It takes two to tango
A Gujarati bottle factory owner, the unofficial brand ambassador of Latin America in Mumbai, says he has learnt to make machines run and people dream.
If the whir and beep of machines spur him into action, it's a strain of Latin jazz that helps Atul Parekh wind down. "One feeds the stomach, the other feeds my soul." Parekh, 55, runs a successful business of manufacturing bottles for pharmaceutical companies from a Lower Parel factory. Every day at sundown, he is at his Breach Candy Latin Aventuras office.
"For the longest time, it was a case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; one profession did not know about the other," he says. And for good reason. In 2010, when Parekh decided to promote the continent among Mumbaikars, most travellers, including his family, said, "Why would you go to South America! It's unsafe."
"The truth is," Parekh argues, "the whole world is unsafe."
The side hustle has paid off. Today, his clients include some of Mumbai's most affluent. Two week-long trip costs no less than Rs 5 lakh per head, manifold what you'd pay for a Europe trip. Guests are usually first-timers and to break down an enormously varied continent is exciting, but also daunting for Parekh. "I usually tell clients, go to South America after you have travelled the world. It takes a different mindset to appreciate the place. It's for those who are curious about life."
The itinerary includes, obviously, a trail to Machu Picchu, standing under Iguazu Falls and swimming with the giant tortoises and dolphins in the Galapagos. The countries that a client will visit are chosen after a detailed interaction, personality assessment and lesson in geography, which he conducts using a large map that hangs on the office wall. "Since the excitement of a holiday should start with the planning, I have designed my studio to look like a microcosm of Latin America." It's more home, less office, and the walls carry framed snapshots of carnivals at Rio, the pristine Caribbean coastline and Patagonia's dramatic peaks.
The stereo plays the rumba as we chat. The vibe of this profession is in stark contrast to his day job. "All my life, I've worked in a factory; a structured, straight-jacketed environment. The thrill [of the travel firm] was something I hadn't experienced in years." If he's the experienced boss there, he's a rookie here.
His own love affair with Latin America was the result of a chance invite to a Brazilian consulate gig held in Mumbai in 2010. He walked in to watch a Samba performance and walked out with the idea for a travel firm. "The show was intoxicating, like a potent glass of Caipirinha," he recalls. Then on, he would spend mornings at the factory and return home to chalk out the new passion project. It was his French teacher, he says, who goaded him to carry on this passion. Six months later, he was on a 22-hour flight to São Paulo. Before he took the flight, he had heard horrifying stories about mugging. "I won't lie; those stories made me paranoid."
The first night, he did not step out for dinner. He made do with the thepla his wife Sharmila had packed for him ("lots of vegetarian food available in Peru, by the way," he adds). "When I walked the streets, I'd keep swinging around to see if I was being followed." When he eventually got confident to explore the city, the two weeks he was there turned out to be what he calls the most exhilarating of his life. "It's not that I was new to the thrill of travel. When Nelson Mandela had opened the doors to South Africa in 1995, I was one of the handful of Indians to fly there." But it was the warmth of the people and carnival-like vibe that made South America a permanent feature on his travel radar. "You will have a cathedral and post office in every city, but it's the human experience that makes the difference."
There were challenges, of course. According to Parekh, it's difficult for a non-native to navigate the place without local support. "The Internet might help you with hotels but you need somebody to help you get to the hotel. You don't want to be bumbling about after flying all the way there." Over the years, he has built a robust network of local guides, who safely escort guests to their hotels and help them with daily excursions. "Initially, I would be on tenterhooks because I was here miles away. Even now, sometimes, I am awake until the client gets to the hotel safely. But there has never been an unpleasant experience," he says, knocking on a wooden table by his side.
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