This is the story of my final European adventure. Looking back on it now, it seems almost almost like a test. It challenged me physically, psychologically and emotionally. This is the trip that got me arrested, forced me to catch pretty much every kind of public transport there is and kept me awake longer than a diet of red bull. It was a test of my dogged determination to get to Estonia and it forced me to use every lesson I've learned backpacking in the last five months. This was the backpacking gauntlet, as far as I'm concerned.
So to set the scene, I had six days left on my Schengen visa. If you don't know what that is, don't worry, but the upshot is I could legally spend six more days in continental Europe. A good friend, Caitlin, did a similar trip to mine last year and came back raving about Estonia and I was keen to go and couple it with Finland to fill out my remaining time. Finland would mean I made it to all four corners of Europe (Portugal, Ireland, Finland and Turkey). I was traveling for those six days with a friend I met a sporties, Micque (or just Mick). Mick trained me in how to work in a bar although I eventually became his boss. Mick is living in Birmingham for six months then moving to Canada and this trip was celebrating the end of his time in Europe as well.
I booked the flights months before hand (in Turkey, actually). We were going to fly into Tallinn, Estonia on the Wednesday afternoon and stay three nights before catching the ferry across the Baltic Sea to Helsinki in Finland. Everything was booked and we were ready to go. Want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.
Our cursed journey began in Birmingham on Tuesday morning when our bus to London (a bus booked though the company Megabus) was actually a train to London (I know, right? What?) and we had no idea. So after standing at the bus stop for an hour waiting in the cold, we booked a second bus with a different company from a bus terminal that was obviously across town.
We trudged into the National Express terminal and waited half an hour for our bus. When it eventually arrived, we and the other passengers formed an orderly queue and were promptly shuffled back outside into the cold for 45 minutes because there was a fire alarm going off somewhere. Looking back, this should have all been our first warning that the trip was cursed and that Mick and I were not meant to go anyway but we persevered. We got to the hostel in London late that night and bummed around Hammersmith (where the hostel was) having dinner and a few drinks.
Despite living in the UK for six months, Mick hadn't seen anything in London so the next morning I played tour guide and tried to cram as much into a few hours as possible. We got to Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey which I think made for a solid effort. We headed back to Victoria coach station to collect our bags and catch the bus to Stansted airport where The flight to Estonia would leave from.
Trying to fit as much sightseeing into the day as possible, the bus we had elected to catch that morning after carefully researching travel times and schedules got us to Stansted airport with one hour to check in and get through security which I still consider to be a reasonable time. What we didn't count on was the bus taking three hours to do a two hour trip for no readily explained reason.
At this point, I should also mention that my flights were booked with Ryanair. Yes, Ryanair. If you've read anything I've written about Ryanair before this, you already know trouble is coming.
Check in for bags ended at 5:15 and our bus arrived at the terminal at 5:13. We ran to the Ryanair check in and that's where we made our biggest mistake. The woman at the Ryanair check in told us that, although the check in for hold luggage was closed, if we went through security and got to the gate quickly then the luggage could be stowed under the plane then. With retrospect, that was only a way to set themselves up to charge me an outrageous fee but I was so keen to catch the plane that I didn't even stop and think.
Mick and I charged headlong into the security area and frantically tried to remove anything and everything from our bags that wouldn't get through security. Deodorant, shampoo, shaving cream, Vegemite all came out and were dumped unceremoniously in the bin. One thing I did forget though, was the pocket knife that I bought in Turkey.
I bought this pocket knife for 5 Turkish Lira (roughly two dollars Australian) I'm the grand bazaar in Istanbul. It had a flick out blade, was a cigarette lighter (not that I even smoke) but best of all, it looked exactly like my car key back home. It was for novelty value mostly but of course having a knife whilst traveling is pretty handy. It had also come with me on seven different flights across Europe by this point, but in my check-in luggage which I was stupidly attempting to take through security.
Obviously the machine found it and I helped the very friendly, portly old customs man dissect my bag and begrudgingly but understandingly said he could keep it. If only it had been that easy. Before I knew what was happening, two police officers coved in body armor and sporting enormous machine guns sat me down and read me my rights, telling me I was being arrested and taken into custody for possession of a concealed weapon. Apparently the fact that the knife looked like something else turned it from a harmless pocketknife into a deadly weapon.
I've been warned not to talk about my experiences at this point by friends and family but I don't really see the problem (although obviously some subtlety is necessary). I'll say from the start, despite the fact they were arresting me, the two officers (who I will just call Officer B and Officer O) were courteous and even friendly. It seemed to me that what they were doing was more routine than anything else and, strange as it may sound, we got on fairly well considering the circumstances although they were a little tight-lipped.
They took me back to the station were I spent three hours either being interviewed on tape, having my fingerprints and DNA taken or just sitting in a cell. A younger lady cop (Officer W) was assigned to look after me and I ended up acting more as a travel agent for her upcoming trip to Thailand and Australia in February than anything else. Every person I spoke to in the station was polite and friendly although there was an understandable note of seriousness to everything. Officer W also informed me that Mick was waiting for me in the reception area during this time.
Eventually the officer in charge (Officer H) came to see me. I'd been chatting to her before as she checked my goods into storage and I didn't realise she made the final decisions on things. Officer H was a friendly lady, more like a grandmother or a primary school teacher than anything. She told me it was nice to deal with someone so eloquent for a change and told me I was being issued a 'caution'. Essentially, it is exactly what it sounds like. I was never convicted of anything, I do not have a criminal record although if I have any run ins with British law enforcement in the future, it will be added to my record.
I got released and Mick and I wandered next door, back to the airport, for lack of anything better to do. We had well and truly missed our flight by three hours and we needed to work out a new plan. Micks phone was dead and mine had only 10% battery so whatever we decided, it would have to be fast.
We both wanted to continue our trip. I was still steadfast in my commitment to get to Estonia and our return flights from Finland were already paid for. Unfortunately, flights directly to Estonia were ridiculously expensive or full. I was reminded of the time I missed my flight in Dusseldorf and I had to make spur of the moment alternate plans, but this was on a much bigger scale.
The plan we eventually settled on was to catch the next cheap flight to Sweden, catch the ferry to Finland and another ferry across to Estonia. It was far from the most direct route but it was surprisingly the cheapest, not to mention the most adventurous.
We left Stansted airport at around 1am (we eventually found somewhere to charge phones so we hung around for a while) and made our way to Gatwick airport where our Norwegian Airlines flight to Stockholm was leaving at 6:30am.
Two long coach rides later, we eventually made it to Gatwick at around 5am. We breakfasted, checked in and, amazingly, made it through security unmolested.
Id been awake for almost 24 hours at this point. I got an hours sleep on the flight to Stockholm but I think that just made me tireder.