Passing on to a new passport

So my passport is about to expire — August 18, to be exact — and I’ve spent the last 40 minutes or so applying for a spanking new one, filled with precisely 28 crisp blank pages watermarked with stirring visions of Americana, from the Statue of Liberty to orbiting spacecraft; from an Alaskan grizzly eating a fresh, flopping salmon (true!) to the noble, jut-jawed mugs of Mt. Rushmore. It’s like a little picture book to remind you of home while you’re happily clomping around and spending money in someone else’s fine nation. 

To get this desperately necessary booklet (I travel, therefore I am), I have to send thoroughly filled out PDF forms, a check for $110, a new mug shot (I’m camera shy, so that’s delightful) and my old passport to whatever U.S. department of whatever. Then, in several weeks, I’ll have a crease-free dark blue book that will allow me to get the hell out of here to somewhere new, exotic and magnificently dangerous. Or maybe just to Paris. 

IMG_1137.jpg

I will miss my current passport. For one, my photo isn’t ghoulish. I look young, boyish, and remarkably tan. And I’m proud of the stamps from other countries I’ve collected in the course of its 10-year life: Lebanon, Syria, Russia, the Netherlands, France, Turkey, Spain, Canada (well, Canada), England, and more. I will stick a Post-It note on this passport with the earnest message: Please return this! When I did that last time, they returned it, but punched a bunch of holes in it to invalidate it. Fair enough. Old passports make fond keepsakes.

It’s crazy and not a little depressing that it’s already time to renew my passport. Ten years is a stretch. But I’ve given this pocket pal a good workout, gripping it to far-flung places, some of which I never imagined I’d ever go. I don’t look the same, but only once has a customs agent done a double-take when checking my photo. “That was a long time ago,” I assured her. She smiled. I sighed.

The last time I renewed a passport and got the one I have now, the one about to expire, I did it a couple years before its expiration. That’s because I was traveling to Lebanon and Syria (before the current war) and my passport contained a stamp from Israel, where I had been years earlier. Both Lebanon and Syria bar entry if your book has an Israel stamp for obvious, if arguable, political reasons. So I had to get a whole new passport. What with paying for a Syrian visa to boot, those pre-trip costs were onerous.

IMG_1140
She’s still in good shape.

This time I’m cutting it close. In some countries your passport must be valid for more than three months before the expiration date. When I went to Amsterdam a few weeks ago the airline attendant looked at my passport date, did some quick math in her head, and paused before letting me check-in.

I’ll have none of that. Time is of the essence if I want to travel anytime soon, though I have no plans. I’m off to get a new passport photo, which for me is like getting a colonoscopy, an uncomfortable, possibly traumatizing event. If the recent picture on my Russian visa is any indication, the new photo will be monstrous, even gargoylian.

I have no idea where I’m going next with the new passport. I don’t travel in summer -— too hot, too crowded, too pricey — so I can relax and blithely research the next adventure. Then, by fall, I’ll be off, ready to deflower the new booklet with its first kiss, the loud, mechanical thomp of the customs agent’s stamper.

Beirut: beauty, bowed, but not broken

Luna Park
Luna Park, a tumbledown amusement park along Beirut’s Corniche seaside promenade. It appeared shuttered and cobwebbed, far from its heyday as a respite from the country’s civil war in the 1970s.

Beautiful but battered, regal but raw, Beirut is like a patient in recovery, with ample physical therapy ahead of it. No longer crowned the “Paris of the Middle East,” the Levantine Mediterranean city, one of the world’s oldest and a beguiling twinning of East and West, remains a tourist draw of exotic splendors and fragrant pleasures. If it bears unconcealed bruises, Beirut still, with its lush, war-torn history and an exuberant cafe and bar life, is a multilevel dazzler.

I can’t say my weeklong visit some years ago went as planned. Trouble was had. After I took a photo in a neighborhood where I was told explicitly not to take a photo, I was detained by Hezbollah goons who roughed me up a little, rifled through my bag, flipped through my books and demanded to see my “papers.” I felt like I was in East Berlin, circa 1960. I felt like I might be tortured, disappeared or beheaded. It was no joke. I came out alive, shaken and shaky for the rest of the day and night, but not enough to deter me from haunting a choice bar in one of the city’s crackling nightlife districts. Beirut knows how to party.

Would I go back? Probably not. But I’m glad I went. It’s a lovely, melancholy place, at once desolate and disarming, friendly and not a little forlorn.

Pigeon Rock, Raouche
Pigeons’ Rock, or Sabah Nassar’s Rock, in the Raouche area along the Corniche.
Lebanese Army tank, Beirut
Lebanese Army vehicle, downtown Beirut. Its presence, imposing and unsettling, wasn’t unlike those of the grim-faced armed soldiers patrolling malls and mosques.
P1030336
One of countless bullet- and shell-riddled buildings all about the city.
Produce merchant.JPG
Proud produce merchant.
P1030372_1.JPG
Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who died in 1989, remains an icon in Hezbollah-controlled south Beirut. Taking this photo got me into a world of trouble with local authorities who were convinced I was a western spy.
Rocket display, south Beirut.JPG
Hezbollah rocket on display in the middle of a south Beirut street.
Gemmayze district, lined with bars and clubs.JPG
My (tiny) bar of choice in the ever-hopping Gemmayze district, which throbs with bars and clubs and revelers. That guy in the neon-ablaze storefront window on the far right is a DJ.
holiday-inn-1975.jpg
Blasted shell of the infamous Beirut Holiday Inn. During the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-76, the hotel became a war zone in the Battle of the Hotels.
girl-texting.jpg
Girl in taxi, texting.
P1030367_1.JPG
Delightful if pontifical Orthodox priest who gave me an earful about God, history, life.
P1030349.JPG
Ceiling of the Mohammed Al-Amin mosque in downtown Beirut.
p1030285_1.jpg
Prayer on the Corniche. (Luna Park Ferris wheel in far distance.)