She looks up at me as I pass by but before I can make eye contact with her I lose my situational awareness and almost bump into one of the waitresses who is carrying a tray fully loaded with drinks. Embarrassed, I slink away. Back in my room, I lay on my bed and try to nap. But for a long while all I can think of is the brunette.
My nap was deep. The rocking sensation of the boat and the excesses of the night worked me into a sleep that lasted for hours. But it was not a refreshing nap. Instead it left me groggy and feeling shaky. Normally I would not have even considered going to the gym, I felt that unwell, but the extra slices of pizza were weighing on my mind and I didn’t want to be that cliché guy who went on a cruise and gained 15 lbs.
The gym on the Costa Pacifica is located on deck 11 as far forward as you go. While relatively small it is well equipped with weights, exercise machines, treadmills, and bikes. I chose the exercise bikes to torture myself on because I did not have the ambition for anything else. The bikes have a video monitor and for a while I tried to find a channel that might entertain me during my sweat fest but there are no English channels and my Portuguese had not improved in my sleep. My choice of entertainment consists of the Costa promotional video where they celebrate the launching of their newest vessels, (It was a lavish video with very odd elements including a contortionist in a large martini glass) or an out of date Italian exercise video. Eventually, I turn the video off and listen to Adelle and focus on the mesmerizing waves of the South Atlantic. 50 minutes was enough to assuage my pizza guilt and after a stretch I go below to my state room.
My work out had taken me through dinner.as I planned. For sustenance and a lack of better options I return to the Pizza Buffet and gobble my way through half a pie. Eating alone is a bore and the company awful. It also made me feel like a loser. At least, I rationalized, it was better than eating with Diego in silence. As I get up to go I looked at the table adjacent to me and there is Diego reading a book. Clearly he had been as enthralled with our conversation as me. I smile and wave and he sheepishly returns the gesture.
After dinner I waddle, eating a half pizza will do that to you, down to deck five again. I ensconced myself in the Rondo where they served Viennese Pastry and coffee rationalizing that it as a tribute to my father who was born in the capital of the Hapsburg. It also had the strategic advantage of being located in the main thoroughfare on the ship. It was an excellent place to sit and watch the world go by and perhaps spy a brunette. The pastry was not worth the calories. Demel’s should sue them for using the phase “Viennese Pastry.” .The coffee was hot and bitter enough to take the taste of awful pastry out of my mouth. And the cognac I had a little later on certainly livened things up significantly.
But it was an absolutely fabulous place to watch the world go by and I reached a number of conclusions. At age 55 I was one of the youngest people aboard. 78% of all the women on the ship had cankles. Germans only think they hold their liquor well. Italian passengers had the best shoes and knew how to drape sweaters around their shoulders better than any other nationality. European men always walk with their hands clasped behind their backs and they don’t really walk as much as amble.
Sadly, the brunette was nowhere to be found and after a while I signed my chit and went to bed.
I awoke the next morning as we were docking in Ilheus. Laying in bed I decided that the dinner situation had to be changed. This was supposed to be a cruise for my pleasure and dinner had become something I dread instead of welcoming. I wanted to be social. I missed the human contact. The situation would not change by itself. I would make it happen. As a consequence, before I reported to my tour I made a detour to the service desk on deck 3 to check into how I could change my eating arrangements. I was informed by Nate, the oh so helpful, oh so happy crew member, that I had do to that with Maitre D during my dinner service that evening. Frustrated by his cheerful inability to help me solve this situation, I was tempted to bring whip out my inner New Yorker to resolve the situation using gestures and language that don’t teach in English classes but I restrained myself. But vowed to talk to one of the Matre D’s on my return to the ship from the tour.
The tour I had chosen was not your typical town tour where they show you the historical highlights of the town then dump you in some commercial center so the local merchants can acquire some of your hard earned Reals. Frankly, I didn’t know much about Ilheus, up until a few weeks before and I was profoundly ignorant of the place. What I knew was that Jorge Amado, the famous writer, had lived here and was to this place as Hemingway was to Key West. I also knew that the beaches were famous for their beauty and that it was the center of Cocoa production in Brazil.
I had no interest in shopping. My sunburn had put me on the disabled list for the sun so the beach was completely out. The next best option was to go on a tour of a cocoa research facility and a sloth rescue habitat that included a stop at cocoa plantation, chocolate factory with only the briefest of stops in the downtown area for souvenir shopping.
My luck continued when the placed me, the only English speaker, with a group all German tourist. Everyone was a couple and then there was me. The only good news in this from my point me and I was told by my guide that she would translating all were seeing in both English and German and of course the seat next to me would be open.
The bus took us out of town and it traveled through some of the seamier sections of Ilheus with poured concrete apartment blocks replete with satellite dishes, and laundry hanging off the sides of buildings. Only a few had air conditioners and considering the heat, which was brutal, I wondered how they managed. There were service stations, markets that were mostly open air, and bars that looked like I wouldn’t survive long should I stumbled into one. Soon enough we were on a country highway riding through low riding hills covered with deciduous trees. It was beautiful and it was easy for me to understand how the Brazilian’s had chosen the color of their flag.
It did not take long to reach the Cocoa Research facility. It was boarded by a brick wall and required the bus to pass through security and then report to a headquarters building made out of the same red brick as the wall so our guide could pay for our entry. . Eventually we made our way down a long straight road while our guide explained that the facility was actually being used for many types of research to help the uplift the economy in Ilheus. She pointed to low lying ponds that were being tended to by workers and told us they were experimenting with fish farming. Pointing to a grove of cocoa trees she said that all groves had banana trees within them explaining that they helped with the pollination.
The bus pulled into a low lying building’s parking. It was a facility created to demonstrate the modern way in which the cocoa plant was harvested and turned into chocolate. The tour consisted of us walking down a very narrow hallway with windows that allowed us a view of workers conducting a variety of different jobs. It was not very interesting or enlightening. I already seen this segment of “How Its Made” on the Discovery Channel. I hung back and let the words drift over my head. But at one point I made the mistake of standing just next to a display as our guide explained its contents. I was literally shoved away from the display by the Germans who seemed felt as strongly about the exhibit as they did about Poland in 1939.
I walked down to the end of the hallway to the little reception area where they were to serve us a refreshment of chocolate liquor. What I did not realize is that it also served as an opportunity for some of the more entrepreneurial of the workers to sell us some of their “homemade” and “fresh” chocolate. I was not exactly put off by their aggressiveness, I do live in NYC, but I was not in the mood to be hawked at so I walked outside where at 10AM it was already brutally hot and humid.
Eventually our guide emerged and walked us across the road to where there was a small grove Cocoa plants. They are not overwhelmingly beautiful trees but the seed in which the nibs grow are beautiful in orange and yellow and are shaped like an oblong gourd. Sadly one of our group members wearing their pre requisite sandals Germans are issued when the leave the country made the error of stepping on a fire ant hill and any further exploration of the grove was put off until the “fire” was put out.
Soon we were back on the bus and driving deeper into the reserve eventually coming to a little turn about that had a small hut next to it. As the door to our bus opened a woman emerged from the small structure to greet us. She was not alone. She had two sloths, or slow monkeys as our guide called them, wrapped around her as if she were wearing a fur. The Germans could not push past me fast enough to get to her. I think what makes sloth so attractive to humans is that their faces are white with dark patches only to accent their nose and eyes. They look like us only a little developmental off. That and the fact that thee movement is so slow it looks to be slow in slow motion is mesmerizing. I withstood the Germans as much as I could and got close enough to the woman so I could pet one of them and was quite surprised when the fur was rough…a kitten they are not.
Seeking refuge from the throngs around the sloth woman I walked down the path to their habitat only to come across a rather large tarantula crossing the path. Which of course made me think…why did the Tarantula cross the path…to get the other side. It was a beautiful creature. Black with white hairs covering its body with just a touch of red. It blended perfectly with its environment but sadly my staring at him attracted attention and I was eventually shoved out of the way by the Germans.
The sloth facility was a brick and wire enclosure. There were three slow monkeys in residence and they were hanging on the fence waiting for some of the tourists to feed them looking very much like here no evil, see no evil, hear no evil only sloths not chimps. I stood and watched their slow transverse up the fence and to where their hanging vines were arranged. They are amazing creatures to watch although their long nails that look like some sort of Klingon killing device were not that inviting. Eventually I was shoved out of the way by the Germans and sloth like made my way back to the bus stopping only to watch a parade of Carpenter ants carry bits of leaves and other flora to their mound.
The Cocoa Plantation we stopped at next was perhaps my favorite stop of the day. Not because of the tour itself where they showed us the raw beans and how they were processed before mechanization. That was fairly boring because our guide neglected to translate into English perhaps realizing that the Germans were the big tippers of the day. I was also tired being boxed out by the Huns who didn’t seem to be able to enjoy themselves unless they had planted an elbow into someone’s body. Instead I tried to find a shady spot and just take in the scenery.
One of the things that caught my attention immediately was the plantation house. It was not large like I would have imagined but small maybe a half dozen rooms total. Made of native wood and stone it was situated under a grove of trees at the top of a small hill. Off the side was a large double tiered, covered, patio. I walked up the grassy hill and immediately saw the sense of why the house was placed where it was. Not only did it have a commanding view of the countryside, hilly with cleared pastures and groves of cocoa plants but it was strategically placed to capture a breeze. This, along with the shade trees kept the house cool even though it was uncomfortably warm out.
On the patio they had arranged some refreshments. I was unsure of the food and the drink. I had not seen it prepared and I had been told legions of stories before the trip of folks who sampled food and spent the remainder popping Imodium and keeping near bathrooms. I did not need that kind of a fate. But the food looked so good. All types of local confections and cakes so eventually I compromised with myself and only had a small piece of cake that was very good and a little coffee thinking that the heat would kill any of the bacteria that were threatening to take my colon hostage. The Germans grunted with pleasure as they had piece after piece of cake and chugged the fruit juices placed out for them. In effort to ignore them, I imagined that I was in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel and watched the world turn very slowly.
Our last stop of the day was the town of Ilheus itself. The guide told us that we were stopping there to see the historic church and the town that Jorge Amada had made famous. I suspected that while there might be a sliver of truth in what she said my working theory was this was the point in the tour where we were supposed to provide direct aide to the town by transplanting the Reals form our wallets into their store’s coffers.
The truth was somewhere in between. The church, Sao Jorge de Ilheus, is a beautifully preserved 17th century church painted in ecru with white accents. It is perfectly framed by the flawless blue sky. It was cool inside so I sat in one of the pews and stared at the frescos that were beautifully maintained and watched as many came to pray and others to take photographs. After a while they hard wood of the pews got the better of me and I decided to stroll through the town.
At one café, Vesuvio, they had a life like statue of Jorge Amado sitting at a table. I guess that this was Vesuvio one of the bars that is featured in his novel Gabriella Clove and Cinnamon. I resisted the temptation to take a photograph. I also resisted the street vendors who were only mildly aggressive in getting my attention. The stores held little interest to me as I had all that I really needed and saw no need for a souvenir from this place. I made my way back to the bus and watched the world go by while the Germans finished distributing their Euro’s to the shopkeepers of Ilheus.
By the time we got back to the ship it was late afternoon. I was tired thirsty and hot and wanted nothing more than to collapse on my bed. Which I did and instantly fell asleep. I awoke with a start a little panicked because I had thought that I had missed my opportunity to change my seating at dinner. It was just 6 so I was nearly the first person into the seating when they opened the door.
The Maitre Di was a very stocky Italian with salt and pepper hair who really looked the part. Not only was his Tuxedo immaculately pressed and tailored but the half glasses he wore at the end of his nose gave him the appearance of kindness and authority at the same time. I explained to him my problem. That I didn’t want to eat at the early dinner that I was too young for that seating and that my first dinner had been a disaster because there was no one in which to speak English…couldn’t he please place me in later seating and with someone who even spoke a few words of English.
He gave an understanding nod and pushed his glasses just a little further down his nose and began attacking his computer with both mouse and keyboard. Every once and a while he would he would mutter something to himself, shake his head, and click on his mouse and bang away at his keyboard. And with every click and shake of the head I would lose a little hope. Doubt began to creep into my mind. What if I have the spend the next 15 days eating by myself at the Pizza bar. Would it be too embarrassing to fly home from Recife and just skip the whole second part of the trip? I was ready to walk away and begin checking airline connections when the Maitre D looked up at me. Taking off his glasses he said “I am sorry but I do not have anyone who is an English speaker who I can place you with. I have checked and all the tables are occupied.” I was swearing silently to myself when he added “But I do have three Brazilians who are traveling by themselves and I know they speak a little English. Would you like it if I placed you with them?”
At that point I would have even sat down with a table full of the Germans who been bruising me for the last three days just to have someone to talk with so I quickly agreed.
I don’t like to look slovenly and normally I take a bit of time to make sure that my appearance is good enough or maybe just a little better than what the situation dictates. That evening, I dressed with particular care. I am still not sure exactly why but some little voice inside my head was telling me that it was important that I make a good impression on these Braziliero’s. So I put on a blazer and a collared shirt with freshly pressed khakis and shoes that looked as if they had been polished in the not too distant past. When I decided that my appearance would not make anyone shriek and runaway in terror I headed to the bar. I wanted to be near the restaurant when it opened for its second seating so I would arrive before the other guests.
I don’t remember the drink. I remember being very nervous for some reason which was very unlike me. I meet new people professionally on a constant basis and I have been accused on more than one occasion to be able to generate a conversation from a cement wall. But tonight, I had butterflies doing a samba in my stomach. When the doors opened for the second dinner seating, it was a little trepidation that I walked to my new table.
The table was a single aisle up from the back of the restaurant and the second table in its row and was directly adjacent to the windows that lined the restaurant. When I arrived at the table no one was there which was not exactly a surprise as I was perhaps the third person to enter the restaurant that night, so I chose to sit on the near side of the table in the seat nearest the door in case I needed a quick getaway.
I was quickly greeted by my head waiter who said her name was Marika and that she would be my waiter. She was a tall Philipina woman with jet black hair and while not beautiful she was very “handsome.” I relaxed a little made comfortable by her gentleness. She asked me if she knew the people I would be dining with and I told her that I did not that I had just been assigned this table. She told me not to worry as she would make the introductions.
The room began to fill with guests. And no one joined my table. I eyed the bread on the table as I was very hungry as I hadn’t eaten lunch that day but I resisted because I thought it would be very embarrassing to have a hunk of butter bread in my hand should my dinner mates arrive at an inopportune moment. The room filled some more and still my table remained empty. The bread began to get more and more attractive and I was just about to break down and have a piece when I felt Marika tap my shoulder and tell me that the other diners had arrived.
I stood up to greet them. The first person I was introduced to was Christina. She was blonde, in her mid fifties and had probably been quite a beauty in her youth and was dressed for dinner in ankle length gown. She was the same woman I had seen taking pictures in Rio and later on the pool deck. The next woman to introduce her to told me her name was Yarra which I had to ask her to repeat twice because it was an unfamiliar name to me. She was the same age as her companion and about the same size with cordovan red hair and bright green eyes. Like her friend she was dressed for dinner in a gown. She shook my hand and tilting head in the direction of the Maitre di’s podium….said “My sister…she has to say hello to everyone.”
I turned and saw the brunette. And, just for that moment time seemed to slow just a little bit. Her brunette, thick and luxurious hung over her shoulder. Like her companions she was wearing a floor length gown but it clung to a body that had curves in all the right places and seemed lithe and strong. She was saying hello to Marika and her face was alight. Her smiled looked genuine and real and I knew in the instant that I would like this woman.