I checked out of the hotel at 5 am. It was dark outside. I had an early morning flight and had to be at the airport by 7 am. My hotel was about forty-five minutes from the airport by train. I figured if I took the train by latest 5.30 am, I would be in good time for my flight.
Rome is a beautiful city, rich in history, culture, religion and good food. But like most big cities, it has its fair share of challenges, and in some parts of the city, one can see signs of glaring poverty, with ran-down neighborhoods and homeless people. I had visited the city about three times before and stayed at the same hotel, so I knew the area quite well. The hotel was in a quiet neighborhood and I was not worried about my safety. Back in Nairobi I lived in Kawangare (a.k.a. Lavington West), so yes, being aware of my surroundings was second nature.
I dragged my suitcase and headed to the train station. It was a short walk, about seven minutes from the hotel. The streets were deserted. I arrived at the train station and went to the ticket office only to find that was closed! So much for my meticulous planning! I had operated on the assumption that the ticket office opened at the same time as when the trains started operating.
- Now what? I looked around. Train tickets were also sold in what they called Tobacco shops. I never did find out why they call them the Tobacco shops or what they actually stocked, apart from train tickets, cigarettes, magazines and tourist maps. The word tobacco in my mind is associated with Kiraiku, raw unprocessed tobacco, which village folks who could not afford filtered cigarettes smoked. I guess it is the cigarette equivalent of Organic, only that unlike organic foods, it kills faster than filtered cigarettes and stinks like hell. May be the Tobacco shops sold Kiraiku…
All the stalls around the station were closed.
I considered my options as I walked to the platform. I could board the train and pray that there was no inspector on board. For all the times that I had used the train in Rome, no one had ever asked to see my ticket. I could take my chances. And if there I was an inspector, I could explain myself, and she may find it within herself to forgive. That was the only option really. Either that, or wait for the ticket office to open and risk missing my flight.
Lost in my anxious thoughts, I walked right to the platform before I noticed that there were two other people, both of them men. My Kawangware instincts kicked in. Quick scan to determine if they could be trusted. They were seated on two benches on the opposite sides of the platform. The man to my left was ordinary looking, the type of person you may have problem recalling or describing. Just a kawa guy in a dress up shirt, no tie or jacket, a dark pair of pants, shoes…nothing memorable. A primary school teacher kinda guy.
The second guy was the exact opposite. He was wearing a short sleeved black shirt, black tight fitting pants, black shoes. He lived in the gym, going by the size of his biceps. Every square inch of his skin or at least what was visible was covered with tattoos. He had body piercing everywhere -rings on his ears, eyes, lips, and who knows where else! Spiky hair to complete the look – like he had just stepped out of a gangster movie shooting session. I would have been taken a back to meet this man at 12 o’clock during the day. At 5 am in the morning, I was petrified.
I edged towards the primo teacher, both for security and for help with my ticket problem. I said hi, and may be he knew where I could buy a ticket?
“Non parlo inglese,” said the primo teacher.
“No English?”, I asked, not for confirmation, but to buy time as I thought of next move.
“Non parlo inglese”, he repeated. Shaking his head.
I believed him. I looked at the clock. Any minute now the train will come and I will either have to board without a ticket or miss it. Lord, please help!
“There is a ticket vending machine on the lower platform”, came the reply. I am thinking, ‘Haiya! Angels in Rome speak in English, not in Italian or Latin, the language of Mass at the Vatican!’.
“Where?”, I ask, as I turn to look at Mr. Tattoo & Rings.
“I can show you”, and with that he got up and leads the way.
I hesitate for a moment. But what choice did I have? I follow, keeping a safe distance, just in case his plan was to murder me on the lower platform. We took two flights of stairs, to the vending machine. He waited for me to purchase the ticket. The machine did not take paper money, which is all I had. I needed change. Guess who had the exact change? Yes, the ‘gangster’. I thanked him profusely, praying that he was not a mind reader to see what I had thought of him…
I learned my lessons. I wish I could say that I have been totally cured of judging people by their appearance or by my limited exposure. I still catch myself wanting to judge, but every time that happens, remind myself of the Gangster Angel.2