Thursday, February 25, 2016

Have Passport, Will Travel

If you need a passport, let me recommend the best place to get one in Austin:  The International Office at the University of Texas on 2400 Nueces.  And I can confidently say I know all about passports and the pain and suffering that can be involved in getting one.

My first passport was as a family.  We must have gotten it the first time we traveled to Europe in 1975.  It had a group picture of my mother, my brother and me.  That's the passport I used to enter the US in 1978 when we moved here permanently.  When it expired, I tried to get an individual one.  By then the Islamic Republic was in power and in order to apply for an Iranian passport 1) I had to submit a picture of myself with a head scarf and 2) I had to declare my belief in the Baha'i Faith on the application.  My application was rejected 1) because I was a Baha'i and 2) the scarf did not sufficiently cover my head and a small triangle on my neck was exposed where I had tied the scarf.  I gave up on trying to get an Iranian passport because I wasn't about to change either of those two conditions and I didn't have any imminent travel plans anyway.  In 1982 I got married and we had hoped to travel to Ecuador for our honeymoon.  I found out that as a permanent resident of the United States I was entitled to get a travel document that would allow me to travel to most places in this world.  However, in order to get this semi-passport I had to claim that I was stateless, that no country recognized me as its citizen.  The idea was just too uncomfortable for my nineteen year old self to accept.  So I refused to get the travel document and we didn't go to Ecuador.  In 1983, I traveled to Mexico, which at the time did not require a passport from US residents.  It was the joy and excitement of that  trip that made me realize I must always be able and ready to travel. I decided that I was willing to be stateless in order to see the world.  By then the Iranian government had made it very clear that the it did not consider Baha'is citizens with full rights anyway.  They were, and are to this day, denied such basic rights as education, employment, freedom to practice and in many cases life itself.  In 1985 I got my travel document so Ben and I could take our first trip to South America. We were able to finally visit not only Ecuador, but Peru, Bolivia and Panama as well.  At about the same time, I started my application for US citizenship. In 1987 when we traveled to Israel I was a full-fledged-US-passport-carrying citizen.  My place of birth will always be Iran, so from time to time I am subjected to extra scrutiny at borders and airports.  That initial passport served me well.  In 1988 we spent six months traveling around the world from Europe to what was then the Soviet Union, to China, Japan and Thailand, before settling in Venezuela.

My children who were born in Venezuela  were entitled to dual citizenship and carried two passports as long as we lived there.  That meant at one point our family of six carried ten passports!  Getting the US passport in Venezuela was not always difficult or complicated.  With the first two kids, the embassy happened to make visits to the town in the interior where we lived, twelve hours drive from the capital.  With the other two, we had to travel to Caracas.  Getting the Venezuelan passport was a whole other story.  It usually involved getting in line very early and staying there for the better part of the day, with no assurance of success.

As a rule and regardless of country, passport officials are not known for their friendliness or efficiency.  I don't know what it is.  Are they jealous that you are traveling and they're not? Are they resentful that you are choosing to leave the country?  I have stood in lines at 4:00 a.m. to apply for a passport.  I have been sent back because the picture wasn't the right size, because both parents had to be present, because I signed on the wrong spot and once because the country ran out of passport booklets!  In the US, certain post offices process passport applications.  Some work by appointment but the next appointment may be weeks from now.  Some are walk-ins but that means you have to arrive hours early to be the first in line.

Last August my two younger children needed to renew their passports.  The day I had planned to take them for the renewal was not the most convenient day.  They had other plans. Why do we need a new passport now, they asked.  We are not going anywhere.  My husband reminded them that no Hansen shall ever be without a valid passport because the opportunity for travel may happen at any moment.  Sure enough that same week my eldest was asked to travel to Canada on short notice and I had to send her passport to her in Boston by USPS.

After thirty some years of painful passport processing experiences I am happy to have found a place that is friendly and efficient; they take your picture right there and make their own photocopies of your documents.  So if you need a passport, go to the International Office at the University of Texas at Austin.  A few weeks ago, I accompanied my oldest daughter to this same office so she could renew her passport before she moved overseas once again.  The very helpful, and very knowledgable-despite-her-youth clerk told us that as long as your passport hasn't actually expired, you can renew it by mail. This saved us money and some time. Now I have to decide whether I should wait for my passport to expire this summer so I can have a chance to go down there and experience their efficiency and friendliness one more time, or should I just renew it by mail?

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