“You have your passport number memorized?!”
It took a moment to realize the person in the next seat over was speaking to me, and another moment to consider that my answer might seem a bit pretentious. “Write it often enough,” I grinned, “and it becomes easy.” He smiled back at me, shook his head, and returned to filling out his customs form. In my own mind I lamented that he didn’t have his passport number memorized…
In one of my all-time favorite movies, It’s A Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s character George Bailey proclaims that the three greatest sounds in the world are anchor chains, train whistles, and airplane motors. George Bailey dreamed of seeing the world, and would not be content to simply read about it or listen to the stories of others. He wanted to taste the spices and flavors himself, to view the sights he had only heard about, and to leave his own footprints on distant shores. While George Bailey was denied his dream, I suspect he would have been able to reach into his pocket and pull out his passport at any time if asked.
Travel is one of the primary reasons I love my job so much. It isn’t a necessary evil required to get me from place to place, but is instead a part of the adventure. Each time I pull my passport from the desk drawer in preparation of another trip I am reminded of the places I’ve been, the experiences I’ve had. The colorful ink stamped on its pages document the life I have been fortunate enough to live; the blank spaces serve as incentive to live more fully.
For the “tourist” a passport is simply an official document, something not quite understood, but rather to be guarded, protected, or displayed upon demand. At the end of the vacation the tourist puts the passport into a safe or drawer, and gives it no more thought until another vacation forces him to find it once again, and to wonder if it’s even still valid.
For the “traveler” however, a passport is something much more. It is a personal statement that he is free to roam the world and safely return home again. It is a personal history book filled with rich experiences and voyages. It is the proof that he is not just a “tourist.” The passport is a faithful companion and friend on life’s adventures.
My own passport does not ride around every day in the pocket closest to my heart, but it has become that faithful companion. Even if a passport is not required to travel domestically, it is still my preferred form of identification. I smile to myself each time I lay the little book on a ticket counter, or show it to a gate agent as I board an aircraft. It is a both a comforting ritual of travel, and a thrilling reminder that I am still in motion.
A few years ago I found a passport cover in a leather goods shop. Made of soft black leather and embossed with the official seal in gold colored ink, it somehow seemed to personalize my passport in a greater way. Since my passport was often shoved into a hip pocket or stuffed into carry-on luggage the risk of damage or destruction was a constant threat. Now, instead of a stiff paper cover that was easily wrinkled or torn, the durable leather could stand the challenges of adventures in a foreign land. At the end of the ten-year cycle when the official document inside was changed, the jacket would still be the familiar friend I pull from my pocket, complete with its travel-worn scars and scuffs.
Sadly, in our modern world the passport will no doubt soon become digitized. The solid clunking sound of a passport stamp forever adding its romantic mark to a personal chap book will be lost forever, replaced by an electronic chirp or beep. No longer will you sit for long moments gazing fondly at stamped place names smeared and personalized by the hand of someone who actually lives there, who forever became a part of your story with his or her initials. Like the post card with its exotic pictures of cities and places most couldn’t find on a globe has become a virtual memory, so too will the paper passport.
But, just as a modern jet has replaced the airplane propeller, and automobiles have replaced the horse and carriage, the sense of adventure will remain for the traveler in whatever form his passport comes. Just as I miss the scent of a real book when I open an eReader, I still have the convenience and ultimately the joy of reading. Will everyone feel the same way I do? Or will they simply shrug to the inevitable and think nothing of the changes as they come?
Perhaps until the time an app on my phone replaces it, I will continue to smile each time I use my passport. I will cherish the feel of its leather cover and the sight of ink-smeared stains on its pages. The empty spaces won’t fill fast enough, and time will continue to move too quickly to allow me to fill them all as I would wish. And I will smile broadest when I reach the gates of heaven at last and hear Saint Peter call out “Passport, please…?”