It was 1954, and we were leaving. We were taking off. We were going to America.*
The America we were going to was in the South–Ecuador. I was only ten years old and I was going to do something that nobody I personally knew had done before: get in an airplane and fly to America.
No more German nuns, no more snooty classmates, no more routine–maybe my mother would even forget to make me practice the violin. I was going to America! On Pan American Airlines! The flight from Barcelona to Quito took weeks to arrange, and many trips to the airline\’s elegant office on the Passeig de Gracia. But eventually my father came home with the tickets and three gorgeous navy blue airline bags, emblazoned with the logo PAA.
The trip was going to take an entire week–longer than the trip to the moon would take fifteen years later. And it was a bit like going to the moon. \”You\’ll be going to school with Indians\” a girl in my class said. And we both imagined fierce North American Indians, being chased by cowboys.
My grandparents on both sides did their best to hide their sorrow. I was the only grandchild, and no matter how much my parents repeated that the contract with the Ecuadorian government to provide chamber music concerts for the cultured elite was only for a year, they must have sensed that we would never really go back to Spain.
On a sunny Mediterranean spring morning my father, my mother, and I, dressed in our best clothes, got into a fat four-engine prop plane. Air planes in those days, dear youthful reader, were gracious, spacious environments where a bevy of beautiful stewardesses looked after you like ministering angels. Impossibly slim in their navy uniforms and high heels, they nevertheless hefted your luggage and stowed it securely in the overhead compartments. They quacked life-and-death instructions at you in English and then went round smiling, distributing packs of chewing gum as the plane took off.
Chewing gum! I had only once had chewing gum in my life before, and then only a single Chiclet, an experience that had engraved itself on my tastebuds and my brain. Faced with a whole package of it, I kept popping more of those little white tiles into my mouth as the old ones lost flavor. I knew that chewing gum could be pulled and stretched, and I entertained myself doing that for a while, as the engines hummed and my mother remarked on the smoothness of the flight. When my fingers started feeling sticky, I went to the bathroom, opened the door with my sticky hand, tried to wash off the chewing gum with water….
During the flight, the stewardess handed me a coloring book and a box of Crayola crayons, in which I was sorely disappointed. I was used to beautiful Caran D\’Ache colored pencils, and the waxy crayons, with their synthetic perfume and their thick lines, offended me. At meal time we were served a bizarre little tray, with all the courses on it at once, and a cup of dark liquid that my father assumed was consomme…only to realize, to his great disgust, that it was Coca-Cola. How was one expected to drink that stuff with a meal?
In New York, my mother, sick with vertigo and, I suspect, the emotion of the leave-taking, went to bed while my father and I went for a walk on Fifth Avenue. Two mornings later, as our plane was taking off, my parents pointed out the river of traffic flowing into the city–my first sight of rush hour.
In Bogota we spent three days in a beautiful hotel, where I ate my first grapefruit and where I underwent the \”Humiliation of the Socks.\” For some reason, I ran out of clean white anklets, and my mother, rather than allow me to go sockless, forced me to put on…a pair of my father\’s black socks. This, I knew, was earthquake country, and I would gladly have perished if only my feet could have been hidden under some boulder.
A two-engine Avianca plane took us on the last leg of the trip, though we had to refuel in the southern Colombian city of Cali, where I had my first experience of tropical heat. Then the plane climbed laboriously up over the green jungle and, dipping and swaying, into the Andes.
We emerged dazed into Quito\’s thin air. The airport–almost 10,000 feet above sea level– was ringed with the highest mountains we had ever seen: Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, Pichincha–all of them volcanoes, all of them active. I clasped my doll to my chest and pushed my glasses up on my nose. The great adventure had begun.
*\”America\” in Spanish denotes the landmass from the northern tip of Canada to the Tierra del Fuego.