I Don’t Lose My Passport
I love the term ‘savvy traveler’. To me it implies a wisdom, gained by experience and age and possibly a combination of both. I think it would be an honor to be called that, and I have been, by others, but it is not something I would ever say about myself. It would seem to be the height of hubris.
Still, my experience traveling seems to make each subsequent trip even more enjoyable. Because I am learning from the previous trip, and applying that knowledge. I pack 2 small, foldable hangers on every trip, which I discovered were valuable when I was in Prague and tried to let a merino wool undershirt dry after a long day of walking by hanging it over a windowsill (I’ll let you guess the punchline of that little story.) I always have a pair of sandals that I use not only for public showers but that look okay just out on their own when the weather turns unexpectedly hot.
I could point to several other items that I pack, and rituals I follow, that I have learned because something happened that I thought could have been avoided— like a merino wool t-shirt flying out the window— and so I came up with a way that might stop it from happening again. It would be possible to see traveling light, especially frequently so, as a series of problems you can put your brain to and come to a conclusion. Of COURSE if you carry everything you own when you travel, you might not have to think of such things. But the beauty of being able to put everything you will need for a few weeks under the seat in front of you— because the overheads are full and folks are being asked to check their bags, say— is unbeatable. Packing and traveling light can actually be the best, most stress-free part of a vacation, no matter where you go to. That’s why I enjoy coming up with ways to help facilitate that; it makes me feel really good to think I am going to carry very little and still have everything I need.
Take a passport, for example. You might think that, because I wear kilts with cargo pockets that I of course store everything there. Alas, no. I have a real fear of being pick-pocketed in airports, and a cargo pocket on the side of one’s leg is basically asking for it. I do use them, but I put nothing in them that I would be unhappy to lose. Yeah, I don’t want to have a notebook or my Kindle or a paperback stolen, but I’ll recover fairly easily if they are. Ditto water bottles and protein bars. My money goes into a wallet in my front pocket that attaches to a lanyard which is looped around my belt. And my passport goes into a neck pouch, along with my boarding pass.
This is a solution that I am particularly proud of. Even traveling light, with only one or maybe two bags, the problem of what to do with one’s ID and Boarding Pass while lifting items onto conveyor belts was vexing me. I also didn’t have a front pocket on the shirt I was wearing, and if I did it wasn’t one I could trust.
When I found the Tom Bihn Neck Pouch, however, I felt like I had solved the problem. Not only was in lined in RFD-blocking material, it was bright purple. I didn’t want one that looked like I was trying to hide or camouflage it. I wanted to have that loud, dorky color to tell the world and my fellow travelers in no uncertain terms that I was always going to know where my passport was. And that I could find it when it wasn’t around my neck. Traveling with us to Amsterdam, my son had put his ‘naked’ passport (no cover, no case) into the tub that contained his jacket. When it came out the other side for him to collect, it took him a minute to realize that his passport was gone (italics to heighten the drama intended). The Amsterdam security folks were great; and after looking into the tubs for a few minutes, they finally opened up the actual x-ray machine (or whatever it is) and found his passport on the rollers underneath (my guess is that’s happened before). As the Dad and wanna-be Savvy Traveler, I kept my cool, only giving small hints about the doo-doo we would find ourselves in as a traveling family if one of us lost our passport.
So, last winter, I found myself at the lovely Copenhagen Airport. I had already spent three days in that loveliest of cities, and I was about to go to Helsinki for a few, and then to Oslo. Ostensibly to see Viking Ships Museums in both cities, as I had also seen the one just outside of Copenhagen in Roskilde.
I had planned this trip for a long time, and I had procured astonishingly cheap flights. Not just to and from Copenhagen, but between the various cities and back. I had found what I were sure were lovely places to stay that were in my budget, and I had tickets to outdoor saunas and indoor museums. I was thrilled to be visiting those Nordic countries in the winter— where and when I had always wanted to visit them— and I simply could not help being proud of how I packed. It was the winter in Scandinavia and I had one bag; a 30L one at that. I had taken a bigger-than-I-usually-take coat, which of course I had to carry or attach to the bag in the airport, and my bag had just merino wool T-shirts— long and short sleeved—scarves and hats and some very warm socks. I wore the only button-up shirt I brought.
So, in line at security on day 4 of my trip, off to Helsinki. Jet lag had chosen that morning to hit me, but I vowed to get some more coffee after I went through. I had my mini iPad all loaded with a couple of travel books, that I would look through as I waited to board, and of course my trusty notebook had all of my locations and other instructions written out by hand, and that would get me from the airport to the hotel. Let’s not forget my passport in its ugly purple neck hanger, and my boarding pass.
The line through security was not moving especially fast, but I was in no hurry. I was always early, and I knew the next steps after I got through this line (bathroom, coffee, gate, read). I couldn’t help but notice the couple in front of me. Their bags were HUGE; I couldn’t believe they thought those would fit in an overhead space. And I could count that they each had three bags, not the allotted two. I briefly cursed the lack of enforcement by the airline officials, but focused on how I not only followed the rules, I exemplified them. I honestly felt right then that, really, everybody should travel like I do. How much easier would it be for the airport and airline crews??!!? I watched the man and woman in front me searched frantically for their laptops and iPads, to put them in a separate tub; mine was right near the top of my bag. I would grab it easily when I grabbed the Zip-lock bag next to it that had my liquids. The couple in front of me had to open up BOTH of their toiletries bag to bring their massive bottles of shampoo and mouthwash and I don’t even know what else. Had they never heard about the 3 oz. limit? Had they ever even TRAVELED before?? They became frantic and worried the longer it took them, as the security agent manning the scanner kept telling them in curt tones what they needed to do.
Finally all of their stuff, and then they themselves, went through the scanners, and it was my turn. I was going to show how it was done. I sometimes received compliments from TSA agents about my kilt and how I travel with it. I have gone into this at length in another post, but basically I wear swim trunks underneath my kilt at the airport. I load EVERYTHING into the pockets of the kilt— except my passport, of course— and when I time comes, I very smoothly do the following:
– The jacket goes into it’s own tub
-I open my bag, take out the ipad and the ziplock of liquids, and that goes in a tub. I take the passport holder off my neck and put that in there.
-Bag goes through on its own.
-I shimmy out of my kilt— someone usually says something— and THAT goes into it’s own tub.
-Shoes go into a tub if it’s that kind of airport.
I then walk through the scanner. I almost never get pulled over and searched because I am wearing no metal. Often they want to look at my bag, but it is packed in such a way that even if they take everything out of it, I can still re-pack very quickly.
This time I let my coat go to the end of the conveyor belt; I would get it last. I grabbed my ipad and bag of liquids from the tub they were in, and one of the security agents was picking up my kilt from the following tub and asking me questions about it. I was happy to answer them, grabbed my bag, put the ipad and liquids back, and then went to the end of the line. There I shimmied back into the kilt (I would remove the swim trunks when I got the bathroom), attached my coat to the bag, and I was off to find a bathroom and some coffee.
My gate was at the other end of the airport. I found a bathroom first, and was able to remove my trunks and have an otherwise productive visit. I went to the nearest coffee cart and people-watched as I drank a delicious cappuccino. I finished and decided it was time to make it to my gate.
It took about 30 minutes to walk to my gate. I was quite hungry but a kiosk that sold sandwiches was nearby. I was thrilled that I could take my sandwich, reach right into a top pocket of my bag, and get my iPad, where I could read about Helsinki and what I would do there. It would be about an hour before the plane would begin pre-boarding.
Even if you’ve already figured out what happened, allow me to relate a quick story about an acquaintance from Minnesota who went to look for his snow boots, opened up the closet, “and there they was—GONE.” They called for pre-boarding at the gate, and I reached up to get my neck holder, and there it was: GONE. Instantly, ice-cold adrenaline pushed through every vein. This couldn’t be right. I don’t lose my passport; other people who aren’t savvy travelers do. I don’t.
I dug through my bag like a hound digging for a gopher. Same to the pockets of my kilt and coat. I thought I might faint, so I stood there, taking breaths. I went to the gate agents and asked how long the boarding process was, and said something about going back to security because I “may have misplaced” my passport. They gave me worried looks and nodded their heads.
I grabbed everything and moved through the airport like a man who had just woken up on the freeway. I kept looking around, on the floor, thinking I would spot it. I went to last bathroom I had used, and looked in stall; not there. I went to the NEXT bathroom I had used and it had a cleaning crew in it. I told them my plight (everyone speaks english in Copenhagen) and they said they had just cleaned out the stall I had used and didn’t see it.
I made it to Security in 20 minutes. By now it had been about 90 minutes since I had passed through. I explained my situation, confident that they would soon chime in, “Oh, the purple neck holder! Yes, it’s in the office!” Because of course I don’t lose my passport; I would NEVER lose a passport. Especially in a foreign country.
They, of course, had nothing. They asked who had been working and I realized I was too busy being smug about how well I packed to notice the people. I had remembered the number of the security gate I had gone through (because it’s a lucky number), and they focused their search on that area. They looked inside the scanner, checking the rollers. They looked through as many of the tubs as came through in the time I was there. I went through the series of events as I knew them, and they reckoned that when I didn’t pull it out of the tub (while grabbing my iPad and liquids) it likely was snatched by an opportunistic person later; maybe even just for the neck pouch, not knowing what was in it.
No matter what happened, one fact remained: my passport was GONE.
When it finally hit me, I blankly said “What am I going to do?” I felt my knees start to buckle just as the migraine began it’s approach. A kind security worker informed me that I would have to get it replaced at the American Embassy in Copenhagen. He also stated that I would need a police report; there was a Police Station just outside the main airport entrance. It was 15:30 at that time, and he told me I might be able to get the police report and get to the Embassy before they closed at 17:00.
Oh, and it was Friday. They wouldn’t be open again until Monday.
Somehow, I was able to gather some thoughts and call the hotel I had left. I needed see if they might have another room for me until next Tuesday, when I was going home. They said they did (and I’m happy to report that later they took me aside and said that even though we hadn’t talked about how much the room would cost, they were going to give it to me for the same discounted rate I had the first half of my stay. Thanks Annex Hotel.)
I felt a little bit better once that was done. Then I began to try to find the Lost and Found, and then the Police Station.
That afternoon I went through the full length of the airport at a fast trot— carrying my coat and bag— at least four times. I finally located the Lost and Found but they didn’t have my purple neck pouch OR my passport. I made it to the police station, which was at the other end of the airport. There was one person ahead of me.
I sat on a couch in their waiting area and become so immediately tired I may have actually slept sitting up. I waited over an hour to see them, and have a report taken. By the time I got a copy and made it to the taxi stand, it was 16:50.
This story is basically over. A very nice Croatian cab driver, the only person I met in Copenhagen who did not speak English (he spoke Dutch and Croatian and French) got me to the embassy just after it closed. The helpful security guards gave me a list of things I needed when I returned on Monday; that’s where I saw that even if I had made it to the Embassy before it closed, I still would not have had what I needed to get a new passport.
I had a room. I had all the money I was going to spend in Helsinki and Oslo. I had a new understanding of the word ‘mortified’, noting that the root of the word is also one for ‘death’ in many languages. The Savvy Traveler that I was had died. I was no longer the guy who had it all figured out, travel-wise. I was no longer the guy who didn’t lose his passport.
A period of grief followed, mostly spent in Copenhagen pubs drinking many kinds of beer. I was still too embarrassed to tell anyone but my wife; of course there would be no social media entries. Coincidentally, right before my passport was lost, I decided to end- or at least sharply curtail- my Instagram posts on this trip. It felt like I had gotten to a point where I was doing the trip for the posts, and not for myself. You fall too in love with your own cleverness, and you start looking for things to burnish that, instead of being there and taking the trip as it comes. That morning I had vowed to not post anything until I was home, and that evening I sat in pub close to my hotel and felt, not in a bad way, truly alone: I had none of the flourishes one sometimes relies on too heavily when traveling. I wasn’t the guy doing funny posts of his solo travel; I didn’t feel like the intrepid-as-hell savvy traveler with all manner of tips and tricks for traveling light. I was a middle-aged American who was lucky to have a place to sleep, money for food and his Washington State Drivers License with him. I also had a very loving family who signed on to my solo trips because they loved me, even though it was hard for them when I was gone. I had money. My knee was arthritic, but I had my health. I had only packed one bag, so my stuff wasn’t in Helsinki.
And I realized there might actually be a point in the distant future when I could actually talk about the time I’d lost my passport; maybe even write about it.