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No way José: tatty passport means no to Mexico

Travelling has its ups and downs and I’ve had my fair share, but I have never felt so low as I did when I was turned away from Benito Juarez airport while trying to get into Mexico after the wrong side of a 36-hour flight. Not only was I gutted, but I was in total shock. The reason I had been refused entry was because my passport was slightly damaged.

After five amazing months island hopping through the Philippines and exploring the southern climes of south-east Asia, I was excited to experience the culture of Latin America and couldn’t think about much else from the moment the plane left the scorching hot tarmac of Singapore. It was a sad goodbye to Asia but a cheery hello to Mexico. Or at least it should have been, but sadly there was no hola for this traveller.

This trip was my first to the Americas and I could barely stop myself running through arrivals to get out and take my first breath of Mexican air. Mexico was my first travel plan – from the age of thirteen – but distractions and other culture cravings meant my twenty-fourth birthday passed before I was pulling out my passport to finally get a Mexican stamp on its back pages. It was a big moment.

I started to wonder if he’d fallen asleep. The immigration officer’s head was bowed at ninety degrees, his face toward the floor, and hadn’t moved for what seemed like minutes. I remember laughing impatiently and looking around at the passengers behind me as if to say “what’s this clown up to?” and by the time I turned back the immigration officer was looking me in the face – the words “Sorry sir, but you cannot enter the country of Mexico with this passport.” the first he said to me.

It’s strange how long the brain can take to process information it doesn’t want to hear. I laughed, but it was more a laugh of disbelief and because I didn’t know what else to do. “You’re joking,” I said. The officer shook is head. A few cog-turns later and my head felt as though it had collapsed. “But I don´t understand. Why? I have a valid passport!”

“It is damaged,” the officer said in accented English. “We cannot verify it is genuine.”

“Of course it’s genuine!” I argued. “You can see picture and read my name and address.”

“It is damaged,” the officer repeated. “We cannot let you into Mexico with a damaged passport!”

“Well it’s a little dog-eared, but it´s five years old,” I explained. “It’s been half-way round the world. You’d be a little dog-eared if you been pulled in and out of a rucksack for five years.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This was the same passport that had carried me across south-east Asia for the last five months. I hadn’t encountered any problems there. I’d even been allowed to board the flight from Singapore and London and nobody battered an eyelid. And now my passport was being rejected as invalid! It was unheard of and I was mortified.

The ‘damage’ in question was no more – in my eyes – than the natural wear and tear of a well-used five year old passport that had just endured a heavy stint of island hopping. It was a little rough round the edges and one of the back pages had a slight tear, but nothing major. Certainly not enough to say it was invalid! I’d heard stories of people with passports missing entire pages or taking a spin in the washing machine and get through customs without a problem.

The immigration officer said I would be returned to the UK on the next available flight. For the first time on my travels I felt like I was thousands of miles away from home and completely helpless. My trip to South America was destroyed.

The return flight to London was awful. I wanted to sleep to escape it all, but I couldn’t stop myself playing the scene over and over in my head. I felt cheated and angry. I couldn’t stop wondering what might have happened if it had been another passport official that was prepared to show more leniency. The worse part is, I have an Irish passport as well as a British Passport, but somewhere amidst the madness of last-minute packing I left the latter of these at home.

The first thing I did back in London – apart from moan about everything – was go to my nearest Passport Customer Service Centre to burden my story on them in the hope of some pity. They were almost as horrified as I was to see I’d been turned away with a passport in ‘perfectly acceptable condition’. I’ve since learned that Mexico is one of many countries that has drastically increased the required condition of passports as a result of improving forgeries and security concerns.

I am in the process of waiting for two brand spanking new passports and will make sure that the next time I travel I will make sure I have both with me and that both are safely tucked away in a protective passport holder to make sure they don’t get damaged. I’m itching to get back on my travels and explore South America, but the money I lost on my flight to Mexico and having to pay for a new passport has eaten into my meagre travel budget and I am having to work to save up enough cash.

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