Monday, September 17, 2012

Creative passport renewal - Bangkok, Thailand

Memories from August 2006

I've decided to subject my passport to yet another one of those intensive sessions I've imposed on it so many times in these past Asian years.
This is the plan: fly from Bangkok to Hong Kong where I will meet Lu and Lo coming from Venice. Get a Chinese visa, cross the border overland and from Shenzhen take a flight to the western limits of the country, in Xinjiang - with trips to Urumqi, the desert, Turpam and a couple of amazingly filthy rural markets -, then head back East landing in Chengdu and from there descend on Yunnan to stop in Kunming, where I'm still renting an apartment with some school mates (Chinese Language at the Yunnan Normal University). My guests will then go back to Hong Kong where they will board their return flight to Italy. I will spend one or two more weeks there before heading back to Bangkok, where I also have to catch a return flight to Italy. Every year I go back once for a month, to visit my family, friends, and the places where I grew up. Finally from Bangkok I will fly back to Kunming, where I'm planning to spend a few months.
I always do that: I live through periods of immobility, enjoying a city or a beach where I like to loaf around or have some work to do, then all of a sudden I leave, without saying goodbye (normally just because there is nobody to say goodbye to) and during the following weeks I let some nice guys at the immigration points or at the embassies lash the pages of my travel document with powerful strokes of their seals or stiffen them with stickers that look like giant revenue stamps. My movements become even more frenzied when someone comes to visit me from back home, as in this case. In the last few years I've become a fairly slow traveler (or maybe I should say tourist?): if I don't click with a place I leave at once, otherwise I'm gonna stay there one week at least, if only to stroll around or read a book in a cafe that after a few days already feels like my own living room. That's not the case of my friends and relatives though, who can only enjoy a twenty-day vacation and are eager to see as many places as they possibly can. Traveling in good company is well worth some adaptation efforts, as in this case.
To sum it up, in just about two months my passport will suffer ten seals, inbound and outbound ones, there will be two free border crossings (in and out of Italy) and I will need to apply for a Chinese visa. The document must be valid for at least six more months (got them), and be in good condition. I check it: the cover is fine, the pages as well, the sequence of seals and visas too. Everything seems to be alright...hold on...OH NO! What the fuck happened to my picture? Excuse my language but that was exactly how I reacted. The image is heavily blurred, it was not like this the last time I looked at it, but who knows when that was. I cannot even recognize myself, there might be anybody behind that milky fog. It might have been because of the lousy paper, or the development process, who knows. Anyway it's a serious problem, I need a new passport. To the embassy...right now!
Identification at the gate, greetings to the carabiniere, waiting in line (it's full of Italian men who are trying to get a visa for the lady that they have decided to take home this year). After a while my turn comes. I fill a form, I hand the pictures, the copies, the money and I leave. They'll let me know.
The following day I receive a phone call.
"The original passport issued by the Questura di Padova has already been renewed twice, once at the embassy in New Delhi and once here."
"Correct... in both cases there were no more pages left..."
Silence at the other end of the line.
"Well, as they basically are three copies of the same document we need them all for the extension, you only gave us one of them, two are still missing..."
Oh really? How come you didn't want the two previous documents when you issued the third one then?
This last comment only remains in my mind though. It would be a useless remark. It's only caused by the frustration of the moment. I know that these people are only trying to help and do their work, not to hassle me. Who cares why all the copies are needed, they just are needed, that's it. The problem is that...actually I do have a problem.
"The fact is that one of them is here with me - the original one issued by the Questura di Padova - but the other one...err...the one I got at the embassy in at my place in Kunming, China."
"Listen, if you don't help us we cannot help you."
There was a tinge of irritation in the employee's voice. He must have had a difficult day, with all those Italians and their Thai girlfriends...I should pour oil on troubled waters.
"No, no, of course I wanna help. I'm just thinking about the way to get hold of that document. Can I call you back?"
I think about it for a while. I need flexibility, improvisation...a creative procedure. I send an SMS to A., my Israeli flatmate in Kunming, I receive his reply and I call the embassy.
"Excuse me, would an emailed copy do?"
"I'm not completely sure about it, but I think so."
The following day I return to the embassy with the old passport that is with me. Identification at the gate, more greetings to the carabiniere, more waiting in line (it's still full of Italian men who are trying to get a visa for their current lady). When my turn comes I hand it in and I confirm that scanned copies of the other one will be sent to their email address.
Now I just need to hope that my passport actually is in the drawer at the Kunming flat where I think I've left it, that A. finds it, manages to get past the usual Chinese complications and send me clear copies of all the necessary pages. Finally that all this complies with the bureaucratic procedures of the embassy.
I don't know which of the passages is the riskiest one, but I'm confident. A. is not a fool, he's a clever guy who even served as an officer in the Israeli army for three years: he must have been assigned missions more complicated than this one (and probably much more dangerous). And he's also a faithful friend, not just one who doesn't give a damn: he honors me with that brotherly spirit that Jews normally honor only other Jews with. Furthermore the embassy employee seemed to be happy with my plan. And the passport can only be where I think it is.
In fact it works. As soon as I receive the files I forward them to the consular section. When they call me it is not to tell me that they received my email and that everything is alright but just to let me know that the new document is ready and I can pick it up. I rush to the embassy. Identification at the gate, my warmest greetings to the carabiniere, I wait in line (there is still the same quantity of Italians who are trying to get a visa for the-girl-of-this-year). When they give me the passport the first thing I check is the photo. Idiotic face, I'm not surprised, but it's definitely me, everybody could tell that. 
Now I really have everything I need. Let the journey begin.

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