Sitting amid tropical flowers on a hotel terrace, I had to pinch myself to believe that this was the start of another working day. Fresh exotic fruits were a colourful sight on the breakfast table, and just a couple of feet away, vibrant hummingbirds in hovering flight were sipping nectar from a suspended feeder. It was my first time in South America, and my first morning in Brazil.
I had been invited there by the global head of PR for Fiat and was surprised to discover that I was the only Brit on the trip. Once there, I found that just a handful of other car journalists had also been invited, one each from several other countries. We were told that it was to visit a factory that Fiat already had there, and to learn about new cars they intended to build. It took a while for us to work out that we were also there as guinea pigs. It transpired that Fiat was planning to launch an important new model, with its debut and driving route in Rio de Janeiro. Wow! It dawned on us that we small international band of car writers were there to coincide with the recce for the event, and that unbeknown to us – until we worked out what was happening – aspects of the intended trip were being tried out in advance on us to hone the planning. So we visited the southern city Belo Horizonte – where the avian breakfast encounter took place – and also Brasilia, the capital city that is spread out in the shape of an aircraft dropped into surrounding jungle, before going north to Rio.
It was just over a year or so later that the big international launch of the Fiat Palio took place, a car that we didn’t get in the UK, with car writers flown to Brazil from around the world to be briefed on a new generation of cars and to road-test them. It was, of course, an amazing trip. We stayed in a hotel opposite Rio’s famous Copacabana beach, did a test-drive route that started near the famous Christ the Redeemer statue that towers high above the bay, and later sprinted along roads through a lush tropical rain forest. There was quite a pong from the traffic in Rio. Many of the vehicles ran on sugar alcohol, and there was a pervading sweetness to the air around town that wasn’t just due to the lushness of local flora.
After spending all day at the wheel, all of us journos had some downtime to walk on the beach, where my male colleagues were overwhelmed by the sight of exotic, voluptuous and extremely scantily-dressed local girls frolicking on the sand. We also took time to sip coconut water through straws inserted directly into the nuts and sold as beach-side refreshments, and to go for a well-earned swim. That felt exciting in such a setting, but it was almost too exhilarating for some. I paddled in the sunshine and swam in the shallows close to the edge, but several colleagues ventured further out, and two of them got caught in a riptide. They were swept helplessly for several hundred yards, clawing frantically at the water, and had to fight the tide ferociously to escape its grip. Finally, after a fearsome struggle, they eventually managed to stagger exhausted back onto the beach. None of us had ever experienced a riptide before, and were shocked by its perilous strength.
There was another shock on the trip, one that caused much mirth amongst my male colleagues. In addition to the driving and briefings, we were taken to the Brazilian Grand Prix. We arrived at the circuit by coach, and as we queued at the entry points, we observed a trio of beautiful young Brazilian women arguing with the gate marshals. It became obvious that the girls had no tickets, and were trying to cajole their way in. No such luck, the marshals were adamant – no tickets, no entry. But not for long. As if by pre-agreed signal, the three ladies suddenly lifted their skirts to the marshals, revealing a distinct lack of any underwear beneath! Surprise, surprise, the gatemen immediately ushered them in, ticketless as well as knickerless. It was a memorable launch trip for all kinds of reasons.