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Disaster: The day I lost my passport in a country without a US embassy



Alecia Janeiro, an American who lives and works in South Korea, looks back on a time when she thought she was doomed to become a stateless, cashless, refugee in Taiwan. However, as she recounts here, sometimes potential disasters have a way of resolving themselves:

I shot out of bed and the harsh, fluorescent lights in the hostel room sparked an immediate headache.

I checked my phone and realised we needed to leave for the airport in just 15 minutes. “RACHEL! We have to go!” My friend woke, and we quickly started packing.

I threw everything into my backpack and started checking the essentials. I reached into the pocket of my purse where I usually kept my passport. Empty.

Panic set in, and the hangover wasn’t helping. I started running through the previous night’s events in my head, trying to figure out where my passport could have disappeared. Meanwhile, Rachel told me she’d stay behind in Taipei with me.

“No,” I replied. “Go back to Korea without me. I’m going to miss at least one day of work over this, and Director Park will kill us if both foreign teachers are absent”. She hugged me and ran off to catch her flight.

I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to make my flight and sat down to figure out what to do. It takes weeks to get a passport in the US, so I was genuinely worried I’d be stuck. I googled “American Embassy Taipei” and another realisation hit me: The US doesn’t have an embassy in Taiwan because of the One China Policy. 

Fortunately, the search engine quickly allayed my fears as I discovered that the US does have one consulate at a university in Taipei.

Just then, my new friend, Michael, walked into the hostel lounge. “Aren’t you supposed to be gone?” he asked. “Yeah… but I lost my passport.”

I had lucked out here, because Michael is Taiwanese-American, speaks the language, and is super-nice — so he offered to help, which ended up saving me hours.

The night before, Rachel, Michael, two other friends from the hostel, and I had hit the town. We started in Snake Alley, a street known for small restaurants that breed cobras for their meat and bodily fluids. I had to try the “special”, cobra soup with shots of blood, bile, urine, semen, and venom. No one else in our group had any desire to try this delicacy (I wonder why?), but everyone came along to watch.

We settled on a small restaurant with a massive pet python in a terrarium at the front. I ordered the special, and minutes later, I was presented with a tray containing a small bowl of cobra soup and five shot glasses. The soup was bland and full of bones. The five shot finale was the more interesting part. While another friend, Belinda, filmed, I quickly downed all five shots whil holding my breath. Only after did I realise that each bodily fluid had been mixed with a fiery mystery liquor. That was the beginning of my passport disaster.

Taipei 101

After a few beers and a wander through the alley, we hopped in a cab to an area near Taipei 101 to have more drinks before calling it a night. It was there that Belinda started talking about how terrible her passport photo was. At the time, mine looked like a male version of me with the worst haircut I’ve ever had, so we pulled them out to compare. I slipped mine back into my bag, and we continued the party.

Fittingly, the last cocktail I had before we went back to the hostel was called a “Disaster”.

Michael and I ran through the night’s events, decided to check the bar before going to the consulate, and hopped in a cab. His assistance proved immediately invaluable because most cab drivers in Taipei don’t speak English, and explaining how to get back to the bar area would have been impossible for me. 

After checking the bar, and coming up empty, we went to the American Consulate.

I was expecting to wait hours because the embassy in Korea is always packed, but when I walked into the tiny, hidden consulate on the second floor of an obscure university building, I found it empty, save for the staff. I was instructed to go across town, file a police report as a formality, and bring it back with passport photos and $80.

Michael saved me yet again because the police station was a madhouse. There was a ticketed waiting system, and at least 10 different service options. I probably would have wasted half a day there, but he approached the nearest officer and we handled everything in less than half an hour.

I insisted he go back to the hostel, but he took me back to the consulate. 

I handed all of the necessary paperwork and payment to the woman at the consulate and nervously asked: “How long will it be before I can get another passport?” Thoughts of having to borrow money from someone and spend weeks in limbo had been fluttering through my head all day. “Come back at 8am tomorrow and we’ll have an emergency passport ready for you. We could have had it for you today if you’d been just a little earlier. I’m sorry,” she replied.

Relief hit me, and I replied: “No, that’s more than okay.”

 Michael and I went back to the hostel, where I encountered one final, albeit minor issue: All rooms were booked for the night.

“That’s okay, I have an entire dorm to myself. You can just take an empty bunk,” offered Michael before I could even ask if there was another place nearby. I offered to pay for the cost of the night, but he declined, so I bought him dinner for helping me so much. I’s sure I could have sorted the problem out myself, but it would have taken me hours longer.

I called the airline and explained the situation. A seat was open on an early afternoon flight the next day, so they rebooked the ticket for free. Asian airlines are generally great about rebooking if you miss a flight, so I lucked out yet again.

I crashed for the night, left in the morning, picked up my passport, and flew back to Seoul. 

I didn’t have classes until the evening, so I phoned work and my boss told me not to worry about coming in because I probably needed rest. In my panicky 23-year-old mind, I had convinced myself she was going to fire me, or reprimand me, at the very least.

Every single scenario that I believed would go wrong worked out perfectly. 

As for what happened to my passport, when I told Korean friends this story, most nodded and replied: “Passports are stolen in China quite often. Someone probably took it because they sell for a lot of money.”

My bag didn’t have a zipper, and the pouch where I kept my passport was near the top. The bar where Belinda and I compared passports had been crowded, and I stupidly left my bag once when I went to the bathroom. That was the most opportune time for someone to nick it, especially since no one in our party was paying much attention by that point.

This was my first trip outside of Korea after I moved there. Although I was fairly well-travelled by that point, I was still uptight about far too many things in general. This short trip taught me that not everything is a disaster, although some drinks are. Looking back on it years later, I cannot help but think two words: Worth it.