Here I am sometime back in middle school. I had a mustache, played the flute, and was terrible at sports. You can see my totally fake smile trying to hide the depression because girls had zero interest in me. If I only knew back then that this amazingly beautiful woman would one day be my wife, man things would have gone a LOT differently. Here’s how it happened.
In June 2003, I was graduated from the Cornell University MMH program (Masters of Management in Hospitality). I had landed a job as the Director of E-commerce with Meliá Hotels & Resorts (Click here for that story). At Meliá, I had the greatest boss ever. Mr. Ron Roy, an extremely friendly and jolly guy from Scotland with the greatest sense of humor and a deeper wealth of knowledge on history and random facts than anyone I’ve ever met. One of the first things he told me to do was to get on a plane and visit the company’s portfolio of resorts in Mexico (twist my arm…). So off I went, starting with Los Cabos, then Cancun, Cozumel, and before heading to Ixtapa I visited Meliá Puerto Vallarta. Yes, it was the job that everyone dreams of.
I was greeted by the General Manager, the late Mr. Tom Tollius, another great figure from the good old days at Meliá. We chatted in his office for a while and he offered to introduce me to his Director of Sales. A few minutes later, in walked the most stunningly beautiful woman I had ever seen. Sina Schreiber was from Austria, had big blue eyes and blond hair. I felt like the personification of all of my boyhood and teenage dreams had just walked through the door. Even now at the age of 42, the presence of a beautiful woman makes me nervous. Back then when I was 27 years old, it was much worse. My level of confidence has increased significantly since then, when I used to look like this… thanks to Sina’s guidance on fashion, but I still feel like I’m acting like a complete nerd when a beautiful woman is talking to me.
Tom suggested that we go get lunch at the restaurant by the pool and off we went. Have you ever had a conversation with someone and you just completely click? We just seemed to think completely alike and now looking back on it, there was clearly a mutual interest. Back then I would have refused to believe that she was actually interested in me. In my mind though, I was already planning the wedding. My nerdy overzealousness was very quickly crushed though when Sina mentioned that she has a very serious boyfriend and that she was planning on marrying him. The adrenaline rushing through my veins quickly changed to cold ice. You know, if you pay attention, you can almost feel your brain injecting different chemicals into your body depending on what’s going on.
Anyway, I went back to our offices in Miami and couldn’t stop talking about (or thinking about) Sina. Now, my assistant in Miami happened to be a very attractive, voluptuous Colombian girl named Katherine. My boss, Ron, often commented that she was the prettiest girl in the whole company. Katherine had apparently taken an interest in me, even though I had absolutely no idea. A few months later, Katherine and I became a couple. That was the start of a four year, very turbulent relationship (for that story, click here). At some point during these four years, Sina’s boyfriend somehow decided to break up with her. This had to be one of the most difficult years of my life. My heart wasn’t in my relationship with Katherine and I knew it. So did she, but she didn’t want to let me go and I couldn’t bring myself to break up with her simply because the woman that I really wanted to be with was suddenly available. That just didn’t seem right. Katherine was a beautiful, loving, and caring woman, and I thought that breaking up with her to be with Sina would just be a typical jerk ‘guy’ move. Growing up with mostly female friends, I had promised myself I wouldn’t be one of those. Looking back, staying with Katherine under those circumstances was even worse.
I saw Sina maybe twice per year through various industry events or company meetings, and every single time that spark was still there. We would normally end up talking for hours. Nothing ever happened between us, but my God I wanted it to. I’ll never forget there was one night when we were at Meliá’s party at Tianguis (a large travel industry tradeshow that happens every April in Mexico). Years ago it was in Acapulco every year, but now they change the location each year due to safety issues in Acapulco. Meliá used to rent out a big house with a pool where they held an extravagant party every year. Sina and I were talking with a group of people while we scarfed down hors d’oeuvres and a few drinks under the starry night sky and Sina said that she wanted to go dancing. My instincts kicked in and I immediately said “I’ll go!”. So we made our way to the entrance of the house and started walking toward her rented iconic pink jeep from Las Brisas, the hotel where we were staying. With each step we took toward the car, my heart began to sink and a feeling of guilt came over me. I knew that if we went dancing by ourselves there was no way I was not going to kiss her that night. My pace started to slow as Sina walked on and I stopped and said, “Sina…”. She turned around to look at me and I said “I’m so sorry but I can’t go. I think I’m going to go back to the house.” I’m not sure if she knew what was going through my head but she said ok, and we went back.
Eventually, in the fall of 2008, Katherine and I broke up. It was like a giant weight was lifted off of my shoulders. By now I hadn’t been working with Melia for a year and I hadn’t been in touch with Sina since. But I reached out to her right away to find out where she was and what she was up to, and she answered right away. After leaving Meliá, she went to Rome for a few months to learn Italian. She sold tours at The Vatican, and was a live-in babysitter. After that, she went to Ghana to teach underprivileged children at a school about 3 hours away from the main city of Accra, in a village where there was no running water. If I wasn’t already in love with her before, that kind of sealed it for me. So I asked if she was seeing anyone, and she said no. I asked if I could come visit her, and she said yes! “But… aren’t you married by now?” she asked. I explained that Katherine and I had broken up and that I would explain everything when I saw her. I immediately bought a plane ticket, got my vaccines and three weeks later I was off to Ghana.
How was I going to explain to my family that I was running off to Africa during Thanksgiving? I had just gotten out of a roller-coaster 4 year relationship. I certainly was not going to tell them that I was flying half way across the world to see if Sina was still interested in me, especially because I knew there was a chance I would come back disappointed. So I made up the most logical lie I could think of. I had decided to go to Africa to ‘volunteer’ at a school. This became a big joke when they learned the truth.
I arrived in Accra, made my way through immigration and just outside the airport, there she was dressed in fabric with local colors and patterns. She hadn’t changed a bit. But she wasn’t alone. With her was a really cute four year old boy named Emmanuel, from Aflao, the village where Sina was teaching. The three of us got into a car with a driver and began our three hour journey back to Aflao, avoiding giant gaping potholes almost the entire way. Sina was living with a local woman named Alice. Before I had arrived Sina said “I hope you don’t mind, but I had to tell Alice that we were married, otherwise she won’t let you stay in the house.” I can’t explain the feeling of excitement when she said that.
We spent about a week in Aflao, bathing in the outdoor ‘shower’ with buckets of cold water that we had to fetch each day from the well. I tend to take a long time to shower and get ready as it is… now if I have to do it with 2 buckets of cold water, it’s going to take even longer. Sina jokes from time to time that she should have known right away what she was dealing with. There was a small kitchen in this house, sort of like an outhouse, and I had brought stuff from the USA to cook dinner for Sina and her roommate. They hadn’t eaten a familiar home cooked meal in months so I won some major points there. I also brought a bottle of Sarah Jessica Parker’s perfume at Sina’s request, and I also brought a brand new Ipod with all my favorite music loaded onto it with the inscription “Para mi querida Sina” on the back.
We had a great week. I visited the school with Sina and helped teach some classes. It was truly an amazing experience. These kids have nothing more than a chalk board and chalk to learn with. I decided to teach them how to play Pictionary, but even this was a challenge because their span of knowledge was so limited. I would whisper in a child’s ear to draw an elephant, and they would look at me completely confused. They didn’t know what an elephant was or what it looked like. That might surprise you since we were in Africa, but there is really no wildlife to speak of in Ghana. That’s on the other side of Africa in Kenya, Botswana, etc. I met the other volunteers and we all went to visit a waterfall. The other volunteers wanted to hike up to the top of the waterfall and I thought “Hey I can do that since I did it in Australia (you can read about that here). Except back then I was 25 and in much better shape than at 32. I was never really an athletic person but I thought I could handle this. Sina didn’t want to go but I remember thinking “Let me show her that I don’t want to crowd her. I don’t always need to be by her side and I can go do this with the others.” After about 15 minutes, I was so out of breath that I told the others to just go on without me. Now I would have to go back down to Sina with my tail between my legs and admit that I just couldn’t keep up. She just laughed. We spent the rest of the time taking pictures by the waterfall with Emannuel.
Throughout this entire week, neither of us brought up anything about us getting together. I wanted to so badly but the timing had to be right. After the first week we only had a few days left and we decided to go travel a bit through the south of Ghana, just the two of us. We headed west in a ‘tro tro’ which is basically a small bus full of people. As we drove along the road and the sun began to set, Sina was sitting next to me at the window. I gathered up as much courage as I could and took her hand in mine. She grasped my hand back and smiled at me. That was when I knew for sure that those feelings that had grown between us for the last 5 years were still there. The first stop was a place I had read about where you could see giant leatherback turtles laying their eggs on the beach. We were in the middle of nowhere but I remember we had CNN International, and we watched as the terrorist attack unfolded at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. I immediately checked with my oldest brother Sanjay to make sure they were all ok, since they were living there at the time. Later that night we went out with a guide and saw these magnificent animals coming up onto the beach and laying their eggs. We continued west through Accra and onward to Cape Coast. We checked into the Mighty Victory Hotel and next day we visited the famous fort where slaves had been shipped off to the Americas. We also visited the Kakum National Park, and then headed back to Accra for the last night where I figured I would splurge for the ‘nicest’ place in town.
That evening at the beach, Sina asked me what happened with Katherine and I told her the whole story. It was a bit uncomfortable but she needed to know everything. That night at dinner, I asked Sina “So what do I have to do for us to be together?” Sina had about a month left in Ghana and then her plan was to go back to Austria to be with her family for Christmas. We planned for her to come to Miami after Christmas and just before New Year’s so we could spend a few weeks together. In my mind, this was it. We were getting married and that was all there was to it.
Just before New Year’s Eve, Sina arrived and came to stay at my house in Miami. Everything felt so normal and natural that to me, it was just obvious that she was staying. Sina bought a ticket to Rome so that she could go pick up some stuff that she had left with the family she was living with, so after a few weeks she left for Rome for 2 weeks. I was going completely out of my mind without her. So in my typical impulsive romantic fashion, I went online and bought a plane ticket to Rome for the weekend. I asked Sina for the address where she was staying so I could ‘send her a card’. I remember my friends in my office telling me that this was a really bad idea. “Give her some time and some space to think!” Nope, I’m going to Rome.
I left on Thursday evening and arrived by Friday morning. I checked into my hotel and waited until it was about 1pm so that it would be 7am EST which is when Sina and I would normally skype each other before I headed to work. In order to surprise her I skyped her as if everything was normal and I was back home. Then I made my way over to the apartment. Luckily the husband of the family happened to be leaving just at the moment I arrived and he knew right away who I was. He snuck me into the apartment and I just appeared in Sina’s doorway. She looked up and she was completely shocked. For a moment she was really confused and couldn’t figure out where she was, or why I was there. We spent an amazing weekend together in Rome and thankfully, she was thrilled that I had come. I knew this was the woman for me. It’s a good thing I went too because she sent me back with several really really heavy bags, and there is no way she could have brought all that back by herself!
When she got back we started the adoption process to bring Emannuel to live with us. Sadly, that never worked out. You can read that story here. We had our wedding at the Acqualina Resort & Spa, right on the beach in Sunny Isles, Florida and it was beautiful. We invited a small group of our closest friends, co-workers and family, and just after the ceremony a giant rainbow appeared just beyond us out in the ocean. I’m not kidding! You can’t make this stuff up.
So here we are, nine years later. Of course it hasn’t all been perfect. Every marriage has its challenges and I might discuss some of that here in my blog as long as it won’t cause my wife to divorce me. But we are happy and we have two incredible girls. Hope you’ve enjoyed our story.