Flying in

July 26, 2012

Last week I flew into Torreón in daylight for the first time in years, maybe ever.  The dusty earth rippled below us, as if in reminder of our precarious state; as if to say, “Even the solid ground you count on to carry your steps each day waves and ebbs as the ocean; don’t assume you’re safe, perched as you are on flimsy seats aboard a not-bird.”

The PA tone sounded and the captain advised us, “As we come in to Torreón, you should expect some turbulence, so be sure your seatbelt is buckled and your tray table and seat back are in the raised and locked position.” The mom across the aisle from me popped the baby’s bottle in his mouth and checked her seatbelt, and I thought she was pretty smart. Turning back to the window, I tried to fill my range of vision with the desert below and pretended I was flying without mechanical aid.

One group of mountains, in the shade created by clouds, looked like the backs of a family of sleeping black cats.  Twisty, wandering lines gouged into the desert were the only evidence to belie the mirage. The majority must have been roads, but some were probably arroyos. As I wound my way toward Torreón, the land began to take on the geometric patterns of cultivation, giant pilas for cattle, and then, descending further, the Noas mountains curved into full view, damming up the sudden grids and angles of urbanization.

The landing gear jerked into position, and fantasy flying ended. The baby across the aisle was asleep, still intermittently sucking his bottle.  In spite of the captain’s concerns about turbulence, the flight had been remarkably smooth.  But I never seem to notice turbulence.  The plane came to a stop a hundred yards or so from the arrival gate and we had to wait for the ground crew to push the deplaning ladder up to the hatch before we could walk across the tarmac to the gate proper.

Mid-day sun glanced off the windows of the airport building, into my eyes, recalling a late evening thirteen years ago when I walked across the tarmac into this airport for the first time.  More than two years before September 11, 2001 repainted world travel, the airport at TRC was just one story and basically one big room partitioned into large cubicles. Chuckles bubbled up from my belly as I relived the initial disbelief of seeing the ground crew unload our luggage onto the baggage carousel outside; I watched that ritual again, still outside.

The floor to ceiling windows along the back perimeter of the airport are all mirrored — or some trick of the light made them look that way — and I couldn’t see inside, but I knew that it was empty and waiting for us, clean and white and cool. But I also recalled the mouths, noses and foreheads of a crush of little kids steaming up the glass around the entryway from the tarmac. The greasy, steamy finger and nose marks are gone from all but my imagination.

In the perfectly climate-controlled baggage claim / immigration / customs area, I was thankful for at least some of the changes the world has seen.  Once, this airport had been (barely) cooled by evaporative (swamp) coolers, but crowds of people waiting for the arrival of loved ones tended to offset whatever cooling might have been possible.

I lined up behind two or three others at the immigration booth. These days, there is one immigration officer to process incoming passengers; in 1999, we had a layover in Piedras Negras (on the Mexican side across from Eagle Pass, TX) to go through immigration.  The customs department’s “push button” system to determine whether or not your bags get searched is still in place, but the red/green light they use now looks more thought out than the old stoplights they used to use.

After my bags were searched by customs, and they were reassured that I’m not starting an illicit import business with all my creams, lotions, cooking powders and do-dads, I carefully balanced the smaller bag on top of the wheeled one, threw the carry-on over my shoulder and walked through the automatic doors to the lobby / ticket counters where crowds have to wait on their loved ones.  Although there were many small children in the lobby, none had his face pressed against the glass partition between the arrival area and the lobby. I grew a bit nostalgic for happy, squealing brown faces.

I wheeled my cargo over to some seats near the terminal exit and sat down to check the status of my Blackberry.  I wanted to call a friend to come pick me up, but my phone still hadn’t found Mexican airwaves (or whatever they are).  So I opted to go by airport taxi despite their exorbitant rates: 120 pesos (roughly 10 dollars depending on the current exchange rate) anywhere in town.  But before I went to the curb to hail a cab, there was one last stop to make inside the terminal.  I picked up my bags and wheeled them toward the other end of the short lobby area.

Luckily, the carnicería (butcher shop) is still in the airport, albeit with a changed shopfront, and I picked out a couple of steaks to bring home for dinner later.  The old store featured not only the ever present sleek, glass-front, refrigerated display for cuts of beef, but also, beef and goat carcasses hanging from hooks in the ceiling.  Even people who live in TRC claim not to remember that, but why would they? There was no shock value in it for them, nothing foreign.

As I rode through the now familiar streets of Torreón with the stucco-sided concrete block houses and businesses far too frequently adorned with both artistic and defacing graffiti, I realized that the universe has made many many revolutions, and so have I, since that first day when I arrived in México as a stranger. I looked over when a small, beat up, white Toyota pickup honked.  The master carpenter who ran the renovations two years ago at the apartments next door to me leaned out the truck window to wave and holler, “Maestra!” So nice to be home. ˜LD

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