Travel can be dangerous.
OK, we all know that. But when we’re on vacation, we figure the rest of the world is, too. But that’s when some start working overtime.
That was the case with four Americans taken hostage and killed after their yacht was hijacked by pirates off Africa. Up to that point, they were living their dream of sailing the world.
In no way can what happened to some friends traveling with me in Italy compare to that horrific act. But the Italian incident is an example of what can go wrong even when you’re on guard.
We were starting out in Rome and planned to make our way south to the fabled Amalfi Coast. The idea of taking trains as far as we could seemed so European; so Agatha Christie; so not Amtrak. We were to change trains in Naples, and knew it was a hotbed for pickpockets.
That didn’t phase me. As a native Nu Yawka, I move fast and try not to look too prosperous, especially when riding the subway. I go out of my way to look like a schlub. Hey, safety is paramount to making a fashion statement.
It’s a philosophy that’s worked like Teflon in dozens of cities deemed dangerous, especially for a petite Jewish chick. Places like Rio (where I got skin-cancer tan to blend in), Cairo, the Arab section of Jerusalem, Moscow, to name just a few.
Plus, I’ve always traveled very light because I am small, hate clutter, and don’t like to lug stuff. My shoulder purse is slightly bigger than a postage stamp.
Anyway, I warned everyone not to get bogged down with too much baggage and bling; and made sure we were booked in first class on the bullet train from Rome to Naples for extra security. There we were, enjoying the scenery and a civilized, first-class snack. So far so good.
When the train pulled into Naples, everyone cleared out quickly; including apparently, the conductors. When one friend with a bad back was struggling to lift her heavy luggage from the overhead rack, some scruffy guys who’d come aboard did it for her. We only feebly protested, because we were secretly glad for the help.
“We are porters, not bandits,” declared one, who was sporting a button-down shirt with a “Traveline” logo sewn onto the front. Looked official. The friend opened her big designer purse to tip them. After we left the train, another started dogging my partner, trying to chat him up. He tried to get away but wasn’t fast enough. The wallet pocket of his jeans was within easy reach.
When we boarded the next train, a smaller suburban line, the two discovered their wallets had vanished. I felt awful for them, but somewhat relieved: I had my purse hidden under my zipped-up coat the whole time. Sure, I looked like a gnome. But it worked.
They spent the 45-minute train ride on their cellphones, working frantically to contain potential financial damage. In that time, the bandits-not-porters had charged about $9,000 on the stolen credit cards, buying, among other things, baby furniture. “I’m so glad I was able to provide baby furniture for little Giuseppe,” hissed my partner through clenched teeth.
The next stop wasn’t on the itinerary: the police station in Sorrento, Italy. We were trying to explain what happened to a cop who had what looked like an NYPD paperweight on his desk and looked just as harried as New York’s Finest. In fairly decent English — and with a sigh – he explained that we were the latest victims of professionals operating in Naples — a notorious band who were known to resort to robbing at gunpoint if necessary. So notorious, he had mug shots. They didn’t help. Neither did the Italian transit system, nor the Italian Embassy in DC.
The lesson: If someone makes it a point to tell you he’s a “porter, not a bandit”, it means he’s getting ready to take you for everything. So try to plan ahead (do your online research) and avoid being a really easy target.