Doctored documents

Our correspondent discovers the perils of traveling with a tattered passport

Passports are not always the ticket to freedom they are made out to be. Mine, for instance, is in an in-between state. I had the misfortune of applying for a passport in Germany with my old birth certificate. As in, one of the old school certificates. As in, not the new fancy rip-proof ones that are currently available. As in, a rather nasty tattered document that had actually begun to go moldy. (What can I say, I am not easy on anything. Destruction should be my middle name) The result was that instead of receiving a passport with five years of validity, I was given a passport with a validity of one year and the assurance it could be extended when I presented my new birth certificate.

The good news is that this is more or less what happened. The bad news is that when they handed my passport back to me, it was with a line scratched through “limited validity” and a note referring to page five. On page five of my passport there is now a typed message saying my passport has been extended until 2013. To be honest, the entire thing looked like it had been doctored – and badly at that.

I decided to apply an optimistic outlook to the situation: this is an official government document, and therefore this must be common official practice and therefore when I arrive in other countries they will not be shocked at such crude methods of extension. I ignored my nagging fears that it looked like I had done it all myself, or had had the misfortune to have been severely ripped off on the black market. In the end I consoled myself with the consideration that no one would actually dare present such a thing unless it was in fact legitimate. Its very lack of professionalism seemed to support this theorem, if that makes any sense.

Border crossings

To my surprise, it did in fact turn out to function like that, more or less. Whenever I flew anywhere no one ever gave my dodgey-looking passport extension a second glance. At land border crossings, however, there’s been a little more debate. It’s never been rejected outright, but it usually takes me about ten minutes more to be processed, as the officials go through a routine of panic, pointing at my expired validity. It’s particularly fun when exiting, when they become enraged that someone had let me in in the first place and now they have to deal with me trying to get back out.

Unlike flying, crossing borders over land with your own vehicle presents a few more problems. No one wants to be the customs official that let a stolen vehicle in or out of the country. They like to check that all the paperwork is in order, and details like a passport slightly out of the ordinary slows down the process.

Deciding to massively change our trip four months into the journey left us feeling a little vulnerable in general. We were told we could buy new motorcycles and leave Malaysia with them without any problems, but what were the chances this would actually be the case? We had no idea, as we had done even less research than normal.

For the first time since leaving the European Union no one hassled my (legally) modified passport.

Yet crossing over into Thailand turned out to be the easiest border crossing to date. Motorcycles had their own mini lane at the border crossing with a booth that processed bikes and only bikes. It’s one of the things that I love about Malaysia: not only do motorcycles not pay on the highway, but they have a separate lane to go around toll booths. As we rolled up to the inspection window not only were none of our bike papers checked, but when the customs guy saw that my passport expired in 2009, instead of doing the usual flipping, humming, and sighing, a look flitted across his eyes that you could read in any language.

First he looked up at me.

Then his eyes shifted from side to side.

And the following thought sequence quite clearly ran across his face:

“Someone else let her in, so let someone else deal with her. She’s leaving, and I have a line up forming.”

He looked up at us and smiled. And – stamp, stamp! – for the first time since leaving the European Union no one hassled my (legally) modified passport. We were free to ride into Thailand, where they made even less of a deal of the extension. Instead, the official informed us we should have brought a boat and not a bike for our trips and – stamp, stamp! – we were in! When we asked about bike insurance he shrugged and waved us in the general direction of the main street. Welcome to South East Asia!

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