A Narrow Escape

“You arrived on October 15?”

The customs agent at Amsterdam Schiphol airport flicked his eyes from Doris’s passport to her face and raised his eyebrows.

At 4:30 in the morning, it took a moment for Doris to wake up sufficiently to confirm the date, but she finally nodded.

“You barely made it.” Barely made what? “You can only stay three months. You made it by six days.”

And if we had stayed longer?

“You would have been illegal.” A possibility that never once crossed our minds in planning our five-month adventure or during it.

Since it was 4:30 in the morning, and we were legal, I did not ask the obvious “what if?” question. Now we wish we had.

A telltale passport

We know people who wouldn’t leave home for five months without every day (and night) planned and people who would leave home without a single one planned. We roam somewhere in between, comfortable with some details left TBD but typically not leaving any fundamentals to chance.

Things like visa requirements definitely come under the “fundamentals” heading. But the practical reality is that planning up to three weeks each in 10 countries is the equivalent of planning 10 years of international vacations at a rate of one country per year or five years at two countries. That’s a lot of fundamentals, not to mention all the accessories.

Doris is the partout planner of our duo, but working until two weeks before our departure from the States left little time to plan one international trip in full, much less 10. The upshot is that little beyond our trans-Atlantic flights and a few house exchanges along the way was settled when we left.  We have pretty much been making it up as we go.

Now, with dawn in Amsterdam still hours away, we learn we are barely escaping the EU in good standing. What’s more, performing an accessory check the night before (shuttle bus from airport), Doris had called the guest house in Dubai only to be told our reservation could not be found—just before the call dropped and could not be reconnected. And, once in the air, Doris realized she couldn’t remember checking the visa requirements for Dubai. So much for nailing the fundamentals.

Aloft for seven hours without internet, there was nothing to be done but sink into a good book and hope for the best. In the scheme of a two-week work holiday, speed bumps like visa problems or unexpected hotel cancellations can feel catastrophic because there is no time to spare. On an extended trip, the one thing generally on your side is time.

In tunnel

Leaving Amsterdam with six days to spare was not our first exposure to escapes in the week after our departure from France. From the Gare du Nord in Paris, we traveled by train to Maastricht in southern Netherlands to join up with Greg, Carole and Abby and road trip for a few days back to Groningen. There we would repack our bags for the Middle East/Africa leg of our adventure and set off anew.

(Note to friends and followers: Internet access and stability are likely to be erratic until mid-February. Time and place lags and other hiccups are likely to be the norm for a while.)

Although best-known of late as the birthplace of the Euro, Maastricht for most of the last millennium was known primarily for its massive limestone quarries. These supplied the building blocks for innumerable European churches, castles and town halls and left the earth around the old Roman town riddled with tunnels navigable safely only by those intimately familiar with the underground and a durable source of light. Their enduring magnetism is immortalized by graffiti on the rock walls dating from the 15th century.

The quarries once contained more than 20,000 such tunnels snaking close to 150 miles and winding all the way into Belgium. During World War II, they became the site of innumerable narrow escapes. Dozens of Dutch masterpieces from the nation’s beloved Rijksmuseum were stripped from their frames, rolled into tight bundles and stashed in an area of the labyrinth called “the vault” to keep them safe from German bombs. Fleeing Jews and downed Allied pilots were smuggled through them to relative safety in Belgium, where borders to freedom that were more porous.

Invading French revolutionaries in the 18th century did not fare so well. (We are still wondering what French revolutionaries were doing in Maastricht, but that’s another story.) Attempting to blow up a fort atop the quarries, the soldiers packed the cavern below it with gunpowder and ignited it. Sadly, they miscalculated that the munitions would follow the path of least resistance—into the tunnels where they stood. They were incinerated on the spot; the site where they died is now treated as a cemetery.

Nearly three-quarters of the quarry walls were crushed for use in making concrete after the quarrying ended in the 20th century. Today, about 50 miles of tunnels remain, preserved as a national heritage site and open only to visits guided by people like our George. That is sort of a map of them at the top of the blog.

George alone
George is a born story-teller who decided that taking tourists underground beat rotting at home all day after he retired. His training included six months of tunnel orientation and education that culminated with a final test that left him alone in the labyrinth to find his way out.

His first question to the group after the heavy iron doors slams shut is, “What do you do if I have a heart attack down here? Your cell phones don’t work.”

The answer: Don’t move. CPR, yes. Go for help, no. Nothing could be more dangerous than going for help. The tunnels’ history is littered with tales of penal escapees, clandestine lovers and others who found their way in and never came out (or narrowly escaped with their lives by sheer luck) because they were foolhardy enough to think they could find their way out.

To illustrate his point, George invites anyone uncomfortable with total darkness to join him as he walks ahead and takes all the lanterns with him. The rest of us are left to follow in the darkness for 50 meters or so until we catch up. We grope and shuffle along, each person gripping the stumbler directly ahead with one invisible hand and feeling the wall with the other.

It is dark, it is creepy, it is unimaginable being trapped below ground without light. The fleeing Jews and pilots must have endured it only because the alternative was far worse.

This painting on a tunnel wall depicts a vestal virgin, keeper of the eternal flame in old Rome. George said she was there as a reminder that without light, there is no life. Yikes.

Our narrow escape was only virtual. We still had six days remaining to leave the EU, and it turned out US citizens need no visas in Dubai. We waltzed through UAE customs. Our hotel reservation was in order. And it took Doris a mere two phone calls to fill in the most urgent missing fundamental in our itinerary: getting from Dubai to the starkly beautiful isolation of Oman’s Musandam peninsula without a rental car or any public transportation.

Our time hadn’t run out, but it may be another matter for our luck. We shared dinner tonight in Khasab with a charming couple who are sailors from Leesburg, Virginia. They keep a boat and sail from Spain so they navigate the visa waters regularly. When we cheerfully recounted our narrow escape from Amsterdam, the husband filled us in on what happens to people trying to leave the Netherlands illegally: A stiff fine, deportation and a ban on entering any EU country for some number of years. Some countries are stricter than others. The Netherlands is among the strictest.

That was still narrow escape stuff, but the rest was not: the 90 days applies to any 180-day period. We are scheduled back into the EU on February 12 and out again on March 15. That would be 117 days within a 180-day period. Illegal.

Back to the fundamentals. At least time is on our side.

In the rear-view mirror:

  • A return to gezellig. Partout’s very first blog was about Dutch coziness. If you weren’t on the road with us then, our return to the Netherlands is as good an excuse as any to catch up on chasing gezellig.
  • Talk about gezellig. Our road (actually, rail) trip with the Fuller3 took us to Utrecht for a night. Dutch cities don’t get any more Dutch than this.
  • Happy family faces. Since we orbit around Groningen, once in a while, we have to show its main attraction. And heeeere they are, outside the tunnels of Maastricht.

Coming Soon: Off to the Camel Races

One thought on “A Narrow Escape

  1. Okay. I know you are in Capetown (I’ve been following the main themes) and that the visa thing becomes more of a thing…but I am getting nervous reading this!!! Need to jump to the next one. Love the smiling faces!


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