Are passport stamps dying out?

Every Fall, the BIOS BATS team would sail on the R/V Atlantic Explorer from Bermuda to Puerto Rico and back.  My first year, it took one week to get there.  We spent the afternoon and night in Old San Juan, then another week to sail back.  On the morning of our arrival in Puerto Rico, we could see a huge smoke trail coming from the island.  We found out it was a fuel storage tank fire.  There were rumors that the airports and docks might be closed if officials suspected terrorism.  They didn’t, if they had, we could have gotten some free vacation days.

The second year, I flew to Puerto Rico through JFK to meet the ship for the return trip to Bermuda.  We were “lucky” enough to be on the leg that included an extra four days sailing north beyond Bermuda to explore what goes on up there.  When the sea got too rough to do work, we turned around and headed back.

The third year, I was on the first leg (Bermuda to Puerto Rico) and would fly back to Bermuda, while other scientists would board for the trip back.  The itinerary was switched from the previous year and again, I was on the trip that got to explore north of Bermuda into rough waters before heading south to Puerto Rico.  We sailed north, then got chased west, to almost 100 miles from New York, by Hurricane Ophelia.  I thought that was terrible name for a hurricane, because Ophelia is a character that drowns in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  This delayed us by about 2 days, because if we were steaming at full speed to outrun a hurricane, we weren’t stopping to do science.  After we were safe, we turned and headed south to continue towards Puerto Rico, having to lose another day of science to get us back on schedule.

Once we passed Bermuda, we resumed visiting our planned sampling stations.  A couple of days later, I woke up to find out we were returning to Bermuda again for a medical emergency.  We docked overnight, some people went back to their apartments to sleep (who wouldn’t want to sleep on a boat?), others held a party on the dock.  Marine scientists seem ready to take any opportunity to consume alcohol.  It’s almost unreal how much they love it and it’s a safe bet that when approaching dock anywhere in the world, someone among the scientists or ship crew will know the nearest bar, and possibly someone who works there.

Finally back on path, we make it to Old San Juan on time, as we had a dock reservation and couldn’t miss it.  We spent overnight on the ship before a small group of us left to explore Puerto Rico together for three days before breaking up to do our own things and meeting back in Bermuda.  Every year, during this overnight docking, the scientists and crew would party like they would never get to drink again.

What does this have to do with passport stamps?  Plenty of things are computerized these days, and plenty more are transitioning.  The phrase “paper trail” has moved from the literal to metaphorical.  Years one and three, I entered Puerto Rico on a ship and a Customs and Border Patrol agent came on board to deal with everyone.  Both those years, I had to ask to get a stamp in my passport.  I like the stamps, it’s a free and neat souvenir of your travels.  I also had to ask for a stamp when re-entering the US from Canada by bus after my visit to Vancouver for the Olympics.  The guy at the US-Canadian border was friendly and willing to give a stamp, knowing why I wanted it.  In Puerto Rico, both times, the guy asked why I wanted the stamp.

In January, when I flew from London to Rome, going through customs could not have been easier.  I literally handed the paper and passport to the guy, he looked at both, swiped the passport, handed it back to me, and dismissed me by asking for the next person.  I didn’t have time to stop him to ask for a stamp, and based on my inability to read human emotions, I don’t know if he would have been very accommodating.

Now I have no inky proof in my passport that I ever went to Italy.

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