The plane leaves the airport and climbs into the sky. Before long, you’re imitating lightning and coursing through the clouds – the wrong way. When you’re above the clouds, you’ve left the stratosphere of human imagination. This is the mysterious territory of the gods; beyond Olympus and the throne of God. You are their equal.
Now it’s time to start watching Black Panther, playing chess, and waiting for the in-flight meal.
The passengers all around me on the 12-hour flight from Zurich to Sao Paolo aren’t interested in gods or lightning. And in truth, neither am I. I should be. This is a miracle. We, a mammal designed for life on the trees and the savannah, are flying higher and faster than any bird. This shouldn’t be happening. But it is.
We belong to the generation that can look down on entire continents and be more interested in the upcoming meal and entertainment. And it was the same with me, which may be an un-literary point of view, I grant.
But I don’t feel guilty watching Black Panther, playing chess, and waiting for my in-flight meal as I soared 36, 000 feet into the sky. I feel proud. I’m not a tourist in this miracle, I’m in bed with it, quite literally.
Sleeping on a long-haul flight is not exactly like sleeping in Aphrodite’s bed – or even in a hostel bed. It’s claustrophobic and you feel like Hannibal Lecter being carried away to prison. You feel like you can’t move, especially since we didn’t have an aisle seat. So to answer the call of a very terrestrial, un-godly nature, you have to wake up your unbearably snug-looking neighbour asleep on the aisle seat. And this flying cargo ship is your home for the next 12 hours.
And what a privilege it is! We were lucky that we travelled overnight. You feel like you’re being taken care of. Like you’re a child being told what to do the whole time. Stewardesses come with the meal: it’s eaty time. Then they come by with drinks. Afterwards the lights on the plane are dimmed: sleepy time.
Everyone around you seems to obey. Except for the occasional coughing, insomniac rebel. But on the whole, we all obey. We have to, our lives are in the crew’s hands, so our infantile obedience is a small price to pay. Besides, you go to sleep, Black Panther raging in your earphones, comforted by the knowledge that when you wake up, you will be on the other side of the world.
Except you’re not. When you wake up its breakfast time. Swiss Air breakfast is good and refreshing. As far as airplane food goes. Even so, it’s all made right by the small Swiss chocolate you get after every Swiss Air meal. Now the lights are on and its wakey-wakey time. Time to land? Not yet. The last few hours of purgatorial ennui kick in.
Do I read? Do I listen to music? Do I put on another time-killing film? I decide, optimistically, to look out the window. Only a hazy blue looks back at me. But as the hours tick away a whole new continent comes into view. At first it looks like the old continent. But then as the wheels touch the ground the mist of the miraculous clouds your eyes again.
I’ve touched down in the continent of Neruda, of Incas, of tragic conquistas and triumphal revolutions, the continent of giant rainforests and spine-chilling mountain ranges. I’m here. I’ve been reading about this place since I was a teenager. I’ve devoured books about the Incas, worshipped Neruda, Garcia Marquez, Paz and her other literary offspring, I’ve watched and re-watched The Motorcycle Diaries and made amateur studies of her pantheon of undead gods. And now, after a mere 12-hour flight, I’m here.
The miraculous mist disappears for a bit when you have to make your way to the next flight, through sleepy airports and giant signs in Portuguese. And then the choreographed routine starts again. Checking-in, boarding, finding your seats, the safety routine, and eaty time again.
Then another flight starts. This time a baby flight. Only 3 hours on the South American airline Latam. It’s a morning flight and the sun rises just as we do. As the strangle-hold of repetitive ennui kicks in yet again, I make myself remember the scene I saw at Zurich airport as we boarded the flight to Sao Paolo.
No matter how dictatorial airports can feel, not even they can stop its citizens from watching the World Cup. Especially not Brazilians. As we boarded the flight Brazil were playing what turned out to be their last game against Belgium. A pair of Brazilian men were watching the game on their laptop.
Before long a crowd of men and women in Brazil football shirts gathered around them. All of a sudden, the North Korea-style airport felt like a pub. There was no alcohol around. But Brazilians didn’t need it. Brazil lost the game and in the queue I was surrounded by glum faces glazed in the proud yellow of their shirts. It felt familiar and at the same time it felt like a grand introduction to the New World.
All of a sudden, even as we waited for our non-existent meal on Latam, I felt excited and, yes, gagging for it.
Then, like a beautiful anesthesia, the fresh, numbing air of the miraculous descends again. Only an hour left until landing in Santiago. The pilot warns their might be some turbulence over the Andes. The Andes? I look out of the window and I see an ocean of mountains.
Giants, every single one of them; there are more than there are stars in a polluted patch of sky. Everywhere you look this city, this hierarchical metropolis of mountains. Some mountains dominated others. Some had more snow than their neighbours. I could spend all day up there studying the minute differences in patchwork of the mountain ranges.
But miracles don’t stretch out. Miracles are big-bangs; like putting a cold beer in the sun and feeling it heat up within seconds. Before long we were landing and the miracle disappeared from sight. But out of sight is certainly not out of mind.
Even as we navigated our way through the Santiago airport the image of the mountains dominated my mind. Those mountains were the very spine of this continent. The life-blood of South America. A natural border and a repository of so much history, both human and natural.
Finally there came the moment when miracle and reality collided: I realised that I would soon become familiar with those mountains. Mountains that were the backdrop of every urban scene in Santiago. Wherever I went in the city, be it to eat, shop, explore or simply walk, the mountains would be around me. Even if they were shrouded by the all-too-human smog, their presence would not be diluted, they would be like ancient ghosts watching over the modern metropolis.
I had made it into South America and, miracle or not, I would wed my personal history with the history of the New World.