Border control check can be exasperating, but it never gets personal until you feel being treated differently because your passport happens to come from a third world country. Being fascinated of the history, culture, arts and architecture of Europe, I embarked on a journey around Europe from Scandinavia down to the Mediterranean with so much ease and convenience by all means of transportation, but mostly by train. The whole experience was almost a blast until a change of plan led to a series of assault on dignity.
With three days left of my two-month escapade around Europe that started on December 18, I canceled my direct flight ticket from Athens to Amsterdam, and opted instead for a long way trip by bus, ferry and train hoping to see more cities along the way. Three fellow spunky backpackers from USA, Canada and South Korea seemed to like the idea of boozing up in the middle of Mediterranean Sea. And so, the fellowship continued beyond Greece.
Exhausted and hungry after an 8-hour long, bumpy bus ride from Athens to Igoumenitsa Seaport, hot shower and warm food would be rejuvenating. But that won’t happen soon. Boarding had started already. The line was very long and not moving as fast as we wished. Checking-in later was not an option. Traveling on a shoestring, we could not take the risk of losing a bed space in the cabin. It was a free accommodation for Eurail global pass holders.
My buddies finally got their boarding passes issued after over an hour. I handed over my Philippine passport. Contrary to my expectation, I waited much longer while other passengers behind me went through the check-in process without delay.
The inspector in white typical boat staff uniform was not an immigration officer. While he was checking every page, and maybe, every stamp in my passport, I grew more impatient and exasperated. Finally, I found the courage to ask him, “What is holding up?” “Nothing, my friend. I am just making sure that your passport is genuine.” Large veins in my temple must be swelling as I turned red. But losing self-control would jeopardize my trip. And missing my flight back to Canada might cost me at least a thousand dollars more since all my tickets were non-refundable and non-cancelable. Also, my rail pass was expiring in two days.
The inspector turned to information page on the passport and repeatedly switched glance at me and the picture on the passport as if mocking my frustration and helplessness. Most passengers got checked in less than 2 minutes. This reminded me of the usual ordeal at immigration gate. I got asked for itinerary, proof of hotel reservation, credit cards, work responsibilities, properties and other annoying questions which my fellow travelers were never asked of. Having a passport from a third world country, I got used to getting inconvenienced when crossing border of first world countries.
With many illegal immigrants from poor countries, it made sense to verify information. But I was not even at immigration gate. I was just taking a trip between Greece and Italy, which were both European Union (EU) member countries. Border control no longer existed within EU region. If the inspector had a magnifying glass, I won’t doubt he would use it to check every mark in my passport for any sign of counterfeit.
Not satisfied, he twisted the page with Schengen visa slightly and fleered as he moved it slowly before his eyes. At once, I protested, “Officer, if I got stamped at the port of entry in Amsterdam, then getting out of Greece should not be a problem. We are still in EU region. So what is the problem? You have my passport for over half an hour already.” As I grew loud denouncing the inspector’s mockery, I drew attention of everyone in the reception. Stunned or humiliated perhaps, he returned my passport with the boarding pass without a single word.
The thought of retaliation soothed more than the warm shower. Upon reuniting with my buddies, I decided that I would rather enjoy my last two days in Europe. After a few shots of vodka, my attention shifted on the dance floor. A pair of Greek women was kind enough to teach us some steps, and not so long, we found ourselves dancing in line and clapping. “Opa!”
The ferry docked in Bari, Italy at about seven o’clock in the morning. We tried to disembark ahead of other passengers so we can catch up a train bound to Napoli. As soon as I stepped on the ground, an Italian Police Officer demanded for documents. Sensing for another problem, I advised my buddies to catch the train and I would just find them later in Napoli.
Heeding to police request, I showed my passport and return ticket. Whether it was just a random check or arranged by the ferry inspector, I didn’t have time to figure out the answer. I was more concerned of catching the train. Running to the train station could draw the attention of the police so I walked as fast as I can. But it was not fast enough to catch the train.
The next train to Napoli at 10:00 AM was cancelled. There was always a train every hour going to Rome where I could easily catch a train bound to Napoli. But that would take a whole day trip. Taking the advice of the train station staff, I took a train to Foggia and continued my trip to Napoli by bus. I arrived at 7:00 PM. Since none of us carried a working cell phone, I lost contact of my buddies.
After a quick tour around Pompeii on the following morning¸ I boarded a train bound to Milan where another train could bring me back to Amsterdam. As the train moved away from Milan, my eyes grew heavier. Relative calmness prevailed for the next several hours until somebody tapped my shoulder. Time was about three o’clock in the morning.
Still confused what was going on, I sensed another problem. Bags were inspected. Questions were asked either in Italian or French to other passengers. A young lady extended her hand while demanding for documents from me. Without explanation, she demanded, “You have to go back to Italy.” With no clue where I was then, I replied, “I am sorry. Where are we? And Why?” The uniformed people were border agents making random inspection at Schiasso, a border of Switzerland. With a bit of confidence, I told her that I got Schengen visa. “Yes, but you have used it already.” I got more confused what she meant.
“My visa was good until February 18, 2008. And it is still 16th.”
“It is single-entry visa only,” she replied with more authority in her voice.
“But I haven’t left EU.” Barely uttering the letters, I realized right away that Switzerland remained nonaligned of EU. Since I was in Switzerland a month earlier, my visa was no longer valid in this country. Backtracking a bit, “I did not know that this train would stop in Switzerland.” That didn’t help.
A few passengers who did not have proper identity cards were already ejected from the train. The border agent requested me to step outside, but I refused. Quickly, I grabbed my return ticket to show that I could not miss my flight in Amsterdam back to Canada on the next day.
“You just have to figure out that back in Italy.” She insisted without consideration.
Without any warning yet of getting arrested for refusing an order from a border agent, I pulled one more argument. “I am a Canadian resident.” I quickly pulled my resident card and Alberta driving license out of my wallet and passed it to the agent. She examined my cards and passed it to her colleagues. Then somebody blurted, “Oh, a wild rose! The same one in Switzerland!” Three other agents seemed surprised to see the logo on the back of my driving license. I wasn’t sure if they meant that they got a wild rose too on their driving license. Regardless, my Canadian cards became my new passport away from this nightmare.
Three months later, I secured my Canadian passport. And ever since I travelled with it, I crossed borders smoothly. And if I get asked, how long I would stay in their country?
“I don’t know. I will see how it goes.”