Indiana University Overseas Study

This is going to be the mother of all blog posts. The crème de la crème, the king of the hill. I’m about to tell you about the most terrifying, funniest, craziest month of my entire life. Hopefully, by the end, you’ll be able to understand why I haven’t been able to post often in the last month or so—because life has honestly been so upside-down that I can barely comprehend it.

I really don’t want to scare anyone by this post or dissuade anyone from ever traveling abroad, that’s not my goal. I would just like to explain my experience, try to use writing as a cathartic method for reflecting on recent events, and attempt to finally laugh about the situation. Wish me luck.

It all started with my trip to Portugal in the first week or so of June. I went on the trip with five of my closest friends in Germany: Venki, Krzysztof, Jack, Stuart, and Federica. We were all so incredibly thankful for a week in the sun and on the beach. We flew from Kalsruhe, Germany to Faro, Portugal where we stayed for 4 days. Our Ryanair flight turned out to be exactly as expected—tight, chaotic, and lacking any and all amenities.

We stayed in a really small youth hostel. The owner was so warm and welcoming. I think his name was Merat or Murhat. We spent the entire week trying to figure it out. He was from Mozambique but spoke Hindi and Portuguese and had lived in Portugal for the last 20 years by running a youth hostel with his son. He was so helpful—definitely steered us in the right direction with a couple of fantastic restaurants and beaches. We spent the first day in Faro exploring the city, eating fish, and going to the beach. The beaches were amazing. We took a local bus ten minutes outside the city and made it to one of Faro’s local spots. We immediately ran into the water, paying no regard to the fact the water was ice cold. The beach was unlike anything I had ever seen; there were seashells the size of my face! I spent the majority of my time on the beach walking up and down and collecting as many shells as I could carry.

We spontaneously decided that night that we would go to Seville to visit a friend of Krzysztof’s. The trip to Seville consisted of a 4-hour bus ride, which thankfully was quite enjoyable. We only hit one speed bump along the way and that was at the border control between Spain and Portugal. The border control officers came onto our bus and went around asking everyone for their IDs. It was difficult to take them seriously. They were both wearing Raybans, tight uniforms, looked like they had just stepped out of a spray tan booth, and spoke with the Spanish lisp. For those of your unfamiliar with the Spanish lisp, imagine someone trying to speak while keeping their tongue out of their mouth the entire time. It seems so ridiculous to us, but that’s how they speak in Spain. Trying not to laugh, I handed them my passport as they came to our group.

Everyone handed over his or her passport except for Stuart, who failed to bring his passport with him. The only form of ID that Stuart had on his person was an ID from Australia that stated he was 18 years old and it was legal for him to drink. I said to myself, “That’s it! That’s it! They are going to kick us all of the bus and make us walk back home to Faro—better get my walking shoes on!” I had already started to map the route back in my head but to my surprise, the officer looked at Stuart’s card and back at him with out so much a hint of concern and then handed the id back to him. When it came to Venki’s turn, however, the officers examined every page of his passport, thoroughly read through his German visas, and finally made him get off of the bus while they checked his passport with the office. It was unbelievable. He had all the right documentation and it was obvious that the only reason for the interrogation was because he was not European. After about 30 minutes of worrying, they finally cleared him and we were all set to head to Seville. A part of me knew this wasn’t going to be the last headache we would face in Spain. Oh how right I was.

We made it to Seville on the 31st of May. It was one of the hottest days in Seville’s history. The air was so thick and heavy and there was this haze that just clung to the buildings and trees. Despite the nightmare that I’m about to describe to you, I was actually amazed at how beautiful Seville was. Palm trees lined the streets and the city looked like Hollywood’s version of Europe. The city was a crazy labyrinth with winding alleyways and streets. I spoke with Krzysztof’s friend Kasha and she claimed that even after living in Seville for six months, it was still impossible for her to find her way around. We spent the day walking around, jumping from one shady side of the street to the other, avoiding the sun at all costs. My favorite place that we visited in Seville was Alcázar of Seville, which was the most beautiful palace that I have ever seen. Okay, so maybe it’s the only palace that I’ve ever seen but it was incredible. It was built in the 10th century and you could just feel the history breathing behind the walls, colorful tiles, and tapestries. When we went into the garden in the courtyard of the palace I couldn’t help but just stare at everything. There was so much color and fragrance, my eyes and nose found it difficult to decide what to fix on. The garden was just overwhelming with beauty. My words honestly fail to capture the majesty of it all. It’s hard not to feel like a princess when you walk under the waterfalls and around the gardens.

After what seemed like hours, we left the palace to go to Kasha’s house to drop off our things, shower, and get ready for a night out in Seville. We took the subway, which to my surprise was air-conditioned, clean, and punctual. I joked around with my friends that I would gladly ride the subway all night if it meant that I could escape the heat. Even at night, Seville’s heat just seemed to radiate from everywhere. It was impossible to escape it. For dinner that night, we went to a much loved tapas restaurant of Kasha’s. Tapas is my favorite kind of food—it means you can try a lot of everything without having to eat much—it’s the perfect combination. After eating until ready to burst, we decided to roam the streets of Seville and absorb a bit of Spanish culture, staying out until the very early morning, and enjoying every minute we had.

This is where the nightmare begins. I feel that I first must preface this story by stating that I really try and stay positive and optimistic in all parts of my life but this monkey wrench that was thrown at me, I must admit, was a little difficult for me to handle. At this part of the night, all of my friends and I were sitting in an open air park in Seville with Kasha and her Spanish friends. We were enjoying each other’s company and swapping stories. Then, a group of Spanish boys came over to our group, asked if one of us had a lighter or a match. I gave them my matchbox that I kept as a souvenir from my favorite restaurant in Freiburg.

The boys then sat down with us and began asking us where we were from, what we were doing in Seville, etc. The boys were about my age and man, were they funny (and cute of course). We spent the next half hour laughing, talking about differences in culture. They then told me they were heading off to another part of the city, but thanked us for a nice chat and then left. I then thought to myself, ‘where is my purse?’ I am a person prone to losing things. No, not losing, misplacing—because in the end I usually end up finding what I’m looking for. After about 2 minutes of searching, my mild annoyance turned into full-fledged panic. This was either someone’s idea of a cruel joke, or I had just lost my purse with all of its contents.

After ten minutes of running around looking for my purse, I gave up, sat down, and started uncontrollably crying. A million thoughts ran through my head. The most important thought though was, what was I going to do without my passport? Let me put it in perspective for you and give you a list of the things I lost: passport, dorm keys, cell phone, 150 Euros, semester ticket, student ID card for Freiburg and Indiana, driver’s license, debit card, credit card, and last but not least, my bus ticket to get back to Faro. At this point in the night, I couldn’t even really comprehend what just happened. How was I supposed to fly back home to Germany? Every person took their turn comforting me, trying to be helpful, but nothing seemed to help—the adrenaline and panic running through my body eventually turned to hyperventilation. After officially giving up, we headed back to the apartment. I couldn’t sleep, but instead researched the steps I needed to take in order to get back home. I looked online at the US consulate in Seville and decided we would go in the morning.

Jack, Venki, and I took a taxicab the next morning to get back into the city, using the amount of Spanish that I know, which is embarrassingly little. We reached the consulate, and I nearly broke down in front of the consulate worker. She was such a wonderful lady, though. She was so sympathetic and her British accent somehow soothed my sadness and terror. What she did explain to me though was that I needed to go to the local police station to fill out a police report to make the theft official. She gave me paperwork to apply for a new passport and gave me numbers of the embassies in Spain and Portugal. When I asked her how I was supposed to get home to Germany, she sadly informed me that if I could get back into Portugal, I would have to go to Lisbon to renew my passport as there would be absolutely no way I could fly home without a passport.

Oh. My heart completely sank. Literally. It was like someone punched me in the chest and I lost all the wind from my lungs. I realized all at once what losing my passport actually meant. I was going to have to make the four-hour bus ride to Lisbon, stay there overnight for at least 2 days, and fly home —alone, by myself, without any of my friends. Trying to fill my lungs back up with air the hyperventilation ensued again. I tried to thank the women for her help and comfort as I left with the knowledge, paperwork, and phone numbers at hand.

The three of us ventured out to the police station. The trip to the police station seemed like a scene from a comedy. We had no idea where we were going, the locals spoke no English, and none of us spoke Spanish. The only phrase I could say was “Dónde estála estación de policía?” Being able to ask a question doesn’t help if you can’t understand the answer. Looking back on this whole day, I can’t help but laugh at our helplessness. I asked everyone along the way, trying to follow the direction of his or her arm gestures and facial expressions. I have never felt so uncomfortable and out of place in my life. We finally made it to the police station, hot, dehydrated, and exhausted. I used the second phrase I know in Spanish: “Yo no hablo español. Puedes hablar Inglés?” You think that they would have one person in the entire police station that spoke English. Nope. Not a single person.

My understanding of Spanish is very minimal. I was asked to fill out a police report, which was half in Spanish, half in English. As I was filling out the report, one of the questions was “were you robbed by distraction or force?” Then it hit me. Distraction. The boys. Oh dear. They took my purse while I was talking to them, I hadn’t even noticed! The detective in me put two and two together and the scared 21-year old in me began crying. How could I have been so stupid? After collecting myself, the police officer began the investigation in Spanish. I felt like I was back in the movie. I used my 50-word vocabulary to explain what had happened. I was gesticulating and miming and drawing pictures! I couldn’t believe this was real life. We left with a copy of the police report and tried to make our way back to Kasha’s apartment.

It was a surreal experience. The only things I had on my person as we walked back to Kasha’s were the police report and the paperwork to renew my passport. Forgetting my shock, it was a moment of weird clarity. I had no form of ID. How could I verify who I was? I had no money. I had absolutely nothing. I was walking along the streets, tired, hungry, hot, sunburnt, and all I could think about was, how the heck was I going to get back to Germany?

Fast-forwarding a little bit through the end of our Seville trip, we took a later bus back to Faro and made it safely back to our youth hostel, where Murat was extremely helpful and comforting. He had told us that he would ask his friends at the airport to see whether or not I could make it back to Germany without a passport. After losing my purse, we still had two days to spend in Faro. I tried with every ounce of my being to be positive and not be the wet blanket to everyone’s vacation. We spent the next two days going to the beach and relaxing. There were moments where I could really just sit on the beach and soak in the fresh air and summer sun and forget about the fate I was going to inevitably face at the airport.

By the time Sunday came around, I was fully prepared to go to Lisbon. My parents had booked me a hotel and I was expecting to spend the next three days alone in a hotel. We took a bus to the airport and I held my breath the entire time. I was running each scenario through my head, trying to calculate each possible outcome. For some reason, none of them turned out positive. There was an incredibly long line at the check-in counter that seemed to snake all the way around the airport. Everyone wanted to go back home to Germany that day. The airport officials were wandering through the line checking people in as fast as possible.

When the woman reached the six of us, the feeling of my heart in my stomach returned. Everyone handed over their boarding passes and passports while I stood there meekly and handed over all that I had: a copy of my passport, a police report, boarding ticket, and Jack’s iPhone with the picture of my birth certificate. I almost started laughing because the whole thing seemed so ridiculous, but then decided against it because there is no place for laughing in airports. Instead, I told the lady my whole story and how I had no money, no other friends here, knew no Portuguese, and all I wanted to do was go back home. She said she needed to talk with her boss and left us waiting for her answer. Things were finally looking up! At least it wasn’t a no! She then returned. She said, and I quote, “You may fly home to Germany but this will be the first and last time you are allowed to fly internationally without a passport.” I nearly passed out. We all started cheering and I started crying. I was elated. Ecstatic. Overjoyed. After all of the chaos, I was finally going to be able to go home.

I didn’t stop smiling the whole day. I was so incredibly thankful for the kindness of people I had met in Portugal and the fact that I could go home and sleep in my own bed. Even a month and a half later, I am still trying to replace all of the things that I had stolen but I have learned some really great life lessons.  Number one.  Never let your purse or wallet out of sight when traveling.  Never set it down.  Number two. Never walk around with your passport if possible.  Number three.  Most important.  Remember that people the world over are kind. When a crisis arises, there are always generous people willing to help you.

Side note: I am now currently looking into having my passport surgically attached to my body; I’ll keep you updated on how it goes.

View all posts by Allison

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