I referenced my trusty list—compiled from random sources, over years of reading and research. From Instagram posts, and conversations overheard at restaurants. From Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast, and Afar magazines. From the currently-on-hiatus ‘Travel’ section of the Sunday New York Times. (Hear my cry, Mr Sulzberger, please bring it back.) Gold lists, hot lists, and luxury travel blogs.
In no particular order—my current top ten. Ready? It’s good.
Katmai National Park, Alaska
Single Thread Farm, Healdsburg, California
Six Senses Zighy Bay, Oman
The Faroe Islands
Lofoten Islands, Norway
Taylor River Lodge, Crested Butte, Colorado
The Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia
Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile
Snowdonia, North Wales
For anyone counting, that was twelve. I’m not bad at math, I just couldn’t stop.
Starting a new passport in 2020 might be a good omen. Another way to start fresh, wipe the slate clean, and (literally) fill up a blank canvas. What does the next ten years, the life of my next passport, have in store?
Find your passport. Give it some love, even if you aren’t yet ready to plan a trip. Be content with a trip through your stamps, for now. There are good stories in there, and awful stories, and hilarious ones, too. Our passports hold so much more than the faded little, impressions we have amassed over the years, if we take the time to look at them in a different way.
What kind of life has your passport led so far? Where will it take you next? Imagine it. I know I am.
Thank you to Jamie Edwards from I am Lost and Found for permission to share the photograph.