If we’re talking travel accessories, which is kind of the whole point of this blog, then we can’t really go any further without mentioning the mightiest and most useful travel accessory of all – a device which can literally open doors all over the world, which will expedite and facilitate hundreds of border crossings, a magic document after which billions of people lust, and for which some would kill – the humble United Kingdom passport.
Now I’m fully aware that such an item is not readily available at the airport convenience store next to the Toblerone and the 20 year old Glenfiddich, but that’s no reason not to review it. I’m also aware that millions of people are perfectly happy with their own passports and couldn’t care less about having a UK one. I’m also pretty sure that it isn’t the cheapest to travel with (determined by adding up the visa charges from all other countries in the world – has anyone done that yet? The internet is a crazy place) but its recognisability is certainly a bonus compared to travelling with, say, a Namibian passport. Now that’s a handicap.
My wife ably demonstrated this point on the day we flew from South Africa to Madagascar for a holiday. Gerda, bless her, had had to give up her Namibian passport when becoming a South African citizen but, understandably proud of her heritage, she’d kept the obsolete document and on a whim decided to try and use it for this trip. Bad idea. She was caught instantly, grilled mercilessly and almost ruined our entire holiday, but eventually they felt sorry for her and let her fly, although they wouldn’t promise to let her in again.
"Let me through, dammit, can't you see I'm British!"
More recently, I was queuing for Australian immigration after a trip to New Zealand and noticed that the man in front of me had a South Sudanese passport. This was only months after the creation of the country so I could imagine him having difficulties trying to enter some remote places. “Are you having a laugh?” clueless Tongan immigration officers might greet him, “This isn’t a real country! You’ve just thrown this together at home!” First rule of forgery – copy something that actually exists, not the travel document equivalent of a three pound note.
I spoke to the gentleman and discovered he was the new country’s finance minister, which impressed me until he told me that he lived in Canada. How can you be a government minister while living thousands of miles away? What message does that send to your people? “Are you going to move back to Sudan now?” I asked him. “Oh no,” he chuckled, “I don’t want my children to grow up there.” Bonkers.
Of course, the UK passport isn’t always a bed of roses. The worst experience I ever had with it was trying to cross into Venezuela from Colombia on a night bus. We hit the border at 2am and all the passengers, mostly from those two countries but also a group of Germans, were stamped in sin problema but when it came to me – nada. There was no way this Anglophobe was letting me into his country. I argued (in Spanish, badly) for all I was worth, and even the Germans who I’d never met before argued on my behalf (in better Spanish), but to no avail.
My luggage was removed and my bus lurched into Venezuela, leaving me alone in no-mans-land, in between the two most violent countries in South America, in the middle of the night. I did get through the next day after an hour long interview, a $20 bribe and a thorough examination of all the photos on my camera, but it was a close thing. I later heard that that border is notorious for refusing entry to Brits, and most have to travel the long way around via the next border to the south, about a 24 hour detour. I was actually pretty lucky.
The Blue supplanting the Burgundy
I don’t have to worry so much about that sort of stuff anymore as I have recently received my first Australian passport. UK and Aussie – what a combo! The double whammy – now there’s nowhere I can’t go.
It’s been six years since I moved to Australia and I well remember the day I first arrived in the country. Tired after an long-haul flight and eagerly anticipating settling into my new homeland, I handed my hard-earned permanent residency over to the official with cheery “Good morning!” I’d been working toward this day for over two years. After a cursory examination he looked me squarely in the eye and stated “I’m sorry Mr. Slater, you won’t be getting into Australia today.” My world fell around my ears. “What? B … but, why?” I stammered. “Just joking,” he chirped, stamping my visa. “Welcome to Australia!” Bastard! They aren’t allowed to do that, are they? I staggered towards the baggage carousels, mightily relieved. I was going to enjoy it here.