Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bratislava -biting into a juicy red apple and finding a crawly black worm…..

           Bratislava (capital of Slovakia) is tiny and very beautiful.  The Old Town with its picturesque buildings, the romantic Danube flowing past, paved streets embossed with little gold crowns to mark the passage of royalty down the street in earlier days,  antique drinking fountains bubbling with icy ,sparkling water from the many natural springs there, the weather bright and sunny when I was there a week felt like walking into the pages of an old story book.  I was thoroughly charmed.

Until, that is,  I got a taste of what lay below the surface of Bratislava.  Until I was robbed in the same bright afternoon sunlight of everything-my passport and my daughter's, all our money, Eurail tickets, travel papers....

We were wandering, just the two of us,  in the square of  the Old Town, which is hardly  2000 feet wide,  where young,  pretty Slovakian girls have their tiny stalls.

Standing at one of the stalls, preparing  to buy the local wooden dolls and hand painted pottery, I discovered that in the split second that I lifted my hand off my bag to take the things the girl was holding out,  that my wallet which was deep inside the handbag had been robbed. 

What followed thereafter has left me with the distinct impression that at least the girl at the stall knew the thief and had not only seen him but even assisted him in the theft by keeping me engaged and in eye contact the while.   When I called the police, one woman at a neighboring stall seeing my distress, admitted she had seen the thieves and even described them to the police.  The police too seemed to know who she was talking about.  But they were of  no help, merely shrugging  their shoulders and saying blandly that  I would have to wait at Bratislava police station for at least 4 hours if I wanted to make a complaint as they had no English translator. They were very well aware that I had no money, that  my hotel was in Vienna and that the catamaran that would take me there would be leaving in an hour and therefore  I would not stay around to make a complaint.  And they seemed even happy about it. Possibly recording a complaint would have meant more work for them

Despite living in a a city with an area of 15642 kms and a population of 9.5 million and with my capital city (Mumbai) having an area of 600 km and a 20-million population,  neither I nor anyone I know, have ever been robbed . I learned later in Vienna, that Slovakia has a very high unemployment rate and consequently a  very high crime rate and that  the Romany gypsies living there, frequently rob tourists. That the crime rate is indeed high, is a fact I can vouch for.   At the time  I was appealing to the Slovakian police for help, two young Asian girls ran up crying that they had been robbed at those very stalls. And a couple of days earlier a group of tourists found themselves robbed, all at the same time,  right there.

Since it was not possible to lodge a complaint at Slovakia I took the catamaran for Vienna and approached the Vienna police.  While there a couple of tourists both US citizens also came into report thefts committed in Vienna.  Apparently Vienna also has a high crime rate!

Incidentally  do not expect any help or cooperation even from anyone either in Slovakia or Vienna. The Vienna police did take my complaint  but were very clear that they could not help in any other way. I asked them to get me the Indian embassy number and was told  that being a weekend it was closed.  I pointed out that there should be an emergency number and they should look for it, and only then they found it and gave it to me. They let me make one phone call but said the phone was out of order when I had to call again.  Also no one,  absolutely NO ONE speaks English except at the airport and a little bit at  train stations and hotels. Which it makes it all the more difficult if you happen to be in trouble.

I would have been a basket case, if it had not been for Inge , who I met on the trip to Bratislava.  A fellow tourist and a school teacher from Germany, she stuck firmly by my side, helping me to the bank to make arrangements for money, and accompanying me to the police station, where with her help in translation, I could make my complaint, and waiting with me until the Indian Embassy took over.

To the  Indian Consulate at Vienna, I cannot be grateful enough.  Elizabeth Rodrigues who answered my first tearful call, and was very reassuring, telling me confidently that I was not to worry about anything, and even offering to send someone to be with me if I needed; Vijay Kumar who spent a Sunday morning making my papers,  and Mr. Haldar the Consular, who not only provided the right papers but who gave me a much-needed confidence boost, by firmly telling me I would not have any problem continuing my travels further.

Mr. Haldar was right.   Although I had to spend twice the amount I had intended and had to borrow money from relatives,  to continue traveling, I had a good time.  Salzburg was wonderful and after the stiff, unsmiling Austrians, the friendly Swiss seemed like old buddies.    By the way, Switzerland,(which does not need my endorsement as to its beauty),although horribly expensive, especially to someone who was traveling on borrowed francs (CHF 2 to use the loo even!) is very safe.


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