I doubt I’ll ever forget the exact feeling – two parts hysteria, one part dread – that characterised my last afternoon in Edinburgh, running down Prince’s Street to return the clothing I’d purchased just the day before in order to pay for passport photos.
My travel buddy had turned on his data roaming (bless his heart) and shouted at me across a throng of giddy tourists, “Next left!” I apologised in a high-pitched whine as I cut across them, swallowing hot relief at the advertisement hanging above the camera store’s door: GET YOUR PASSPORT PHOTOS HERE!
I don’t know anyone who actually likes their passport photo. It’s not a competition or anything, but I assure you that mine would put yours to shame in the that-is-an-awful-photo category. My hair (cut too short by an over-zealous hairdresser a few weeks earlier) flips out at the ends like a bad imitation of Sandra Dee, and my chin is caught mid-quiver. I’m wearing a rain jacket and the collar of my sweater is turned up beneath it. My eyes are crazy – red, that is, and not because of crying, but from trying to jam contact lenses into my eyes on my way out the hostel door. And that isn’t even the best part! This will be the photo used for my next ten-year passport, and as a person who spends more time on social media looking at Travel-Porn than my messages, I’m going to be seeing that photo a lot.
I’ve heard it said that losing a passport is a traveller’s worst nightmare, and as a result, I jumped through hoops to avoid it. I wore a money belt (I know, the height of fashion), which I slipped into my pillowcase every night with the thought that one of my hostel roomies would have to literally fight me in order to steal it. I checked that my passport was nestled securely among my euros at the end of every day, and again the next morning when I strapped it on.
I considered myself a relatively savvy traveller, having lived in England for a year during university and inter-railing on my Easter holidays, in addition to which I had been tapping into my travel fund every summer since I was eighteen. I’d had food poisoning on a ten hour flight from Rome to Toronto, missed my connecting flight in Montreal after a long haul flight from Athens, and taken an overbooked overnight coach across Italy, but none of these “nightmare” experiences made me want to stop travelling.
I’d never lost my luggage, let alone my passport, and I guess I got cocky. I’m not stupid! I would assure my mom at the airport when she asked, for the umpteenth time, if I had my passport. And then I shocked myself by doing the exact thing I’d thought myself too experienced to do.
Here’s what I remember: on my last morning in Ambleside, in the English Lake District, I woke up to my hiking buddy (and ride) puking his guts out. Heat exhaustion, apparently. (Who’d have thought you could get heat exhaustion in England?) I had less than an hour to find my way to the train station in Oxenholme and arrange for my ride to get a ride – back to London. While I was inside the hostel at the front desk, taking down the numbers of the buses I’d have to take, my friend knocked his water bottle over, soaking my bags. I hadn’t put on my money belt that morning, assuming I’d be in his car for the first leg of my journey, and I could strap it on when I got to the station. Instead, I found myself on a bus to the station with a wet everything – tablet, wallet, phone, passport. In my haste to dry everything off, I removed my passport from the damp money belt and slipped it into the side of my purse.
I was in Edinburgh with another friend, preparing my travel documents for a flight to Paris later in the week, when I realized.
“No way is it gone,” I said, more to myself than to my friend. The adrenaline kicked in, and I floated downstairs to the front desk and explained my situation, to which I was handed a phone and a stack of platitudes. I called the bus company first, and when they informed me that they hadn’t seen my passport, the Canadian Embassy in Edinburgh. They patched me through to the emergency line in Ottawa, and from there I was instructed to email the embassy in London.
My email: (a more professional sounding version of) Please HELP!
The Canadian Embassy in London: (a very helpful and exceedingly polite version of) Sorry about that, here’s some paperwork, bring it to the office tomorrow at 9 am.
The office. In London.
Trains in the UK aren’t cheap; often, flying can be a better option when you’re booking in advance. But I wasn’t booking in advance, I was booking the-day-of, something I had never done in my ENTIRE LIFE because I am a PLANNER. (I really hope my use of caps lock is helping to convey my PANIC.) You already know that I’m the sort of person who wears a money belt at all times, and you can add an overstuffed yellow folder with two printed copies of every ticket and reservation I’d made (four months in advance) for the duration of my trip to your mental image of me. I am nothing if not prepared.
With no other option, I emailed all of the paperwork to the hostel for printing, bought a heart-breakingly expensive train ticket to London for later that afternoon, and set out to do two things in the few hours left to me in Edinburgh: get passport photos taken, and get tipsy.
And this brings me to that camera store just off Prince’s Street where I paid for two terrible photos of myself with the money from the Harry Potter pyjamas I’d just returned. Afterward, I crushed two cans of Strongbow and watched beautifully dressed people in funny British hats walk through the gates of Holyrood House to attend the Queen’s Garden Party. I had never been in the same city as the Queen, and our physical proximity and relative difference in fortune made me laugh so hard I spilled cider down the front of my last clean shirt.
Fast forward six hours, and I’m sitting in the lobby of a very lovely hotel down the street from King’s Cross Station. How could she have afforded to stay in a centrally-located hotel!? you might be wondering, given that I was about to spend a very large sum of my savings on putting out the dumpster fire that was my #PassportDebacle2018. Well, I got lucky. One of my best friends from my exchange was staying in London with her family before flying back to Beijing the following morning, and they graciously offered for me to stay with them. After our unexpected reunion, she and I stayed up half the night chatting, and when I eventually curled up in my nest of extra duvets and pillows on the floor next to her, I felt appallingly lucky.
And I was lucky in other ways, too – losing my passport in England, where English is the national language and the daily customs aren’t terribly different than those back in Canada; the prime location of the Canadian Embassy in Trafalgar Square; the ease of payment on the Tube (thank you, contactless). The next morning I left my bags with the hotel that I had lucked my way into staying at for free, hugged my friend goodbye, and took the tube from Euston Square to Charring Cross. An hour later, with my paperwork turned in and my references called (i.e. woken up, since it was the middle of the night in Canada), I was standing in front of the National Portrait Gallery with instructions to check back at three in the afternoon on the status of my temporary passport. At 10:00 am, what had felt impossibly huge twenty-four hours earlier now seemed perfectly manageable. The day felt uncharacteristically sweltering already, with a blue sky reminiscent of the Prairie Provinces back home. I took a breath and started to walk.
Trafalgar Square lies just across the street from the Admiralty Arch; I crossed under it, without any specific aim, and was greeted by the Mall, the expansive, tree-lined road leading to the Queen Victoria Memorial and just beyond that, Buckingham Palace. I strolled toward it, settling into the comfortable rhythm of freedom. Apart from my three o’clock appointment at the Embassy, I had nowhere to be, nothing in particular to do, no reservations to fill. I had an unplanned day, on my own, in London, a city I’d only ever experienced transiently, on my way here or there. My embarrassingly expensive, impromptu excursion to the capital had bought me something I hadn’t thought to factor in to my trip: time.
So I meandered – past Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and through the yard (and gift shop) of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I perused a used book sale on the South Bank and enjoyed a cappuccino overlooking the Thames. I sprawled in the grass of Jubilee Gardens and read a few chapters of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. By the time I was once again seated on the white leather chairs of the Canadian Embassy, I could breathe. And then, again, I got lucky: my temporary passport was ready; I wouldn’t have to find accommodation for another night in London, and I’d be able to make it back to Edinburgh in time for my flight to Paris. Using a public computer in the Embassy, I booked a seat on an overnight coach (not the pleasantest, but hey! no need to pay for a bed!) and spent the six or so hours I had left before I needed to be at Victoria Coach Station browsing the British Library, having a few patio Peronis at a pub near the hotel where I’d left my bags, and making the most of the single day of data I’d paid my phone company for.
I had a spectacular day. (The night that followed was a little less spectacular, but all I’ll say here is thank God for Gravol.)
I doubt everyone who has lost a passport has had as positive an experience as me, and this is just another thing I feel lucky for. This isn’t meant to be a lecture or a “in my experience…” sort of homily, but it is a testament to how something super sucky can have unforeseen upsides. I’m also going to use this opportunity to shamelessly plug for everyone reading this to create an Emergency Fund, if you have the means, either in your general bank account or within your travel fund itself. Have a financial back-up if not – a friend, a parent, a line of credit. It’s impossible to plan for everything (even if you’re as Type A as I am, which is very very Type A), and a missed flight, accommodation falling through, or a twisted ankle take more than just patience to deal with – they require dolla dolla bills, yo.
If travel is your aim, surprises are the name of the game (or something like that), and it never hurts to be prepared.
It also doesn’t hurt to NOT LOSE YOUR PASSPORT, but hey, accidents happen.