Travel Stories

My biggest travel mistake

“What the f*ck is the Schengen zone?” This was my exact thought the first time I heard about the open borders agreement between the European Union and several other countries in Europe. Unfortunately, the first time I heard about it I was already in France and had put no forethought into what kind of visa restrictions Europe might enforce. I mean, it’s Europe, right? Doesn’t everyone go there to backpack for six months to a year? They couldn’t possibly kick you out after a short three months, right? Right.
Uh, three months is not enough time to explore an entire continent!
Notre Dame, Paris

When I originally planned my year of travel, I hoped to spend at least four months in France and four months in Thailand with some shorter trips to neighboring countries. My plans have changed since then, largely due to visa requirements I had no idea existed.

Before I quit my job and started this journey I was a bit of a control freak. I made P.O.A.’s (plans of action) on the daily. (I know, I’m such a nerd). At home I have boxes of notebooks full of nothing but to-do lists. When I was in college I would frequently wake up from an afternoon nap in a panic, worried I didn’t have enough time complete all of the tasks I’d assigned myself for the day. My obsessive tendency to plan and think about my future robbed me of many nights of sleep and the ability to enjoy the present moment.

So I set off on this journey with very few plans. I wanted to experience the freedom of living day by day, I craved the joy of being fully engaged where I was. Instead of making a detailed itinerary I simply picked countries I wanted to visit, outlined a brief timeline, and packed my bag. A wise friend once told me sometimes you have to experience both extremes before you can find the middle ground.

After learning about the Schengen zone rules I decided to maximize my time in France and spend the entire three months traveling the French countryside. The Schengen agreement allows you to spend six out of twelve non-consecutive months in Europe on a tourist visa. No problem, I thought. I’d already planned to visit Ghana, so I arranged to spend my mandatory three months away volunteering in Africa before returning to Europe in January.
TheBarefootBeatCan you see why I didn’t want to leave France?

Unfortunately, I didn’t do any planning ahead for my trip to Ghana, either. I realized all too late that Ghana required an entry visa to be obtained prior to arrival. The only way to apply for this visa was to send my passport to the Ghana consulate in Washington, D.C.
 If you’ve ever filled out an application for visa entry, you know the hassle and paperwork it entails. Imagine trying to accomplish this in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language! With only three short weeks before I was being essentially kicked out of Europe, I nervously shipped my one and only passport back home and hoped and prayed I’d get it back in time.

One week before my tourist visa for Europe expired I still had no word on my passport. I had planned to go to Spain for two weeks before flying to Morocco but now I had to stay in France. Even though I was still traveling within the Schengen zone and technically didn’t need my passport until I left, I wasn’t allowed to fly to Spain without it. I was essentially stuck in travel jail, waiting.

Days before I was supposed to leave, I almost gave up on ever seeing my passport again. Call after call to the Ghana embassy in D.C. was ignored. Emails from them were vague and snarky. I was running out of time. I finally went to the American embassy in Paris and filled out paperwork for an emergency passport. After nervously waiting and almost crying in the office, I was advised to wait a few more days before filing for a replacement. “Keep trying to get your old passport back,” they suggested.

I left the embassy in desperation, not knowing what I should do or how to proceed. My situation seemed hopeless. If I paid for an emergency passport they would cancel my old one that possibly had the visa I needed to enter Ghana. If I waited, I would miss my opportunity to visit Spain and I still wouldn’t have the visa I needed. I sat outside on the park bench, tears of frustration streaming down my cheeks.
DSCN5845Luxembourg Gardens, Paris

“Sometimes in life it’s good to lose control.” These gentle words shared by a stranger weeks earlier, suddenly came back to me. I was sitting in a beautiful park in Paris, the sun was shining, and I was no longer in control of what would happen next. I let this realization sink in and exhaled all of the worry and stress I’d been carrying for weeks. I said a prayer and spent the rest of the day exploring the city and feeling as if a huge burden had been lifted. 

Later that night when I checked my email I received the tracking number of the package my passport had been shipped in. The embassy in Ghana had mailed it to the address in Spain I had originally given them ten days ago, but for some reason it wasn’t able to be delivered. My passport had been traveling between France and Spain for the last week and by some miracle was now on its way back to Paris where I just so happened to still be waiting. I called FedEx the next morning and was able to explain my situation. They agreed to hold my passport at the airport and I was able to pick it up the next day, only four days before I would have to leave Europe.
This face doesn’t even begin to show the relief I felt!

I’m not in control and that’s a good thing. Things will work out the way they are supposed to. I’ve been homeless and now passport-less in a foreign country and I’ve survived. I’ve stumbled and made a lot of mistakes along the way. I still don’t have my visa to enter Ghana, a country I’m flying to in less than two weeks (they never processed my application, bitches). Strangely, I’m not worried about it. I’m not in control and that’s okay. Eventually, I’ll remember how to plan again (hopefully less obsessively), and I’ll find my way back to the middle ground. I may be teetering between two extremes and learning some painful lessons in the process, but sometimes that’s the only way to find equilibrium.

Have you ever been in a similar situation? What’s been your biggest travel mistake and what did you learn from it?

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