When I started traveling, I loved getting passport stamps. They were like tattoos—when you first starting getting tattooed, all you want is more, more, and you stare at the ones you have, and you look at the remaining blankness and fantasize about the ones you’ll get. Western Europe, I thought, was a real bummer—you got only one (extremely boring) stamp for entry into any of the Schengen Zone countries. Lame.
Enter SE Asia—the land of senseless beauracracy and full-page visas. They hungrily consume your passport, taking up space that could easily fit five to six entry stamps to more modest, reasonable countries. Two of these, and I realized I was quickly running out of room in my passport.
It was time for a trip to my Embassy.
Here I should interject—for the non-Americans and the non-traveling Americans, which is most Americans—that filling up my passport does not make me a world traveler of epic proportions. It simply means that the US issues the skimpiest passports you’ve ever seen.
“Aw, that’s the cutest little passport I’ve ever seen.”
“And guess how long it’s good for?” I paused, preparing her for the indignity. “Ten years! Ten fucking years! What am I supposed to do with this—go to Canada once a year?” And I flung it on the cafe table like the mildly offensive thing it is.
American passports have improved; they now come with 24 pages. But when mine was issued, they still came with a measly 14 pages. Which is annoying, but serves as yet more evidence that Americans don’t travel like the rest of their Western counterparts.
But we recently hit a record high: a whopping 30% of Americans hold passports. (Tell this to a person of any other Western nationality and they laugh heartily.) And, I’d soon find out, there’s evidence of that too.
So it was off to the US Embassy. I’ve never had a reason to visit an Embassy before, and it felt a little like a field trip. I was mildly excited. I queued up under a shady awning at 1pm, eager to be one of the first in line for the two daily hours allotted for walk-in services.
The door opened at 1pm exactly (ah, American punctuality) and a grim-faced guard waved me in. I passed through a metal detector, was told I need to check my bag. I left that room, walking through a manicured courtyard (ah, the American affection for well-groomed lawns) and into another room, where another man examined my passport, wrote down my info, handed me a visitors badge and waved to enter the next room.
It was like a little air-conditioned slice of America. Posters on the wall: “From Sea to Shining Sea,” portraying different landscape shots; pictures of smiling, racially diverse faces; a sign suggesting that I like the US Embassy on Facebook (now, why on earth…). There was a drinking fountain—not a water cooler, but a drinking fountain—and I took a sip just for the novelty of it. A picture of Uncle Sam pointed down at me, and I smiled.
I lined up at a service window, fenced off with red partitions. I’d heard that they’d recently started charging for additional passport pages. I’d assumed that, now flooded with an influx of traveling Americans, this would be some sort of modest administrative fee; I had $30 in my wallet. I got to the window and told the clerk I needed more passport pages, and asked how much it would be.
She handed me a form. “It’s $82.”
I blinked. “$82?” I repeated. Maybe I heard her wrong.
She nodded. “$82.”
I briefly considered quoting the old Chris Rock skit from I’m Gonna Get You Sucka: “$82? Good lord, that’s a lotta money. How much for one page? How bout I photocopy a page and staple it in myself?”
Apparently the original skit doesn’t have the tag line. But you know what I mean…
Something told me this would not be an effective bargaining technique. Besides, this was the little slice of America, and in America, we don’t bargain.
“Um, okay,” I said slowly. “Well, I didn’t think it would be that much. Do you take credit cards?”
“No,” she smiled. “Cash only.” So it wasn’t totally a slice of America.
I asked the clerk’s opinion on whether I’d actually need more pages. I showed what I had left—two unstamped pages, plus the back amendment pages. I told her the countries I’d be going to. Did she think the customs agents will be able to squeeze the stamps in? (If it were Mexico or Italy, it’d be no problem; those fools will stamp right over of other stamps.)
“I think it’ll be okay for this trip. But it’s the same price here as in the States. So if you think you’ll need more pages anyway, you may as well get them while you’re here.”
Ah, American customer service: she was right. I don’t even know where the Consulate is in San Francisco. Right now I’m living a 5 minute walk from the US Embassy; in Phnom Penh, the task would only chew up an hour or so, as opposed to a whole day.
I nodded. “Okay, thank you. I’ll be back.”
And so I went back yesterday, went through the whole process again. And I must say that there’s something vaguely comforting about the whole thing—even though I don’t feel myself missing the States at all, there’s something sweet and reassuring about being surrounded by the Americana images, the American accents.
The funny thing about the Embassy here—and I’ve been told this is particular to this Embassy—is that services for Americans and services for Cambodians are done in one room. You sit in little chairs and wait for your number to be called, which sounds boring (and it is) but you’re provided with some pretty keen people-watching. Conversations between clerks and customers are done through a glass window, over a small speaker, and that provides for some pretty keen eaves-dropping.
A Cambodian man was trying to secure visas for his family to come to the States. He’d failed to follow the correct procedures and was stumbling to answer questions. He didn’t seem to understand the concept of needing to provide DNA-test results for his kids. I felt embarrassed for him.
I also saw the most Mexican Khmer man in, well, perhaps anywhere: cowboy boots, cowboy hat, big belt buckle and blue jeans, one of those air-brushed Cholo shirts with a picture of a foxy lady on the back, saying something “Por Vida.” I was ravenously curious to find out his story, but he left before I had a chance to sit down next to him and get nosy. Sometimes Khmer people with especially round faces look vaguely Mayan, and in my mind I imagined him having resettled in Texas or California and one day deciding: “Fuck it, if everyone thinks I’m Mexican, I’m rolling with it—por vida.”
A man next to me struck up conversation. He was Cambodian; having lived in the US for 10 years, he’d recently returned and was hoping to get a job at the Embassy. He asked why I was there, and we shared a laugh about how ghastly expensive my simple task was.
“I think it’s because more Americans have passports now—they’re milking it.” I leaned in, lowered my voice, “They found a new way to rip us off, you know?”
He nodded. “Maybe the pages be made of gold.”
I chuckled. “We can only hope.”
I got my passport back and the new pages were not, in fact, made of gold. They were made of paper. Very smartly decorated paper, with fanciful American images—totem poles and majestic eagles and buffalo so darkly colored I don’t know how a stamp is supposed to be readable over it. There are quotes from famous Americans about democracy and freedom and something from Ronald Reagan about living in a world “lit by lightning” that I’ve been unable to make sense of.
The new pages are insultingly over-priced, audaciously gaudy and not entirely practical—in short, very very American. And what can I do but shake my head, both annoyed and amused, with the vague affection one feels for their native land, their home country, their home.