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How an old passport gave me the chance to recall a lifetime of adventures

The sun sets over the beach in Seminyak, Bali. The author’s long, multi-stop trip to Asia required significant advance planning. (Debra Bruno for The Washington Post)
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I had the compression socks. The face masks. A lovely knit jacket for the plane. Museum tickets for Tokyo. Dinner reservations in Bali. I had worked out every detail and was feeling pretty proud of myself.

This trip to Indonesia was a tricky vacation in terms of planning. We were visiting our son in Jakarta, returning to a part of the world I hadn’t seen since we moved back to D.C. from Beijing six years ago. I missed Asia terribly. But I also knew that preparing for a long, multi-stop trip like that took some planning, so I went into high gear. I had spent months gathering suggestions for a stopover site because flying straight to Indonesia for 30 hours was too much of a killer.

So where was a good stopping point? We had options of either Tokyo or Hong Kong. We chose Japan, even though it was January and the winter weather could be iffy. I even bought myself a nifty Uniqlo jacket — on sale! — for chilly Tokyo, one that could be squished into a small bag for the times when I wouldn’t need it in steamy Indonesia. I nagged my husband Bob about getting one but he decided to schlep around his heavy jacket instead, and I was feeling pretty superior about that.

All was set. I put the leftover bananas in the freezer. Banana bread in my future! I bought an extra timer for the lights. Also on sale! I arranged for the cat to get fed, finished up my work, got a mani-pedi, bought a cute new bathing suit (yep, also on sale), had my hair cut and colored. I planned a comfy — but stylish — outfit to wear on the plane. I bought a couple of books on Indonesia. I made plans to see friends in Tokyo and Indonesia.

I was ready.

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A couple of months before the trip, I had been annoyed when Bob realized his passport was going to expire within six months, and he had to pay for a special rush passport, which cost him extra fees and which gave me anxiety over whether he might get it in time. My passport wouldn’t expire until 2024. There is nothing better than feeling more together than your spouse. Smug is too small a word. Superior is too large. Self-satisfied? Competent? I am a together adult who, at 63, has her life so together.

When Bob did get his new passport, we had some fun looking at his lifetime of passport photos — a Beatles look-alike with long sideburns and a sweet fresh face, then a bearded guy with a smirk, then a guy with shorter hair, looking like the harried young dad he was.

I pulled out my old passports, too. I had fewer passports in my lifetime roster, but I still enjoyed looking over all the travel, plus the slow aging process, the inevitable deepening of circles under the eyes, the more bemused and wise (wise, really? No, together) expressions. My very first passport, issued for our honeymoon to England in 1982, features a young woman with a bad haircut that had grown out raggedly, wearing what appears to be a short-sleeved knit top over a long-sleeved blouse. I carefully piled up the old passports and tucked them away inside my desk, putting the current one on top of the stuff to bring in my carry-on.

I had a good night’s sleep before we left, which was totally in keeping with this especially together Debbie. In the past, I would toss and turn and have stress dreams about missing the plane or showing up naked.

But I woke up, had a healthy breakfast (mostly finishing those perishable berries, yay!), fed the cat, took out the recyclables, brushed my teeth, and watered my ferns one more time. Together Debbie in action.

We took a Lyft to the airport. I had tucked my passport into an inside pocket of my purse (safer!) but then I moved it into a front section, all ready to go.

In keeping with my ultra-vigilant planning, I insisted on getting to the airport three hours early.

We got to the check-in kiosks and I pulled out the passport.

There, staring back at me in all her 25-year-old glory, was me. The young me, looking as clueless and excited about life as any newlywed about to travel overseas for the first time should look. A me whose face was emblazoned on a passport that had expired in 1987.

I was speechless for a second. All I could do was show Bob the picture. “Go back,” he said. “Go back now. You have time.”

People like my husband are a different species. No recriminations, no snide comments, just a serious tone, a furrowed brow.

But me, I have never been more disgusted by Young Debbie. Or Together Debbie, for that matter. Both Debbies, the one in my head and the one in my purse, dashed to the cab stand, looking a little like a dog suddenly let off a leash at a dog park — quick, this way, no, that way — where is the cab stand?

He was dreading his 13-hour flight. So he asked experts for some tips.

I spotted a kindly dispatcher and explained what happened. Okay, I might have used a simplified version of my pathetic story. “I forgot my passport! I need to get home and back!” “What time is your flight?” he asked and had the courtesy not to laugh when I told him it was three hours in the future.

He called the cab, and a black van rolled up. “He’s the best. He’ll take care of you,” he said.

And Mansouri, the Ethiopian driver, did just that, weaving through traffic, breaking the speed limit, taking shortcuts through sleepy neighborhoods when he got behind old ladies going to book club.

I told Mansouri the story of the passports. “Ah, but this gave you the chance to remember the times you traveled,” he said as he screeched around a slow FedEx van and pulled from lane to lane as the rain picked up. I just nodded, trying to keep myself from panicking.

I got to our house, tore open the desk drawer, tossing our marriage certificate and baby pictures of the kids to the floor of the study while the cab made a three-point turn and faced back in the direction of the airport.

Somehow Mansouri managed a trip that is normally 45 minutes one way in less than an hour there and back. As we were charging down the Beltway on the way back, I had the sense to check in online, downloading the airline app and even managing to scan my passport into the system, as the rickety van roared over rough roads and swayed.

“I’m all checked in,” I texted Bob on the drive back.

“???” he responded.

“To save time,” I said. Also, I was thinking to let United, and the universe, know I was there and I was ready.

United, or maybe it was the universe, gave me TSA Pre-Check. I even had enough time at the airport to get a tall skim latte and to eat the extra banana I stuck in my purse (together) alongside Young Debbie’s passport.

Midflight, I pulled out the passport for Young Debbie. That’s when I realized she was grinning like she knew something I didn’t know. Or forgot. Or maybe she was just a little excited to get to go on one more adventure, as if she, my little sprite in a passport, had engineered herself as a stowaway.

I held her up alongside Together Debbie. I have a more measured smile this time, and my eyebrows are in far better shape. There has been a lifetime of good and bad choices, great adventures and terrible sadness, between those two photographs.

In Tokyo, we did all the things: visited the TeamLab Borderless Museum, where we climbed on stuff and had a blast; we ate noodles in a dingy ramen shop; we rode a roller coaster and screamed loudly and not at all in our hearts. In Jakarta, we started our visit with a street food walking tour, where I ate lettuce (oops) and drank a coconut drink cooled with ice that may or may not have been a good idea. On the packed planes between Indonesia’s islands we sat jam-packed with tourists and Indonesians, all unmasked. We swam, we tried interesting foods, we hugged the friends we saw.

We had a great time, and if we had planned the trip for even two weeks later, the whole thing would have been off. I’m glad we went — doubly glad in hindsight when the whole travel landscape shriveled up immediately after that.

My prophetic cabdriver knew something I hadn’t realized: that, yes, it would work out in the end and yes, I did have a chance to think about Young Debbie’s first trip abroad, walking around England in sandals that cut blisters into her feet.

But Young Debbie also seemed to have a hunch about something I wouldn’t have dared to accept about myself. I was ready. Maybe she also knew, too, that being together sometimes involves the help of everyone around you.

Bruno is a writer based in D.C.

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