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Monday, October 27, 2008

Schengen Diaries

By William Alzona

The following article was part of OFWJC's special publication 'Move.' The magazine was given to all delegates of GFMD Philippines.

THERE wasn’t a “Keep silent” sign inside the interview room, but you could hear a pin drop inside the Belgian Embassy in Makati City.
Everyone lining up for a Schengen visa could hear a whisper, even of those getting interviewed.
It was my sixth time in the Embassy and things were as they were since the first time I set foot inside—the colorful lives stayed colorful.
There was this elderly woman who said she wanted to visit her sister in the Netherlands. When the consul asked her why she went to the Belgian embassy and not to the Dutch embassy, she replied that she was already denied on suspicion that she was not returning. Still, the poker-faced consul, a Filipina, advised her to submit the necessary documents.
Some embassy officials are not that kind.
Overseas Filipino workers and seafarers get scolded for not submitting the proper documents from other government agencies, such as certificates from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Another time, a consul was interviewing a man and their conversation went like this:
“Where did you meet your boyfriend,” the Filipino female consul asked.
“Through the Internet,” the man replied.
“For how long?”
“About two years now.”
The consul then instructed him to get his partner’s proof of residency in Belgium from their local town before he’d be given a Schengen visa.
Later, the consul would tell me the man was just one of the many Filipinos applying for a visa to meet someone in Belgium who they met through the Internet.
They readily admit they have online partners from a relatively rich European nation of about four million people.
I dubbed this the “love route.”
MY plan was simple: extend my trip in Europe for a day or two longer and get more stories about Filipinos living abroad. To do that, without incurring additional cost of living in a hotel in an expensive city like Brussels, someone, preferably a Filipino, should take me in.
I realized that my plan would never happen since I had yet to receive confirmation of the place I would stay in and I was set to leave the next day.
There shouldn’t have been any problem if I were to extend my days after the official event I was attending. The thing was, I was extending my stay days before the actual event I would be attending.
I checked the Internet for a cheap hotel in Brussels. No cigar; all were fully booked as it was summer and the peak of tourism in Belgium.
I called my former boss who flies frequently to Europe to ask for advice. Foiled again; she was out of the country.
I left Manila with no clear sight of where I would be staying for the first two days of my arrival.
While in the plane, I crafted the possibility of getting to meet fellow Filipino travelers who could guide me through the city and adopt me for a night or two.
I read somewhere that if you think of a scenario for the nth time, it would happen.
I also planned on sleeping in the airport or in a park.
I played and replayed these scenarios in my whole twelve-hour trip because I believed in what I had read and, really, to make myself sleep.
I don’t usually rely on alcohol to tide me over slumberland.
I read somewhere I’m not the only one who can’t sleep while flying through several time zones.
I believe in what I read.
When not one of the scenarios I played and replayed in my mind happened, I begun to have doubts over believing what I read.
I did not meet any Filipino during my Manila-Amsterdam KLM flight.
Don’t get me wrong, there were so many Filipino from Manila, but when I arrived in Amsterdam International Airport, one of the biggest in the world and Europe’s main hub, Filipinos easily disappeared.
One by one, I saw them turn to the left, right, or straight up, and then –poof!- they were gone.
When I looked around, I was the only Filipino or Filipino-looking person standing outside the immigration counter.
I ARRIVED Friday early evening in Amsterdam. I still needed to wait for my flight to Brussels for about three to four hours.
By the time I reached the Belgian capital, it was already dark.
During summer, the sun sets late in Europe, which means that if it’s already dark, it’s just hours near midnight.
Unlike Amsterdam, the airport in Brussels was desolate. Everything was automated; doors, elevators, escalators, walkways would move when these sense movement. Some call this fuzzy logic. I call it cool.
I also call it being consciously alone in a foreign land since at that time, I still have to meet a Filipino.
Armed with written instructions sent by email by the event organizer, I hunted for a place to rest.
The print-out said I have to take a bus from the airport to reach the city where I should take the “Metro.”
I got out the airport, patted the back pack to check if it was still behind me, and closed my fist on the handles of a gym bag.
I took a deep breath, and my chances as well; it was already eleven in the evening.
Taxi drivers called out, tempting me not to go to the bus station. My fidelity to the instructions paid off: I caught the last bus.
But I left my luck.When I reached Shumann, no one was stirring, not even a mouse. Oh, except for speeding cars.
I thought my luck returned when I saw a woman and asked for directions going to the “Metro.”
She waved her hands palms toward me to say she couldn’t understand me and pointed me elsewhere.
With my bags, which were already getting heavier, I just walked on the streets, passing by buildings empty of human activity.
Police cars occasionally passed me by. Here and there were drunks, who I stayed away from. The weather was getting colder.
I walked up to hotels, but they asked for about 300 to 500 euros a night.
I only had about 300 US dollars and some 60 euros for a five-day stay. I knew what I had was not enough.
FINALLY, I saw a park. But my plan of sleeping there fizzled out after I saw police cars parked on my choice al fresco cot.
While I was losing the concept of time, I found myself dead tired and sleepless in Shumann.
I think it was dawn already when I decided to risk my allowance and take a taxi to bring me to the hotel where I should be staying during the conference days.
Since the taxi driver did not speak English and I do not speak French, he took me to the wrong place. The wrong turn shaved off 19 euros from my budget.
My luck appeared to have returned when the hotel accepted me even if I did not have a credit card to show. Still, it was 89 euros a night, without breakfast, but enough to keep me thinking through the night of my strategies for the next days.
I read somewhere that if you play and replay scenarios in your mind, these would happen. This made me fall sleep for about seven hours.
I decided not to waste time since I should check out by 5pm and look for a cheaper hotel.
The concierge gave me a map and pointed out possible places where I could stay.
I scoured half of Brussels.
I walked and walked. I ate Snickers and drank bottled water and carefully remembered the turns I took.
After hours of walking and turning here and there, I found a familiar hostel I had seen while checking online. Fortunately, the hostel was different from the movie. Unfortunately, the place was fully booked.
The concierge pointed out the possible places where I could stay.
I walked and walked. I ate Snickers and drank bottled water and carefully remembered the turns I took.
After hours of walking and turning here and there, my luck returned; a hostel had an available room, which I would have to share with six other guys, for about 19 euros a night, with breakfast. But, I had to wait until 3pm for the room to be vacated.
I immediately took the sharing room, went back to the expensive hotel to get a few things and checked in half of my luggage to the porter.
I returned to the hostel. I ate Snickers and biscuits and drank bottled water for dinner and slept throughout the night.
The next days I discovered that it was a good decision to leave the park as a bedroom; it was behind European Union’s seat of government.
WHILE waiting for my flight that would take me home to Manila, I noticed a familiar-looking face among the crowd inside the Hong Kong International Airport.
Though worn-out since I did not sleep during my 10-hour flight from Belgium, my reporter instincts told me I have to amble over to this fellow Filipino, even for a simple chat.
That face happened to belong to Arsenio Lingad of the overseas shipping office of Philippine regulator Maritime Industry Authority. He had been in one of the meetings of the International Maritime Organisation in London.
Our chat, of course, revolved on his meetings and some other inconsequential stuff that we reporters would like to pry. But what interested me was his experience on getting his visa from the British Embassy.
“It was a looooonngggg process,” Lingad said.
He said the British embassy asked a lot of clearances from the various government agencies.
First, he secured documentary work from both the Department of Transportation and Communications, his agency’s mother unit, and Department of Foreign Affairs, since he was representing the Philippines, and of course from Marina itself. That alone took months to prepare, Lingad said.
He also needed at least a full week for his application to be approved and a physical appearance at the embassy for the interview.
Lingad said working with British embassy rules is much trickier as the UK employs a third party company to deal with visa issues in the Philippines.
“No one, not even the consul, will give you an assurance of when your visa will come out and make sure that your documents are complete when you submit them,” he said.
I remembered my wife’s and my own experience of getting a European visa.
Before my European trip in June, I also had a chance to go to Sweden, a Schengen-member country some six years ago. Back then, I did not even have to appear before the Swedish embassy.
My wife even had it easier. Her sponsor merely called the French embassy and she was given a visa.
Today is far different.
GETTING a visa Belgium embassy in Manila, for instance, entails a dozen requirements for tourist and even more for contract workers.
They also have gone beyond the “show money” requirement since there are already financial institutions like credit cooperatives that lend money just to be shown to embassy officials.
The Belgians are now requiring a booked ticket and hotel accommodation for those traveling as a tourist or for other business purposes.
I needed at least 30 days and about half a dozen trips to the embassy before I got a visa, which I only received days before my trip.
But compared with the UK, Schengen countries in Europe, such as Belgium, are easier to deal with as they employ a single procedure and documentary process.
Belgium, for instance, even allows the applicant to complete his requirements first before processing the papers so as long as it is still within the allotted time frame.
Still, they are making life difficult to get a visa of any type, may it be tourist or a contract worker, or even a visa for the wife of a European citizen.
When I returned to work, I asked Sabin Aboitiz of the famous clan based in Cebu on why they have not ventured so much into service for the international market, like a salvage firm for a sunken sea vessel. His answer was simple: visa restrictions on Filipinos.
Aboitiz, in one of his rare conversations with Manila-based reporters, said Americans or Europeans or others from the West belong to the privileged citizens who can go to any country they please without visa restrictions.
For Filipinos, however, many countries impose entry limitations.
Aboitiz told us their family shelved their plans to go international just because of this simple reason.
WHEN I arrived in Manila, I called my former boss and told her the story of why I was trying to reach her.
“That was also what happened to me. So I just slept in the airport,” she said.
“Where did you get that idea?” I asked.
She said she read it somewhere and she believes in what she reads.
OFW Journalism Consortium, with the support of the Royal Netherlands Embassy of the Philippines

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