Brazil Without Baggage
In a dozen years of taking escorted tours Iíve grown accustomed to some standard rituals that unfold at the beginning of every tour, such as the initial gathering, the welcome reception and an orientation session led by the tour director, all steps in the process through which a group of strangers melds into a migratory tribe. Part of the ritual is inevitably a moment of sharing airline horror stories. Thereís always a bit of ďcan you top this?Ē as people describe all the mishaps that occurred as they were trying to reach the destination.
This is not to be too hard on the airlines. After all, in the spirit of half-full glasses, what the global airline system accomplishes is phenomenal, especially if you consider the mobility of homo sapiens a century ago. How quickly we have become accustomed to being able to travel anywhere on earth in a matter of hours with not much more discomfort than sitting in a theater for an equivalent period of time. If things do not go perfectly it really throws us. But of course perfection is impossible. The devil is in the details.
Gamblers stake their fortunes on understanding the clustering of events, and the ability to sense when you hit a run of one kind or another. I definitely hit a rough patch on the roulette wheel of the air traffic system on my recent trip to Brazil. Something seemed to be out of joint from the get-go, as with a runner who stumbles out of the starting gate and never fully regains his stride. It was as though some sniggering Olympian gods chose my trip as a test case, a series of what-if scenarios. What if the first flight was hours late but the connecting flight was maddeningly punctual? What if the airline was able to provide an alternative connection the next day, but the baggage vanished into the system? What if the return connection looked good on paper, but in the actual airport traffic conditions and security environment proved to be impossible?
These are just the kinds of inconveniences we must be able to take in stride when we travel today. This is the reality of global travel. Missing my connection and losing my baggage created some challenges, but did not ruin my trip. Far from it. One must take full responsibility for oneís own trip. Iím a firm believer that there is no misfortune that does not bring with it some good. And it is certainly true of this trip. After all, my destinations was the legendary Rio, a golden tropical paradise where that lucky old sun gives you everything you need and all you have to do is enjoy it. Who needs clothes in Rio? Better to leave your baggage at home. In truth I would have been willing to give up my suitcase and everything in it just to experience that heavenly place for a minute.
In fact one minute was about all it took to get a sense of the legendary magic of Rio. The moment I walked out of my hotel onto Avenida Atlantica, inhaled the warm evening air, saw the pedestrians with their hair blowing in the ocean breeze from Copacabana Beach and experienced that unmistakable ambience, I understood what all the noise was about. It occurred to me that Brazilís reputation as the home of the worldís top supermodels is based less on their physical attributes than on culture and attitude. Itís that joie de vivre, the license to enjoy the best in life. And there is much to enjoy in Ro, where the living is easy, where the earth is rich and fertile, resources are abundant, and the weather is so kind there is pleasure in just existing. That sultry environment has nurtured the culture of Rio for 500 years. It has had plenty of time to marinate. Itís fully mature and highly savory, like Brazilian music.
The tropical Latin culture seems to have escaped the Puritan influence that became a cultural cornerstone of the North American colonies early on and dampens the spirit even today when you turn on the news and see the candidates vying to outdo each other in terms of who is most devout. The Latins seem less averse to enjoying themselves than we uptight Norteamericanos. Women are freer to express the joy of being women, and the beauty of it. Regardless of their inherent physical characteristics, they seem to carry that attitude, that freedom, cultivated from when they are little girls. When you are in Rio that spirit is in the air. When Brazilians leave Brazil they carry that ambience with them, and we love them for it. To women who wish to discover the secrets of the Brazilian supermodels, I say put down your Cosmo magazines and go to Brazil. Experience and absorb it and then just act naturally.
True, I didnít have my suitcase, with all my stuff. But itís amazing how little stuff you need to get by. One good thing from the experience of losing my baggage is that it may forever make me a better packer and improve my quality of life while traveling. All those things Ė miscellaneous paraphernalia and piles of clothes with back-ups and alternatives -- who the hell needs it? Itís a false security blanket. Most of what you need you can get at the destination.
My ace in the hole was that I was on a Globus Monograms trip. The model of Monograms is a middle ground between escorted touring and independent travel. Itís an excellent way to go, especially to a destination where you donít know the language. And if my Spanish is primitive, my Portuguese is infantile. On a Monograms program, you have someone to meet you at the airport, take you to your hotel, provide certain inclusions such as a city tour, show you the ropes, answer your questions and help you do what you want to do. For those who have an aversion to organized group travel, think of Monograms as having a friend at the destination, a local who knows the language and the destination and is professionally trained to help you make the most of your trip.
In regard to losing my luggage, I canít imagine how different it would have been without the support of my tour guide, Vanesa Lopez, an employee of South American Tours, Globusí partner on the ground. She was untiring and dedicated to helping me. Nothing was too much for her and she went the distance until there was nothing more that could be done to shake my suitcase from the baggage handling system.
With Monograms itís all private and tailored to your needs. If you opt for the city tour, itís with a private guide and driver. If you want to drop one part of the standard tour and spend more time doing something else, itís your call. Missing my connection cut my nights in Rio from three to two, which meant only one full day when I wasnít flying. Having lost my luggage I chose to spend some of the time going back to the airport to try to track it down. With my private driver and guide it was a simple choice. On my own it would have been a great deal more difficult, navigating to the airport, negotiating across a language barrier, making international phone calls.
When it was time to leave Rio and my baggage had not yet been located, I decided it was safer to tell the airlines to send it back to JFK than to try to catch up with me at my next stop, Iguazu Falls. As the days passed and neither Delta nor TAM could locate my suitcase, I began to wonder if I would see it again, and started making mental inventories of what was lost.
After two nights in Iguazu Falls I began the return trip, which was to be entirely on TAM, from Iguazu Falls to Sao Paolo then connecting to JFK. When I arrived at Sao Paolo, I boarded a bus from the plane to the terminal, which got backlogged in traffic, then ran into a line of hundreds of people to get through security, and soon realized I was going to miss another connection. By the time I reached the gate, the doors had just closed. The next flight was in the morning, which wasnít too bad, and TAM paid for hotel, taxi and meals for those it had stranded.
It was a lucky break in a couple of ways. Though I was only in the hotel about four hours, it was during that time that I got an e-mail saying my luggage had been delivered and was waiting for me at home. That saved me having to search for it when I arrived at JFK. And flying in the daytime was in many ways preferable to taking the red eye.
So while there were inconveniences, there were also benefits. It was great not having to check baggage on all my flights. At JFK, after going through immigration, I was able to eliminate the ritual of standing at the carousel. I just headed right to customs with my carry-on bag. I found I like traveling light. That retentiveness is a hard habit to break, but when itís forced on you, it can be really liberating.
-- David Cogswell