A few weeks before leaving Australia for South America, a friend request appeared on my phone from Franco Otàvio Tobias Martins. I didn't think I had any friends named Franco, Tobias, Otàvio, Tobias, or Martins, so I clicked his profile to see more. As I began to scroll, I stopped: plastered on Franco's profile and across my entire screen was a massive poster of......me.
I laughed out loud at the bus stop in Bondi Beach as I stared at me staring back at me while draped in flames and an American flag from a strangers' profile over eight thousand miles away. Turns out Franco was the organizer of my next tournament in Brazil, and the poster was part of the PR buildup in his small town of Poços de Caldas leading up to the event. I sat laughing in the rain at the bus stop, having not a clue what other surprises awaited me in Brazil.
From Chile, I landed first in the city of Ribeirao Preto, Brazil to stay and train with Manoel Pereira, a friend I met during the New Zealand tournament circuit in June. I don't know if Manoel entirely knew what he was saying in English or if he actually thought I would take him up on his offer when he invited me to stay with him back in June, but either way he picked me up at the airport in his town a couple hours west of Sao Paolo with a big smile, and we headed straight for bowls of the Brazilian fruit, açai.
Manoel is one of the gems I've met since going on tour. One of six kids, Manoel grew up washing tennis courts before learning squash and training to become Brazil's national champion and world #140- all while working his way up to manager of his local squash club, with an aim to buy it in the next couple years. Somewhere in all this he learned English through night courses, found a way to employ most of his brothers and sisters, and started to invest in real estate on the side. Over bowls of açai, Manoel asked lots of questions. Where I came from, my ambitions and ideas, who my parents are, what I want out of life. Manoel is planning to retire from the tour in a couple years to focus on life outside of squash. He hung on to every word, asked me to repeat parts. When it was his turn, Manoel told me that growing up, he never thought about things like going to play pro squash and speak English in places like New Zealand. Not because he didn't want to do these things, but because he didn't think these things were possible.
We trained twice or three times a day, on the well worn floors and aged stucco concrete walls of his club's three outdoor courts. I continued my ankle rehab inside a sandbox with a trainer named Percoles at Physio Athletic down the street. I lived like a king in a loft above Manoel's manager office, sharing a wall with one of the courts where the thumping of balls provided the best type of alarm clock each morning. For the first time in four months I unpacked my suitcase. My own shower, a queen mattress, functioning A/C unit and clear internet connection, with a fridge and microwave downstairs and washer outside. It was perfect. All little things- things I usually didn't notice when back home. I wrote them all down, to remember what it takes for me to feel content. I can't remember being so happy.
Framed life-size photos of professional squash players draped in flames graced the entrance walls of the Associaton Caldense Club in the mountain town of Poços de Caldas, greeting me to a very different type of tournament. The venue information sent to players beforehand simply read "high altitude" as the ball whizzed through the thin air and sweaty heat of the outdoor courts, with flags from all nations represented hanging from above and a DJ playing music to no one in particular. Amateur players and local spectators swarmed the venue, soaking up the squash with traditional cheese bread and local beers, eager to watch the foreign players they had seen, framed and in flames, on their walk into the club.
I roomed with a new friend Hugo, a twenty-two year old former Spanish junior and national team player who gave it all up to move to Brazil last year in search for a better life, with a dream to ultimately move to the States. We reveled in the experience of being strangers turned roommates, travel buddies, opponents, coaches, wingmen. Pro tennis players have coaches, entourages. Hugo and I had each other.
Another pro grew up washing cars and living in the favelas of Rio before a generous stranger decided to give him a racquet. I found a familiar face in a pro from Sao Paolo, who I had last seen as my coach at a summer camp eight years ago in New Hampshire. Portuguese wasn't the preferred language but mostly the only language at the venue, as animated conversations blended together with the occasional blare from advertisements coming from speakers strapped to moving cars on the street outside, where they shared the road with horse drawn carriages. It was a different type of tournament.
I made it through to my first quarterfinals which bumped my world ranking to #237, a best for me so far. One morning during breakfast at the tournament hotel, I was introduced to Andre, an amateur player from Rio who had heard I was hoping to visit there next. Andre spoke English, played squash, had a couch, and lived two blocks from Copacabana Beach. With a mouthful of cheesy bread I accepted his invitation to go stay with him on the spot.
Andre recently quit his job as a bank manager to get his life back. We spent the four days training together at the Rio Squash Clube and I shared a mattress in his living room with Budha, his shiatsu/pug mix who threatened to pee on my bedding and any other belongings if left at ground level, causing everything to be elevated. He still found ways around that.
I spent my final weekend in Brazil in Sao Paolo with Lucas and Daniela, two friends I met three years ago on a hiking trip in Peru. In the back yard of his family's home, Lucas and his childhood buddies threw an all day Brazilian barbeque feast to celebrate the reunion- complete with specialty meats and traditional sides, homemade cocktails and some sort of liquid chocolate dessert that was made as soon as it was discovered the Gringo hadn't yet tried it.
On my last night in the country, I tagged along with Daniela to her friend of a friends' birthday party at a trendy club downtown. I shared birthday cake, sang Portugese birthday songs, danced along with the party to a Brazilian boy bands' rock rendition of "Man! I Feel Like a Woman" (that song is still popular?) and wondered how it all felt so normal. I wanted to pinch myself, take a second to look around at the random, crazy foreign world in Brazil that I had dropped into for a little bit. Then someone asked if I wanted more cake. In my best Portuguese, I said sure. Back to the birthday party.