Hello dear reader, it's been a while hasn't it? October came and went, the Presidential Election is finally over, more legendary celebrities died, and the world is still wondering whether or not the craziness of 2016 is finally behind us. The last several months have been an absolute whirlwind for yours truly, but I'm sure the same could be said for most everyone else on this planet.
As the title of this post suggests, I've had to sneak out of the Schengen territory. I'm currently writing from Morocco, sitting in a cheap hostel in front of my computer looking for volunteer/work opportunities. Typically people are working day after day to try and sneak into the European Union, and here I am, bearded and a bit smelly with a ukulele and a new pair of boots having just escaped from the E.U. Funny how life works, eh?
I was originally intending on continuing the story of my travels by making a post about my experiences in the Czech Republic and other countries, but I'll save that for the second post. You all deserve an explanation as to what in God's name am I doing in a continent that is not a part of the E3 trail. Why did I have to flee? Well, let me spin you a yarn about mistakes made and lessons learned.
Note: This is the point where I'll make a plug for my email newsletter. While I've been absent from the blog for over two months, I have sent several updates to the folks on the newsletter, including an explanation as to why I'm in Morocco. If you'd like to stay as up to date with my journey as much as possible, just head over the home page and add your email to the list. I tend to send an update once or twice a month just to let you know details like upcoming plans, my current situation and other such things. Now that that's over, onto the show...
Sometime in November 2016
It was another cold and grey day on the German border. Ever since I was delayed in Pirna, I felt that I had missed my last opportunity at walking in the sunshine and was now being forced to practice the art of purposefully ignoring the elements that had entrapped me. My left shoulder was still throbbing from my bike accident in Leipzig and the mild painkillers I had been popping every few hours were having a minimal effect. Clenching my teeth while I walked seemed to be helping though.
While my clothes were cold and wet, the ukulele I had purchased in Dresden was safe and dry under my backpack's rain cover. I was amazed that the duct tape I had used to "stitch" the eight-inch hole in my rain cover was holding up. Sure, the pack cover looked like a torn plastic bag that was flying with the wind, but my ukulele was safe, and that's all that matters in the end.
The trail in Germany was treating me well for the most part. The massive amounts of pavement weren't very pleasant, but the manicured forests and the lack of litter in them made for a wonderful impression. The nature is nothing close to the wildness of Romania, but the peace and quiet in the woods is just as comforting.
The Germans are very proud of their Nature, so much so that they prohibit camping all along the trail. I was told that I could get away with sleeping in the forests, but every time I looked for a possible camping spot I would see some locals who were none too pleased with my romping about in what may best be described as their "seemingly sacred" land.
Worried about encountering the police, I stayed in inns and slept on couches wherever I could. The cold was getting worse, and, as I've come to learn, it is incredibly difficult to convince yourself to set up a tent when you cannot feel either of your hands or your toes. Regardless of the cold, I was still motivated to keep moving. I was to meet up with a close friend in Munich, and I was not about to miss my bus from Hof to Munich.
Several days before I arrived in Hof I had a peculiar thought pop into my mind. The mind drifts and wanders when you walk so I'm not at all surprised that the thought eventually arose out of the neurons and synapses. However, the thought was indeed a troubling one for I was unable to resolve it by my own power of reasoning and volition. No, I would require the power of the Internet in order to settle this thought once and for all. The thought was a simple one: "How do I extend my visa and not overstay my welcome in Europe?"
Now, long before I had started my walk across Europe, I had done some research in regards to visas and the like. Turkey seemed simple enough as well as Bulgaria. Pay for this, don't pay for that. You have 90 days until you need to leave or get an extension, blah blah blah. I've traveled around and have had to deal with visas before, how different could the E.U. be?
I found an inn with a reliable connection to the Internet and, determined to resolve my thought, I plugged away at as many .gov and .edu sites as possible. Unfortunately for my walk, I was only finding bad news.
For those of you who don't already know of the Schengen agreement, allow me to catch you up: It's 1985, European countries came to the realization that border controls were a time intensive and expensive process. For the sake of their citizens and for trade and tourism, an abolition of borders among allies would lead to greater ease in travel and allow for a harmonization of visa control. All in all, it's a pretty swell deal. If you're a citizen of the Schengen territory you have the freedom to relocate to another member state, and, if you're a tourist, you don't need to deal with border control when traveling through the Schengen territory.
Now, while the Schengen agreement is a wonderful treaty that just makes sense, the Schengen visa does not. Imagine the worry in my eyes when I found out that, unlike other visas in the world, the Schengen visa allows a visitor (from a select group of countries) a period of 90 days of free travel in a 180 day period. In order to apply for a new visa, you'll have to wait for 180 days after you first received your visa.
The consequences for overstaying your visa includes deportation, a fine of up to $1500, a stamp in your passport that reads: "illegal immigrant", and a possible ban from the Schengen territory for up to five years. Imagine my worry when, after I had checked my passport, I found out that I had overstayed my welcome by several weeks and was currently in a country that is notorious for their love of law.
My fingers began tapping away on my keyboard like a tap dancer on crack cocaine. I was desperate to find some way of extending my visa, but to no avail. There are several ways to extend a visa, but nothing can help you if your visa already expired. I was going to have to leave Europe or face some severe consequences.
I made my way to Hof. I had been lucky enough to meet several wonderful locals and other travelers during my walk. Germans are typically courteous while maintaining a friendly coolness when they meet a strange traveller. While this is the typical German citizen, of any typical age, there was still so much kindness on the trail.
Notable moments included sleeping at a guy's house and spending the night drinking beer in his "Club House", spending a night in a castle, drinking a beer from a 2 liter glass with all of the bar staff cheering, spending Thanksgiving with a fantastic family in Plauen, and of course meeting up with a gal in a strange town all because she liked Facebook post that I had made.
Lucky for me, I was able to find a host in Hof, and I decided to rest for several nights. Soon I was going to be on a bus to Munich and visit my good friend from college. While November was a cold month in Germany, the grace of strangers and the numerous beer blankets kept me warm.
My two days in Hof were relaxing for the most part, but I was still feeling the stress of my expired visa. My hosts showed me tip top hospitality and were kind enough to let me work on developing a plan for avoiding deportation. After numerous conversations with my parents and the American consulate, I decided that I would escape to Morocco. But why Morocco?
Of all the Schengen countries, Spain and Italy are typically more relaxed with Visa checks. According to other travelers who overstayed their welcome, exiting Spain via Ferry would be a safer maneuver than say, flying out of Spain. I was planning on meeting my parents in Spain for the Christmas, and I wasn't about to miss an opportunity to celebrate with my family. I found out that there was a bus company that could get me across Europe in a matter of days, thereby getting me far away from Germany and closer to freedom.
After several days in Hof, I hopped on the bus to meet my friend Alain in Munich. It would prove to be a memorable week (that can only be remembered through a disoriented gaze), with grand revelry and slight taste of madness. We were going to be in Munich for five days and we were to be as buzzed as bees for as many waking hours as possible. Munich provided the means and supplies, and we guzzled heartily from the metaphorical fountain of beer.
The first week in December went by at a rapid rate. Of course the imbibing of delicious Glühwein, beer and other fine cocktails ensured a quick journey through time, but the sheer amount of fun I was having made the hours evaporate into the ethereal sphere. After five days of purifying my soul, it was time for me to continue my journey to Spain. I was going to be riding several busses through Europe, and I wasn't sure who or when I would encounter a passport check.
My first stop was Paris. My parents weren't going to be arriving for another ten days or so, and I had no reason to rush my movement. I hopped onboard the smelly Flixbus (they do have fairly reasonable rates for traveling across the continent) and forced my body to try and rest. The bus seats were petite as well as stiff but with enough ingenuity I was able to curl myself into a position that was not unbearable. 18 hours later and I had arrived.
It was six in the morning when I stepped off the bus. My mouth was dry and my throat screamed for a glass of water. I was exhausted after being cramped by a very large Arabian for the last seven hours, and my host in the suburbs of Paris was still asleep. In a state of delirium I made my way to my host's apartment where I was to wait outside with my ukulele for the next five hours. When I had finally entered his apartment I was relieved. I could finally sit down and just relax.
I spent the next six nights in Paris, swapping a bed every few days. Paris is an exciting city who's personality precedes its reputation. While I already knew of the pompousness of the Parisians, I was surprised that the suburbs of Paris were much more relaxed. People were smiling, laughter was shared and I was among kindhearted souls. People are friendly everywhere, it just takes some time (and some luck) to find them.
Before long I was back on another bus, this time heading to Toulouse. The connection from Paris to Barcelona was going to be a tiresome affair and I figured that splitting the trip in half would be more reasonable. There were numerous Couchsurfing hosts in both Toulouse and Barcelona, and I still had a few more days until my parents would arrive.
At this point in time the journey became a blur. I was still sick with worry about being caught by the authorities, and in response I medicated myself with a glass or two of wine every few hours. I greatly appreciate the fact that the cheapest wine in France is much more palpable that say, a bottle of Rex Goliath or a cup of Barefoot, but the concept of cheap beer in France is as common as finding a unicorn on the metro.
After several days of passing the time in Toulouse, I was off to Barcelona, a bit giddy thinking that I was finally gong to be with my family and even more relieved to know that I was going to finally be in a country with a a very relaxed attitude to visas. Soon enough I was meeting my parents in La Rambla and laughing at how bizarre it was to be seeing one another in a foreign land. The next day we were off on a plane to Málaga.
Seeing my parents again was one of the highlights of my travels. They are both worldly folks who love the adventure of traveling, and I couldn't ask for two greater travel partners. Our two weeks of traveling through Andalucía went by much too quickly, and my heart ached for a few hours after I saw them depart. So it goes.
Now, during the times of merriment and happiness, I still had the fear and anxiety of deportation. My research told me that Germany is the most strict about their deportation policy while Spain might possibly be more relaxed depending on the border control inspector. Even though I had made it to Spain, I was having trouble sleeping do to my incessant worries that I could be caught and potentially banned from Europe for five years.
A very sweet gal in Seville invited me to join her and 90 of her family members for New Year's Eve, but, after my parent's recent departure, my nervousness escalated and I made the decision to travel to Morocco on an impulse. I don't think that I could have lasted five more days waiting for "the moment of truth" and I was desperate to just end the anxiety.
I caught a bus from Seville to Algeciras, found out that there was a ferry leaving that night, thought about it, then bought a ticket to board. If I were to be caught, perhaps my parents and I would arrive back in the U.S. around the same time.
Purchasing the ticket was a very relaxed process. The gentleman behind the counter looked at my passport and copied its identification number before handing it back to me. The first step was over, now it was time to check in. I arrived at the terminal for the ferry and handed over my receipt of purchase. Without even checking any type of identification they handed me back my ticket. After a quick security check (turns out that when you're going to Morocco the security is incredibly relaxed,) I had the final part of the test: the border control inspector who was slowly leafing through every page in each passenger's passport.
With a stern look she beckoned me forward. I smiled, nervously chuckled, made some sort of non sequitur and reminded myself to just act like I was relaxed. Judging from her expression, she was not amused. She flipped to the last page of my passport and gave it a solid stomp with her stamp. She handed me my passport, and told me to go.
I finally made it. With a goofy grin I sauntered onto the boat, found a table to sit at and spent the next several hours trying to get used to the rocking of the waves. Mothers and children were screaming and yelling the entire trip through, but I paid them no mind. I was safe from deportation and that's all that mattered to me.
After a long and tiresome ferry ride, I arrived in Tangier where I found a cozy little hostel. I've since met some fellow travelers (the winter months are a popular time to escape into Morocco) and we have slowly made our way to the beach town of Essaouira (cue Jimi Hendrix's Castles Made of Sand).
While I am disappointed that I can't continue the walk for several months, I have been sleeping better since escaping Europe. While I probably could have gotten away with the walk, the anxiety and worry would have only gotten worse. Who knows if I would really enjoy my walk if I was looking over my shoulder every kilometer.
Still, this means that I will no longer be able to qualify as the first person to complete the E3, and that's been a stinging blow to my pride. Ah well, I'll settle for just completing the trail at this point and will gladly congratulate the European(s) who will take up the challenge and walk across their entire continent in one continuous hike.
As for what I'll be doing in Morocco...that's a good question. I've been looking around the country searching for a hostel to work in for free room and board and will hopefully find a way to do some freelance work on the side. Ideally I'll be leaving Morocco with more money than with what I entered with. The trail has only been getting more and more expensive, and I'll need all the monetary support that I can get while I'm (for the most part) stationary.
In regards to a plan, I'm planning on leaving Morocco before my visa expires in mid-March. I'll fly back to Germany, make my way to Hof, then continue the walk from there. I have some 3000 kms left, which means I'll have to walk 1000 kms a month if I want to make it to Lisbon before my visa expires. Knowing my pace of walking, this is doable, but it'll also be insanely difficult. Let's hope that I can find a way to extend my visa for another month or so before I get back to walking.
Wish me luck, and I'll be sure to keep you wonderful folks updated when I figure out just what on earth I'll be doing to stay busy. I'll also be publishing a second blog post in the next week or so about my travels in October and November, so be sure to come back to the website sooner than later.
Cheers everyone, and thanks for reading.