This has been a hard piece to write… Everything I thought I knew about about travelling was changed by this experience. In this piece, I share intimate details about my travel experience that very few are aware of. Of course I was tempted to share with you earlier, but could not so as to not tamper with the then, ongoing investigation.
We had a smooth flight to Rome. About an hour and fifteen minutes from Santorini. The much-anticipated Euro trip that involved a lot of last minute planning, was finally becoming a reality! Now you have to understand, growing up, travelling to Europe seemed like a dream. I had seen Paris and Rome in movies mostly, read about their rich history and dreamed of one day visiting all these places. And now finally, my dreams were coming true! It really was a huge deal for this young girl. I could feel the excitement building up inside.
All in high spirits, we headed to the airport’s exit soon after baggage claim. I was the first out the door walking into the horde of cab drivers, each frantically signaling to tourists in a desperate attempt to win their business. I got the feeling that someone was staring. My gaze soon locked with one taxi driver. He was middle aged, about five feet ten inches, dark hair and beard. Dressed in a crisp white shirt and black trousers. His sleeves were rolled up revealing tattoos. He held my gaze for a few more seconds before deciding to approach.
Quickly advancing towards where my friends and I now stood, he stopped in front of me and asked, “taxi?” the heavy Italian accent apparent. I smiled to myself. In answer, I asked whether he had a van. Between us four, we had eight bags. Two for each lass (most women generally do not travel light). “Yes, I have van. Follow me, I take you” He responded, his voice deep and ragged. And without another word, the attractive stranger who was officially our cab driver, turned on his heel and headed back into the airport. Didn’t offer any kind of help with our bags nor did he try shorten his long strides, to allow us to catch up with him. I was already getting frustrated as the service in Rome clearly sucked!
One of the girls, Nancy managed to catch up and was walking by his side while chatting to the stranger. We couldn’t make out what they were saying, but assumed they were discussing price for the trip to the hotel. Once back in the airport, he progressed toward an escalator that was leading to the basement. My senses now fully alert, I could tell something was off. I had given up on trying to keep up with the rest of the gang, that were all now well ahead of me going down the escalator. I stood at the top of the descending escalator and called out to the girls, “Guys, where is he taking us?!” My instinct told me to stop and quit while I still could. One of the girls, upon realizing I wasn’t following suite, stopped to reassure me that the cab driver was taking us to a basement parking. After a slight hesitation I gave in and followed them on down the escalator to the basement.
As promised, the attractive stranger unlocked a black van and quickly started loading our bags one by one into the car’s boot space. My carry-on Louis Vuitton bag was the last… he gave it a quick glance as if recognizing the label before packing it with the rest. “How much?” Nancy probed. He did not answer but instead signaled for us to get in. Now all in the van, we insisted on knowing how much the trip was. ‘fifty’ he finally said. He drove into the highway, speeding past other motorists. He was clearly a reckless driver. Another sign he was not your ordinary taxi driver.
You are probably wondering why the hell we still stuck to having him drive us at this point after all the red flags… to be honest, even I ask myself to this day. “What is your name?” I asked. He looked at my reflection through the rear mirror before saying, “Marco” in response. He then went on to say that we would have to add the fare since our hotel address was in the town, which was far from the airport. This was met by protests mostly from Nancy. Who happens to be Kenyan American – and you know Americans demand for their rights. Haha! Feeling uncertain of where we would end up, I secretly took photos of ‘Marco’ … just in case. And immediately shared them to my sister on WhatsApp for backup. Little to my knowledge, the shared images would come in handy! My sister and I have a code, if I ever send her random details about taxi registration or my location and name of person I am with, she automatically knows its for my safety and vice versa.
We dropped off two of the girls at the hotel they were staying before driving through the city to our hotel. The other girl and I were staying at a different hotel not too far from our friends’ hotel. We were parked on the street across our hotel. I was sat alone in the van as I waited for Marco to finish offloading our luggage. From my view in the side mirror, it seemed as if my pal was having an argument with Marco. So I got out of the van to investigate what the misunderstanding was about. My backpack slipped off my lap to the seat where I sat in the van. As I was approaching where they stood on the street, my pal was now shouting at him, “No I saw what you did!” Repeatedly. In a panic, Marco moved to jump back into the driver’s seat and drive off with my bag, that had my passport still in the van! I caught him right as he was reversing out of the parking spot. He almost ran me over as I stood in front of his car blocking his way. I was shaken by how easily I could have been ran over trying to stop him, but at that point, what was important was getting my bag back. Soon as I retrieved it, he sped off into the street. My pal then noticed that my Louis Vuitton bag was missing, she asked if I had it. That is when we realized it was still in the van that was now speeding away. I ran after it but was unable to catch up. I then ran to the other end of the street, hoping to catch up with him but it was too late. He was gone with my bag. Ladies and gentlemen, that was my welcome to Rome.
The hotel we had picked was a great choice. A major tourist site in Rome, the Colosseum was right behind the hotel building. The receptionist on duty, Mona, was one of the kindest souls I have ever met. She offered to drive us to the police station and stayed to translate Italian to English to both the officer and us (my pal and I) so that we could make a statement. The officer soon revealed that they got multiple complaints of this nature, as crime in Rome was at a steady rise. He then explained that main targets are in coming tourists as they were easy to spot. So there was a great possibility that Marco wasn’t a genuine taxi driver and that his name was not even Marco!
The photos I had taken of Marco helped trace his true identity. Even though his eyes were hidden behind dark sun glasses in the photos, his face was clearly made out. Making it possible to identify his details on their system. The officer requested us to come back to the station after two hours for an update. Now back in Mona’s car, I asked her what information the officer had shared with her… I had a hunch not all was disclosed. She took a deep breath before she finally offered, ‘He said you should know that there is a chance you might not get your bag back even if they find Marco. That he had probably thrown it away after picking what was valuable from its contents’.
I’d been able to keep it together until now. Sat next to Mona in her car, I looked out my window into the street now dark in the night and it dawned on me… all I would lose. Had probably already lost to the taxi driver. I couldn’t hold my cool anymore, so I broke down into tears angry at myself for being in this situation, for allowing myself to follow the girls at the airport while it was clear something was off. The irony was that I was the most skeptical about him, yet now only I had been a victim of his. The car remained quiet on the drive back to the hotel, where we would wait until it was time to go back to the police station for their report findings.
Two hours flew past. Mona, my pal and I were back at the station waiting to see the officer on duty. Again, because of the language barrier, Mona had to interpret what the officer was reporting back as findings. (My advise to you when you visit Rome, have an interpreter either in person or a good app because the locals do not understand or speak English. Majority are not bothered to learn either. Even better, learn enough Italian words to help you get by).
We were not prepared to hear what the investigations had uncovered…in two hours, they were able to identify the taxi driver’s real identity, his van details, his social media pages, even his place of residence! I was impressed by the Italian police efficiency. To begin with, Marco was a fake name. The van he drove us in was a hired car and the agency he claimed to work for did not have him registered as their employee. So you see, it was a well organized operation. They also suspected he used his Instagram account to con unsuspecting women with his lavish lifestyle display on the platform. I was able to identify him from the tattoos on his right arm. They were visible from where I sat in the van. I sat in shock in the inspector’s office absorbing all I had learnt before finally responding, “Mona, how soon can they arrest him so I can get my bag back?” Mona translated in Italian and reported back that they would have to follow the legal process of getting a warrant of arrest. Until then, I would have to wait for their instructions on the way forward.
I remember laying in bed that day, ready to cut my Euro trip short and fly back home.. I kept replaying the occurrence in my mind . My eyes finally gave in to exhaustion.
First Day roaming the streets of Rome!
Rome’s cities are very narrow. Driving is very difficult, especially to a visitor. Best suitable to walk or use the hop-on hop-off buses. Their prices are pretty decent too. The locals prefer walking.
Be careful as to how they describe distance from point A to B though, what may be five kilometers will be described as just being one!
The first stop had to be the world famous catholic church, The Vatican.
We had picked hotels that were not too far from the main tourist attractions. This made transport cost cheaper. You want to carefully pick where to stay, so that moving about the city is easy. The main city is a bit of a distance from the airport, taxi fare was about fifty Euros from the airport to the city. My advise to you is to stay in the city, where most attractions are located.
If you love site seeing, you will want to get by on foot. Viewing of buildings and restaurants is best done this way.
Buildings in Rome generally look old. But the outstanding architectural designs is still evident.
The hop on and off bus is a great bargain. The bus will take you round the city making stops on all tourists sites.
They also offer history for buildings and the famous events that took place in the sites, making them historic. Because tourists around the world visit the city, translation is offered making it easy to understand the stories narrated when on the tour bus. You can choose your preferred language.
City views from the hop on and off bus
The buses are only allowed to go to a certain distance from the Vatican. We had to cover the balance two kilometers or so on foot. Remember to dress decently when going to this site. No shoulders, cleavage or thighs should be visible. Wear comfortable shoes as well, you cover quite a bit of distance while exploring the inside of the Vatican and Museum.
While covering the stretch to the Vatican Museum’s main entrance, what looked like roman dressed soldiers stood by the road guarding a gate that led to the back entrance of the Vatican. The Museum was about a two kilometer distance from the Vatican. Another reason to wear comfortable shoes!
Inside the museum, beautiful architectural designs were chosen to decorate its walls and ceilings.
Historical pieces such as paintings, jewelry, stone curving among others, are displayed.
Upstairs at the terrace, I found a nice spot with great views.
Here you can sit and revel at the beautiful views or just rest from all the walking around to explore.
To go back down to the exit that is located close to the main entrance, we were guided toward the famous spiral staircase inside the Vatican Museum.
The walk back to the Vatican’s main entrance seemed shorter. But the scotching afternoon sun did not make the experience one to envy.
We had bought ‘skip the line’ tickets, which are slightly more expensive than regular tickets, but save you hours spent waiting in line. The expectation is that you go straight into the Vatican, past the long line of revelers and tourists that purchased regular tickets.
[Long que to the Vatican entrance]
Disclaimer, the guards were not very friendly… even rude perhaps.
After queuing for half an hour or so, we finally got to the front of the skip the line que. The guard in charge asked for our respective tickets, which we all presented. “You can only access the Vatican from the Museum!” He barked in response. That was confusing because one, we were in the que to the main entrance for the Vatican. Hence did not make much sense why we had to go back to the museum to access the Vatican. Learning this earlier would have also saved us the two kilometer walk back from the museum. “That was not communicated to us. But the tickets show we have paid for access to both the Museum and the Vatican. Can we just go in?” I asked the guard. “No! You go back to Museum and access Vatican from there.” He responded, impatiently signaling us to move away from the front of the line to give way for other tourists.
It’s not what he said, but rather how the guard addressed us. “Move so other people in line can get in!” he barked. That was the last straw. I punched him on the throat real hard to make him shut up!…but this was all in my head. In reality, we moved away and headed back to the hotel. It was late in the afternoon and the scorching sun hung low. Trekking back to the museum to access the Vatican was out of the question. All four of us agreed to make peace with not seeing the famous Vatican. The experience with the guard had ruined it for us. So we walked back to the bus stop where the hop on and off buses were and boarded one.
That evening, we decided to laugh off the days’ events over dinner at charming restaurant in the heart of Rome. I really enjoyed travelling with the girls, was lots of fun dressing up to visit restaurants and the conversions were endless!
The girls had a cooking class planned for the following day. Having decided prior to the trip that an art and wine class sounded more to my liking, I resolved to skip the cooking class. I had learned about the class from an online search for ‘Top ten things to do in Rome‘. Growing up as a creative, I loved drawing and coloring. One day, my dad came home with a huge box of Plasticine. I had so much fun molding it into whatever I could think of! I was the type of kid that preferred to stay in to draw and play with my toys, as opposed to going out to play like the other children in the gated community where we resided. The package also came with bottomless Italian wine and views of the city while painting, so I was sold! The idea of lazily sipping on Italian wine while rekindling with the artist in me was more appealing than a cooking class. What better way to spend my time in Rome!
Little to my knowledge, this was never to pass…
Early the next morning the police notified me that they would be coming to my hotel to obtain more evidence. So as the girls departed to go for the cooking class, I stayed back to meet the cops. Two detectives came by the hotel. One seemed to be middle aged, probably in his mid thirties while the other looked much older. The younger detective introduced himself as Lorenzo. My memory fails me on the older detective’s name, so let’s call him Matteo. Lorenzo spoke English, but Matteo did not. So he helped translate between Matteo and I. The two detectives required that I drive down to the station with them to help identify a suspect that they thought was ‘Marco’. I declined their offer. I was not about to get into a random car with two Italian men, after being robbed by one of their own just a day prior. For all I knew, Marco may have sent them to finish the job and cut all loose ends! (The dramatic effects of binge watching Blacklist!) I was still paranoid from the whole experience and determined to steer clear of any more trouble for the rest of the trip.
“How do I know that you are genuine cops?” I challenged Lorenzo. Who smiled before translating to Matteo. Matteo seemed offended and irritated at the suggestion that they were not who they said they were. The two fellows quickly exchanged words in Italian before they both reached into their pockets to retrieve IDs and badges. Matteo then reached into his back pocket and produced handcuffs. I had seen handcuffs before in tv shows, but seeing them in real life was chilling. Even without touching them, they seemed icy cold. My eyes now wide with fear, I stared down at the cuffs at the reception desk where they had been placed by Matteo. I raised my gaze to meet Matteo’s. He had a smug look, clearly enjoying how seeing the cuffs had me rattled. “Now you believe we are cops?” Lorenzo inquired. I nervously smiled before slowly nodding in response. Matteo grabbed his badge and cuffs and replaced them in his pockets.
“Please help me call a taxi to take me to the station.” I requested the receptionist, who had been watching the whole ordeal unravel. “No need for taxi! You come with us, we drive you to station.” Lorenzo interrupted. I turned my back on the two policemen to address the receptionist. “ I don’t feel comfortable getting into a car with them. If they require me to go down to the station, I would rather follow them in a cab.” The receptionist translated what I had told her to the two police officers. I calmly watched as Matteo’s face gave away his aggravation from my stubbornness. Lorenzo seemed more understanding. He glanced over at me, his facial features softened at the recognition of fear in my eyes. I was terrified at the idea of being in danger, this time all by myself since the girls were away on their cooking class. “Okay.” Lorenzo agreed to my terms.
We all now stood outside the hotel on the street, waiting for my taxi to arrive. While leaning on the hard stone wall, I furtively took photos of the two policemen, then sent them to the girls for evidence…in case anything happened to me. Something told me I could trust Lorenzo, maybe because he was kind and more reasonable. Soon as the taxi arrived, I got in and followed their car down to the station. “Now you believe we are real police officers?” Lorenzo asked while I was settling into a chair in his office at the police station. He had a grin while he said this, a sign that he was teasing. I laughed before responding, “Yes.” He went on “Good. Now please delete the photos you took of us.” I was thrown off by his directness. Even more so, embarrassed that he had noticed. “Oh. How did you…” My words faded off mid sentence, arriving at the conclusion that that’s what detectives do…they detect. Pick up on clues most people would miss. I felt a deep sense of relief. Lorenzo was clearly good at his job. I had a better chance of getting the bastard that robbed me.
“That is him!” I exclaimed immediately after seeing a photo of Marco. His image was amongst five other images of suspects. I had to identify him correctly, to enable them to get a warranty for his arrest. “Are you sure?” Lorenzo probed. “Yes I am certain, that is him.” I responded. His lips curved into a smile. “Thank you. Now We need your friends to also come to the station to identify him. If we get a match to the suspect you identified, we’ll be granted a warrant for his arrest this afternoon.” But the girls were away for most of the day. They could not come into the station immediately. They would have to come later in the afternoon. So I told Lorenzo. He agreed to wait till the end of his shift at five in the evening. However, it would be too late to arrest Marco by then, so we’d have to wait to first thing in the morning. The girls agreed to come to station shortly after their class. But that meant I had three hours to kill.
So I chose to roam in the streets of Rome. I had heard that Italian pasta is to die for. So I set out to find the best spot for pasta. I have come to learn from previous experience in travelling, the best food spots are known by the locals. I strode into a minimart to buy a note book and pen (I prefer to draft short notes in real time during my trip for my blogs). But I also hoped the cashier was a local and would know a great place for pasta to recommend. Somewhere not easy to find on google. And he did. He recommended a place not too far from his shop called ‘Pasta Chef‘. There are many words that come to mind in describing how delicious the pasta was, but simply put… orgasmic! Three years after and I still have an imprint of how tasty the meal was!
Pasta Chef is a tiny restaurant located in an alley not too far from the famous Coliseum. The restaurant was full with locals and tourists all eager to fill their bellies with a warm meal off the menu. I stood at the entrance marveling at the frenzy in the tiny restaurant. What appeared to be the manager yelled orders at the kitchen staff to put out the food. He stood at the front a few feet a away from the cashier. The young cashier worked tirelessly, receiving payments and issuing receipts. He would then quickly drop a copy of the receipt at the tiny window by the kitchen, for the chefs to start preparing the order. Back and forth he ran, almost knocking over the manager who stood next to the tiny window by the kitchen where the meals were placed when ready. ‘Thank God he is young!‘ I thought. The fellow could not have been a day over twenty years.
END OF PART 1
Look out for part of this piece where I will share more intimate details of the trip, including the shocking findings we made in Marco’s apartment, when he got arrested in his home the next day.
Thank you for reading this far. I sincerely hope that this was educative and fun.Ever had a similar experience when travelling abroad? Please share with us in the comments sections and keep the conversation going.
Don’t forget to share with that one person you know needs to read this!