My most stupid traveler trick

Sometimes travel editors forget the most basic things -- in the most embarrassing circumstances.

Published September 8, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

In the past few weeks I've described one of my favorite stupid traveler tricks and you've shared some of your most memorable tales. Next week I'll pass on more of the wonderful tales I've received; if you have a story you want to share, send it to me.

But I promised that if you told me your worst stupid traveler trick, I'd tell you mine. More than 100 of you fulfilled your part of the bargain, so now it's my turn to share my most stupid traveler trick of all.

The year was 1987. It was a tumultuous and exhilarating time in my life. The previous August, our daughter, Jenny, our first child, had come into the world. And on Jan. 1, I had been named travel editor at the San Francisco Examiner under the newly revitalized and robust regime of publisher Will Hearst. It was a heady time.

Early that year, I had been invited in my new role to attend the annual April conference of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, a grand gathering of travel poobahs -- heads of airlines, hotel chains, national government tourism organizations, travel agencies and tour operators.

I was especially excited because the conference host country that year was Japan, a country that held a special significance for me. After graduate school I had lived, taught and worked as a TV talk show host in Japan for two years. And at the university where I had taught, I had met the woman who would become my wife. So I gleefully accepted the PATA invitation and made preparations to take the whole family triumphantly back on my first official trip as travel editor.

In the weeks leading up to the conference, I made a packing list and checked it twice and thrice. This was our first international trip with our daughter, so I was especially concerned about anticipating everything we might need for her -- diapers and wipes, dozens of changes of clothing, powdered formula and plastic scoops for measuring it, bottles and bottle holders, brushes for cleaning the bottles, nipples and more nipples, burping towels and sleeping-on-the-shoulder towels and cleaning-up-throw-up towels. I also checked that my passport was still valid and that my wife's Japanese passport was valid and had her U.S. green card in it. All was in order.

The travel editor is a relatively big fish in the lake of Bay Area tourism, and so various local Japanese tourism officials were also excited that I had become editor and that I was embarking on my first official trip to Japan. As a result, when the time came for our fateful departure, quite a congregation of these officials and their staff people were waiting for us at the airport. We were flying on Japan Airlines, so the director and managers of the local branch of the airline were there, as was a sizable team from the local office of the Japan National Tourist Organization. Officials from a few other agencies were there too, just to swell the ranks.

When we walked into the airport and saw all these people waiting for us, we were surprised and embarrassed, but I must admit that I also felt pleased and even somewhat kingly, as if a thick red carpet had been luxuriantly unfurled for us across the airport floor. We strode up and greeted the crowds, shaking innumerable hands and bowing innumerable times and thanking everyone for taking the trouble to come to the airport to see us off.

Then, after a few more exchanges of pleasantries and good wishes, the time came to check in.

As staff people whisked our check-in luggage away, the district director for Japan Airlines escorted me to a ticket counter that seemed to have been set up exclusively for us and bowed me into the hands of the ticket agent, who -- as I read on her nameplate -- was actually the supervisor of JAL ticket agents at the airport. Mustering as much ceremonial dignity as I could, I bowed and presented our tickets to her with both hands, like precious Buddhist texts. She took them, bowed, smiled and leafed through them efficiently. All was in order.

"Now may I have your passports, please?" she asked in crisp English. I produced my wife's red Japanese passport with the green card tucked securely inside and my own true blue U.S. passport and again offered them with both hands and a slight bow.

She looked through them and smiled and returned them to me -- and then the universe suddenly derailed and the airport turned upside-down and I fell though life's rabbit hole.

"And now may I see your daughter's passport, please?" she asked with the sweetest smile imaginable.

Time stopped. My heart stopped. The planet momentarily stopped spinning. In the next second, a million different things slammed through my brain -- all the people waiting expectantly around me, all the appointments and deadlines I had missed in my life, all the important things I had ever forgotten. Nothing stuck. Nothing cohered. I felt the blood rush to my head. I felt a metallic taste fill my mouth. I felt like I was going to faint.

"My -- daughter's -- passport?" I said, as though learning a new language.

"Yes, your daughter needs a passport to travel also."

"But," I thought to myself, "my daughter's only 8 months old. All she does is nurse and throw up and cry and sleep and goo-goo once in a while. It's unthinkable that she would need a passport. What's she going to do -- run off to Tahiti? What could she possibly need a passport for? She can't even sign her name. She can't even change money. She's hardly a person at all."

What I said was, "My daughter needs a passport?"

The ticket agent, still very sweetly, said, "Yes, all people need a passport, regardless of their age."

"Oh, I didn't realize that."

I was like some prehistoric beast caught in a tar pit; the more I struggled, the deeper I sank.

The circles of confused concern emanating from me rippled through the crowd of dignitaries. "What's happening?" I was sure they were whispering. "Why is it taking so long?" "Has something gone wrong?" "What could possibly be transpiring at the ticket agent's desk?"

The district manager for Japan Airlines came rushing over.

"Is anything the matter?" he asked, anxiety creasing his brow.

"Um, well, yes, actually. I don't have a passport for my daughter."

"You left it at your home?"

"Well, actually, no, I, uh, I didn't realize I needed a passport for her."

Only the faintest trace of incredulity crossed his face before he said, "Ah, I see. You have no passport for your daughter." He paused, brow furrowed in concentration. "But your daughter cannot fly to Japan without a passport."

"Is there anything I can do?" I asked.

"Well, you have to get a passport for your daughter."

"Can I do that at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo?"

"No, you cannot board the airplane without it. You have to get it at the passport agency in San Francisco."

By now the head of the Japan National Tourist Organization had joined the discussion. "You don't have a passport for your daughter?" he asked, trying to disguise his astonishment.

"That's right," I said grimly, feeling a miserable cocktail of embarrassment, guilt, stupidity, humiliation and other unsavory ingredients course through my veins.

"I can give you a ride to the passport agency," he said.

My mind at this point was reeling with a kind of desperate clarity. I had interviewed the head of the passport agency a month earlier for a column about passports. Maybe I could explain the circumstances and ask him to conjure a miracle. I looked at my watch -- two-and-a-half hours till takeoff. I raced through the calculations: Even if the traffic were preposterously light, it would still take 45 minutes to get to the passport office and 45 minutes to get back to the airport. I would have to accomplish the whole passport process in one hour.

I had about as much hope of inventing a time machine in an hour.

The inevitable had already dawned on the faces around me. "I'm so very, very sorry," I said. "I'm so sorry, I can't believe I did this. Is there any way we can fly to Japan tomorrow?"

The JAL manager was already behind the counter, punching and prodding a keyboard. "We have seats available on tomorrow's flight," he said with a relieved smile. "I will reserve them for you right now."

I heaved a huge sigh, then realized I had to explain the situation to the intensely curious crowd of well-wishers who were waiting for us to move on to the departure gate so they could bow and wave us off safely and then get on with whatever they really wanted to be doing that day.

I approached them. "I'm very, very sorry," I said. "I'm afraid I didn't realize that my daughter needed a passport. Thank you all so very much for your trouble, but we won't be flying to Japan today. We have to get a passport and we will be flying tomorrow. Thank you again for coming to see us off. We really appreciate your kindness." And then I took out a shovel and dug a deep pit right there in the airport floor and climbed in and curled into a little ball and rocked and rocked and rocked until everyone went away ...

No, I didn't. I bowed as deeply as I could to everyone, remembering those samurai films where the dishonored samurai takes out his sword and plunges it deep into his gut. But then, instead of beheading me, one of them kindly said, "Oh, that's all right, it's a mistake anyone could make," and then another smiled and said, "Get a good night's sleep and have a safe trip tomorrow," and they all smiled kindly and told me to take care and dispersed as quickly and graciously as a spring breeze.

Then I went over to where my wife was blissfully bouncing my daughter, oblivious to the disaster unfolding. "Honey," I said, "I don't know how to tell you this, but -- Jenny needs a passport. There's no way we can get it before the plane leaves. Our best hope is to get the passport this afternoon and fly out tomorrow. They've already reserved seats for us on tomorrow's flight."

To her eternal credit, she blinked for a few seconds while absorbing this information, then said simply, "OK, let's go."

We gathered up all our bags and then I called the director of the passport office from the airport, explained the whole miserable situation, dropped on my figurative knees and asked if there was any way I could get the passport that afternoon so we could leave tomorrow and I could just make the ceremonial opening of the conference. He said that if we drove to the agency right away and processed the papers immediately, he would put the application in as a superrush and would do his best to get it to me by the end of the afternoon. He also made it clear that this was a once-in-a-lifetime dispensation. (As you well know, dear readers, under the smoothest circumstances the normal passport process takes at least a week -- by which time the conference would be history.)

Well, we hustled our bags and our bodies into a cab and flew to the passport agency, picked up all the papers and ran to a nearby photo shop, where we had Jenny's picture taken. I filled out the forms while we waited for the pictures to be developed, then sprinted back to the passport office, where the director personally took our papers and disappeared.

Kuniko and Jenny took a cab home and I waited like a restless father in a maternity ward, pacing back and forth, back and forth, glancing at the clock, trying futilely to read the newspaper or the novel I had packed for the plane, reviewing for the one-millionth time my unbelievable ignorance and carelessness and stupidity and vowing that if we got the passport in time, I would never, ever, ever say anything unkind about passport agencies.

Finally, at about five minutes to closing time, the director emerged with a big smile on his face, waving a little blue bundle in his hands. "I've got your daughter's passport," he said.

After my 12th thank you, he made me get up off the floor and sent me toward the elevator, passport clutched in hand, with a cheery, "Have a good trip!"

The next day at the airport, there was no one to see us off. We waited anonymously in line until our time came, when I handed our tickets to the ticket clerk, who scanned them and said, "Can I see your passports, please?"

I gingerly handed over my wife's passport and my own, and then my daughter's shiny, pristine treasure.

The agent leafed through them all and said, "So this is your daughter's first trip abroad?"

"Yes, it certainly is," I said, and she smiled and handed all the tickets and passports back and told us where the gate was. As our bags were being conveyed away, I noticed the supervisor peering at us from a back office, smiling. She gave a little knowing wave, and we were on our way.

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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