A Tale of Two Cities
“It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.”
A lot of people asked me how my trip to Brazil was. I could have responded with the typical “It was awesome (which it was),” but I felt like responding, “It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times,” a phrase borrowed from the famous book, A Tale of Two cities. Let me explain —
“Georgia, I can’t find my wallet,” I yelled out as everyone was getting ready to go out dune bashing in Pipa, Brazil. This was my first trip to South America, and I heard horror stories of people getting kidnapped, stranded, and lost forever as I prepared for the sudden trip a couple of weeks ago. Tim, who works for my company as a consultant (who is also a long-time friend), and I concocted a long plan to go to Brazil to reach the next status of our Delta medallions. Tim was close to Diamond status, and I was very close to my Platinum medallion status and wanted to reach the next stage before the year ended. Frankly, we both just needed an excuse to get away from our homes during the Thanksgiving holiday. Depending on whom you talk to, we were either fugitives or outcasts from our families. We both had different reasons, of course. Tim’s kids were all grown up, and he wanted to spend time away from his family for his own personal reasons. My kids wanted to spend time with their mom and stepfamily and opened up my schedule to explore. In a rush of quick decision-making, we both jumped on a Zoom call and booked tickets within a couple of hours of bouncing the idea of going to Brazil casually. I advised Tim that I would like to play golf in Brazil, and he coordinated this with his friend, Georgia, who spends her time between her homes in Recife, Brazil, and Orlando, Florida.
Frankly, the trip did not have an exceptional start. I had three simple goals for the journey: reach Platinum status, play golf, and hike. Tim advised that I should take time for the perfect turquoise beaches in Brazil, as the whole eastern side of the country is on the oceanfront. But I had so many memories of spending time with kiddos on beaches in Destin, Savannah, Hilton Head, and other amazing waterfronts here, and I did not want to just “spend the day at a beach” or “hang out at the resort.” I packed my shining new Callaway Rogue Irons, a Ping 425 Driver, and an Odyssey putter in the travel golf bag, along with a dozen golf balls, gloves, golf shoes, and multiple pairs of polos and shorts. I promised myself I would play every day as I have been doing at Laurel Springs Golf Course in Suwanee. I joined this private club a few months ago and love the staff, restaurant, the range, and the beautiful course there. I have been going to the range almost daily and have seen an improvement in my game and was so excited to play at the Pipa Golf Course. Unfortunately, this excitement was dashed as soon as we landed in Recife. Georgia advised that the course is still in construction. I decided to be a good sport, and we left the golf bag at Manuel’s house.
Manuel is Georgia’s brother, and he was an amazing gentleman. Though he couldn’t speak or understand English, we could decipher how kind he was. He showed off his pristine toy car collection, the cars arranged with pride. Though Georgia, we understood that their dad was into selling cars, and Manuel continued this tradition by not only working in the car manufacturing and servicing business but being passionate about this trade. His house was a small, 2,000 sq ft house with three bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen, and it immediately reminded me of my childhood home in India. It had all the hallmarks of my house growing up — a small table fan, a 13’ analog television, narrow hallways, dilapidated walls, and the related accouterments.
Georgia is a beautiful woman with many strengths (and quirks as well). She has been Tim’s friend for over a decade. She went into overdrive as soon as she heard that I couldn’t find my wallet. She looked through the bed sheets, bathrooms, closets, countertops, linen closets one more time, even though I did this a few times already. She started running back our collective memory lane with me to see where I used the card last and started calling them and talking to them in Portuguese.
I picked up on a couple of words in my time in the Agua Fresca resort. I have been to a few expensive hotels in Paris, Nice, Venice, and Rome, but the friendly service and staff at the resort in Pipa are beyond comparison. I have been to some of the most expensive resorts in New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Chicago, Paris, Venice, Dubai, and Rome. Still, the vast suites, unbelievable pools, swim-up bars with chairs that are half underwater, and jacuzzi pools looking out into the mountains were just incredible to comprehend unless one sees and experiences them in person.
“It’s not in Hawaiians store,” yelled Georgia. It was the last store I remembered using the wallet the night before. I couldn’t think of any gifts to buy for my two kids, as they now have their cards and can also order anything they want from Amazon. While perusing last night, Georgia advised that the Havaiana sandals are the most popular. I bought one for Veda, who is now 14, along with a pair for Varoon, who is 17 and waiting for his college admissions decisions. I couldn’t think of any other gifts as they are no longer interested in toys, and they all but hate my choices for clothes, jewelry, or other trinkets. My ex-wife is always great at these choices, and in our fifteen years together, I wish I had learned a few tricks from her. Unfortunately, I didn’t, and I just resorted to buying things they could use and enjoy. I bought Veda some specialty soaps and Varoon a shot glass to add to his collection.
“They can’t find your wallet at the restaurant either,” announced Georgia with a tone of disappointment. I hoped they would find it there because I was just there a couple of hours ago and enjoyed a sumptuous, beautiful breakfast with a perfectly cooked omelet, tapioca crepe, coconut, and a full plate of fruits. Tim and I joked that we ate more fruits here than the fruit we consumed over the last year. Now, I don’t know Tim’s dietary habits, and we were just tongue in cheek about the comment. Still, I can’t remember the last time I had fresh-cut papaya or a ripe yellow mango or pineapple that tasted like it was glazed with honey. I felt a little guilty eating this hearty breakfast this morning and committed myself to have fruit for dinner every day for Varoon. This morning’s breakfast was incredibly wonderful as I had a chance to sit in its infinity pool right outside the restaurant and posted on Instagram, “coffee, beaches, and serenity, what else is needed to be happy,” or something to that effect. If I believed in gods or fate, I probably thought these mythical creatures or superstitions were laughing at me for purposefully leaving out “money” in need of happiness.
I decided to begin my damage control mode after the last news came out of Georgia’s phone calls. She also asked me if we should cancel the dune bashing. This is her way of saying, “we are running late for the pre-scheduled event.” The only way I can enjoy any event or survive the rest of the trip is to freeze all my cards and ensure that they don’t get into the wrong hands. I began with my Amex corporate card with the biggest spending limit and worked my way to my debit card and other credit cards. Once I froze them, I was ready to “Party On” and did not want to hold anyone else (or the rest of my trip) hostage. We locked up our Suite and headed to the buggy that was patiently waiting for us.
The resort we lived in had an unlimited supply of water, electricity, food, liquor, and services. However, the neighboring towns, or frankly most of the country that we visited in our short stay, live in utter poverty. The average monthly salary for a Brazilian worker is R$2400, which roughly converts to 600 USD. I am sure the workers at the resort make more than this, but I can’t even imagine their living conditions. We drove by Favelas (slums) on our drive from Recife to Pipa, and they looked comparable to the worst slums I have seen in Mumbai and Hyderabad growing up, and from statistics, comparable in numbers (see insert from https://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/compare/Brazil/India/Economy)
I can’t imagine any of the workers turning in a wallet full of USDs, R$600 or so, and credit cards. I can imagine them being able to feed their families at least for a week with this kind of money. I frankly did not feel angry at the moment; I just felt sad that we are living in this terrible dichotomy that the services to the “haves” are still being offered on the backs of “have nots.” Despite the poverty, I have seen nothing but kindness when I visited a roadside Coxinha store or a local restaurant in Recife. I guess money can’t buy happiness after all!
We got in the group Jeep to begin dune bashing and visit beaches around Pipa. Our first stop was a convenience store to pick up water, beers, and snacks. Georgia was freaking out as she was hoping that Tim and I would pick up all charges while in the resort, and now that I told her I had no cards, she was worried her cards would max out. Tim’s cards were not working for some reason, which put her fears in overdrive. All I could do was say sorry as I had lost my wallet and did not know how else to help. We loaded up the ice pack when the driver’s phone rang, and he had a big smile on his face. He made the thumbs-up sign with his hand while he talked on the phone. He announced that they found my wallet near the swimming pool around the restaurant area. We turned the jeep around to pick up the wallet, and I was beyond ecstatic. I gave R$50 to the front desk, R$100 to Marcela, the guy who found the wallet, and R$50 to the staff member that called my driver. I had about R$600 in my wallet at this point, and I frankly wanted to share all my cash with the staff. I would have certainly done so if I wasn’t reminded gently by Georgia that we would need cash for the rest of the trip and there aren’t many safe ATMs around town. In Brazil, most ATMs are guarded by Federales to ensure that the person who withdraws the cash is not robbed or kidnapped. However, like most underdeveloped nations where over 21% of the country lives under the poverty line, sometimes the police collaborate with the criminals too and engage in coercive violence. Georgia warned about this as soon as we landed and took us to the ATM location she trusted.
Georgia had this interesting personality of motherly kindness at times. I only met her a couple of days ago, and she had been friends with Tim and Bella for a while now. She also sometimes displayed this controlling personality to always be in charge of the situation, but it’s rarely possible with a group of adult friends who are all in similar age ranges. We argued at times, even took sides once in a while. Over the time we were in the Sombra e Agua Fresca resort, she introduced me to many Brazilian dishes: tapioca crepes filled with ham and cheese for breakfast with coco (coconut water) for hydration, camarão (shrimp) for lunch along with many unique indigenous methods of making sautéed, grilled, or steamed dishes. Farofa for dinner alongside Tim’s favorite — Brahma Beer. We enjoyed various prepared meats from the local churrascaria, and I tried them all. I am a foodie myself, and when I visit a new country, I almost eat with reckless abandon to try out local dishes, drinks and understand the local culture and background through their foods. When we were on the road, she would introduce us to fast foods like Coxinha, which were just like samosas from the outside, but the texture and taste were so different and flavorful. For drinks, we were all immersed in Caju Caprioskas, Kiwi Caipirinhas, and even Saikirinhas. I was in foodie heaven trying out all these dishes and enjoying them with my mind, body, and spirit. None of these would have been possible if not for Georgia’s counsel and her ability to speak English and Portuguese and answer our never-ending questions.
Tim, Bella, Georgia, and I had a lot of fun hanging out in the pools at the resort, driving on the deserted beaches, dune bashing, and just enjoying each other’s company the four days we were together. But just like different members of a family, we all had our quirks and problems. Despite my bravado and boasting of skydiving, hiking, adventuring, and backpacking, I still could not swim to save my life. I could swim underwater until my breath ran out, but I was still unable to get my head out of the water, take a breath, and get back to swimming. It was embarrassing at first, but I confessed early on that this is my weaknesses, and I am working on overcoming it. They all gave me tips, and I executed them as much as possible, but I am afraid I still can’t swim. I tried back floating, remembering the lessons taught by my swimming instructor, and the only time I came close to truly floating in the water was in the ocean waters on one of the Pipa beaches. Tim advised the salinity of the ocean waters makes it easier to float, and I was able to take advantage of this and enjoy my brief moment of buoyancy and self-overcoming. Unfortunately, this confidence did not translate into real progress in nearby lake waters or the resort pools that night. But I promised myself (and others) that I would keep on trying.
In addition to learning (attempting) to swim, experiencing the completely different cuisine, and enjoying the pleasant weather, I had a very brief introduction to the Portuguese language. We quickly adjusted to the most useful phrases like Ola (Hello), Obrigado (Thank You), por favor (please), Bom dia (Good Morning), bom Tarde (Good Afternoon), Muito Obrigado (Thank You), Conto (Bill), Café (Coffee), etc. Tim had to learn his common requests for Uma Cerveja (one beer), Mais Uma Cerveja (one more beer), etc., very quickly to survive. Apps like Google Translate and iTranslate make this easier, but one needs a reliable data connection to make these apps work. I called Verizon to enable my travel pass the day after I landed, but I don’t think they ever enabled that on my phone. Throughout the trip, I had no data plan on my phone and had to depend on a Wi-Fi connection at the resort, restaurant, or store to get by. But we were fortunate to have a translator like Georgia on our team. She communicated on our behalf on phones, with people, and in other places and made communication seamless. If we did not have Georgia in our group, we would have struggled throughout our stay in Brazil as there are rarely any English speakers in the country. We had trouble discussing our travel with the gate agent in the airport, which I found very interesting and scary at the same time.
Tim carried a “reckless cowboy” demeanor with his Dodgers hat, sporting swimming trunks, and a tall 6'4" figure. However, he had a vulnerable side, and it was apparent when he and Georgia argued about who should drive the car or who is better at deciding where and when to eat. They both displayed a level of insecurity that sometimes translated into child-like temper tantrums. The most hilarious of Tim’s outbursts came when he saw a giant cockroach in our Airbnb suite in Porto de Galinhas and he screamed and jumped up into the bed like a toddler. I laughed it off, as I grew up in India, where we practically co-existed with beings like these during our childhood. We decided to calm Tim down by lying to him that we killed the offensive being, but he caught us in our actions by insisting on seeing the corpse of the cockroach. Georgia eventually found it and killed it, but Tim was sure there were several of them lurking around in the suite throughout our one-day stay there. We all have our weaknesses, I suppose.
Bella could not speak any English, and we could only communicate via the iTranslate keyboard on WhatsApp. From the limited information I had about her, she had many problems trying to be a single parent of two beautiful kids, who were almost the same age as my kids, running a business that’s near insolvency, and dealing with the general craziness of life in a country with limited public services. Brazil has a non-existent public school system, poorly maintained public health infrastructure, and corrupt law and order environment throughout the spinal cord of the political nervous system of the nation. All of these circumstances were almost similar to the situations I was familiar with growing up in India. Despite these unbearable living conditions, Bella had a certain comforting nature and confidence in herself that humbled me. She insisted on coming to the trip to get away from her struggles, at least for three days, and never forgot this plan. She kept a positive demeanor and played along even when the rest of us argued and complained about trivial things.
We argued, we sometimes decided to give each other space, but woke up the following day to ignore the transgressions from last night and decided to enjoy the beautiful beaches, sumptuous meals, decadent surroundings, and most importantly — our idiosyncratic relationships with each other and ourselves. I guess this is not much different from a typical family gathering at millions of households across the USA. The four of us brought our diverse backgrounds, upbringings, cultures, and insecurities across multiple countries into a whole new continent, only to see them play out just the same. Like the guests in the resort and the staff at the place, some of us had the best of times and some, the worst of times in Brazil. In fact, even our ‘worst of times’ were not that bad when compared to the real problems that the world faces today with abuse, violence, and poverty. However, this is the inevitable human condition, to experience good with bad; and I am grateful to be part of it with a few friends that I genuinely enjoyed my time with, at least during the best of times.