She looked as if she belonged in a Paul Gaugin painting.
Long thick black hair, brown skin and curves where a woman should have curves. She moved with the grace of a lioness. She smelled of the beach and she tasted like the tropics. She was as soft as an evening breeze and was as sweet as honey from lavender fields. She was all that I had ever dreamed of yet could never begin to hope for myself.
I had not intended to go on a cruise. In fact, I never thought I would go on any cruise but timing and circumstance conspired against me. Here, I was on a dock in Santos Brazil 6,000 miles away from home, by myself, wilting in the tropical heat, waiting to go on board a luxury liner that was to be my home for the next 18 days. 4 weeks previous my most ambitious travel thoughts had been whether or not to take the Lincoln Tunnel or GW Bridge. How the hell had I gotten here?
This journey of 6000 miles began with the step when my company laid me off.. There was no animosity involved. Their core business, a division I had not worked for, had suffered a major loss, a customer who represented 90% of their revenue had pulled their business and the company was forced to regroup. This included laying off most of their staff in the United States including me. They had treated me fairly and I had no gripes, but it allowed me the time to take a vacation that spanned beyond the standard 7 days or even the nearly unheard fortnight…
I had seen the trouble coming at the company. Their offerings to customers did not add up at all. They were coming to market late with products and were making promises that they could not keep. As a consequence, I had been looking for the next step in my career when the ax fell. Within days of me being laid off I had a new job offer and could go away without the fear and worry of finding employment hanging over my head.
I needed a holiday. I was also hopelessly tired and in desperate need of time from my normal life. For the previous 2 years I had been working a full time job while also taking care of both of my parents. My father was ill. A combination of a bad fall, prostate issues, and extended stays in hospital had confined my father to a wheel chair and dialysis three times a week. I commuted back and forth to New Jersey 3 or 4 times a week to make sure that he was well taken care of and to spell my mother from her duties as primary care giver.
My mother is the type of woman who needs to create order from chaos. And, if there is order to create better order. Part of my job was to keep her from going to crazy from her inability to make this situation any neater or any better. She is also a cancer survivor whose bout with lung cancer leaves her wheezing at the smallest exertion. She needed my help and I was happy to give it but the commuting, the caregiving, the stress of aging parents all contributed to a fatigue that could only be cured by getting away from it all for a little while.
I needed to go far enough away so I could not be drawn back into the day the day of my parents so I could focus, for a time, on me. To provide the space needed, to rediscover who I was and hopefully lay a path for the future.
The final puzzle piece of how I found myself here was a tragedy. The Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia ran into a reef off the Italian coast and sank. It had been the lead story on every modern conveyance of information. Why not? From a news perspective in our day and age it had everything. There were the great visuals of a ship lying on its side a gigantic rock stuck in its hull. The salaciousness of a Captain who seemed to like entertain women on the bridge while he should have been minding the helm and was such a coward he abandoned the ship before most of passengers. There was the human interest of people dying and the breathless stories of those who had survived.
I am almost ashamed of the fact that I realized almost instantly that this was going to drastically reduce their ability to sell berths on their ships and that I could probably get a cruise for a very affordable price. But not so ashamed that I didn’t visit their site.
In fact when I went to their site they were indeed having, pardon the phrase, a fire sale. Reviewing their offerings one cruise immediately stood out to me. An 18 day cruise that would take me up the coast of Brazil stopping in Rio Di Janiero, Ilheus, Salvador di Bahia, Maceio, and then Recife. And while I hardly knew where any of these places were or why they were important, they sounded exotic and ripe with adventure. But the trip got better. After leaving Brazil the ship would then cross the Atlantic stopping in Fuchal, Maderia, Casablanca and then ending up in Savona, Italy. The fare was less than $100 a day including all food and beverages. That was almost as much as I spent every day at home in NYC. I had never been to South America. I had never been at sea on a ship. I had never crossed the Atlantic or even the equator. I had never been to Africa. It checked all the boxes. I booked the trip.
The next several weeks were even more hectic than my normal life. The winding down of the job took time. The company I worked for was an Israeli company and getting anything legal out of them was a challenge and they work on a scorched earth basis. Negotiating with them and “leaving the camp site better than I found it” was both stressful and time consuming. On top of which I was in negotiations with my new company which required a great deal of attention as well. On top of that I had been offered a number of consulting contracts and was working on developing a business plan and meeting people on that as well. Ironically, considering I just lost my job, I had never been busier from a business perspective.
Then there was prepping for an extended stay away from home. I was single but I had a dog. Trying to figure out where he was to go and how he was to be cared for took some time. Eventually I asked a woman whom I worked with and who was “in between” apartments to come and stay in the apartment and babysit it and the dog.. Of course that made things easier but I still had to make sure Yankee had enough food for a month and write out instructions for Ramona on the proper care and feeding of my best friend.
Then there were my parents. Both father and my mother now relied on my help. While strictly speaking I didn’t need to get their permission to go on their trip. I did want their blessing. My father was easy. Confined as he was to a wheelchair I knew that my trip would be like an adventure for him. He would live vicariously through the emails and the photographs I sent. His only request of me is that I spend a few days in Sao Paolo with the grandchildren of his mother’s sister. I was reluctant because I did not know them but I also knew how much this would mean to him. As a consequence, despite my own personal reservations, I agreed.
My mother was another story. I knew that it was she that would be the one who noticed my absence the most. Over the course of the past two years I had become her sounding board. I was the one she went to when she was frustrated. I was the one she went to when she was angry with my father or she was frustrated with his care. She placed her burdens on my shoulders and expected me to carry that load. And while I had accepted this as my responsibility, I also knew that my knees were beginning to buckle with the weight of those burden. I was shorter with her than I had been in the past. I was less willing to listen to her problems. I knew that I had to get away or I would not be able to accept any new burdens she gave me. So I pretended to ignore the pained look on her face as I told her of my plans and instead concentrated on her words which were of acceptance.
The only issue that really got my stymied is to what to bring on this trip. I was traveling to four continents, going from a tropical climate to early spring, I was going on a ship that had occasions from ultra casual flip flops and shorts to black tie. How do you prepare for a cruise when you have never been on one? I knew I needed new clothes and a variety of odds and ends to make sure I had what I needed even if I was in the middle of the Atlantic but I hated to shop. I don’t like trying on clothes. But they were necessary evils now so I sucked up and eventually got all that I needed.
When I boarded the American Airlines flight to Sao Paulo on March 10th 2012 I was wound as tight as I have ever been and frayed like a rope that had been used too often.
The trip had not started smoothly
The cab ride from Sao Paolo to Santos where the ship was departing from while beautiful proved a little too adventuresome for me. Not only do Brazilian drivers make Boston drivers look good but they also insisted on going the speed of a small jet. I had gritted my teeth and clenched my butt cheeks on the entire ride down to the port. Then the cab driver got lost. Mind you he had a GPS but he insisted on not using it. Instead he kept on asking locals where to go. And of course I understood nothing of what they said and we kept on going in circles. Eventually I was forced to break out the GPS function on my iPhone and guide the driver to the docks myself.
My challenges only began there. It turns out getting on a cruise ship is a rather lengthy undertaking. First, you have to drop off your heavy luggage in one place. Then you have to drag yourself and other cases, briefcase smart suitcase, through tropical heat to the customs shed, where 3 boats are trying to load passengers. You then need to figure out where your line is and wait in a building that only dreamt of air conditioning with thousands of other people attempting to board the ship. In my case the wait was well over an hour and by the time I made it to my stateroom on Deck 8 I was a sack of sweat and a bigger emotional wreck than when I had left New York.
As I unpacked and prepared the cabin for my extended stay my mantra was that it had to get better. That the cruise was going to be great. I had not made a mistake coming on this trip by myself. That I was going to have a great adventure. That I would be able to write to my heart’s content and that I would meet new people and the world would be generally kind to me.
As we left Santos a thunderstorm broke. Red forked lightening tore at the sky. Deep throated booms rolled across the sea. Watching the storm from my balcony I wondered if my wishful thinking had been just that or whether this was the true portent of things to come.