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Renewing a Passport Brings Back Years of Travel Memories

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Urban legends and long-held myths seem to have a life of their own. Once a particular story or notion takes hold and makes the rounds (all too easily done these days), what was little more than a flight of fancy somehow becomes cast in stone as “fact.” One such myth is related to Americans and passports. In a word-of-mouth sense, I’m as guilty of perpetuating this myth as anyone. The common belief is that the overwhelming majority of Americans don’t hold passports. I have spoken such blasphemous words myself, firmly believing them to be true. “About 90 percent of Americans don’t even have passports!” I’ve declared, leaving unsaid the part suggesting that I was pretty cool and special because I’m part of the magical ten percent who do have them.

Slight problem, though: it’s all a big, fat lie. While it’s true that Americans are woefully ignorant at times on global matters (or geography), and while it’s also true that fewer than 10 percent of Americans actually take overseas trips on any given year – perhaps the source of the myth – the actual facts are quite different. And they took only about a minute to find online. From the US Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, as of 2012, there were over 113.4 million valid US passports in circulation. Given the country’s population of 311 million, this rather dashes the claim that only a paltry 10 percent of Americans can even be bothered to get a passport.

That said, obviously what’s still a solid majority of US citizens indeed don’t hold a passport, and up until 2003, I was one of them. But I think that’s forgivable, and here’s why: Moving to Malaysia has taught me a number of things about my home country, not the least of which is that America is incredibly large. The countries of France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium could all comfortably fit inside the single US state of Texas with enough room left over to fit 30 Singapores! And Texas isn’t even the largest US state, not by a long shot. (Alaska is well over twice the size of Texas.) Up until 2007, Americans could travel easily to all 50 states, a handful of territories, the Bahamas, Canada, and Mexico – all without a passport being strictly required. For many citizens, having a passport just never became necessary.

For me, all that changed when I saw an offer in mid-2003 to travel to Bali. The island was only months removed from the horrific October 2002 bombing, and the push to get tourists back was quite desperate. So when I saw a round-trip flight from the US (on Singapore Airlines, no less) and a week’s stay at a five-star resort in Bali, all for the jaw-dropping price of US$599, I booked the trip first, and only then called the passport office!

Thus began my international travels, and last month, nearly 10 years on, I found myself at the US Embassy in KL, waiting to hand over my very well-worn passport for renewal. And as I looked at this little blue book, with nearly all of its 52 pages stamped, stickered, or signed in some way, I marvelled at how something so small could be so remarkably life-changing. Leafing through the pages, a flood of memories from the past decade seized me. My first stamp ever, at Ngurah Rai airport in Bali. Oh, there’s Singapore. A trip to Belize… yeah, I remember that tropical storm that lashed our little island all day. London, Rome, Brussels. Another trip to Bali. Oh, here’s where Indonesia started using those obnoxious full-page stickers rather than stamps. Ah… oh yes, this is when I decided I’d better get more pages added. There’s the first visit I ever made to Malaysia, back in early 2008. More Singapore stamps. Lots more Malaysia stamps. A dozen trips to Indonesia… Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta. Hey, the United States even gave me an arrival stamp on one occasion! Thailand… Bangkok, Phuket, Sadao, Koh Samui. An amazing journey to Kathmandu, Nepal. Taiwan. Guangzhou. Hong Kong. Every stamp, a story… every page, a treasure trove of memories. The last stamp in the book for Singapore, on a trip back in December, earned me a mild rebuke from the officer who calculated that I had crept into the “six months’ validity” buffer by just a few days, but allowed me to enter the country nevertheless. Another scolding on the return flight to Malaysia, and I knew the time had come. So then, with preapproval from Australia, my final trip on this passport, an enlightening year-end jaunt to Christmas Island, which I wrote about in last month’s Expat.

The final stamp in my passport was a large, red CANCELLED declaration, and with that, just under a decade of exploration and discovery was wrapped up. I’m sure if I had been told in 2003 that when it came time to renew that fresh new passport, I’d be doing it at embassy overseas where I was living and working, I’d have found it hard to believe. But here I am, and now, with my new passport, I start the next decade of travel and adventure. Where will I be when this one expires and what new stories will I then have to tell?

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Source: The Expat March 2013

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