*editor’s note* This was originally written months ago while the Yellow Shirts of Thailand were attempting to “shutdown Bangkok”. Before I was able to post it my computer died. Eventually I was able to recover my files and after weeks of procrastination I’m finally posting this. Since the time of writing the military of Thailand has overthrown the government and is now running the country.
The interesting thing about flying from Florida to Thailand is it doesn’t really matter if you fly east or west; it’s still going to take about the same amount of time. Earth is a pretty big place and I just about picked the farthest place from home on Earth to live. It’s not that I want to live so far from home it’s that Thailand is awesome. I enjoy Thailand more than Hawaii. I work significantly less and despite earning significantly less, my quality of living has increased. Needless to say the extra distance is worth it. However, when my adoring mother wants to see me the distance poses a bit of a challenge; that and guessing when complete mayhem will break out in Bangkok.
The Yellow Shirts don’t like the people in power here in Thailand and unfortunately for them they are the minority. Unable to win an election they’ve decided to take matters into their own hands. Overall they’ve mostly blown whistles but stopped too short of attacking the Red Shirts head on. There has been some violence but you’re more likely to die in a typical road accident than at a protest. There are peaks and valleys to the unrest and it’s difficult to predict 3 months down the road if things will be calm or if the Thai apocalypse (aka Thaipocalypse) will be upon us. That said, my mother and I decided to meet approximately half-way between Florida and Thailand, destination Italy.
Whenever travelling, it’s always important to be aware of the dangers that lie within your destination. If you want to visit Thailand be mindful of mass protests and aggressive lady boys. If you want to visit Mexico, be mindful of drug cartels. If you’re a woman travelling in Kyrgyzstan, be especially careful, for you’re at risk of being kidnapped and forced into marriage. So goes it on this strange treacherous planet of ours. Shadows can never be trusted and exploring unfamiliar territory can be tricky, like negotiating a turn on a gravel road going 90 in a Cadillac Deville or figuring out which cop to bribe and with how much. A slight miscalculation can spell disaster. More often than not it’s better to cautiously figure out what lies ahead rather than barrel through like Lindsay Lohan can a bottle of Vicodin and an eight ball of cocaine. For some reason there are those that prefer to throw caution to the wind but I’m here to tell you, “proceed with caution my friend”. But what does one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations offer in the way of to be avoided dangers? Well, if you want to visit Italy be mindful of one of the most dangerous creatures on Earth, gypsies!
Yes, gypsies inhabit every square mile of Italy. They have no natural predators and after being introduced to Italy by the Nazis in 1944 as part of a clandestine operation to destabilize the region their numbers have grown exponentially. The possibility of eradicating the invasive species is slim to zero. The only thing the Italians and tourists can do is be aware of the danger and stay vigilant.
Typically, gypsies are only after your wallet but will bite when confronted in an aggressive manner or backed into a corner. Adult gypsies have a 1”-2” set of fangs that are able to deliver one of the most painful bites in the animal kingdom. Hundreds of Italians and tourists die from gypsy bites every year but it’s rarely the puncture from the fangs that kills. One drop of gypsy saliva contains billions of deadly bacteria. The saliva dissolves flesh and usually after 2-3 days of excruciating pain caused by the ensuing infection the victim is dead. Scientists have stated in journals that gypsy saliva is far more potent than that of a distant relative on the evolutionary chart, the Komodo dragon.
Despite looking rather human they are easy to spot by the trained eye. Most gypsies hunch forward just slightly and have a small but noticeable hitch in their step. The hitch comes from a deformity in the hips; a trait that all gypsies carry. Also, you’ll never catch them smiling as doing so would reveal their fangs. Gypsies prefer to be discreet and act as human as possible, the goal being to blend in amongst large crowds and remain undetected. They can act incredibly human but when the conditions are right, hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary instincts kick in and they make a pull for your wallet.
Crafty bastards they are. One minute you’re enjoying a double-decker bus sightseeing tour through Rome and the next you’re on the phone with a loved one across an ocean asking for a Western Union money transfer. A book thicker than a dictionary can be written about all the tactics gypsies deploy in order to steal your wallet without attracting attention. Whether you’re getting on a bus, tying your shoelaces, or helping someone in need you are never safe.
As I mentioned before the best thing you can do to avoid them is stay vigilant. However, gypsies do have one weakness, a sort of gypsy kryptonite if you will. Back in the early 1960’s when it became apparent to the Germans and Italians the gypsy attack had gone awry they started looking for ways they could get the gypsy population under control. A couple infamous German scientists developed a unique form of synthetic crystal. It was a hybrid of ionic and molecular crystal infused with a very rare chemical unknown by the public today.
Gypsies are highly allergic to what is commonly known as gypsy crystal. It causes their skin to burn and just a small whiff induces severe inflammation and burning of the ear, nose, and throat. Gypsy crystal is harmless to humans but deadly to gypsies. Ingesting as little as 10 micrograms is likely to be fatal. The Germans encouraged people to keep a bit of the crystal hidden inside their wallets in case they were attacked.
The problem was the chemical used in production was rare and the production process itself was expensive. The gypsy population was growing exponentially and there simply wasn’t enough of the crystal to stop them. After just a few years the entire gypsy crystal program was shuttered. What’s left today is a limited supply still floating around on the black market. If you’re lucky enough to find an authentic crystal it’s usually too expensive. Not to mention all the counterfeit gypsy floating around makes the whole idea of acquiring the crystal for protection on a short trip more of a fantasy than a practical defense. I never imagined the possibility of getting hold of some gypsy crystal, nor was I going to try but as luck would have it I came across some the very first day.
My mother and I were sitting outside the original thunder dome, the Colosseum in Rome, severely jet lagged, and on the lookout for gypsies. I was trying an overpriced and overhyped Gelato while taking in the scenes unfolding in front of us. It was just before the high season so the crowds weren’t terribly bad. Tourists were taking pictures of the famous structure while Bangladeshi merchants were milling around offering cheap goods to anyone within sight. “Welcome to Italy, now buy some cheap crap.” I’m not sure when, but at some point in time buying cheap crap started going hand in hand with traveling. I casually brushed off most of them but one individual did not keep walking when I told him I wasn’t interested in his scarves. He stopped, stood in front of me, looked around, and then subtly reached into his left coat pocket and presented me with something I would never have expected. An authentic gypsy crystal! There was no doubt in my mind it was the real thing.
You see, in order to combat the rise of fake gypsy crystal, legitimate dealers had to figure out a way to prove their crystal was authentic. If a customer was suspicious of the authenticity they couldn’t just walk around looking for a gypsy to burn. The successful dealers understood the power of branding. The top crystal dealers started encasing a small piece of gypsy crystal inside a piece of glass with their brand name or logo etched into the glass. This made it much easier for buyers to know whether or not they were buying real gypsy crystal. Also, just a small piece of Gypsy crystal is needed to ward off gypsies so encasing it glass made it less likely to lose.
Despite my luck I knew the crystal would be too expensive and simply not worth purchasing. A teaching salary in Thailand is plenty to live comfortably but only in a cheap country. Exchanging Thai Baht for Euro is like trading old sweaters for gold it’s not going to get you much. That is unless your gypsy dealer doesn’t know the value of Thai Baht. I wasn’t willing to pay what he was asking but I made a counter offer. I presented him with a crisp green 20 Baht note with King Bhumibol Adulyadej prominently displayed on the side facing him.
“Where this come from?”
“It comes from Thailand”, I said.
“Thailand”, he repeated with a look of interest. “How much this worth?”
“I don’t know exactly but it should be worth your crystal.”
He motioned for his friends and within seconds all three of them were inspecting the money and speaking in there in native tongue. I could tell his friends were no help as both of them just shrugged their shoulders. He looked at it some more and decided he wanted my exotic money. Just like that I had some gypsy crystal and he had what could be exchanged for less than half a Euro or the sleeve off a dirty sweater.
I knew my gypsy crystal would be extremely valuable to us in Italy. Not only were we protected against gypsies but the crystal could also be used as a bargaining chip in case we found ourselves caught in a sticky situation. At that moment I had the power to bribe cops, pay off a local mafia member, or pay for an emergency taxi ride. The next morning we would be heading by train to Sorrento, a small coastal city in southern Italy. Train stations are hotbeds of gypsy activity but now there was no need to worry.
When visiting Italy you’re supposed to see certain sights and try certain foods. I gave Gelato a shot in Rome and now that we’re in the land of Limoncello down in Sorrento it was time to give the popular lemon liquor a shot, or take a shot I should say. Limoncello is liquor made from lemons. It is mainly produced in southern Italy and quite popular. I’m not sure how popular it is among the locals but the tourists certainly have an appetite for it. Most of the gift shops in Sorrento are 100% lemon themed. Plates, eating utensils, decorations, etc. are all centered around the lemon with Limoncello as the main attraction.
One morning on our way to the island of Capri we stopped in the Limoncello factory and sampled the ubiquitous drink. The lady working there told us all about the factory and how their brand of Limoncello is superior to all others. I took the information into account as I swigged the yellow concoction. My lips puckered instantaneously and my taste buds were overwhelmed by sourness. The experience was identical to biting straight into a lemon. The first thought that came to mind after getting over the initial shock was wondering who would drink this crap. Imagine how your stomach would feel after eating 10 bags of skittles for breakfast. If you can’t imagine the feeling go drink 4 shots of Limoncello.
After my second overhyped must have Italian treat we headed down to the docks to catch a 30 minute ferry to the island of Capri. The ticket booth is where the hustlers roam.
“If you’re going to Capri it’s very important to pay for a taxi here with me. When you get off the boat a Mercedes-Benz will pick you up and take you all over the island so you can see all the sites. But I want to warn you, if wait you until you get there to buy a ticket it’s going to be very expensive. In fact, it will cost three times as much”, said the nice old man before presenting us with his official tour guide license.
Gee thanks buddy! You’re so kind to save us the cost of transportation around Capri by a third. Do you have any other wonderful services and products you can save us a lot of money on? Here, here’s my wallet. Just go ahead and take out whatever you need and then give it back to me. You licensed tour guides are so nice to offer us such great deals!
That’s how it goes in this world. The most valuable commodity isn’t diamond, silver, or gold, it’s information. There is no greater opportunity for profit than capitalizing on a person’s ignorance. David Hannum said it best, “there’s a sucker born every minute.” I’d never been to Capri before, but unfortunately for Mr. Pagolo this wasn’t my first rodeo. I sensed his aura of bamboozle and brushed him off.
Despite never having been to Italy I still knew how the game was played because the game is universal. Yes, there are adaptations from country to country and city to city but it doesn’t really matter where you go. At the end of the day if you’ve met one hustler you’ve met them all. You don’t have to know the intricacies of their scam; you just have to have a nose for the bamboozle. Just ask the polite cab driver who offered us a ride from the train station in Rome to our hotel for a flat rate. “Only €45, it’s a good price”, he said. 15 minutes later, outside our hotel, my mother handed a taxi driver using the meter €6.
After getting clobbered on Limoncello, hanging with senior citizen hustlers, and getting yelled at by the police for driving a motorbike down a pedestrian walk-way on Capri we were back on the train. Florence was the destination and we were anticipating our next “must see” attraction: Michelangelo’s David. Word to the wise, if you want to see the statue of David, go to the front desk and purchase a ticket to see the statue at a specific time. Otherwise, you’ll spend hours upon hours waiting outside in a God forsaken line. After 2 hours of moving towards the entrance at a snail’s pace from around the corner my mom decided to inquire about tickets at the front desk. Ha! If only we would’ve known we could’ve bought tickets to see the statue at a specific time period rather than waiting in line to see it right then and there. Information my friends, it’s the world’s most valuable commodity. After buying “authentic” Italian leather goods from Bangladeshis we returned 2 hours later to see David, no lines, no hassle.
“Whoa, whoa, wait a second! I came all this way to see David and you’re telling me I can’t take a picture of the damn statue? Okay, no problem I will follow your rules. I always follow the rules. Although, I do like to think I go against the grain some times. Know what I mean? No? Okay just forget I said anything.”
After a few days of must sees and must eats in Florence it was time to go home. Italy is a peculiar place, over hyped and overpriced, but a history buff’s dream no doubt. I enjoyed my time and it was especially good to spend time with my mom catching up on all the things happening back in Florida. After arriving in the Rome train station for the second time I just had to find the train that would take me to the airport. Noticing my search for the ticket booth I was spotted by a gypsy.
This was it, the final showdown. I’d made it the whole trip under the gypsy radar. Not once did I ever have to use the crystal but now I was standing face to face with a gypsy.
“Where are you going? Can I help you,” said the gypsy.
At this point I started to wonder. The gypsy was close enough to where she should’ve sensed the crystal in my backpack. Why wasn’t she reacting? Maybe my crystal was fake? Why else would that man be willing to trade something so valuable for exotic money? Everybody knows exotic money isn’t worth anything. Well, if it was fake maybe I could convince the gypsy it was real?
“No thank you, I know where I’m going.”
She knew I was lying and took one step closer.
“It’s ok, I can help you.”
“You can help me see if it’s fake”, I said as I causally lifted my right hand and placed it over the zipper of the side pocket on my backpack.
“I don’t understand.”
Quicker than Pistorius with a 9mm I grabbed the crystal and shoved it right in her face!
Instantly her eyes welled up. Fangs bared, she started hissing loudly as startled bystanders watched in horror. I knew I was taking a huge risk with the unproven crystal. If it were fake, I risked a hellacious bite. Had she bitten me I would not have caught my flight back to Thailand. Instead, my next destination would have been an Italian hospital where a large dose of powerful antibiotics and a morphine injection would be waiting. Luckily, the crystal was the real deal. The moment her eyes welled up I knew it was real. That first sign of an allergic reaction was clear as day.
The gypsy quickly turned and started to run, almost knocking over a few onlookers. It was a proud moment for me. I successfully navigated the black market, avoided the scammers and hustlers, and then defended myself from a gypsy attack during my final hours in Italy. With my swag turned up to maximum level, I felt like Dolemite as I passed through the impressed, albeit startled crowd. A couple hours later I would be waiting in the terminal of Rome International airport.
With 45 minutes left until boarding time I looked up from my Kindle e-book reader and noticed a gentleman being pushed through the terminal in a wheelchair. I normally don’t give wheelchair bound citizens more than a passing glance but this fellow attracted my attention for a few seconds longer. He was young, large with broad shoulders, and totally hip. He wore hipster glasses and a 59FIFTY baseball cap. I even noticed the stylish lines shaved into his temple and sideburns. I wondered what happened to him. Was he in a car accident? Maybe he was in a motocross accident? A few more possibilities ran through my mind but I’ll never know. I might ask a stranger how he broke his arm but I’ll never inquire about one’s paralysis.
As I was boarding the plane I began to dread the fact that I’d be stuck in the capsule for the next 8-1/2 to 9 hours on the way to Sri Lanka. Maybe one day I’ll be able to afford the comforts of first class but until then I’ll always be seated in coach. When flying economy the best seat you can hope for is an exit row seat. An exit row seat offers a considerable amount of leg room. It’s the best seat on the plane besides business or first class. I slowly meandered up the aisle while being repeatedly pushed from behind by an Indian fellow in a hurry. It took every ounce of restraint I possessed to stop from shoving his 5’6”, 140lb Indian frame to the ground. Every time I stop to let a passenger in front put his or her bag in the overhead compartment this guy behind would bump right into me. For some reason 2 inches of space was more than he was prepared to give me. Over and over as I made my way towards the middle of the plane he would bump into me. I stopped counting the number of flights I’ve been on when I reached 30 but not once have I ever experienced so much physical contact from a single passenger while boarding a plane. The bizarre behavior coupled with the long flight I was about to take really got on my nerves but instantly everything changed.
There it was, my window seat, on an exit row behind the bathroom. The trifecta of coach seating. There was enough leg room for Gheorghe Muresan. I was elated. While relishing my super seat I caught site of the wheelchair man yet again. They pushed him right up to my row and then turned him around. Hmm, I instantly started thinking about the moral dilemma I was about to be placed in. I thought the stewardess would soon ask me, sitting in primetime real estate, to give up my seat for a paralyzed man. It would be another 9 hours until we reached Sri Lanka and this extra room was extremely important to me. Immediately they asked the gentleman in the aisle seat to move. Without hesitation he moved to a seat that clearly wasn’t as good as the one he was sitting in.
How could he get up so easily? Am I jerk for even considering this a moral dilemma? People help disadvantaged strangers on the street without having to think. But this isn’t picking up someone’s dropped crutches or opening the door for a wheel chair. This is a 9-hour commitment. I become thoroughly uncomfortable on any flight over 5 hours. When I don’t get the extra leg room afforded by an exit row or bathroom row seat my knees turn to fire. Falling asleep on a plane is a fantasy. I won the seating lottery and I won’t give up my prize as easily as the benevolent man sitting in the aisle seat. Fine, I’ll give up my seat to a paralyzed man but not without requesting I be moved to a seat of equal or greater value.
“Woah! Woah! Woah! He can’t sit here! This is an emergency exit seat”, said the flight attendant.
Ah yes! How could I forget! Disabled people aren’t allowed to sit in emergency exit seats. Even if you appear to be without an ailment the flight attendant will ask if you’re capable of operating the emergency door. Thankfully my moral dilemma was avoided. Unfortunately, the hipster would soon remind me how awful I was for even thinking about not giving up my seat.
They moved him to the seat on the other side of the isle but it was obvious that seat would not work. Within 2 minutes he was screaming and writhing in pain. Tears were streaming down his face. He was in a lot pain and moments before I was reluctantly deciding whether or not I would give up my seat. He was moved elsewhere on the plane and I never saw him again. I was sitting there with the realization that I need to work on being a better person. But hey, maybe he broke his back trying murder a nun? Maybe he wasn’t in any pain at all? Maybe he was faking it in order to be moved to first class? If dramatizing an injury will put me in first class you better believe I’ll be rolling on the floor in pain. Oh yeah, I need to work on being a better person. 😉