We boarded the huge Varig jet late at night. A stewardess in a blue suit with a red and white kerchief around her neck walked down the aisle with a bowl of tropical fruit flavored candies; guava, pineapple, coconut. Another stewardess came down the aisle handing out little plastic cases that were clear on the front and solid brown on the back. I took out the small, fine toothed comb, the toothbrush and tiny tube of toothpaste and lined them up on the table that I had already pulled down. I combed my bangs into a point in the middle of my forehead and opened the toothpaste. It smelled just like the toothpaste in my grandfather's bathroom. And suddenly mixed with the murmur of settling passengers and the gentle rumble of the idling jet engines was the sensation of cold green tile under my bare feet, the unfamiliar smell of shaving cream and used toilet paper with a pineapple candy dissolving in my mouth.
The airplane was half empty so I got my own row of three seats. I laid down, allowing myself to be tucked in under a blanket by a smiling steward who told me it was time to "be quiet and go to sleep." I gazed up at the ceiling where constellations of stars lit up as the cabin lights dimmed. When I was very young I thought the ceiling of the plane was a huge window and that I was looking up at the real nighttime sky. When I was eleven I realized that it was just a painting but I still loved it and as a young woman, before Varig got taken over by the more practical Tam Airlines and the constellation paintings disappeared, I loved the ceiling for the sense of wonder it expressed that so perfectly mirrored my own feeling whenever I made that trip.
Once in the middle of the night when it seemed like I was the only one awake on the whole plane I saw a city glittering like an enormous jewel in the inky blackness far below. I had heard about the Bermuda Triangle and somehow connected the mysterious golden lights to the stories I had heard of vessels and airplanes disappearing. We kids also talked a lot about Cuba a lot and how airplanes were getting hijacked and we all hoped that coming back our plane would get hijacked so we wound't have to go back to school and then when we finally did get back we could brag to all our friends about how much danger we'd been in.
As the sun rose above the blanket of pink clouds below us we were awakened from our uneasy sleep and given soggy eggs that Gail and I never touched. Clouds rose up billowy out of the dawn and to me they looked like houses. Once I saw a particularly grand palace with turrets and huge doors and asked my mother if that was where God lived.
The airport in Rio smelled like disinfectant and my mother's heels clicked loudly on the shiny floors as we made our way through corridor after corridor to finally stand in a long snaking line, under the hum of wooden ceiling fans, waiting to clear customs so that the final leg of our journey could begin. We would board a small propellor plane that would take us across the Serra do Mar mountains range to São Paulo. The plane bounced around a lot and my mother was terrified but she never said anything. She just grasped the arms of her seat and closed her eyes while Harry threw up eggs into the air sickness bag.
When we finally got to São Paulo there were lots of shouting relatives waiting to claim us. They had come in various cars. They all knew me but I couldn't tell one jewel-bedecked aunt from another, nor one cigarette-smelling, cologne doused uncle from another. Tia Zaza, Tia Edith, Tia Nade, Tio Luis, Tio Pepe. They passed me around, kissing me once on each cheek, hugging me tightly, exclaiming how much I'd grown and how green my eyes were! Que linda! Que beleza! When our baggage was finally collected and porters had loaded it on to a big wagon we would go out into the dazzling sunlight and into the big waiting car where Chauffeur Luis, curved back, glasses perched on his hook nose, sat turtle-like at the wheel.
I was only dimly aware of the stench of the canal that ran alongside the highway that led away from the airport and of the "favelas" built along its filthy banks. As much as I always fought for a window seat anytime we were in a car I wasn't always successful and anyways after almost twenty-four hours of travel I was happy to snuggle up against my grandmother and fall asleep.