Read Your Passport Like a Novel

I don’t know what the most exciting part of traveling is for you, but one of the moments I anticipate the most when I travel is getting a new passport stamp, whether it be on entry or exit into a new country or my current country of residence. While our encounters with customs officers may not always be brief or enjoyable, there is (usually) one payoff at the end of the questioning period: the coveted passport stamp. From entry to re-entry permits, student and work visas, temporary visa-free stamps, and other visa-on-arrival programs, our passports tell stories not only about ourselves, but about the travels and journeys on which we embark when we have the time and money. I recently filled up an entire page of my passport with visa stamps from Korea, Japan, and Singapore, and I realized my passport would have some fascinating stories to tell if it could speak. Here are some of those stories, from the first visa page.

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As I open the first page of my American passport, with its chipped cover and its unraveling sides, I begin the journey down the trail of my life for the last three and a half years. The first pages boasts a full-page Japanese student visa complete with my Afro, which was my signature style for several years during the early 2000s up until about 2012. “How did I look so young,” I always ask myself, but the second page is where things get even more interesting. Even better yet, I still don’t know how I made it in Japan when the only Japanese I knew was self-taught on the grueling plane flight from New York to Tokyo. 

There is a landing permission sticker granted by the Japanese government under its old immigration system, which basically signifies that I have permission to remain in Japan for fifteen months (in 2011-2012), but not express written permission to leave without paying for another sticker to be put on that page. Underneath that lies the proof that I went to speak to immigration officers at city hall in Tokyo’s Meguro-ku (目黒区) neighborhood to register as a foreign resident. It’s amazing how my long journey back to Japan can conjure up so many memories when just looking at a page inside of a flimsy book. Even more telling, though, is the other stamp I have on that page: a departure stamp from Narita International Airport, dated March 15th, 2011. One of the defining moments of my life up to this point is definitely the Great Tohoku Earthquake, during which I lived in Tokyo. Seeing that stamp triggers flashbacks to my frantic rush to the airport while trains were still not running on schedule. I will write about that experience in another day. This page appears to be a window into my soul for Asian travels, but it gets even better upon further examination.

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My friend Andrew and I were able to snag the elusive Canadian entrance stamp during a road trip through Montreal and Quebec City en route to Fundy National Park back in 2013! After going through a barrage of questions about drugs and alcohol, we had a short talk with customs officials and they agreed to I’ve us the entrance stamp at a small border crossing between Vermont and Quebec. The unique thing about this stamp is how the French is on the top of the stamp with English on the bottom half of the stamp. It was a sign of things to come for what we would encounter during our road trip through French Canada.

Turning to the next page, I see a myriad of stamps and staple holes, but my most prized staples come from the two Special Administrative Regions in China, Hong Kong and Macau. Last year, the authorities stopped stamping passports in these two cities, and I would be lying right now if I was happy that my passport has flimsy pieces of paper stapled to it instead of having actual stamps. Still, they make for an interesting story. I remember speaking with the authorities and asking for a stamp but they regretfully informed me that they were no longer issuing stamps. This encounter was certainly the low point of a remarkable first trip to Hong Kong and Macau. I have been back three times since and each city always gives the same piece of paper, affixed to the passport. Nothing beats a stamp, but I will settle for the stapled visas. 

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The next page of my passport conjures up memories of my marathon trip through Southeast Asia this year, with stamps from Singapore and Thailand playing predominate roles. The extravagance of the airport in Singapre coupled with the magnificent view from atop the Marina Bay Sands pool deck coupled with the tough immigration in Bangkok re-enter my mind as I look at this page.

Further down on this page, there exists a phantom stamp of sorts, an Ameriacn re-entry stamp without an exit or entry stamp in its vicinity. I went to Israel in 2011 and this stamp actually became an issue at the border crossing station in Jolan Bator, Malaysia. I was grilled by immigration about this stamp but actually ended up having no problems at the end of the day. Why is there no stamp to match up with this American one? It’s simple: Israel. At Ben Gurion Airport, I handed over my passport to the official and asked for the stamp to be put in my passport, but the official refused, and perhaps it was for the better: I may not have been able to enter Malaysia that night had there been more issues. i clung to my passport all night on the overnight train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.

 

The next page in my passport is filled with even more interesting stories, ranging from a one day junket by ferry from Singapore to Indonesia and the subsequent exit and re-entry Singaporean stamps. 

Perhaps the most exciting and elusive stamp for Americans is the special stamp I have from China, documenting that I am allowed to stay in China for up to, but not exceeding, 72 hours as a part of a new visa-free stay program the Chinese government implemented for Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. I was fortunate enough to spend a night on the Bund and a day on the town before heading back to the airport after a 26 hour layover. The view from M on the Bund immediately comes to mind. 

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The final page of stamps I have is the same photo that greeted you at the beginning of this article: stamps from Korean, Singaporean, and Japanese immigration officials. Each time I leave Japan on my work visa, I get a special stamp saying I have a certain resident status and that I am permitted to return to Japan on my visa. Seeing those reminds me of coming “home” to Japan, and also conjures up memories of my first international trip from Japan to Korea, last September, to see friends from college. I will be back to Korea again in the near future, but nothing will equal the excitement from the first time when I touched down at Gimahe International Airport last September. From the bind at customs returning from Korea this July to the relative ease with which I am usually whisked through customs in Japan, lost memories and images always come back to me when I look at my passport’s ever-filling pages. 

With an adventure to Taipei on the horizon within the next ten days, I felt the urge to flip through my passport, and my passport decided to bring back some great memories and long forgotten stores of being out on the road. Open your passport sometime and look at it. You’ll find out it is the shortest and most interesting novel you will ever read. 

What stories and stamps does your passport hold? 

Why Postcards Matter

Do you remember what it was like before e-mail and text messaging when you were younger and rushed home to check the mailbox or when out to the mailbox for your parents to check if there was any mail? I am 23 years old and I sure remember that. Of course I never received bills at that time, but it was always a rush to receive a letter and open it with a sense of anticipation. Every time I got mail or a postcard, a few questions always raced through my head: From whom did the letter come? What was inside the letter? Why did they even send me a letter?

When I was younger (and to this day) I also get similar feelings when I am posting mail and slipping it into the mailbox (all the while hoping it either a) arrives at its intended destination or b) wondering how long it would take to arrive in the recipient’s hands.

I will also readily admit that I like the taste of the seal on envelopes and even the taste of the old-school lickable stamps. I think there is something uniquely human intrenched within each of us that wants to send a real letter (or post card) instead of a text message or e-mail, and that is why I am writing this article.

Whenever I set off on international travel or domestic travel to famous or interesting destinations far from my hometown (in the United States) or in my current base (Kobe, Japan) there are a few things that I must take with me. First of all, my camera and my phone (for GPS) absolutely must come. Secondly, my passport comes along. The third thing I bring with me is a small notebook in which I keep with the addresses of my close family, friends, and a few other people with whom I exchange travel correspondence via snail mail. Other than that, all other things (except toothpaste and deodorant) are either optional or can be acquired on-site if there truly is a need.

I am sure many people think the concept of carrying an address book or list of addresses with me on my travels is quite odd, but I will explain why it is so important and overlooked. Many times when we travel, getting caught up in the moment of snapping the perfect photograph, practicing our language skills, sampling local street food, or just hustling from point A to point B allows us to escape from our troubles with work, stress, relationships, etc. That stress relief is a great thing, but one of the most important aspects of travel (at least to me) is sharing the experience with our loved ones, our friends, and others that may have an interest in our travels or experiences. Anyone can take five seconds and fire off an e-mail saying they are in such-and-such city and they are thinking of you. Even more people can take two seconds to send a text message and let their friends know they will be out of touch for a while.

Sending a post card to convey your thoughts, feelings, and emotions about your travels takes time, energy, and thought. Not everyone is willing to expend the energy to actually make a personal connection with people when you are out on the road. I find this interaction one of the best ways to truly enjoy travel and take in everything that may have flown over your head or passed by your eyes on a high-paced trip.

I always try to send postcards from interesting places when I travel. Nothing beats the response I get from people that did not know I was traveling. Receiving a postcard from somewhere like Seoul or Busan, South Korea, Kyoto, Japan, or Quebec City, Canada, truly made their day and sparked a genuine interest in travel. Their responses always focused on how kind it was to take the time to write the card and share what was happening at that moment with them. Those on the receiving end of the card really enjoy receiving the card, but the whole act of writing the card can be rewarding in itself. This came to fruition for me for the first time on Saturday  when I was writing cards to my family amidst controlled chaos in Senado Square, Macau.

My friend and I had settled down near the fountain in the middle of the tiled plaza to sample some San Miguel beer (famous Hong Kong/Macau drink) and just take in some sights and sounds when I remembered I had a few postcards to send back home. This triggered an interesting journey where I had to go to a stamp vending machine to get some stamps for my recently purchased cards due to the post office being closed on Saturday. Once we had settled back down at the Square, I finally had the chance to take in and gather all of my thoughts and transfer them to the old postcards I had purchased in one of Macau’s back alley. The most challenging thing about the whole process was figuring how much saliva to put on the stamp to make sure it would stay on the card! While the message itself would not be instantaneous, the true message and emotion of that day will certainly be evident when my family receives those cards. Everything from the cantina bar song playing in the background at the plaza to the architecture of the square to the crookedness of the lickable stamp should come alive when the recipients receive their cards in the next few days. When they read that card, see the foreign stamps, and know it was actually written where the stamp says it was, I know they will start thinking about the destination and what it is like.

I like to send handwritten letters, but the postcard will always have a special place in my heart. It helps you gather your thoughts and helps those you love truly understand what your travels meant to you at the time you wrote that card. Who knows? Maybe your card will inspire your family and friends to go somewhere, someday. I know when my parents received a card from the Turks and Caicos several years ago, my mind has been set on going there ever since.

Just remember this: The thought REALLY does count.

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Mailing a card from near Senado Square, Macau. © Erik Jacobs, 2013. erikabroad.com

To make a long story short, take a few minutes out of your trip to send a postcard to your friends and family. It will mean more to them than you can ever imagine. You might even enjoy gathering your thoughts for a few minutes.

Postcards still matter.

Back from Wonderful South Korea

I have just returned to Japan from my weekend trip to South Korea, and I must say that it was an amazing and memorable experience! I used the foreigner pass to rode the KTX from busan to Seoul so i was able to see the country’s two largest cities. South Korea is very similar to Japan in several ways but also very different at the same time. In tomorrow’s posting, I will discuss the things I liked about South Korea along with some things I did not like about South Korea.

I will also talk about how this whole trip would not have been possible if I was never involved in the International Student Association at my university. The entire trip and rendezvous with friends in Seoul as opposed to my university is truly remarkable and amazing. I often think about why we meet people during life and my trip yesterday continues to bring that question to mind. If I had ended up playing football at Temple as I had initially thought I would, my whole life would be entirely different at this time! I am certainly glad things changed.

Attached is a photo of one of the most exciting things about international travel- when you get your new passport stamps. This makes number 5 for me!

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