Passport Stamps and the Stories They Tell

National Geographic Traveler recently shared a photo essay through their Intelligent Travel blog, depicting various passport stamps from some of their contributors and the stories behind them. This got me thinking about my own passport and how much I treasure the stamps inside. The US State Department must realize that travelers tend to get sentimental about their old passports and kindly return expired passports to their owners. The passport I obtained senior year of high school expired a couple of years ago and I was a mess when my new passport was sent to me without the old one. There were tears. But a call from my dad informed me that my old passport had been sent separately to my parents’ address about a week later and he was holding on to it for me. Thank goodness. I have friends who have lied saying their old passports were lost or stollen, just so that they don’t have to take the risk of sending it back to the government.

Anyway, the National Geographic piece inspired me to go through both my old and new passports and reminisce about the stories behind those rubber stamps and stickers.

photo 1My Italian Student Visa: This was the first big statement in my passport. Ten years ago I studied for a semester in Rome and will never forget visiting the Italian Consulate to get this sticker. All of my documents were filled out and notarized. I had proof of where I was staying, a copy of my class schedule, a copy of my plane ticket and a recent bank statement. Feeling very grown up, I had taken the train to the city from the suburbs and walked in the cold to the Consulate – only to find it closed. This was my first experience with the Italian afternoon siesta, a practice with which I would soon become very familiar. I spent the next couple of hours walking around Michigan Avenue and warming up in a Starbucks before heading back over to the Consulate to be the first in line. Finally the handsome Italian man behind the partition motioned me forward and I greeted him with a hearty, “Buona sera!” He cocked his head and smiled at me condescendingly, “I speak English.” A week later I picked up my passport, now with the fancy student visa and the same man wished me a “Buon viaggo.”

photo 2My “12 month” Kenyan Visa: This stamp might be my absolute favorite because everything about it is so… Kenyan. I sent away to DC for the stamp before leaving for Kenya and, as you can read, it grants me 12 month multi-entry privileges to Kenya. When I first saw the primitive stamp and compared it to the beauty of the Italian visa, I shrugged. When the immigration official at the airport first saw it he looked very confused and stamped a 3 month visa next to it. “I only have a 3 month stamp. You will need to get it stamped again in 3 months.” 3 months later I found myself in a stuffy Immigration office in downtown Nairobi arguing with the official. He didn’t care that I had already paid for a 12 month visa, he was going to make me buy another 3 month extension. Seeing as he was currently holding my passport ransom and threatening deportation I allowed him to fingerprint me and forked over a crisp 2,600 Kenyan Shillings (at the time, a little over $30.) A few months later I was reentering the country from Tanzania when the officer asked why I had two valid Visas in my passport. He confirmed my suspicions – the man at the Immigration Office had played me and was now 2,600 KSH richer.

I’ve heard many similar stories from other volunteers who were in my program – all Americans and all had sent away for either a 6 month or 12 month Visa from DC. One of them had gone so far as to visit the US Embassy in Nairobi to discuss the issue but were told that there was nothing that could be done – if we were caught with an expired Visa, we would be in trouble and risk deportation. I still have no idea if this stamp actually means anything, I think it depends on which Immigration Officer you ask, but I love it for the story that it tells.

photo 3My Egypt Tourist Visa: I love these stamps for so many reasons. First,  I have no idea what they mean. The only English words I can make out are “Egypt,” “Cairo,” and “Departure” and the rest is in beautiful Arabic. Second, I also love the idea of licking postage stamps and sticking them into my passport – it reminds me of mailing a postcard from a faraway land. And third, I love the pop of color they add to the page. That bright orange always catches my eye!

Egypt was a last minute trip for me and I enjoyed every minute of it. I traveled there from Nairobi and joined a tour through On The Go Tours. After spending the past six months living and working in Nairobi it was so refreshing to be somewhere totally different and to not have to worry about getting to busses on time, having my purse slashed (thank you, Mombassa) or getting hassled by anyone and everyone.

In short, compared to my life in Kenya, seeing Egypt with a guide and tour group was so… Easy. It was really a vacation, and a well-deserved one at that. In addition, I got to meet some fantastic new friends through the tour and even stopped over in London to see all of them on my way back to the US. This trip was a memorable one for me, in many ways it was my first reentry into the world after my volunteer stint in Kenya (I had a gradual reentry – first Egypt, then Europe and finally back home to the US.) At that time of my life, Egypt was a place of balance. It had McDonalds but it also had the Pyramids. It had hot water but it also had huge outdoor markets. It had AC but it also had camels.

photo 4My Machu Picchu Stamp: This isn’t even an official stamp, it’s something I stamped my passport with myself just inside the entrance to Machu Picchu but, like the others, it tells a story. Unlike most, my friends and I arrived at Machu Picchu by foot. We trekked the Lares Trek through the Sacred Valley and hiked/raced to the gate from Aguas Calientes the morning of April 21 in order to get admittance to Wayna Picchu and to be some of the first admitted to the park that day. It was a long, difficult trek with great friends and we were rewarded by both the journey and the destination.

My new passport is still a baby one and its pages are in need of many more stamps! Help me fill the pages and make my travel dreams come true! If I win the Biggest Baddest Bucket List competition I won’t only get to travel around the world but I will get to report back about what I see and experience – in my opinion, that is a prize in of itself! I know I’ve been a broken record lately (there are still about 3 weeks left in the competition, and I don’t plan on shutting up about it) but PLEASE vote for me!

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