I Was Detained In Germany — And Used Every Skill I Had To Get Home

Photo: Africa images, Pamjpat, Alena Ozerova, Iseo Yang | Canva
Woman traveling in Germany

I was halfway between Madrid and Munich when I realized my passport was missing. This was the worst rookie mistake ever, and knowing I’d gotten sloppy owing to years of international travel made my heart pound.

Not to mention my complete physical exhaustion from walking the Camino Porto, beginning in Portugal and ending in Spain.

My lifetime of international travel meant nothing. At best, I’d made a human mistake. Anyone could lose a passport, right?

Not only that, but my backup plan was non-existent. I hadn’t seen my extra documents and photocopies for days. I suspected I mailed them from Portugal, exhausted with a heavy backpack. Mailing my document copies and photo I.D. was an error beyond the pale, but at the time I shrugged. 

Who would be stupid enough to lose a passport?

Every day, I wore a khaki-tan money belt around my neck and routinely moved my passport in and out of it. I’ve always kept my credit cards and passport close to my body.

Once, a gang of kids threw themself into my back as I crossed a street to the Eiffel Tower.

Little hands went everywhere, but they found nothing. Money belts have saved me more than once.

After walking across Portugal and Spain, that money belt, which I wore like a necklace, smelled rank but nothing like the smell of my body now.

The acrid odor of sweat along with rivulets sliding down my back were evidence of my terror.

When I lived overseas for years — nearly a decade — I met travelers who got stuck overseas. They set up residence in Bangkok, Phnom Penh, or Ho Chi Minh City — barely scraping by. Teaching English for low-paying schools. Pale and thin. Barely surviving, and often dependent on others.

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I’ve always worked hard to take care of my needs.

My husband doesn’t enjoy the exhaustion of crossing the Atlantic, so I’ve walked Camino and traveled overseas alone several times.

While I wanted him to come along, he shook his head.

So I went alone.

Now I felt more alone than I had this entire trip.

Calm yourself, I thought. I had some euros and four one-hundred-dollar bills, along with two credit cards. I had resources the unlucky travelers in Southeast Asia lacked. I’d be okay. But my connecting flights? I’d miss them.

You’ll figure it out, I told myself. Deep breaths.

I reminded myself I wasn’t hungry, and that I could get through this. I needed to talk myself down.

The Madrid plane landed on the tarmac, bouncing a bit, along with my racing heart. I needed to find that passport fast. My connecting flight was minutes away. Would I find the passport in my computer bag? In a zippered compartment of my pack?

My flight from Munich to Canada would move me onwards to my home in the Pacific Northwest. At sixty-four, I’d walked the Camino Porto, more than 170 miles, in sixteen days. It was evidence of my internal fortitude more than my athleticism.

The first days of walking miles from Porto, Portugal to Matosinhos, then along the Portuguese coastline, were grueling. The backpack, a 46-L Osprey, felt like a ball and chain. Many times I considered giving up, to be honest.

You’ll get stronger, I told myself. Give it five days.

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Cancer ravaged my strength in 2021, and I’m recovering now.

A few years of depression and malaise from radiation treatments didn’t do me any favors. I gained weight. I lost muscle. Every day, my husband came to my nesting place on the couch, “Let’s take a walk now. Get your shoes on.”

I needed help, and he was there.

A heat dome developed over Portugal in early October. I departed Viana Do Costelo. It was my fifth day of walking. I didn’t understand. Where were the moderate temperatures all the websites had promised?

I trudged along.

Temperatures were close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 37 Celsius. I drank, and drank, and drank water. Was I safe? On that fifth day, a British guy and I made friends. Without him, I’m not sure I would have made it to my destination.

I considered lying under a shady tree and spending a night. He encouraged me along, chatting about Roman paver stones, and the supermarket in town. He kept me going. He matched my pace, that of a turtle. Together, we arrived at our destination, Praia de Âncora. My cell phone was dead, but I’d written the address on paper. His hotel was just past it, so he walked me to my hotel.

What a guy. Thank you. I send you light and love, friend.

On this flight to Munich, I began problem-solving.

I pressed the call button and the flight attendant came.

“Can you please call the terminal in Madrid? I think I dropped my passport at the scanner.”

That’s where I’d seen it last. The flight attendant sympathized, but said, “People are nervous when they’re flying. When we get to the ground, we’ll help you look. It’s very likely in your bags, and you’ll be fine.”

No, I wasn’t wrong — the passport was gone.

Flying over Germany, I noticed how neat the homes and buildings were. This was Munich, southern Germany. Bavaria is the land of my ancestors. That wouldn’t matter. I jumped up in the aisle, retrieved my backpack and computer, and practically ran to get to an empty place on the Munich airport carpet. The flight had arrived late. I had little time to search.

I felt like an idiot, but there would be time to feel stupid later.

Things were going to get worse.

I pulled everything out of my backpack, glad I’d put my dirty clothes in a wet-dry bag. I dug through everything, including my computer bag with its zippers, and the small cork handbag I’d purchased in Santiago de Compostela.

Now, I felt like a foolish old woman —a sixty-four-year-old lady in a smelly Camino T-shirt with a backpack and trinkets from Spain spread around me.

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Two immigration police walked by.

“Excuse me,” I said, “I’ve got a problem. My passport has gone missing.”

The thirty-something-year-old Germans were immaculately uniformed, a beautiful blond woman and an equally attractive man. They carried guns, batons, and radios. They were official and commanding.

“Come with us,” the woman said.

I loped along behind them, feeling like a lamb going to slaughter.

They led me back, back into the inner corridors of the airport, and past a German coat-of-arms — a red and black eagle painting. They opened the door to a tiny room and told me to sit down.

A thirty-three-year-old woman sat on one bench, and I was relieved she was an American woman from Chicago, Illinois. Someone to talk to.

“Why do I feel like I’ve just been arrested?” I asked, “I lost my passport and asked for help, and this room is so hot I can barely breathe.”

She burst into tears and told me her story. It was the beginning of her journey, and she’d never traveled.

“How long have you been in this room?” I asked.

“Three hours,” she said, “And I’m beginning to lose hope.”

She started crying again but used her phone nonstop to call friends and family. Her talking was exhausting and loud, but at least she could use her phone. My Wi-Fi connection wasn’t good, but I managed to get a message to a friend. A short message.

I’m in trouble, lost my passport, in custody in Munich.

The young Chicago woman shared the address for the U.S. Consulate in Munich, and I wrote it down.

Then an older German police came into the room.

“Come with me,” he said.

“Are my things okay here?” I asked, grabbing only my money belt and phone.

He frowned, then yelled, “If a policeman tells you to ‘come here,’ you come! What is wrong with you? Come with me now. You are in a police station! Do you understand?”

This was my worst nightmare. I now fully realized I was under arrest.

I couldn’t contain my fear and tears ran down my face in the narrow hallway. I fell against the wall, sobbing. All the hardship of the Camino combined with my dashed anticipation of going home.

Now I was yelled at and felt so stupid.

I was no longer in control.

Not of my situation. I had no power with this policeman, either.

Yet, he looked at me, and he softened.

“Quit crying now, please. We must work. If you cry, you can not help the situation. We must think. This is a little problem, not a big problem. You are not the first person to lose a passport. Come on. We go.”

The police led me upstairs, and I saw perhaps thirty travelers at the Lufthansa desk lined up for help with missed flights. They stared at me. One young boy, ten years old, looked terrified. His concern for me was palpable, and my red and swollen face bore testimony to a breakdown.

The policeman handed me a huge handful of tissues.

“Now you stop crying. I order you.” He smiled kindly.

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I was taken up and downstairs a few times, and grilled with questions, mostly rhetorical: “What do you mean you have nothing with your photo and name together? This is not typical.”

Back downstairs they led me.

Then, I said: “Listen — this room is hot, and there is no air. We are thirsty. Please help us. This is like torture, and we need help.”

One of the police said, “Noted,” and within minutes the room was comfortable and we had water to drink from cups.

A supervisor joined us, and I suggested I call my husband and get him to scan and send documents via e-mail. When Jay answered the phone, my relief was immeasurable.

“Listen,” I said, “I need you to scan and send everything you can find with my photo and name on it. I’m in trouble. I’m okay, but I’m in custody with Munich police.”

No man’s land in a little detention room in the airport.

Jay took care of me. Thank you, good man.

Within an hour, I was released. Like a bird in a cage unused to freedom, I stood there. I didn’t fly; I stared at the two men.

“You go now, is okay. Tomorrow you go to the US Embassy and get a new passport. I think no problem now for you.”

The men smiled and I gathered my things. I even talked them into selfies with me, but I promised I wouldn’t use them on social media. I will honor that.

The following twenty-four hours were far from easy. In Munich Airport, they pushed me along, not allowing me to sit and charge my phone — now on nine percent. (Note to self: buy a power pack.)

I booked a hotel, where I enjoyed some delicious German beer and Wiener Schnitzel — greasy and crumbly with tender meat. I would take things one step at a time. The next day, at the U.S. Consulate, I bought an emergency passport — a purple cover clearly labeled.

After telling my story three or four times, I kept my purple passport hidden from people at the airport, as I kept getting wrangled to tell my story. People want the details. They’re nosy.

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At the U.S. Consulate was a beautiful family — a mother, father, two teenage boys, and a pretty little girl of eight years. I shared the fruit with them.

When I asked their dual nationalities, the father glanced at his wife and almost imperceptibly shook his head. I noticed.

The mother began talking about weather, travel, anything but their dual citizenship. Within a few minutes, one of the teenage boys came to his mother, “Can I tell the woman working at the desk we’re Israeli?”

It was at that very moment the policeman’s words came to me about my lost passport.

Your lost passport is not a big problem. It’s a little problem.

That was an important message for me at that very moment. There are much bigger heartaches and problems in our world today than a lost passport. I took that in, also remembering an Israeli woman on Camino I’d met.

“Flights are closed. I can’t go home,” she said.

This was a big problem.

Twenty-four hours after my ordeal in Munich, I was on a flight to go home.

I ran into the two young Immigration Police at the Munich Airport, and they smiled and congratulated me on receiving my emergency passport.

They were truly kind.

“Better than TSA, right?” the policewoman said.

“Without a doubt,” I replied.

Now, I sit in my warm home, safe and sound.

I have learned important lessons.

And now, I wish my new friends, all of them, the very best.

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Debra Groves Harman is a creative non-fiction memoirist who's been published in myriad magazines.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.