Thursday, July 20, 2017

Tragic Travel Tales (The Italian Job)

This story has all the ingredients that make for good entertainment. Drama, intrigue, thrill, couple of police encounters and beautiful connections with complete strangers.

Sitting in the plane back to Singapore, I can't help but feel a huge sense of loss. I lost money. I lost time. I lost plans. I lost experiences. All these losses stemmed from one catastrophe- my passport and identity card were stolen in Florence. Luckily it was the last leg of the trip, but the sense of loss was indescribable. Losing a document that is the very foundation of your identity has a soul crushing effect. Not to mention the various practical considerations of losing a passport together with credit cards and a chunk of cash, makes one realize the high dependence we have on all our financial objects.

In Sept last year my clutch was snatched in Vietnam, by two hoodlums on a motorbike. I lost a credit card, some cash and my brand new Samsung S7. I thought travel horror stories could not get worse, but then I had never faced the crafty Italian thieves well-versed in the art of pick pocketing.

I was warned by everyone (especially knowing my history of being a drama magnet), and I was super careful. Not carrying all my money in one bag (thank God for that!), using a sling and clutching it close to the front of my body, using a bag with a zip (my dad does not understand how there can be any other kinds of bags), keeping my passport safe locked in my suitcase, etc. I travelled through Italy with all these precautions from Trevi Fountain in Rome to the Path of Gods in Positano and charming villages of Tuscany. I avoided touts, was extra careful in touristy areas and I even advised  random tourists to be careful of their unzipped bags (dad would be proud). Unfortunately, in Florence I forgot to lock up my passport and walked around the city with it. We ended up in a trashy store which was selling dresses for 10euros. In the frenzy that can only be attributed to cheap shopping, my cousin and I got distracted and someone unzipped the sling and fished out my wallet. Completely unnoticed by either of us. We were in a holiday euphoria supplemented with shopping excitement to even realize what had happened.

After I did, I cried. On the street. On the side walk. By the fountain. In the church. The impact of what that happened came in bursts and I thought I couldn't breathe. My sister was a rock, who reminded me that losing a passport did not mean losing my identity. Wise words, alas, lost in the tragedy of the moment.

I berated myself for being foolish, immature, inept and totally incapable of looking after myself. I was at my lowest ebb when I started feeling that I did not even have basic competence to travel alone and I needed a male companion to protect me. I had sunk so low in that one hour that I vowed to never leave the security of home ever again. (Bye bye college friends reunion trip to Barcelona planned in Oct).

Then I got up. Wiped my tears. Heard my little sister praise me for being a 'woman with ten arms' (translation: goddess/ woman who can multi task effectively) and then I did the one thing that calms me the most. I made a list (yes I am a nerd).

The below list has no drama (which comes in later in the story, so stick with me). This list is useful for anyone else who may go through a similar experience. (I pray it never happens, but if it's Italy, chances are very high)

1. Lodge police report (this is most critical as you will need this for all purposes including claiming insurance)
2. Cancel credit cards
3. Borrow money
4. Inform relevant people who should need to know (choose people who will find practical solutions and not berate you or make you feel like a sorry loser that you are)
5. Go to your embassy to get a temp passport

Indian embassy in Rome looked like an Indian government office from the 80s. Snaking queues of people with strained faces waiting for their passport/ visa application, holding bunch of documents, in a tiny dusty windowless room. I shamelessly used my elite privilege and victim card (I know Karan Johar would not approve) and went straight to the counter, from where I was directed to the 'office upstairs'. I was one floor closer to a solution.

The officer was rather unperturbed, shrugging his shoulders he informed that 'this happens everyday'. So I was not even special! Just another lousy tourist target. There was a clear system in place- including a travel agent across the street who will prepare all the necessary documents for a temp passport, for a small fee is 40euros. Within an hour it was all done! And I would have two full days to enjoy Rome and move on to my final vacation destination- Dubai. After the walking around Italy in canvas shoes and cargo pants, I was so looking forward to being in the lap of Dubai luxury strutting in heels and flirty summer dresses. With a spring in my step I skipped back to the embassy.

The staff greeted me like an old friend and took my application- competed in triplicate. And then came the bombshell (didn't I warn you the drama will return?). My lost passport which was issued in Singapore just last month, did not exist in the Indian government portal!! The dilemma facing the efficient officer was how does the Indian embassy in Rome issue a temp passport when the stolen passport cannot be cancelled in the system?

At one time the officer also questioned how I had made it from Singapore to Italy on a passport that 'does not exist'. Being snarky and saying that I stowed myself in a container on a carrier ship leaving from Singapore to Amalfi Coast wouldn't have been funny. I was advised to wait and then meet the senior officer. And you guessed it! I moved one more floor up. To a beautiful colonial styled room with plush carpets and an adjoining terrace which offered breathtaking view of the city.

The lady was absolutely lovely, sympathetic to my situation but puzzled by the predicament. "You don't exist in the system Madame." At that point tears threatened to flow again, when she added "But we will help you. Don't worry. Give us a day." And they did! They wrote to Indian High Commission in Singapore who confirmed my identity and after two more trips the following day to meet my embassy friends (we were in first name basis by then), I was holding a passport again! I was sweetly requested to let the world know about my positive experience through the marvel that is Twitter. Kindly retweet-

Ironically, I felt more exposed not having my credit cards than my passport. I know it sounds frivolous but the lack of financial independence was rather unnerving. No longer could I pick up whatever my heart desired or enter a restaurant without looking on the right hand side of the menu. I still used my secret stash of money for the necessities- wine, a few dresses and of course the last Euros were spent at the book store.

I told my sob story to anyone who would listen, even attempted to get a discount for my handbag purchase. But it appeared this was a common woe in Italy, and I was unable to cash in on the victim card, except for the lady at Western Union who gave me a half-decent rate for my USD exchange (which went towards the handbag).

There were other kind strangers like a Chinese-American couple from Singapore who offered to loan me money to change my ticket at the airport. The Singapore immigration service staff who gave me the most pertinent advice to transfer my re-entry permit online so there would be no issue to board the flight. A process that can take between 1 to 5 days was done in under an hour.

Friends from different parts of the world offered to wire me money, give me their credit cards, come pick me at the airport, take me shopping, in addition to their much appreciated care and concern.

I missed meeting some of these friends in Dubai, as the airlines only allowed me transit in Dubai but not the planned stopover. My visions of indulging in Sukh Sagar pau bhaji and heavenly kebabs, came to a grinding halt. 12 days of pizza and pasta have taken their toll. And how does one survive on pastries for breakfast?! I longed for a cooked breakfast of masala omelette and toast. Being low on cash also meant that last meal in Rome was mini sandwiches and convenience store bought wine. How the mighty had fallen!

The key realization in all (besides ALWAYS keeping my passport under lock and key) was how our privilege has made us weak. The two other people who had their passport stolen at the same time, could barely afford to pay the temp passport fees. Their concern was basic survival. Mine was elitist inconvenience.

The incident left a long-standing mark. In one tragic stroke, I went from a seasoned solo traveller to a weepy inconsolable nincompoop. From savoring every moment in Italy to begrudging the small part of the holiday that I missed. From being privileged to checking my privilege.

Italy, you took away a lot from me. But you left me with a humbling experience. One that I hope will teach me to rely less on documents and objects, and more on human compassion and friendships. And you did give me a beautiful holiday with my lovely sisters, one that I will cherish forever.