Passport stamps fading away: Why we still love getting them
My most recent French passport stamp was obtained from the most un-French locale of all.
Ticketed to travel on the Eurostar to Brussels in August 2014, I passed through security at London's magnificent St Pancras railway station to find two bored-looking Frenchmen in smart official caps sitting at a small desk.
One of these agents of the French state perfunctorily examined my passport. With a trademark Gallic shrug (which I may have inserted here for comic relief) he gave my passport a resounding thump with an official stamp, and sent me on my way.
When a traveller enters Europe's open-border Schengen Zone by air, the passport stamp isn't that impressive. Inside a rounded rectangular box is a picture of a plane, initials indicating the country of entry, and the name of the airport.
Within this passport stamp, however, I had an attractive old-fashioned steam train, and an "F" for France. And as we were passing through French passport control on the UK side of the Channel Tunnel, it proudly bore the name of that well-known French port: Londres (London).
Passport stamps aren't merely a souvenir of your holidays, of course – just ask Australian woman Kylie Bretag, who entered Mexico on foot from the USA and was later placed in detention after Mexican officials neglected to stamp her in.
Legalities aside, however, passport stamps are a romantic reminder of your time on the road. We may not all be travelling with Norway's sexy new passport, but any stamp will liven up that austere legal document. Sometimes they're prized because they look particularly florid and exotic, other times because of the memories they evoke.
As the old-fashioned passport stamp starts to fade away, replaced by electronic entry procedures, they'll become even more attractive as proof that you really were there.
Here are some of the memorable stamps lurking in my old expired passports.
Hungary, April 1993
This stamp was notable not so much for its prettiness, as for the circumstances in obtaining it. My wife Narrelle Harris and I were travelling by overnight train from Prague to Budapest. Czechoslovakia had split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia just months before, and we'd been unable to clarify whether we needed a Slovakian transit visa to pass through its territory. We made it all the way through Slovakia by night, only to encounter an outraged customs official in a splendid uniform when we crossed into Hungary, for which we had a visa. Unable to send us back into Slovakia (for which we, of course, didn't have a visa), he grudgingly stamped us in.
Syria, March 1994
We'd flown into the northern city of Aleppo on a direct flight from Cairo, where we were living at the time. This wasn't a major entry point for international flights or tourists, so passport control procedures were rudimentary at best. The passports of everyone on our flight were collected en masse, whereupon they disappeared into a back office. At intervals a stamped passport would be pushed back through a glass partition with the passenger's name shouted aloud, then would be passed from hand to hand through the huddle of passengers until it reached the rightful owner. Memorable.
(East) Germany, December 1994
The communist German Democratic Republic had ceased to exist four years before I had my passport endorsed with the East German entry stamp. An enterprising Turkish businessman at Checkpoint Charlie had managed to secure an official passport control stamp, and would happily stamp the passport of anyone who paid him one mark. As far as I can tell it really was the genuine stamp, though set with the date of 9 November 1989 – the day the Berlin Wall fell.
Easter Island, Chile, November 2005
This remote Pacific island is one of travel's fabled destinations, so it was a delight to collect this stamp on a five-night stopover between Tahiti and Santiago. We filed off the plane onto a very long runway which also served as an emergency landing strip for the Space Shuttle, only to find passport control in a small shed-like building too small to contain us all at once. So we queued alongside a chain-link fence for our stamp, while returning locals chatted through the fence with people who'd come to welcome them.
Czech Republic, July 2012
The regional Czech city of Brno had a shiny silver new airport in 2012, not dissimilar in appearance to a science fiction moonbase. But to reach it I caught a regular city bus which passed through suburbia and farmland on the way. At one stop, a middle-aged man dropped a bag of groceries; vegetables, fruit and eggs rolled everywhere, one or two eggs breaking, and we scurried around the floor picking everything up. When I reached the airport, eyebrows were raised at my Australian passport, apparently not often seen on the premises. Enquiries passed back and forth between check-in staff and their back office, before it was stamped and I was free to fly.
It's not all about the official entry stamp. Here are some popular places which will endorse your passport for purely decorative purposes.
Machu Picchu, Peru
The famous archaeological site will happily stamp your passport with a large image of the Andes and the ruins of the former Inca city. machupicchu.gob.pe
This tiny principality doesn't have formal entry procedures, but if you're keen the local tourist office at 2 Boulevard des Moulins will administer a free stamp. officedutourismedemonaco.com
Hutt River, Western Australia
As long as you show up between 9am and 4pm, this supposed breakaway state within Western Australia will stamp your passport for a mere $2. principality-hutt-river.com
This town in northern Mali has long been synonymous with romantic remote destinations; and it's currently a precarious place to travel to, due to the Ebola virus and security concerns. If you do visit, the local tourist office will wield its own stamp.
Although the seventh continent isn't owned by any nation, it's still possible to prove you've been there. Most of the research bases in Antarctica will stamp your passport. antarctica.gov.au
These spectacular, diverse islands are officially part of Ecuador, but once you arrive you'll need to pay the national park entry fee and go through an admission process. This includes getting a cool passport stamp featuring two of the islands' famous inhabitants - a giant tortoise and a hammerhead shark. galapagospark.org
What's your favourite passport stamp? Post a comment and share your stories below.
Tim Richards travelled on the Eurostar courtesy of Railbookers.com.au.