Friday, July 11, 2008

Another series of unfortunate incidents

Its time to commit memories to paper when they start getting dimmed by time and blurred by nostalgia. In July 2006, I posted here 'A series of unfortunate events', the story of how I reached Sicily for the start of a business trip. As luck(or fate?) would have it, my trip ended 9 months later with another(more horrible) Series of Unfortunate Events. Heres what happened...

March 2007 was my last month in Sicily and having visited 7 european countries and almost 20 cities, I planned a final trip, to Sweden. I set out on a cold, windy & rainy night from Catania(in sicily), to board a train to Rome, en route to Stockholm. If I believed in omens, I would have recognized that the rain was a harbinger of worse things. But I had had such an amazing time in Europe until then that I couldn't care less about inauspicious signs. Anyway, I reached Rome the next day, and spent a rather enjoyable day in the Vatican City. At night I took the metro to go the city centre. Thats when things started going horribly wrong.

At the central station, I was pickpocketed! I clearly remember the overcrowded train, someone asking me if I was getting down as the station approached, and then bumping into me several times. It was only when I had gotten down, and changed to a different platform that I realized that my pockets were lighter. My first reaction was panic, which was surprisingly quickly followed by one of relief, as I remembered that all my important documents were still safely in my knapsack, along with a bundle of contingency cash. So having recovered my composture, I found a policeman on the platform, but he didn't speak English. Just when I was despairing and about to give up, a passing girl helped me out with the policeman. I was told that I'd have to lodge a complaint at the police station which was on the main platform.

While I tried to find my way through the labyrinth that is the Rome central station, I called up my banks to cancel my credit cards. I must really have offended the gods that day because the person who answered the Visa hotline, is THE MOST slow-talking person I've ever encountered. To this day, I don't understand how someone answering a lost credit-cards hotline, can talk so slow. This guy was literally taking a deep breath between every word he spoke - "". It took me more than 15 minutes to get it across that I wished all my credit cards cancelled due to the robbery. I could only hope that the thieves hadn't used my cards in that time. Having gotten through the ordeal of trying to talk slow while being in an heightened state of panic, I reached the police station. This place looked like a regular government office. I saw several people waiting patiently to lodge their reports. It did help me gain a bit of perspective to see that I was not the only one who had been robbed that day. Astonishingly, it took me 45 minutes to lodge a report of the pickpocketing, a testament to the speed with which these matters are handled in Rome!

Once this was done, I was faced with a difficult choice. I could either go back to catania(home), or go on to Stockholm and hope that my contingency cash would be enough to get me through the 3 days I planned on staying there(my flights were already booked). I did a quick calculation and realized that if I could find a bed at an hostel, I could just about make it. So I decided to go on.

MISTAKE!!! Stockholm was COLD! Impossibly so. Even Chamonix(in the french alps) was not as cold. I now think it was the icy-cold wind that lashed the city all 3 days that I was there. Anyway, first thing I had to do was find a hostel. In keeping with the horrible run of luck I'd been having, none of the hostels had any available beds(there was some festival going on in the city and so there were numerous visitors). Just when I thought that God was punishing me for some past misdemeanors, I found an actual hotel that just about fit my budget. The next 3 days weren't exactly fantastic. The highlight of my visit was the visit to the Museum dedicated to the royal warship VASA (pictures elsewhere on this blog), otherwise I found Stockholm fairly ordinary. My flight back to Rome was in the early morning, so I decided to go to the airport late in the nite and spend the few hours there. At this point I had barely enough cash to sustain me a day. I figured I would be ok since my transport was all arranged, so technically I would need money only for food and I would be home by the next nite.

MISTAKE!!! While waiting for my flight, I chanced upon a flight status monitor that showed that my flight to Rome had been cancelled! My heart skipped a beat! I paced around waiting for the Ryanair ticket office to open. When it eventually did, I was told that the Rome airport was closed due to a strike. I was given a choice - an alternative flight to Milan that evening, or a flight to Rome the next morning. I figured it was useless going to Rome the next day - first because my train back home from Rome was scheduled for that nite, so I would miss it anyway; second, because with the little money I had left, I couldn't afford to go through another day; and third, because I just didnt want to stay in Stockholm any longer than I absolutely had to. So I chose the flight to Milan on the same day. Now there the matter of arranging transport to sicily from milan. Since all my credit cards were gone(stolen actually) with my wallet, and I barely had enough cash, I had no option but to ask my friends in Sicily to book a flight for me from Milan to Catania.

My handphone chose that particular moment to stop working! By that time I had gotten so used to misfortune that I barely noticed this betrayal by my phone. I simply set about looking for an alternative. This presented itself in the form of an helpful officer at the Stockholm tourist centre at the airport. He was kind enough to allow me to use the phone at the office to make the necessary calls to Sicily to arrange my flight home. Once this was done, I settled down to wait for my flight to Milan, which was still 8 hours away. I thought I was entitled to think that the worst was behind me.

MISTAKE!!! I was just sitting at the airport reading a book, when 2 airport officers approached me and asked me to accompany them. I couldn't think why they'd want to talk to me as I'd spent a sum total of 3 days in sweden. Anyway, I went with them to a small room in the depths of the airport, where I was told that my face matched that of some missing person. I spent the next 1 hour trying to convince them that I was in fact a free (if somewhat down-on-luck) guy from Sicily, just visiting Stockholm. This wasn't easy considering that I had lost 30kg of weight in the last 3 years. So the picture in my passport was quite different from the way I looked then. Anyway, I finally convinced them and returned to wait for my flight after almost an hour. It turned out that the flight from Milan to Sicily was very early the next morning. I had no choice but to spend another evening at an airport. Having undergone possibly the most draining (physically & mentally) 3 days of my life, I found it hard to remain alert. So I put my glasses to a side and dozed a bit.

MISTAKE!!! When I opened my eyes, the glasses were gone!!! Stolen!!! Who would want to steal someone else's glasses??? I was beyond anger, frustration and disbelief! I just boarded the flight to Sicily, went home and slept for what seemed like a week.

PS : I thought then that this trip was the worst ever I would undertake. As it turns out, I seem to specialize in trips gone wrong. I recently visited Hong Kong & Macau, and this trip turned out even worse. So bad in fact that I dont want to even remember it. Suffice to say that I came back home 4 days early (paid the airline to prepone my ticket actually), and don't remember a single enjoyable moment over the 4 days of the trip!!!

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