“A CARIBBEAN JOHN HANCOCK” AT THE BORDER
I frequently travel overseas from my home in southern Florida. I visit my native Haiti for a week or so every month to maintain a small family hotel and a humanitarian organization on the South seacoast. And then I enjoy joining groups to “see the sights” in far-off places once or twice a year…the Far East, Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Cuba. Needless to say, my passport pages fill quickly, mostly with the routine stamps of entry and exit at Haiti’s international airport in Port-au-Prince. This means the colorful stampings of farther destinations become wedged in-between and among those of “Haiti,” wherever space is available. Over time, this creates a veritable “passport fruit salad” for the eyes when crossing borders.
Typical page of arrival and departure stamps, Haiti
John Hancock’s signature on the United States’
Declaration of Independence, 1776
For example, for the first time, I recently traveled to the Middle East in a group of about forty Americans. An early stop was Egypt where I visited some of what remained there after two thousand years…the Valley of the Kings, the Pyramid of Cheops, the Sphinx and other royal monuments. All of it impressed me as hand-made and surprisingly durable.
Traveling eastward, our bus approached the Israeli crossing point at Eilat Taba. Stopping there, our tour guide helped us through the usual migration and customs formalities…passports, stampings, brief glances, perfunctory questions, and answers. Everyone passed through quickly – as if Moses had stretched out his arm over the sea – except me. While they all waited back on the bus, the border guards were riveted to my passport. More than a half-hour and many questions later, they gave me the nod, and a woman smiled brightly and welcomed me to the “Promised Land.” My worried travel friends cheered when I climbed back onto the bus.
Then for a few days, The Bible became alive, in a manner of speaking. Our group followed the paths of Jesus and his disciples, floated on the Dead Sea, renewed baptismal vows in the Jordan River, visited ancient sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, approached the Wailing Wall, the place where Abraham began to sacrifice Isaac and later where Solomon built his Temple that held the Ark of the Covenant. We also strolled the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian quarters of Jerusalem.
From Israel, we crossed into Jordan at a new outpost near Jericho. The passport experience repeated itself. My American friends entered Jordan smoothly, but I was left behind while the border guards closely examined my passport. After about fifteen minutes, I questioned one of them. He answered by pointing, “Why do you let your children scribble on all the pages? Your passport is a precious document. It should be treated with respect”
I looked where he was pointing and “a light went on.” I said, “Those are not from children! Those are Haitian Immigration officers’ signatures. When I go in and out of the country every month, that’s what they do…stamp and sign, stamp and sign, page after page.” The Jordanian guard accepted my explanation. But when I got on the bus, I could read on the faces of my traveling friends that they did not really appreciate the delay.
Entry stamp, Jordan, wedged in-between Haitian signed stamps
Orderly and minimal passport stamps of France (left) and Denmark [right]
Later, in the calm of my hotel room, I carefully examined my American passport. It looked a little tired. The almost obliterated image of the eagle flickered on the bluish cover. As a frequent traveler, the government had added more pages to those that were already fully stamped and filled with destinations. It was unquestionably beefy. In a way, I felt that I had gained some bragging rights as an overseas traveler. I had a feeling of pride and accomplishment that let me relive my adventures abroad, including the ups and downs of crossing borders.
In general, I’ve noticed that regimented countries are very precise on how and where to stamp one’s passport, while in more laid-back countries – Haiti, for example – imprints, dates, initials and even whole signatures are often placed helter-skelter.
I remember once when entering St. Petersburg, Russia, a gloomy and austere immigration officer methodically aligned his entry and exit stamps in parallel fashion. By comparison, when I entered Freeport, Bahamas, a very jovial officer, without even paying attention, stamped with a crash half the edge of my passport, while recommending some attractive nightclubs.
In Havana, Cuba, the guard gave me a choice of a stamp on my passport or on a separate sheet of paper. Coming into the country, I chose the stamp on the sheet of paper. When leaving, I asked for my passport to be stamped. The puzzled and confused officer shook his head and, “Bang!” stamped my passport.
In some countries, if your pages are “full up,” immigration officials will be happy to “help you for a fee” (of course without giving receipts). They will, for instance, stamp an exit paper and then staple it next to your corresponding entry stamp.
In Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, immigration officers use blue oval or octagonal stamps with red dates in the center, or uniformly red stamps. The most striking aspect is the officers’ signatures. Some are grandiose and elaborate, a kind of “John Hancock of the Caribbean.” I have seen some topped with three dots that resemble a masonic symbol. Others can be downright large, impenetrable scrawls, the kind that attract and puzzle far away border guards.
Perhaps the attachment to graphology and titles reflect the personality traits of a country, where signatures become associated with social status, self-esteem, dominance and narcissism.
Overall, however, I feel that passports are becoming a nostalgic “thing of the past.” Already, many countries and checkpoints have adopted alternatives such as facial scanning and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips. In the United States, what seems to matter now are electronic records and the I-94 form. Airlines still examine passports to ensure that passengers are accepted at their destinations overseas. But for the most part, they just laugh at whether and how the pages are stamped, signed or scrawled.
Last fall at the Copenhagen airport, as the immigration officer began to examine my passport, I casually said, “By the way, those are not children’s scribbles, but the signatures from Haitian immigration agents.” Puzzled and confused, she shook her head and “Bang!” stamped a page and passed me through.
Aldy Castor, M.D., email@example.com
President, Haitian Resource Development Foundation (HRDF)
Director, Emergency Medical Services for Haiti Medical Relief Mission, Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad.
Member, United Front Haitian Diaspora
Stuart Leiderman, Environmental Response, USA, firstname.lastname@example.org
Weston, Florida, USA – February 2020