New 3QD Article Today

My monthly column at 3 Quarks Daily is up this morning. It’s about Passport Control in Sikkim, Côte d’Ivoire and the USA. Read it here now, and I’ll post it here on CS&W later this week.

Gangtok, Sikkim
Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire
Havana, Cuba

Quotes: A World Without Passports

A world without passports isn’t some aspirational future place, like a nuclear-free world. It was just the regular old world pre-World War I. Here is Stefan Zweig from his memoir, The World of Yesterday:

“Before 1914 the earth had belonged to all. People went where they wished and stayed as long as they pleased. There were no permits, no visas, and it always gives me pleasure to astonish the young by telling hem that before 1914 I traveled from Europe to India and to America without passport and without ever having seen one. One embarked and alighted without questioning or being questioned, one did not have to fill out a single one which, with their customs officers, police and militia, have become wire barriers thanks to the pathological suspicion of everybody against everybody else, were nothing but symbolic lines which one crossed with as little thought as one crosses the Meridian of Greenwich.”

(a book review by John Gray, here, pointed me to this quote.)

Getting to Prague Unsecretly

The McClatchy newspaper company reported yesterday that Michael Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, was in Prague last August or September. This is important because if true, it would seem to corroborate part of the controversial dossier compiled by British former spy Christopher Steele. The idea is that Cohen would have taken on the role of contact person with Russia after Paul Manafort was fired from/quit the campaign.

For about 25 hours so far, reporter Peter Stone has left out there twisting slowly, slowly in the wind kicked up by his report. No other news organization that I know of confirms his report. That must be uncomfortable.

If the report is true it is important. Cohen made a conspicuous point of denying the trip when the allegation appeared, when the Steele dossier was published by Buzzfeed. He tweeted a picture of the front of an American passport and wrote “I have never been to Prague in my life.”


Less than half of Americans have a passport, and as recently as 1997 that number was only 15 percent (After 9/11, for the first time “U.S. citizens traveling by air between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda were required to have a valid passport,” Forbes reports, which raised the percentage dramatically).

Since so many Americans are unfamiliar with borders and how they work, I think it’s important to point out something that many might not realize: whether Mr. Cohen traveled to Prague in 2016 or not, his passport would not necessarily contain a Czech entry stamp.

Here’s how that works: 26 European countries, comprising some 400 million people, signed an agreement in the town of Schengen, Luxembourg, in 1995. Under the Schengen agreement, entry into any of these countries requires the usual pass control arrival procedures, the glowering official, the uncomfortable silence, maybe the fingerprint thing and all the flourescence and fatigue, but once stamped in, a visitor is not subject to further border checks within the Schengen area.

Here is a list of the Schengen countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

It has been reported that Mr. Cohen traveled to Italy in July of 2016, though at a time not consistent with the claims of the dossier. He could have walked from the plane to the Hertz counter, rented a budget sedan and driven from Roma to Prague in about twelve hours with no need for his passport.

Alternately, his evil, opulent-luxury-yacht-wielding collaborators might have put him ashore on a quiet Portuguese beach, from which he perhaps begged a ride from an itinerant fisherman to the train station, and from there made his way to Prague. He might have caught the Delta flight up to Reykjavik, been waved through by a weary pass control clerk at the end of his shift, predawn, when all those flights come in at once, and caught the ferry to Denmark.

Or, of course, for the conspiracy minded, he might have been spirited in and out of the Czech Republic with the help of all those evil, conspiring collaborators. Doing something really mean about Crimea on the way just for the record.

Point is: these days in Europe, a passport needn’t have a stamp for you to have been there.

You can get to Prague with your initial entry stamp from any of these places:

The Clerk’s Stamp is Money

And a reprise of the most telling post from a previous trip to Sikkim:

The northern Indian province of Sikkim, between Nepal and Bhutan, borders Tibet. To visit, non-Indians require an “Inner Line Permit/Restricted Area Permit” issued by the Government of Sikkim Tourism Department.

It’s because of history. China chased the Dalai Lama from Lhasa over these mountains and off the throne in ’59. India took in his cadre and donated a whole city, Dharmsala, to their cause. That peeved the Chinese mightily.

The Tibet/Sikkim border isn’t drawn to either sides’ satisfaction. These are barren, forbidding, 12,000 foot mountaintops. Nearly 2500 died fighting up here in the 1960s. (The border at Nathula reopened for trade in 2006. Goods worth just over $1,000,000 moved through in 2013.)

So they try to keep up with where foreigners are.

The Inner Line Permit is a sheet of legal sized, pulpy paper with wood chips still evident. You can get one at the provincial border for free with passport photos and photocopies of things.

It cautions that the visitor must not overstay or go beyond the restricted areas, and must register at all check posts. It has us write down on paper what the NSA already knows: our arrival point, arrival and departure dates, names, nationalities, and passport information. This form requires a bureaucrat’s stamp.

The bureaucrat’s stamp is money.


We hurtled to a stop (driving is purposeful in India) outside a building labeled Ministry of Handicraft and Handloom and presented ourselves and our papers to two gentlemen inside. We wished to enter Sikkim via Rangpo town.

The presiding official wore a Millet brand down jacket with a tall, zipped-tight collar. He examined our materials for several minutes.

There would be no small talk. This was Official Business, far too grave a matter for that. Or for that matter, cordiality.

I think he demanded respect with his silence, or at least TAKE ME SERIOUSLY. This was his domain and these were his number of minutes and it was not our privilege to question or expedite things in any way.

Look here now: I can slow down anybody I want.

Here sat a man whose circumstances were not like our own. If he stayed warm at night, it wasn’t by pressing a button on his thermostat. He had a stove, or something. But the road to Gangtok spread before us. He held our progress toward our nice hotel in his hands right now and we would – if we wouldn’t do anything else – we would note it. He pulled a ledger to his blotter and began recording our passport and visa details both on the ledger and on our permit.

The official and his colleague presided across battered and aged metal desks and facing them, we had the better view. Picture windows at their backs revealed the permanently stirred up frenzy of the street, and on the other side of it, well, Ricki’s Cocktail King.

The Ministry of Handicraft and Handloom was sort of a rambling, half open, ad hoc thing. A clock ticked and a bird made a lot of noise somewhere behind us, up in the rafters.

Ultimately our application to enter Sikkim caused no incident (or uttered word), and in time out came The Stamp. It pounded around a few places including our new Inner Line Permit, and, naive as we were, we imagined that that was that and we’d be underway.

And underway we were, not to Gangtok but under our driver Sunil’s escort, picking our way on foot across traffic asserting itself along the pocked lane and a half of tarmac that constitutes the main road into Sikkim, down a hill to the right past Ricki’s Cocktail King toward a bridge.

Nobody in there. (I cast a longing gaze.)

Chaos prevailed unruly on this side of the street. Over here, besides rooms with clerks inside, other clerks stood in windows onto the street, labeled Excise Tax and Forestry Department and more, pay windows for goods carriers inbound to Sikkim where men stood belligerent and flushed and pointed and hollered.

We stood facing green pastel walls in an office lit by a swinging bulb. Two new gentlemen. The inferior clerk sat at his superior’s side on a rolling office chair that had no back, wielding sheaves of paper, fretting. The boss man sat behind a half window with space for pushing critical documents back and forth beneath the plexiglass.

Letters on his window spelled out “C. O. I. Verification Officer.” The C. O. I. Verification Officer took our papers, examined them with a practiced eye to detail and frowned. He wore a high-collared parka similar to the gentleman in the Ministry of Handicraft and Handloom, only it was Kappa brand, not Millet.

With the joy of a cat in a cloudburst, he reached for a sheaf of papers like his adjutant’s and began his work. Which consisted of copying our same details into his papers, performing a vital verification, no doubt, of his could-be conniving colleague up the hill.

There would be a delay now, for the inferior clerk riffed through his stack of papers, shook his head and spoke. The C. O. I. Verification Officer put down his pen and gingerly leaned back in his chair. It was one of those chairs that at a certain point in its trajectory of recline, collapses all at once the rest of the 45 degrees backward.

So the Verification Office was careful, and when his chair settled without capsizing he and his clerk discussed matters for a time. At length, with no small amount of labor he summoned himself upright and handed his clerk a stapler.

During the process a small, older gentlemen entered, puttered here and there, then headed back and down the darkness of a hallway. His movement led my eye to a hand-painted sign farther down, the entrance to the Forestry Department. Between us and the sign an open electrical box on the wall stuck wires out into the hallway. There was just the faintest smell of piss.

In his own time, the C. O. I. Verification Officer completed his work and looked none too happy about it. The Stamp came out and pounded around the C. O. I. desk and our papers.

And we were free to go. Silently.

Weekend Reading

Here is a selection of fine reading material on which to muse this weekend:

The Fate of Earth by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker
Russia’s House of Shadows by Joshua Yaffa in The New Yorker
A New History of the First Peoples in the Americas by Adam Rutherford in The Atlantic
Here’s What Would Happen If Donald Trump Nuked North Korea by Greg Fish at
Citizens of anywhere by Matthew Valencia at
Ça va un peu by Adam Shatz in the London Review of Books, reviewing Congo: The Epic History of a People by David van Reybrouck

The Queue and You

There are two aisles open for American Citizens and Residents in the arrivals hall. Travelers hurry off their planes and fill the queue and it snakes way around behind the pass control booths. The line backs up pretty quick.

You hustle off the plane (Hard learned tip: If there are stairs and an escalator between the plane and pass control, ALWAYS take the stairs) because just like at airline check-ins, if you get in the wrong one, where people have too many bags, or there's some paperwork problem, or maybe the agent's just having a bad day, each customer in front of you could mean an extra six, eight minutes.

Continue reading

The Allure of the Far Away and Exotic

Here's a ruse we hadn't seen: The local boys use signs with people's names to get access inside the pass control gates, then they make like officials who are going to open up another pass control lane for you, grab your passports and expedite you through the lines, with the acquiescence of the real pass control clerks, for tips.

They're on you like a glove until you tip them, at which point they're joined by the baggage cart cadres just outside the pass control desk. These guys artfully monopolize all the available baggage carts and attach themselves to each arrival.

The pass control expediter got a dollar though he demanded ten. At least his scam was novel. Plus, we kind of needed our passports.

But we'd been through the baggage cart game quite enough on this trip to Africa, thank you, and we simply told the little round fellow who appointed us his (thank goodness we knew enough French), "We don't want your help, we will not pay you, go away," and he smiled and laughed and thought it was all a big joke and didn't begin to move until I rested my hand on his shoulder and repeated the same words slowly and more gravely. Finally he shook his head at the terrible wrong to which he'd fallen miserable victim and slowly walked away, but he was back at the curb for one last try.

Welcome to Abidjan.

– Tuesday, 21 March, 1995, from the collected dairies.


Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire