“Where’s the passport bag?” My father would raise his voice and glare at my mother when he could not see the large beige unflattering handbag tucked under her arm, the straps cutting into her shoulder as if she was carrying gold bullion. Somehow bullion would not have made my father so tense, because that was recoverable. Passports were not, and in another country they defined you.
We had our own passports from an early age, in fact, our first trip to Greece in 1969. Until I left home my father managed the storage, renewal and retrieval from the safe of these important documents. In the safe, wrapped up in a rubber band lay piles of archived passports, ours, his parents and Uncle Piet’s. Their passports allowed them into the new world, a world of promise and employment. Our passports allowed us into the old world, a world of passion and the classics. A world that seems to be failing us. We could see the extravagance of life where little work seemed done, and where dealings with the government departments was worse than trekking up a high mountain in the dark.
When my father travelled with John and me, he took charge of the passports and kept them in a kangaroo pouch around his waist. He would lock it around his waist first thing in the morning and focus when he had to deliver the documents, be it at the airport, a border crossing or the bank. After they had served their purpose, he would refocus and place them safely in the kangaroo bag.
From small he had given each of us a leather document holder that could hold the passport, a flight ticket, some cash and later on, an international licence. I used mine extensively, and thought I had a strict simple routine of using the contents of my document holder, storing it safely either in my jacket pocket or the rucksack I use on my travels.
After my father died I visited Greece and was at Hertz Car Hire collecting a car when my brother arrived from the village to drop off his car and return with me. We chatted excitedly about the trip so far, the children and mom. I collected my bags and walked past the rosemary scented pavements to the car hire area under the exit flyover of the airport. The drive was pleasant with company, each trip allowing a feast of the eyes on some ancient immoveable structure and quizzical glances and some of the new buildings, some exquisite and others part of a global branding depersonalisation exercise.
I arrived at the village and unpacked. I was pleasant being home, the soft lights of the houses adding to the cool of the thick walls although the serious summer heat had not yet started baking. As I went through my methodical placement of my travel wallet I realised quite quickly that I did not have it. I had left it at the counter in Athens. I called Hertz, and lost property, and drove two hours back to the airport to no avail.
Only then did I understand the fear that not having a passport. I panicked briefly. The next day I went to and internet cafe and downloaded printed copies of all my documents and had passport photographs made. Then I braved the crazy traffic in Kifisia to get to the South Africa Embassy. They did look at me like I was an idiot, but the next afternoon I collected my temporary travel document.
Passports do not always define who we are.