Content Warning: kidnapping, human trafficking, sexual harassment, public indecency.
Overall, my visit to Athens was incredible — time spent standing in the shockingly blue waters of the Mediterranean, eating world class gyros, collecting pink rocks along the beach, and basking in the ancient glory of the Parthenon. My travel companion and I found a hostel that was a mere twenty minute walk from Acropolis. So, we journeyed on foot, stopping in shops along the way and eating fresh cherries from a fruit stand.
It wasn’t until we were leaving Athens that we began to have trouble. We visited Acropolis and the Parthenon on our last day in Greece, cutting our schedule uncomfortably close to our flight. By the time we left the mountain, we only had an hour to get back to the hostel, grab our luggage, and get to the airport. Wanting to save some time, we decided to take a taxi back to the hostel. Neither of us are prone to using ride-share or taxi service, but we had had a cab fair the day before that had been exceptionally affordable.
After just a few minutes we were able to hail a cab from the bustling square at the base of Acropolis. We spoke to the driver in English as we crawled into the cab. He began driving and asked us where we were from before even asking for our destination. When we told him we were from the U.S., he asked if we spoke Greek – using perfect English. I shifted in my seat, suspicious.
“Between the two of us, we speak English, German, and Spanish,” I responded, “but not Greek.”
He nodded and finally asked for our destination, two blocks away from the square but heading in the wrong direction. We gave him the address of our hostel, to which he said, “No, no. I cannot take you there. I will take you to Omonia Square,” which was still an eight minute walk from our hostel.
When he began to read, all I could think was, How do I get out of here?
He then pulled out a laminated info card, written all in Greek, and my stomach flipped. My previous concern had been confirmed. Before embarking on our journey, I had done quite a bit of research on common European scams played on tourists. Many of the articles I read claimed that if someone was reading you something that you could not read, be-it in another language or fine print, you were likely being conned. When he began to read, all I could think was, How do I get out of here?
The driver claimed that all cab fares went up to 11 Euro per Kilometer after 2 on Sundays. I looked down at my phone; it was 2:15. My companion and I exchanged a look. The previous day it had been 70 cents per kilometer. We knew the fares went up on Sundays, but not until after 10PM and to a flat rate of 3 Euro per Kilometer. We watched the meter anxiously, not knowing how to get out of the situation we had found ourselves in. I pulled out my wallet when he stopped two blocks short of Omonia Square, wishing we had just walked from Acropolis.
“Forty-five Euro,” he says, looking back at us.
He lowered his hands out of my line of sight before speaking again.
I look down into my wallet, knowing I had less cash than what he asked for. I pulled out two 20 Euro bills and took the 5 bill my friend held out, watching him as I passed the money over the leather seat. He lowered his hands out of my line of sight before speaking again.
“No, no,” he said, holding up the bills, “It is forty-five each! This is only thirty.” I looked at the bills, appalled. Had swapped one of the twenties for a five.
By then, my had become frustrated, knowing exactly what was going on. “Forty-five each?!”
He nodded, pointing at the card. We had only travelled 2 kilometers. Even the most twisted math would not add up to 90 Euros for 2 kilometers of travel
“We don’t have it, sorry,” she said, her tone indicating that she wasn’t going along with his nonsense.
I reached for the door handle, prepared to run; but he took off driving, saying “I will take you to an ATM then.”
He drove around for another fifteen minutes, passing six ATMs along the way, each time saying, “No, no. It’s Sunday,” claiming that the ATMs were not open.
Finally, he stopped and allowed my friend to use the ATM, then claimed we owed 180 Euro ($202), double what it had been before, for the time spent looking for the ATM. When he stopped to let her out, I had prepared to run. I did too much research surrounding human trafficking in Europe. So, I knew exactly how badly this could end. At this point, I couldn’t care less about the money. I just wanted to get away from the situation all together.
I tried to duck out of the cab as my friend got out, hoping she would get the memo to just run and forget the ATM. But, this fake cabbie somehow had a mechanism on his vehicle that allowed him to unlock just one door. So, I was trapped.
But as my friend approached the cab once more, I could tell by the look on her face that she had a plan. Sitting on the passenger side of the cab bench, I slowly scooted toward the driver side door.
“I only have a hundred Euro,” my friend said tersely.
“Fine, fine. Discount,” he said, holding out his hand.
My friend threw the money in his face while simultaneously yanking the back door open. I stumbled out of the car and we sprinted through what we already knew to be Athens’ most dangerous neighborhood.
In those moments, we were quite literally running for our lives.
We had booked our hostel in the safest neighborhood in Athens, knowing that it was the most dangerous city on our trip. Even the nicest neighborhood was dangerous, riddled with prostitution, and seeing the affects of economic collapse. This driver had left us in the most dangerous neighborhood in Athens, a neighborhood that the attendant at our hostel warned us not to go into, a neighborhood that was known for kidnappings and human trafficking. Additionally, it was thirty minutes away from our hostel in the opposite direction of where we came from. At that point, it would have just been faster to have walked.
We ran through the streets at top speed, not stopping to orient ourselves, just trying to get out. As we ran, we were shouted and grabbed at from doorways and forced to cross the street to avoid a group of men who followed us all the way to Omonia Square. We ran faster as a man in a sparkling gold suit masturbated on the sidewalk, moaning in my ear as I sprinted past, an image that still haunts my thoughts. In those moments, we were quite literally running for our lives.
When we finally got back to our hostel, we had no cash, lost 145 Euro (164 USD), and were running late to the airport; but we sure had a story worth telling.
However, I leave you with this message. While Athens housed a once thriving ancient society, the reality is now far from the stories we grew up with. It is not a city I would recommend visiting — especially if you are, like myself, a young female who likes to travel alone or with few companions. I have built my entire platform on safety for the young female traveler and compassion for the places we visit. Athens is a city that puts us in dangerous territory in both categories.
It is the women, girls, and Queer people of Greece that I feel for — people who experienced the horrors I experienced in those 45 minutes every day of their lives.
We are, by nature, flawed creatures; and I found it difficult to find compassion for the city at all. Because despite all I know about the struggles of Greece as a country due to recent economic and civil collapse, I lack sympathy for those who view women as objects to be taken and forced into sexual servitude. Often it is difficult to separate a country from its most vile citizens, especially when you’ve been victimized by those citizens. (I say this, too, as an American aware of the pain my country and countrymen have caused millions of people around the world.)
It is the women, girls, and Queer people of Greece that I feel for — people who experienced the horrors I experienced in those 45 minutes every day of their lives. So, do I recommend visit Athens as a tourist? No. But I do recommend showing your support for those in Greece who are struggling, those who have fallen victim to human trafficking, and those affected by the economic collapse of Greece.