When Losing Your Passport Goes Perfect

The best timed, ahem, accident ever
Time To Read: 10 mins | October 16, 2017
Routine Service: Approximately 4-6 weeks from the time of application, including mailing time. Expedited Service: Approximately 2-3 weeks from the time of application, including mailing time. 

-US State Department Passport Guidelines

I landed in Fiji at 6:00am on about 17 seconds sleep. The man sitting next to me on the flight, a Samoan closer in size to a F-150 than a human being, spent 11 hours smashing me into the window. He and the plane’s wall were the bread, and I was the bologna. The point being I was exhausted and weirdly sore by the time we disembarked.

This was unfortunate, because Nadi must have the happiest airport in the galaxy. When you land in Hawaii there’s occasionally a few locals outside near the taxis singing traditional songs and waiting to lei you – which isn’t as cool as it sounds. But in Fiji, there’s a legit band hanging out in the customs area playing island covers of classic rocks songs. I listened to a ukulele version of ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ while the officer looked in disbelief at my 10-year old passport photo.

“This isn’t you!” she said with a laugh.
I’m used to the sentiment. The picture was taken in 2008, back when I was a thick-necked college football player sporting a crew cut and not a follicle of facial hair. Interestingly, the discrepancy between young meathead me and old piratey me has only been a problem once: the security officer for that cruise back in May almost didn’t let me on the ship. This was not a trained TSA representative, mind you, just an elderly man with one scrap of power in the world. I had to recite my passport number from memory to convince him that yes, I was once a frat star with a neck like John Cena, and even then he barked at me to get the document updated ASAP.

But the Fijian woman gave me no such sass and, combined with the music, I was in a relatively cheery mood at baggage claim. For a minute.

It was just then that my phone caught up with all the texts and notifications I’d missed on the flight. And while the girlfriend usually gets priority, she’d sent an obscene amount of lengthy notes overnight. I didn’t have the energy to start there. Besides, the messages from CNN were far more startling: the Las Vegas massacre happened about twenty minutes after we’d taken off.

By terrible coincidence, this is the second major shooting I’d missed because of Fiji. When you’re on Survivor, you’re not given any updates about the real world. They take away your phones and computers, obviously, but the show’s crew doesn’t fill you in either. Usually this means you’re in the dark about things like the Stanley Cup playoffs and Pokemon Go and such, but in the case of Game Changers, we were also oblivious about the Orlando club killings. None of us had any idea that the (previously) biggest shooting in history had happened while we were bickering about how much rice to eat, and by the time we were home, the incident was off the public’s radar. The isolation of the game zaps some of your emotional connection with the rest of humanity.

[If] traveling within 2 weeks or need a foreign visa within 4 weeks, make an appointment at a passport agency or center (note that all the listed locations are inside the United States)

But while everyone in baggage claim was whispering to one another in horror, I received even more bad news: those aforementioned lengthy girlfriend texts weren’t full of sweet nothings.

“You can’t go to Asia.” OK, yes, she’s definitely the boss in the relationship, but I’m pretty sure she can’t stop me from flying wherever I damn well please. The problem here, however, was that the United States government absolutely can keep me from traveling at liberty.

Just having a valid passport isn’t enough to enter many countries. Off-hand guess, roughly 1/3 of the world’s sovereign nations require you to have at least 6-months validity left on your passport — meaning your documents won’t expire for another half a year. This functions to keep those of us teetering on the edge of legality from entering and staying past our welcome.

Notice how I just said ‘us’ and ‘our’? My passport’s 10-year validity was due to expire in mid-March of 2018, about five and a half months from the day. Which was fine for my short-term itinerary – Fiji doesn’t have the 6-month rule. But Thailand does.

Call us to make an appointment for emergency passport service in case of a life or death emergency. [Those] are serious illnesses, injuries, or deaths in your immediate family that require you to travel outside the United States within 72 hours. You must provide all the usual application documentation in addition to proof of the life or death emergency.

Why is Thailand important? Well, I may have convinced said girlfriend to quit her high-paying job in L.A. and travel with me for the last several months of my life on the road. I also may have told her, a girl who hasn’t spent much time abroad, to meet me in, of all places, Bangkok.

You can understand her distress at being abandoned alone in one of civilization’s most notorious cities (and that’s putting it mildly). Couple that with the fact that she told me two months ago to renew my passport (not to mention the cruise security guard’s warning) and, well, the barrage of lengthy & profanity-laced texts was understandable.

I retrieved my bag and went to the airport’s bathroom. I peed, splashed water on my face, brushed my teeth, emptied my pockets, changed my clothes and panicked. While I’d usually be quite content simply going to a country without the 6-month rule – India, perhaps – for the first time on this trip flexibility (read: reckless wandering) wasn’t an option. I absolutely had to be at location X by time Y, and Y was really fucking soon.

My hotel’s shuttle driver quickly quit trying to make conversation on account of my scowl.
But his silence worked out well — my little beach resort was only fifteen minutes away, but in that time I managed to regain some of my rattled wits. I steadied my breathing and assured the girlfriend via text that I would “figure it out,” though I hadn’t the faintest idea how. I ignored the seventeen question marks she sent afterwards and checked in to my room.

How to Replace a Lost or Stolen Passport Abroad: Contact your nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.

It was still only 6:30am in Fiji. I’d not slept. I smelt like Samoan man sweat and had a crisis to sort out. So I brought my computer out to a little beach bar, convinced a staff member to sell me a 40oz bitter beer several hours before they opened properly, and started Googling.

The news wasn’t good. There was an American embassy a few hours away, but the only reasonable way for them to issue a new passport before I left the country was if a family member died. As much as my little brother is always there for me, inquiring as to whether he’d commit hari kari so I could legally enter Thailand seemed a big ask.

I came up with a number of half-baked solutions, the most promising of which was traveling by bus. You see, these 6-month rules aren’t that strict, especially not in underdeveloped tourism-driven economies like Thailand. The real enforcers of the rules are airlines, who are on the hook for flying you back to wherever you came from should customs reject you. The problem wasn’t getting into the country, then, it was convincing Fiji Airways to let me board the plane. So flying into a place without this passport restriction and then taking a long-range international bus should do the trick.

But again, ‘should’ didn’t qualify as a solution this time. I couldn’t text the girlfriend, “I will probably be able to meet you.” That works for loose dinner plans on a Tuesday night, not for a rendezvous in the sex trafficking capital of the world.

For lost or stolen passports, if you have urgent travel plans, we can issue a limited-validity, emergency passport that can be produced more quickly to allow you to return to the U.S. or continue on your trip.

Maybe two hours later, with the beer drained and my brain fried, I walked back up to my room thinking a shower and a nap were in order before tackling the problem again. I started unpacking properly this time, going through my now usual routine of laying out electronic equipment, checking toiletries for exploding conditioner, and finding a safe spot to keep my most important belongings – meaning computer, phone, wallet, and passport.

Guess what was missing?

I tore apart my bags. Clothes were flung around like confetti and all the toiletries were dumped on the floor (conditioner everywhere). Every pocket of every pair of pants was turned out. I ran down to the lobby and asked if anyone had found anything in the shuttle. I called the airport twice.

Emergency passports issued abroad are valid for up to but no more than 12 months

Then I went back to my room, wiped the sweat off my brow with a pair of random underwear I’d tossed across the room, and smiled.

No one in the history of travel has been excited about losing the one document absolutely necessary to cross international borders. But in this case, it meant I got to text the girlfriend, “We’re going to be fine.”

photo: extremely low beach volleyball net outside nadi, fiji. it felt like dunking on a 6ft rim

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Malcolm Freberg
Malcolm Freberg
American writer living permanently on the road. Believes rye whiskey is superior to bourbon, Belle is the best Disney princess, and that selfie sticks should be snapped in half on sight. Hosted a travel documentary for AOL & played Survivor a few times.

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