Money-making is so institutionalised in America that our guide on a luxury cruise tour of West Palm Beach sounded like a real-estate agent. The tour, past celebrity and billionaire homes, had him gush on about their values, and though he joked about those available for sale "for 27 million dollars only, folks", we wondered whether he was collecting realty commissions on the side. The beach houses came with private jetties, swimming pools, three-side Atlantic views that were ideal as "alimony for wives", he teased, "even though it's the mistresses who usually get them".
We would have been impressed if it wasn't for a doughty 70-plus-year-old who looked on as if she'd swallowed a nasty pill. "I'm from the West Coast, darling," she told my wife, "where there's more space, less residences," dismissing the miles of million-dollar villas as "too crowded". "I'm just back from China," she continued, "where people are like flies." "We're from here," my wife hastily assured her - because, of course, people in India are like flies too - refraining from adding that we were mere migratory visitors due for returning in a couple of days.
Living in Florida is like being permanent residents of happyland. The trees and shrubs are as manicured as the lawns, the synthetically-enhanced women wear bikinis like a national dress, even though some ought not - as my wife repeated several times, and none too discreetly - and the serving staff at restaurants greet you as friends who haven't met up in a few days. "How you doin' today?" one asked my wife, and when she shared a full day's itinerary as well as her observations on Miami life and vice, the waitress said, "The girl's got a mouth on her but I've got folks on tables that are hungry, so we'll talk after, hon." I had to step in to stop my wife from exchanging telephone numbers with her "good friend" and leave an even larger tip than mandated at 25 per cent, which the waitress received with a wink and a "you listen good, boy".
In my brother-in-law's condo, everyone was a "buddy" even though they hardly met, and then only in the driveway. The "community" consisted of several subcontinentals with interesting lives that fascinated us. Some had retired in their thirties to spend the rest of their lives playing golf, others were cons who'd seen the inside of penitentiaries, still others juggled two to three careers, or girlfriends, without stress. Their occidental equivalents seemed to spend their time slathered in sun-protection on a beach, or by the poolside, or on the greens. Most considered smoking tobacco a greater vice than infidelity (but marijuana was "okay") and many thought eating anything other than organic was the equivalent of homicide. Sex, its lack or excess, was no more worthy of comment than the weather.
My brother-in-law's cookie-cutter designer home was as equipped as a department store. There was a lake outside, beer in the fridge and hot showers at the turn of a knob. The Americans seem as obsessed with bathing as Indians, and there were more shampoos in their shower cubicles than all the brands available in India. A country where the tap water is safe for drinking has menu cards with more aqua choices than wine. Still, its millionaires cook their own meals, vacuum their own homes and wash their own cars - something our West Coast friend failed to factor in to her observations when comparing life in idyllic Florida with chaotic Asia.