Some Rambling Thoughts on the Unassuming Passport

passport, travel

Thin, unassuming, a small book of varying colors – what the modern passport lacks in physical grandeur it more than compensates for with indispensability. There are few things more precious to travelers – recreational, professional, refugee or other – than the passport, a piece of official documentation which sometimes confers upon its bearer the diplomatic heft of a home country (or simply entitles return to a country of origin). It is the most basic symbol of international travel, a universal totem of personal identity and nationality and a near-absolute customs requirement, but the passport as we know it is barely a century old, seeing widespread implementation throughout Europe and the United States from the late 19th century through the pre-war decades of the 20th century as national governments struggled to deal with massive population shifts.

Although the modern passport is a relatively new invention, the evolutionary history of entry, exit, and ‘safe conduct’ documentation is quite long, and the most distant phylogenetic forebears of our coveted stamp books date to at least biblical times. Until the late Middle Ages paper ‘pass ports’ were typically issued by a king or caliph or other such luminous monarch as a letter of protection, a way to provide messengers and other courtiers with safe passage through foreign territory, and they were quite uncommon. In fact, for the majority of human history, people wandered about the globe without need of official, internationally recognized identification. One could almost say without the burden, hindrance, of a passport.

As the modern nation state began to emerge from medieval feudalism, the use of international forms of identification became more commonplace, and then, the French Revolution. Prior to upheaval, in France as in much of Europe, peasants and serfs were required to possess documentation for internal movement. Ordinary workers faced a daunting proposition if they wished to relocate – acquiring the appropriate paperwork through legitimate channels was quite difficult. For this reason, identification requirements were often understood as oppressive measures designed to restrict movement of lower class people, and were thus abandoned in 1792. Revolutionary zeal quickly gave way to a reconsideration of liberal travel rules when it was discovered that royalists, moderates, and other members of the aristocracy were escaping abroad.

By the 20th century the passport was still largely considered a bizarre requirement, disparaged by upper-class travelers angered at having to prove identity at borders. Today however, the story is much different. Two cataclysmic world wars, and a variety of American military misadventures generated millions of displaced peoples and thus the need for large international agencies to deal with and administer to the needs of refugee populations; coupled with Cold War paranoia, the 1900s saw steady increases in the types and sophistication of tools by which nations catalogued and monitored their citizens. By the end of the 2oth century passports and visas had become the global standard for anybody wishing to cross a national boundary. The terrorist attacks on September 11th intensified the militarization and securitization of sovereign borders, and now, in our present day the passport has evolved into a RFID equipped, smart-carded, security apparatus, less an exotic collectible and more an absolute necessity if you’d like to, you know, move around the planet.

Confronting the history of the passport reveals a paradoxical relationship between our favorite document and the freedom of movement: as travel and communications technologies and infrastructure have rendered broad swathes of the globe more open and accessible, the same forces have simultaneously given rise to a network of sovereign borders with increasingly stringent requirements for entry and exit. In short: the passport has evolved alongside the nation-state not at all as a mechanism to facilitate a truly open world, but as a way to monitor and control populations and the movement of people across borders. Many nations are now using biometric data, such as digitized facial features, and storing this data on ‘ePassports’.

Our adventurous predecessors, setting out for Baghdad, or the Levant, for the far east or the New World were in many ways freer to exercise an inalienable right to movement than we are today. This of course doesn’t address implications of class or status, and early travelers faced a much, much rougher journey then (how many passengers still die of scurvy aboard ships these days?), yet it is still interesting, and in many ways alarming, to consider that the metaphorical walls are rising all over the world as nations continue to react to global forces like terrorism, immigration, and economic pressures. There are also some bright spots: the Schengen area provides almost 500 million Europeans with the freedom to travel visa and passport free through 19 countries (and more planned in the future).

We may be heading for a one-world dystopian police state, one in which the passport and new forms of wireless, networked, biometric identification and monitoring will evolve into ever more coercive governmental tools. We might not be. The securitization and garrisoning of borders seen over the last decade may ease, especially as national budgets continue to be squeezed. All or none of this may happen, but one thing is for certain: I still enjoy my passport, with its stamps, and yes its security features, and its worn cover, and that dumb picture of me as an 19 year old heading off to Europe for the first time.


First Impressions: Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo Japan Travel Photography

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by new surroundings. Stepping into a Tokyo subway station is like stumbling off an elevator onto a casino floor. A sudden flood of lights and sounds and signage. Mostly foreign, all insistent. Exposure to such an intense sensory environment also initiates a kind of flight or fight response: what do I do? where do I go? I’m already lost! And let the panic roll. This is of course due to unfamiliarity. With a bit of time and repetition, the station noises would fade out, relevant information would take center stage, and things would start making sense (although this fact does very little to help first time visitors in places as intimidating as Tokyo).

It’s also an understandable human tendency to draw conclusions and make potentially crude generalizations, a habit that most likely (see what I did?) has a biological explanation. But, generalize I must. As mentioned, Tokyo is well lit. It is a very bright place. It is also covered in signs of every conceivable type. Instructional, directional, advertorial, informational, prohibitional – Tokyo is probably the diagrammatic, public-posting capitol of the planet.

Tokyo is a procedural city, lacking any visible hint of the ad hoc atmosphere found in places like, say, Beijing¹. Traffic is organized, the sidewalk is conspicuously divided into pedestrian and bicycle halves. Trains and subway cars are clearly and redundantly marked with points of entry and egress – everyone observes this information and acts accordingly. Cellphone use is prohibited on the subway – everyone also observes this. Lines form and function smoothly. People do not jaywalk, or litter really, turning vehicles do not try and out maneuver pedestrians with right-of-way. I assume all of this is the result of both legal and cultural expectations.

Judging by the train ride from the airport and views from the 350m tall Tembo Deck of the Tokyo Skytree, the city appears almost infinite. A horizon to horizon sprawl ending only at the edge of Tokyo Bay. This is obviously hyperbole, but, the fact remains that Tokyo is a massive place (the largest metropolitan area in the world actually, with 31 million people) making it all the more strange that it isn’t actually very tall. Unlike Hong Kong or Singapore that stretch out vertically in breathtaking ways, it is a horizontal city. Its buildings do no blot out the sun and divide the streets and sidewalks into the shaded bottoms of concrete canyons. These two things: the lack of a coherent, high-rise “center” and the sheer vast expanse of it all lend Tokyo a kind of vagueness, a nondescript quality reminiscent of an urban version of the Siberian wilderness, and enhance the intimidation one feels upon first arrival.

These observations are obviously and admittedly based on a fleeting 24 hours of experience. Following some more sightseeing and rambling exploration some of this will most likely be rendered obsolete and at least partially incorrect. An opinion that will probably not change though: Tokyo is the most orderly, clean, polite city I’ve ever been in.

¹ Beijing can be a Kafkan nightmare of procedure and legal formality, but traffic law, sanitation, statutory law, vending – both food and merchandise, and a variety of other behaviors and activities conducted in the public realm are decidedly a-procedural, one of the many reasons I enjoy China so much.

What is Travel?

travel, photography, airplane

The answer to that question depends upon which century of human history the asker is speaking from. Academicians, with their books and records and ‘archives’, claim that we are living in an era of the ‘post-colonial travelogue’, that is, people (Europeans (mainly British)) once penned stories of exploration and discovery that explicitly condoned and/or endorsed a colonial foreign policy, and now they don’t do that anymore. To summarize: travel writers are no longer copy writers for a system whose flow chart reads, claim land -> exploit natives -> extract resources. No, instead, travel writing has evolved from the instructional character of Medieval texts; to the romantic, colonial discourse extending from the enlightenment to the 19th century; to the modern, ‘subjective’ tales of contemporary travel literature. Exteriority has been eschewed for interiority, the inner journey, the quest for self-discovery, for reconciliation regarding the near innate guilt felt for centuries of colonialism.

That is a rough, and by no means adequate explanation of the history and historiography of travel writing for almost a thousand years. It’s just, I’ve been diving into the scholarly literature recently and it is a fascinating world, so I’m trying to fit it into a one-off blog post. What is a travel story? On its face, travel implies movement, and implicitly movement from the familiar to the exotic or completely unfamiliar. That certainly isn’t false, but it doesn’t have to be true. You can travel within your city, you can meet new people and experience wildly unfamiliar environments less than a mile from your own home.

For example: most New Yorkers have never set foot in an abandoned subway station, or a maintenance tunnel. If travel is about the unfamiliar, and by extension the act of discovery, then there are infinite dimensions for that activity to play out. Over time, over space, between people, comparative journeys, revisitations, introspection. I lived in the staid, sleepy city of Greensboro, NC for 3 years, and spent the majority of my life living near it, but I continuously discovered new things, new people, unconsidered views, underappreciated streets and neighborhoods while rambling around within its borders.

So this suggests yet another thing about travel: it is attitudinal. A traveler is always looking for new things, whether those things reside in a different hemisphere, or a 9 iron away. It must be pointed out that escapism features prominently within any discussion of travel. This is true, many people rove around as a form of escape from something (bill collectors, illegitimate children, criminal histories, existential malaise, chronic restlessness, whatever), but that doesn’t violate the proposition that travelers are seekers of novel situations.

As fun as dissecting and analyzing the complexities of the idea of travel, it also fun, as hell, on its own, intrinsically, and that fact shouldn’t be overlooked or buried under the arcane offspring of philosophical and socio-historical vocabulary.