Here on the highway at the outskirts of Milan, I was confronted with a conflict of choice. Shall I go visit the city, head for Rome or make my way to Genoa?
Hitchiking was never easy. At times, a lift is swift, at other times it took a whole day and night, And not all cars that stopped will take you to your destination.
After some thought, I decided to head for Genoa. With only 20 Pounds left and two weeks to go – I have to get back to London to catch the flight back to Malaysia – it was the natural choice.
But Genoa proved to be too dangerous for me. First there were gangsters trying to bully me…
I was walking in front of a row of shophouses when a group of middle-eastern youngsters followed from behind. One tried to kick my legs. I swerved aside. Then he showed me some Kung Fu moves…
“You do Kung Fu?” he asked.
I just smiled and maintained my pace. A few minutes later, they left me alone.
Are you wondering what’s happening here? Well, what they tried to do was to intimidate me. It’s an old street tactic. When you want to mug someone, you got to size him up, see whether you can beat him easily or not.
They can’t figure me out so they might as well not take the chance.
Again that night, there was trouble…
I tried to sleep on a bench in front of the main train station. There were suspicious-looking Arab youngsters hanging around.
Once, I closed my eyes trying to catch a wink but was immediately woken up by vibrations coming from the rucksack used as a pillow. Right enough, on the next bench were two youngsters pretending to tie their shoes. And the rucksack’s zippers were half-open. Hmm…
I stared at the two. They smiled at me trying to feign innocence and later moved away to join their friends on another bench.
Shifting the rucksack to make sure the zippers faced the top, I snuggled back into the sleeping bag. But a guy sleeping on another bench was not so lucky. He was lying face down obviously out for the count. One of the Arabs picked out the guy’s wallet. He saw me and grinned. I ignored him and tried to get back to sleep. But I can’t, not under the scrutiny of those thieves.
As the night goes on, it became harder and harder to stay awake. And I was sure they would strip my things the moment I fell asleep. The only option was to go some place else.
When I put the sleeping bag into the rucksack, the leader of the youngsters approached me. He tried to persuade me to stay. “Sleep here, we won’t disturb you, we are friends!” he said. Yeah sure… After what happened in Prague, I won’t take any chances.
So that night I slept at the theatre by the coast, a bit far away but at least secluded and safe.
Genoa was the biggest port city in Italy, proud as the birth-place of Columbus. Off a pier near the theatre and a museum was the replica of the ship which brought Columbus to America… Like the one in Bandar Hilir, Melaka but larger and covered in golden coloured ornaments projecting an aura of grandiosity fit for a conqueror of the oceans.
But it was also a port for Middle-Eastern criminals making their way into mainland Europe. I was walking along some shophouses facing the sea when I came across the slump parts, dirty and unkempt like some sort of low-class crime-ridden ghetto.
My suspicions proved correct. There were a bunch of rowdy-looking guys heading my way. I walked on trying to remain unaffected. We crossed path.
They looked Middle-Eastern blabbing something like “Ahlan Wa Sahlan” (they all sounded the same). One of them had a big chopping knife tainted with blood while the others ushered him away as if running from a crime scene. And right enough, three police cars came to a nearby alley filled with people.
I didn’t see what’s going on and neither did I really want to. I went hastily out of Genoa, my impression of it tainted like the knife with the blood on it.
My next stop Arenzano was about ten kilometres away. It looked more welcoming with the streets lined by palm trees and shophouses with architecture not unlike Chinese shophouse in Melaka. The blue Mediterranean sea was alluring convincing me to take a plunge.
From Arenzano I got a lift to Savona, another to Andora and the last hike for the day to San Ramos, thirty kilometres to the French border. A pine tree behind the toll plaza was my snoozing spot having failed to get any more lift for the night.
The next day’s hiking attempt was at first terrible. I was refused lift from every vehicle starting morning till afternoon until 2.30pm when a Frenchman heading for France took me in his car.
We struck a conversation. He was about sixty, balding with a large beer-belly and very opinionated…
“I was a banker in Singapore during the 50s,” he claimed. We discussed some economic issues.
He said Malaysia’s current economic bull-run was phenomenal but it was still a third-world country.
“Malaysia don’t have a social welfare system like in Europe,” he argued.
I was infuriarated.
“Yeah… But it was the social welfare system that creates so many underclassed like in Britain,” I retorted. For a ‘developed’ country, Britain had a large number of homeless, beggars and the likes. Each week they would collect their ‘alms’ from local welfare officers before stopping at the next pub for a pint of lager.
We had some polite disagreements over some other issues before he decided to take me on a spin to Monaco, the gamblers’ capital of Europe.
Monaco the state and Monte Carlo the city are often confused. With a size of 1.6 square kilometres, there is hardly a need to make distinctions.
The Grimaldi family which ruled the principality is much admired. It was their policies that ensure Monaco to be continously rich while receiving protection from powerful France.
My hour-long trip in Monaco was done mainly from inside the car. With the beautiful clean streets, video cameras at every corner and high-class looking people with latest-fashion clothes adorning the expensive boutiques, I must admit I was quite intimidated to walk out there.
For a gambling capital of the world, it was a surprise to find out it had only one casino. But it was no common casino. This solitary business premise can sustain the economy of Monaco on its own!
After exhausting the streets of high-rise buildings and coastline cliffs overlooking huge yatches and water marinas, we went of to Nice, one of the main cities on the French Riviera. I bid farewell to the Frenchman before going on a shopping spree spending my last few pounds on food.
I deserved it I thought after living on a loaf of bread for the last few days. And that night, I had the best sleeping spot so far on my trip… On a beach with the smooth waves like a lullaby putting me through a most rewarding sleep.