On a Passport Pilgrimage | GeoEx
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On a Passport Pilgrimage

By Don George | September 8, 2022

GeoEx Trip Leader Don George's passport collection

September 5; Piedmont, California—A month ago, I said goodbye to my passport. It was a painful parting, and as I saw it off, I felt like I was sending a part of myself with it. I realized how attached I had become to that little blue book, how deeply it had become woven into my life and my sense of who I am in the world. It had been my dependable companion on dozens of worldly adventures, and at home, it was a magical portkey that could transport me around the globe.

So why was I sending it away?

Early in August, I noticed that my passport was expiring next March. I knew that passport renewals were taking many weeks, and that I would have to send my passport to the State Department in the renewal process.

Looking at my calendar, I realized there was only one stretch of time when I would be home long enough to be separated that many weeks from my passport. And that stretch was right in front of me. I had to put my precious passport in the mail now; I had to let it go.

On the same day I mailed it, I was morosely poking through old papers in a box in my garage when I discovered two prior passports. These weren’t my oldest passports—my first trip abroad was in 1974, and these passports dated from 1993 and 2004—but still, this discovery felt like a consolation present from the universe. I held them in my hands with a sense of wonder, then placed them in a desk drawer reserved for special treasures.

Weeks passed. Eventually my new passport arrived, slick and shiny, and then, a few days ago, my old passport came home! Welcome back, old friend!, I thought, and placed it carefully with the others in that special drawer. Once again, I felt complete.

Today, with nothing planned and a month of no travel ahead of me, I have spontaneously decided to embark on a passport pilgrimage. Who knows where I’ll go?

I open my treasure drawer and lift my oldest passport out like a sacred object. It has a green cover and is dated November 4, 1993. Three decades ago! I gaze with some longing at my photo—fewer wrinkles, more hair—then gingerly begin to leaf through the pages.  

The very first visa is a full-page, red-and-cream-colored stamp from Australia, dated 28 Oct 1994.

Australia visa

That sparks a memory, and I retrieve the backpack where I keep all my old journals—easy to grab in an emergency—and rummage through them until I come to Note Book #7, where I find this entry:

November 4, 1994; aboard Qantas Airways #100 en route to Melbourne, somewhere over the PacificAmazing sunrise: indigo to light blue to pale lemon to peach blush to blood orange, a veritable tropical fruit punch in the sky. And if you scrunch down and look up as far as you can, where the indigo deepens and deepens, you can still see starsan amazing sunrise.

And in the time it has taken me to write these words, it has changed. The band from lemon to orange has doubled its size, revealing an infinite new spectrum of gradations, from the palest yellowa frail flower blossom colorto a glowing ember orange.

The sun paints this masterpiece every day, but how rare it is to have the time and perspective to appreciate it. A daily miracle.

This is one more reason why I am a travel junkie. That’s the only way I can explain my presence on this plane: When Lonely Planet invited me to participate in their 25th anniversary celebration, of course I was honored, but what really kicked in was my wanderlust. A ticket to Australia? For four days? Of course I’ll come! How could I not?

And so here I am, somewhere above the Pacific’s palm trees and white sand beaches, 12 hours and a fitful sleep and two bland meals later, and I’m still excited.

I’m excited to be moving around the globe, flying almost literally halfway around the world. I’m excited by the prospect of breathing in Melbourne air, hearing Melbourne sounds, smelling Melbourne smellsabsorbing Melbourne!

Even an absurdly whirlwind visit like thisfour sleepless days of panels, presentations, and partiesexhilarates me. And the stomach-unsettling food and sleep deprivation? Minor inconveniences on the road to wonderlust and wanderlust.

From Australia I turn two pages and discover a pair of pink flamingoes perched on a stamp from the Turks and Caicos Islands; instantly I recall a fragile propeller plane winging over an impossibly blue and green islandscape to land with a soft bounce on a sandy, sea-framed runway.

Turks and Caicos Islands stamp

The next page is graced by a sky-blue and earth-brown stamp from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, where I ventured in the wake of 9/11 and encountered layers of kindness, curiosity, and hospitality that reaffirmed my faith in humankind.

Two pages later, a purple stamp from the Republic of Ecuador instantly conjures images of my daughter somersaulting with sea lions in the Galápagos, an encounter that changed her life, inspiring her to become a marine biologist.

Then I lift out my second passport, blue-covered and dated from February 25, 2004. I thumb its well-stamped pages—Jamaica, Peru, Japan—until I come to a Pacific-blue-colored stamp from the Government of the Cook Islands. Suddenly a succession of images fills my mind: palmy, beachy Aitutaki, where I feasted in a chef’s home garden-restaurant, soul-soared to Sunday church hymns, and lost myself on a stage to emulate a hip-swaying, leg-pistoning Cook Islands warrior.

Machu Picchu and Easter Island stamps

Ensuing pages reveal a blue-green rendering of mountains and ruins from the heart-plucking Parque Arqueológico de Machu Picchu; a hologrammed visa from the Republic of Indonesia, where bountiful, blessed Bali helped me understand the sanctity of the everyday; a purple reproduction of Easter Island’s mysterious, mesmerizing moai; and multiple stamps, signed with a flourish, from Kenya and Tanzania. Ah, East Africa!

Kenya and Tanzania visas

I again rummage through my journals and find this in Note Book #12:

May 21, 2007; Maasai Mara, KenyaI’m sitting on the veranda at Bateleur Camp in Maasai Mara, looking out on the golden-green elephant grass savannah, animated with wildlife—nine elephants right in front of me, beyond them to the left a herd of topi, a dozen giraffes at 2 o’clock, zebra and impala and gazelle in the distance.

The bells of the Maasai cattle descend like wind chimes from the hills behind me. Now a propeller plane like something from an old movie whirrs in, and the Maasai cowherders shout and whistle from the bell-pealing hillside. A deep green swath of trees in the middle ground demarcates the savannah; misty hills purple the horizon.

The age—or agelessness—of this scene is palpable: the tinkling bells, the slowly plodding elephants, the distinctively shaped acacia trees that dot the savannah, the flute-like whistles coming from the cowherd now. On the left a herd of Cape buffalo wanders into view. This is an old, wise landscape, and it confers a sense of humility and perspective.

Now I pick up my third passport, the one I’d been so reluctant to send off into the world. This one was issued on April 1, 2013.

Journeying through its pages, I find a green Irish visa (Bulmer’s and banjos at Dublin’s Brazen Head pub), a deep blue Chilean visa (the glistening glaciers of Lago Grey in Patagonia), an ornate, full-page visa from Russia (St. Petersburg’s gaudy gilded incongruities), and multiple stamps from Japan (the ageless purity and peace of Ryoan-ji rock garden in Kyoto).

Then I turn to a full-page visa for the Kingdom of Cambodia, with a green background, a silver hologram, and an intricate depiction of Angkor Wat in the background. Cambodia! Another life-changing trip.

Cambodia visa

I rummage again through my tattered, battered journals, and find this entry in Note Book #13:

September 4, 2014, aboard Cathay Pacific #872 en route to San FranciscoCambodia! What a journey. Three days in Siem Reap were a great introduction: the splendors of Angkor Wat, enigmatic Angkor Thom, exquisite Banteay Srei, mysterious Ta Prohm.

Then into the wilds of Banteay Chhmar! The people were so kind, and the landscapes were breathtakingly, soul-solacingly beautifulrice paddies, cassava plants, palm trees, potatoes, so much green and huge blue skies with white clouds. Villages of stilt houses, kids with the purest eyes running and smiling and calling, “Hello! Hello! Goodbye! Goodbye!” Women chopping vegetables, cooking, older sisters holding babies on their hips, people sitting around tables in the under-stilt patios of their homes, talking, watching TV at night.

And then the ruins! So magical! Banteay Chhmar, Prasat Ta Prohm, Banteay Torp, all culminating in the Indiana Jones-like experience of Prasat Ta Sok.

There was such a sense of purity, of piercing to the core of adventure! I was drenched in sweat and often in rainwater too, a bandanna on my head and another around my neck, my blue work shirt stained, my explorer pants patched, my walking shoes caked entirely in mud. And I was sloshing through puddles, slashing through vines, clambering over toppled stones, avoiding ubiquitous millipedes, swatting at mosquitoes, sweating, sweating, sweating, and taking photos of incredible ruins hidden in jungle gloom. Absolutely exhilarating!

Hours pass like this, as my passports and journals transport me on a magical memory tour around the globe.

Finally I come to the last page in my last passport, stamped at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport on July 25, 2022. I think again of that time-bridging week in Paris and my last breakfast at Chez Julien, where I learned once more how the world is full of possibilities.

Now, at the end of this passport pilgrimage, I feel exactly the same way.

I take my shiny new passport in my hands, glance at its photo—less hair on the head, more peace in the eyes—then leaf through its pristine pages. I think of all the places still to come, all the visas still to be stamped. This book is possibility made palpable, pages of dreams waiting to be filled.

My wanderlust stirs anew. The wide world—beginning with Japan, one short month from now—awaits!

Yours in abiding wanderlust,

Don George

* * * * *

Do you still have your old passports? What do they represent for you? Have you ever made a passport pilgrimage, or two? Please share your magical memories. We love to hear from you!

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Loxie Lou Davie
Loxie Lou Davie
1 year ago

Thank you for sharing your experiences with us!! Thankfully, you will be able to travel again!! 😉

Rhonda Lerner
1 year ago

During the pandemic I created two 15-lb. travel journals of our 1 year honeymoon meander through Asia and SE Asia. Unbeknownst to my husband I had saved every ticket, program, museum catalogue and map*. The ephemera was juxtaposed with visas from our two expired passports.

*I am a cartographer.

Sue J.
Sue J.
1 year ago

So many blessings. I so admire your never-ending sense of wonder. Thanks for sharing.

Gail Hull
1 year ago

You, Don George, are a fine writer with the unusual skill of evoking your detailed memories of all five senses. Your passport stamps alone help you do that! I would need to search my photos to have all the memories associated with the exquisite camaraderie of traveling companions and guides, magnificent forests and wildlife, endemic birds, local food and thrills at so many first sightings in Borneo, Botswana, Namibia, Brazil, Peru, Madagascar, Colombia and Belize come flooding back with such detail of which you are so capable. I once asked my biologist supervisor what accounts for the fact that irregardless… Read more »

Cheryl Mueller
Cheryl Mueller
1 year ago

I absolutely love this!! And I am going to steal this idea for an essay I need to write for a writing group next week. I have passports from 3 or 4 decades. I don’t think they returned the first one from 1971 when I sent it to be renewed!

It will be a wonderful journey for me. And it was magical to join you on your travel pilgrimage to many faraway places that I only read about as a young girl that planted the sees for my own wanderlust!


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