Perhaps one of the most interesting pieces of long-term travel is VISAS. Yes, the dreaded visas.
The United States grants its citizens one of the 10 most “powerful” passports in the world, effectively giving us the ability to travel to more than 170 nations without having to obtain a visa. This is something I am most grateful for. Some countries, like many of the nations the people I worked with on Leros comes from, have “weak” passports, only granting their citizens the ability to access 29 or 30 countries free of charge and without hassle. As I mentioned in my most recent post, my passport is privilege in the form of a little book.
When I lived in Guyana in 2014 and 2015, I entered the country with a standard 90 day tourist visa, which is pretty typical of most nations welcoming someone from the United States. A few weeks into my time there, I started the atrocious process of trying to get a visa extension. The plan of attack was always to arrive on the ground and then start the process of being able to legally stay in the country for a year. This proved to me most difficult and especially irritating. The entire process took months. It worked out in the end, but not before a deportation scare and an incessant amount of trying.
I was racking my brain earlier today about other countries that I’ve stayed long-term in. Other than Guyana, I’ve never had to deal much with visas. I spent two months in Kenya and entered and exited the country twice during that time, but my tourist visa (which, come to think of it, I had to pay $50 for), granted me the right to do that. When I passed through New Zealand on my way to Antarctica, I was given a one-year visa for the country, just so there would be no issues when I passed back through four months later. But other than that, I’ve never had to deal with visas, until now.
When you enter just about any major country on mainland Europe, you enter something called the Schengen Zone. This is a really beautiful thing if you’re a citizen of one of the 26 countries that are in this agreement. It makes it easy for you to travel from country to country. If my understanding is correct, it’s basically the same as traveling from state to state in the U.S.A. If you happen to be from a non-Schengen country, then this “zone” is a little more annoying. Basically, the rule is, from the moment you set foot in ANY Schengen Zone country, you can only spend 90 of the next 180 days in those 26 countries. This means you can stay for 90 days and then leave, but you’ll have to wait 90 days before re-entering again. Or, you can come and go as you please over the course of 180 days, so long as you don’t exceed 90 days total.
I entered Athens in November and stayed in Greece for 13 days. I then returned to the U.S. for the holiday season. In January, I re-entered the Schengen Zone (again via Athens), and had 77 days left on my visa. I never thought upon entry that I would need so many days. But when you fall into a beautiful routine and a beautiful life, all of a sudden the days seem to run out rather quickly. In March, I started exploring the idea of trying to get a visa extension, even if just for a couple weeks. My thinking was that, this would grant me the opportunity to teach my students for a few more classes, assist me in transitioning out of my island life, and bridge the time between my wonderful existence in Greece and returning to the U.S. for my cousin’s wedding and, ultimately, work.
Long story short: I didn’t get the extension; although I was filled with such optimism by the people around me about my chances of getting one, that I really believed I would, and so, I was banking on getting the stamp of approval and being able to stay put through April. Four days before my visa was due to expire, my request was rejected. Despite getting passport photos taken and prepping papers and contacting my bank and paying for documents and making dozens of phone calls, I. Was. Denied. This left me in a tough spot because in order to get off of Leros you have to take an overnight ferry for nearly 9 hours. These ferries don’t run every night. Basically, I had to scramble to get my butt off of Leros and out of the Schengen Zone so not to overstay my 90-day visa.
This is not the way I wanted my time on the magical island of Leros to end. I had finished teaching my English classes for the week on Thursday and was set to resume teaching on Monday, but with my rejection of Friday, I would have to leave on the ferry on Sunday. I wasn’t going to get the chance to say goodbye to my students. I felt as though some of the friendships I was cultivating were going to get cut off at the knees, and, being a student of transition at this point in my life, I was certain that two days was not going to be enough to wrap up my Greek experience with a pretty little bow.
But alas, I had to make do. And I did. I drew from numerous other concluding experiences in my lifetime, and I made the whole thing make sense in my head. And here I sit. Off island. Out of the Schengen Zone. The Leros experience is behind me.
What’s the point of this blog entry? I guess it has something to do with the visa process. But, ultimately, it has to do with humanity. Both of my experiences with visas in Greece and Guyana were frustrating. I would go as far as to say that they were humiliating at times. You really begin to just feel like a number. Or maybe not even a number, but just a blip in the system. There are very few eyeballs that actually look at you. It’s just computer screens and phones that don’t get answered. And then when there is some human on the other end of the line or standing in front of you, they aren’t treating you like you’re a person trying to extend their lifetime in this certain country for a wholesome reason. They treat you like you’re interrupting their day. It’s…disheartening.
“I do hope world politics will change one day and we can all travel freely without stupid visa restrictions.” -A frustrated Schengen friend
When all is said and done, I still choose to believe that human beings are inherently good. This is why the visa process is so disheartening and why I take so much issue with it. There’s a disconnect that exists between those working in the visa system and those going through it. I don’t know what it’s like on the other side–so I won’t make this a statement about that–but I’m just saying, it still stinks…
More to come…