I began my calculations in Denpasar, Indonesia. The plane set down on a sunny Balinese afternoon, and I began flipping idly over ink from several continents, arranged in letters and patterns that allowed my passage into various wonderlands. A smile was on my face, but I noticed that the pages unstained by ink and stickers were beginning to grow thin on the ground, that empty pages were starting to lose out in number to those completely full.
Some part of me, as is usually the case, was deliriously self-satisfied. I was going to completely max out a passport! What greater feat of journeyman spirit is there than to have travelled so much that they simply won’t let you do it anymore? My pride swelled, but there was also cause for concern. If my tabulations were correct, I would run out of pages somewhere between Laos and Vietnam, and maybe not be able to go anywhere.
Let us journey within my passport, then, and look at the wonders that are contained within its increasingly worn and convoluted recesses.
It is July, 2009, and I have had my passport for maybe two months. It is already sweaty, and doesn’t have a single stamp within its pages. I clutch it like some sort of primal totem, a strange shamanistic doll crafted by my village witch to guarantee me safe travel through the sky. I feel like I should pour my blood upon it.
It is christened by a surly Dubliner, who wields an enormous slab of plastic slathered in green ink. The stamp is nearly half-a-page, and in tiny glyphs it declares that I can frolic around Ireland for three months, if that kind of thing interests me. Stamp firmly in place, I am waved on, suddenly in Ireland.
I walk out of the immigration line, and am in another country. I have achieved this of my own volition, I am entirely responsible for my entry and exit across borders — my sacred little token of my homeland, entrusted only to those worthy, valiant sojourners. I hold it up in my hands, a sacred relic, a treasure bestowed upon me.
I am already acquisitive and lustful with my passport. I balk that neither Scotland nor England see fit to reward me with stamps, due to their hazy understanding of their own sundry nationhoods. Do they not know what these represent to me? They are precious gems. They are symbols of adulthood. They are bones carved out from my enemies, which I then make into some sort of necklace.
France at least feeds my ego and stamps me on the way out of the Chunnel.
I grow familiar with stamping customs, with the trends in ink, with the designs of each country’s border emblems.
Korea’s entry stamp is a magenta square, the exit stamps are blue circles. These two shapes tango through dozens of pages, errant stellar bodies, strange asteroids chasing each other through the sky. Ireland’s stamps are all green, which I find to be a little on the nose. Thailand enjoys a purple rectangle and a blue triangle. China’s are also a highly literal red circle, and they stamp my passport every time I place a toe on Chinese soil, even if that toe leaves again within a few hours.
I get to know my visa stickers, too. Laos and Cambodia are hand-written and breezy, practically free-wheeling; China’s and Vietnam’s printed and precise. My sticker from India is a masterpiece, full-colour, and has a miniature portrait photo embedded within. The pattern is this: the quality and design of the sticker reflects exactly how much effort I had to put into acquiring it. I walk through the Lao border with a smile, some Thai currency, and a pleasant word. I earn my Chinese visa by carefully negotiating through a Korean travel agency. I painstakingly scrounge my Indian visa by providing a combination hair-blood-stool sample and a promise of my first-born child. By this measure, a fancy visa sticker is the least they can do.
The Taiwan border control officer is pleasant and chatty. He does not even think of stamping my passport before asking what brings me to Taipei, and if I had a nice time in Hong Kong and Bali, which he sees recently displayed within the folds of my personal travel-log. He recommends a restaurant or two, tells me that Taipei is absurdly hot at this time of year, and will I be staying long?
He reaches for a stamp. I reach forward and cry aloud. “Would you mind…?”
“Stamping on a specific page so that you still have some blank?” He completes my sentence for me. I nod. This man is somehow inside of my brain. The location of Taiwan and Indonesia’s stamps are critical to determining how many nations I can enter in the following months: many of my planned destinations need full pages, and the trip will not afford me time to plead for a new passport at the Canadian embassy. He flips to page 18, and asks if it is all right with me.
A few days later as I leave Taipei, a comrade in arms delicately places the exit stamp directly adjacent to the entry.
“When was the last time you were in Canada, sir?”
I suppress a smug smirk. “Oh, about two years ago.” I shrug. This nonchalance is the most thrilling nonchalance.
The immigration officer begins flipping through my passport, a single eyebrow quirked. I wonder if I get a sash for completely filling one out, if someone will present me with a bouquet of flowers, if there will be a balloon drop. Probably not — it appears to just annoy him. Dozens of immigration officers before him have followed no logic, have instilled no sense of cohesion or clarity within my passport. It is a decentralized mess, a slew of colours and inks and languages, horizontal and vertical and diagonal and overlapping words and worlds. Continents clash on single pages, pink and blue and purple bleed into one another, or across pages, or across miles. Each page swells with dozens of stories, every fibre of the paper is marked with etchings of a personal history. It has been a long, complicated journey with this little book, this precious talisman.
My passport. It is the greatest autobiography I will ever write.