Before visiting a foreign country, Bill and Toni Pisor go online to research attractions they’d like to see, transportation options — and junkyards.
The first two items are fairly straightforward — they want to see interesting things, and they want to know how to get to them. But the third item pertains to their hobby: Since 2002, the Morro Bay couple has collected license plates from various places they have visited around the world.
And because they travel a lot, they have amassed a pretty good collection.
“We’ve been to 77 countries or provinces in the last nine years,” Bill said. “We’ve decided to do countries first, while we’re still healthy enough, and then try to make up the states later on.”
License plates have been around longer than automobiles. The province of British Columbia, Canada, actually introduced plates for horse-drawn carriages in 1884. In 1901, New York became the first American state to require plates. As each state or country has unique plates, they have become collector’s items for some people.
The Pisors didn’t think twice about plates until they retired from their jobs as elementary school teachers in the Central Valley in 2002. While they had done smaller trips during their teaching days, they both remembered traveling internationally after Bill had been drafted and sent to Germany in the late 1960s.
“That’s kind of where we got the bug to go traveling,” Bill said.
He’d had a plate from Hawaii that an aunt had given him years earlier. So that inspired them to collect more when they began traveling.
Near the ceiling of their porch, the Pisors display their plates — 53 from foreign countries, 18 from the states. And each one comes with a story.
Some of the plates came from junkyards, others from locals who took the Pisors up on a trade (they travel with spare California plates).
“I went to Tanzania on a safari about this time last year,” Bill remembered. “And I told our guide, ‘We want to try to get a Tanzanian plate.’ And we were in the dead center of the Serengeti, where the rangers are, and he said, ‘I think I can get you a plate.’ ”
To sweeten the deal, the Pisors offered one of their Californias for a Tanzania.
“So there’s this California plate out in the middle of the Serengeti in their tent camp,” he said.
To get a plate from China, Toni had to work through a language barrier — but that was no problem. She merely approached a man with a motorbike, pointed to his plate and then held out money.
“He didn’t want to do it,” Bill said. “He shook his head and waved his arms.”
But Toni was persis-tent — and the man’s friends helped, trying to talk him into it.
“I just kept holding up $5 bills,” she said. “They were all trying to unscrew the plate.”
Eventually, the man relented, and the Pisors got a Chinese plate for $10.
Usually, the plates are easier to get. When they asked a man in Ireland if he knew anyone with a plate, he simply took the one off his car and handed it over. In Australia, they saw a man cleaning his garage who happened to have one. And in Chile a cab driver called his mom and got one from her.
Then sometimes, they’re just lucky. While they couldn’t procure a plate in Russia with its tight government restrictions, they serendipitously found one in France.
“We’re walking down this residential street, and we see this plate sticking out from underneath a car,” Bill said. “And we said, ‘Look — it’s a license plate.’ ”
It happened to be a Russian license plate — a shocking, but pleasant, surprise.
“I mean, here we are in France — how did a Russian plate get on a street in France?” Bill asked.
It’s not always possible to get plates — they struck out in Croatia and Iceland. And sometimes their plate hunting has landed them in precarious situations.
One time, while in the Grand Caymans, they wound up in a man’s car as he offered to drive them to a plate at his house. As he drove into the boonies, the couple began to get nervous.
“And then we looked at this tape and CD he had on the console — it was Christian music, “Bill said. “So we said, ‘OK — he’s probably pretty good.’ And he came out with a plate.”
Of all their travels — other destinations have included Vietnam, Japan, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic and Scotland — the Pisors like Australia and New Zealand the most.
“They’re probably the two friendliest countries,” Bill said. “They treat you like family, especially in New Zealand.”