Never have I been any good at remembering random numbers – but these are two that are etched in my memory forever.

No, they’re not passwords. They’re my passport numbers.

The first number is that of my very first passport. I got it in 1978 before I left for my grand adventure to southeast Asia after college. J2106773 became a mantra of sorts. I had to write that number down on innumerable forms, applications and hotel registries from the Philippines, to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal.

A guy in Penang, Malaysia stole my purse with that passport in it. It’s a long (and good!) story that I’ll share in another blog, but there was a happy ending – for me, at least. He didn’t get my passport but he DID get sentenced to three years at hard labor.

That well-worn little book – J2016773 – accompanied me through an 8-month journey that was transformational in every way. It’s one of my most treasured possessions.

My very first passport! Issued July 6, 1978.

My very first passport! Issued July 6, 1978.

My second or third passport – of about 20 years ago – provides another good story. I can’t believe I haven’t published a blog about this one: I was in Madrid on a site inspection with a very challenging client. We were walking down a sidewalk on a busy thoroughfare at 11 AM – three abreast: my local agent, my client and me. A little gypsy lady – shorter than me – approached us, begging. “Money for my baby?” We waved her off, ignored her plea, but she followed close behind. I could sense her presence just over my right shoulder. I pressed my arm tight against the purse I had slung over my shoulder. If my client hadn’t been with me, I might have gotten a bit aggressive with this woman, but I knew she could never steal anything since there was no way she could reach up and into my bag to get anything out of it.

Well … I was wrong. When I checked into the hotel later that day and went to put my document wallet containing my passport, cash, credit cards and airline ticket into the room safe – it was gone! I’ll never know how she managed to reach into my purse – which was quite deep – to extract a big fat wallet that would have settled to the bottom, while I was hyper-conscious of her presence and had my arm clamped down so hard that my biceps were hurting!

I’d always harbored a belief that people who got pick-pocketed were careless – but my attitude changed after that experience. She was good – very good.

The following morning the American Embassy efficiently issued my new passport. I recall the Embassy staffer asking me for details about what happened. “Oh, yeah, we know about her,” he said when I described the little gypsy woman. “You’re lucky she didn’t push you off the curb.” And the memory of that incident remained vivid for the ten-year validity of that passport, which had the most horrid picture I’ve ever taken. I remember looking at my reflection as I sat in the little photo-booth, commanding myself: “Relax the face – relax the face!”

Looking shocked and dismayed after the pick-pocket incident. "Relax the face!"

Looking shocked and dismayed after the pick-pocket incident. “Relax the face!”

I could have pretended to have lost that one and applied for a new passport with a better photo, but I was too cheap to spend the money for a new one. And even though it evoked a bothersome event, it makes for an unforgettable travel memory!

422069098 is the number on the little blue book I sent to the Passport Agency in Washington D.C. late last week with a renewal application. Even though it doesn’t expire until January of 2019, and even though I added pages a few years ago, there were only a couple of places for new entry and exit stamps. I carefully calculated the number of weeks I’d be in-country. I was tempted to include a current photo of my almost-bald head, but I opted to play it safe and put on the wig for the photo.

Can’t wait to break in another virgin passport!

Too many countries, not enough pages!

Too many countries, not enough pages!

I love all my passports. They’re all treasured possessions. Evidence of my journeys to about 70 different countries (so far) and access to cultures and experiences that I could not have here in the U.S.A.

I love the distinctive “whomp” (or is it a “thud”?) when they hammer that rubber stamp down on my passport – leaving an inked impression that’s mostly illegible. It’ll be in the shape of an oval, triangle or rectangle – in red or green or blue. Sometimes they’ll scribble a date or initials or some mysterious code.

Although passports are now issued with biometric chips and other newfangled technology, I hope they never discontinue those seemingly archaic passport stamps. It’s fun to flip through old passports, recalling places and precious travel memories!

And here’s one more stolen passport story:

A few years ago, a client arrived in Istanbul and – along with his wife – presented their passports to the Immigration Officer. The guy did his usual scanning, typing, and stamping, and then pushed the passports, tucked into her leather passport wallet, back to them. A couple of days later, at the cruise ship terminal, they were preparing to board a small ship we had chartered to cruise the Aegean. Since our first port of call was in Greece, they were technically leaving the country and so an Immigration Officer was stationed in the Terminal to handle exit procedures for all our embarking passengers.

At this point, Ken realized his passport was missing. They tore apart their carry-ons and luggage. We contacted the transportation company to scour their transfer vehicle.

No luck.

Everything was explained to the Immigration Officer at the terminal. Ken would obviously need to apply with the American Embassy for a new passport. Except there was a problem. When they ran his passport number in their computer system, it was determined that he had not ever legally entered the country!

These are the times when our careful selection of a local agent to support our operations is invaluable. Mehmet spoke at great length to the Immigration Officer. At times his voice was loud and insistent, at other times, hushed and discreet. The Captain of our cruise ship was summoned. Apparently, there was talk of deporting Ken, possibly even arresting him. By now, it was obvious that the Immigration guy at the airport had stolen the passport. It was not tucked inside his wife’s passport wallet as they’d assumed.

I’m not sure if Mehmet insinuated to the Immigration Officer that his colleague at the airport had stolen Ken’s passport. I’m not sure if any Turkish Lire or Euros or American dollars changed hands. All I knew is that there was a LOT of conversation and a lot of anxiety about what might happen.

Finally, there was agreement. Ken would be allowed to board the ship and leave the country. But he would be blacklisted and not allowed to enter Turkey for six years. He was to disembark at the first port in Greece and fly home from there.

Well – it was certainly preferable to being thrown into a Turkish prison or deported from the country. And it was a pity that they were unable to enjoy the week-long cruise they’d planned. But they spent a few nights in Greece before flying back to the U.S. – and they now have a great story to share at cocktail parties. Needless to say, they have NO plans to ever return to Turkey.

Moral of this story: before leaving the Immigration counter (or any place where you’ve presented your passport), double check that you have it!

A few more tips and comments:

  • Make sure you apply for a new passport well in advance of its expiration. Most countries will not permit a traveler to enter unless the passport is set to expire at least six months after the final day of travel.
  • You can no longer add pages to an existing passport. But you can choose between 28 pages and 52 pages (no extra charge!) when getting a new passport.
  • Passport books (for adults) are valid for ten years. Cost is $110, plus a one-time Execution Fee of $25 for first-time applicants.
  • Passport cards can be used when crossing borders by land or by sea (not air) to/from Canada, Mexico, The Caribbean, and Bermuda. Cost is $55 for 10-year validity.
  • You’re not supposed to smile for your passport photo. (But remember to relax the face!)
  • Passports are prized by thieves and pickpockets. Don’t carry them around more than necessary. Keep them in your hotel safe.

And finally . . .

The percentage of Americans who have a valid passport book, according to recent State Department statistics, is about 46%. If you don’t have a passport, get one. And then use it! The world is waiting!!

This map has a striking similarity to the red/blue maps from the 2016 presidential election. No coincidence . . .

This map has a striking similarity to the red/blue maps from the 2016 presidential election. Coincidence???