It was just a small, cellophane-sealed package of Lucky Strike cigarettes placed on the airline’s gleaming china plate. There was silverware, a folded linen napkin, the formal place setting. The stewardess guided me to my seat, at the window, over the wing. My tie felt tight around my collar. I was sweating. I heaved my travel bag in the webbed shelf above. The sputter and gasping of piston engines, first the left, then the right stopped conversation. I stared out the window, gripping the seat. I fought tears.
Less than an hour before I’d said my goodbyes to my parents and sister. I turned down drinks, ate little food. Twenty-seven hours later I arrived. I still remember the furnace heat when the door of the plane opened, the intense humidity. I was tired, excited, and apprehensive.
My seatmate awoke, yawned. “We made it,” he said and got up, a mass of wrinkled clothing. He had slept most of the flight, drinking too many miniature bottles of whisky.
“Yeah, guess we did,” I said, my voice shaking.
“Got a ride?” He asked.
“Think so, hope so.” I looked out the window, now steamed, to see if anyone was there.
The Guayas River was brown, muddy, hot to the touch. I was on my way to an adventure by myself to an island off the coast. I sat, my hand making wakes in the muddy water, thinking about the hundred other passengers, their lives, my life. I would go back, finish high school. Most of these people would never see high school. Soft tunes sung in Spanish and Quechua, smells and sights of another country. A cow fell off a barge going up river. The water was white with movement. I heard someone mention Piranhas, the fish with teeth and a lust for meat. I took my hand out of the muddy river, checking fingers, and put it back in my pants pocket.
With boys my age I walked the city streets after school. We saw a beggar and her child. The child was deformed. They had their hands up asking for money. They were filthy, sitting on a flattened cardboard box. Flies buzzed around them.
“Don’t give her anything, these people do that to their kids just for pity!” My friend Pincho says.
I walked on. Played tennis with the other rich kids at the club. Armed guards kept us safe. The boys wanted to learn English swear words. I knew a few but they wanted more. We spoke in low voices.
Uncle Nelson was going to the airport. The maids were excited, even the family’s parrot was agitated. Nelson was a physician, a man of intelligence and education, about 40. He and his wife lived with us in our large apartment. He opened his desk, pulled out a revolver, loaded it, then put it in his waistband. “Politics,” he said with a wink.
I was trying to fall asleep. The heat, even at midnight, hung heavy in the air. I strained to make out a dark moving shadow going left to right on the ceiling. I called for my adopted mother.
I wrote home a lot. Wrote President Kennedy, told him about the things I saw. Got a letter from the U.S. Counsel in town telling me the president appreciated my concern. My parents wrote too. Asking about me, my health. I had malaria, but that's another story.
Maria lived next door. She was 19, I was 16. We had a true, formal courtship. Her mother always nearby. I asked permission to speak with Maria. Mother hovered in the next room. Her parents probably saw Maria’s American citizenship, I saw only her. She spoke no English, I knew about twenty words in Spanish She was a secretary; I was a high school student. We were in love. She did not come to the airport to see me go. She cried for days before I left. I missed her for a long while. I still have her picture.
Just a couple dozen faded color slides I never look at anymore. Other memories sandwiched between the covers of a red plastic- jacketed high school yearbook. Friendships made, dropped after a few years. Another language learned, now spoken haltingly, infrequently.
Fifty-five years come and gone. A lifetime. A journey.