Passport Office woes in Trinidad and Tobago

LOOKING for a picturesque travel destination this Easter? Have you considered the lovely Government offices right here in Port of Spain? Last year, one of the most popular destinations for prospective travellers was the scenic Frederick Street passport office, a department of the Immigration Division of the Ministry of National Security. The office, which is a stone's throw from the downtown area of the capital city, is once again a hotspot this year. Prices range from $75 for a first-timer to $800 for tampered passports. Opening hours are 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday; on Fridays, they close at 3.45 p.m. But from as early as 4 a.m., there's already a crowd of eager Trinis lining the roadside. According to the Trini psyche, getting up early is almost a sacred pleasure. Even for those rolling in straight from the night-before party, the deserted streets and serene pre-dawn atmosphere lift the mind, providing a refreshing change from the rowdy nightclub scene. All the same, immediately after police open the doors at 6 a.m., the waiting room is filled to capacity. And not long after opening time, police have already started to turn away patrons--oops, I mean tax-paying citizens--because the Office seating capacity of 130 is already have maxed out. All the same, many Trinis seem to enjoy the social standing gained from hanging around the Office steupsing and pouting. Yes, it's a real upscale exclusive affair, just like the nightlife in the First World. It wasn't always this way, said one woman, reminiscing one the good old days when, at 6 a.m. people had just started to line up. The guy who was first in line this Friday, however, was no April Fool. He got there, he told me, at 2 a.m. Indeed, I overheard one woman remark approvingly to another, "This just like getting an American visa by the Embassy!" The Immigration Division has several offices throughout the two islands, with main offices at Abercromby Street, Port of Spain, Coffee Street, San Fernando and Scarborough, Tobago. There are also sub-offices (which have limited physical accommodation, and therefore process passport applications only and are open only a few days per week) in Point Fortin, Sangre Grande, Chaguanas and Charlotteville, Tobago. "I think we need to decentralise government services and make it easier for people to get stuff done wherever they live," said one young lady from Tunapuna. "Government institutions are not keeping in step with population growth. Nobody is willing to overhaul anything or look at different ways of doing stuff so we'll be in this for a little while." Indeed, it seems that the the Frederick Street Immigration Division Office has always been the mecca for free-spirited and adventure-seeking Trinis. "I live in Grande but up there is worse. The line longer than this and you have to stand up outside. So that's why I bring my whole family and I say is better we come here," explained one self-employed gentleman. I saw that behind all his protestations about losing a valuable workday, this man and his family were the outdoors type who relished the opportunity to wrestle with the elements and leave amenities like bathroom facilities and parking behind. Not that the trail leading to the building is that rugged. Sidestepping the vagrants is the trickiest bit and even the elderly and the physically disabled have little difficulty mastering that art. A word to the linguist. The place where we queue up, which may appear to the untrained eye to be a public bathroom, is in reality a pedestrian thoroughfare called "pavement" here in Trinidad and "sidewalk" in the States. Trinidad is a country whose culture is centred round liming and Trinis love this time of year, when they can renew expired passports and apply for work permits, student permits, travel permits, visas and new passports, in preparation for mid-year overseas travel. as these fairly routine transactions provide a welcome pretext for this early morning lime. In fact, enlightened Trinis who are fully disabused of the ridiculous notion that one must travel abroad to make the most of a vacation, tend to visit the Office on consecutive days. "I was here yesterday and I couldn't get a number," said the gentleman from Laventille who was standing first in line, "so I here since 2 o' clock waiting. I leave home early and come down because my 15-year-old son have to travel and if he don't get through today he can't travel." This business of "not getting numbers" would turn out to be a common excuse among fun-loving Trinis unable to resist that urge to make back-to-back trips to the Office. In fact, many Trinis are still coming down a high from last year, when these "return-trip" excursions were par for the course. Passports of the current format, which came on stream in 1994, were valid for ten years. Many holders of these passports, instinctively making the most of an already bad situation, all decided to renew them around the same time last year, making it one of the busiest peak seasons ever. To further complicate the situation in 2004, De La Rue Identity Systems, the UK-based firm which supplies some 120 countries in the world with passports and which has been supplying this country with passports since 1962, allegedly failed to meet delivery deadlines for the new supply of blank passports. Former Chief Immigration Officer Lackraj Bissoondath was forced to announce that no new passports would be issued between July 1 and September 15, that passports that had expired or were about to expire were to be extended for a period of one year from the expiry date. Trinis were in their glee. Sadly, however, the matter engaged the attention of National Security Minister Martin Joseph, Prime Minister Patrick Manning and Trinidad and Tobago High Commissioner to the UK, Glenda Morean and was eventually resolved. It just goes to show how serious we Trinis are about this passport office liming thing. That's why this Easter, in the midst of making July/August travel plans, we'll all remember that old yuletide chorus: "For the holidays, you can't home, sweet home." Keith Ameerali, Acting Chief Immigration Officer port of spain - up to 400 ppl daily machine-readable passports coming on stream. reduced passport fraud.