Flying to South America makes me acutely aware of the curvature of the earth, the tilt of its axis, and the miles and miles between here and there.
When tracing a line on the map from home to Montevideo, even the smallest of maps, my finger wants to stop almost half a continent early. It hovers, suspended for a moment over Suriname before finally committing to descend the remaining 2,800 miles south to Uruguay. There is no jet lag in flying from North America, but there is always the distance, the sudden change of seasons, and the deceit of air travel to make things disorienting. In flight there is no sensation of hurtling through the stratosphere at hundreds of miles an hour, a fact which gives the eventual emergence in a wholly different place a surreal quality of confusion.
It is winter here now. A fact my brain refuses to absorb. The last time we were outside it was summer; already too hot and set to grow only hotter. Here, I’m already wishing for the warmer coat I foolishly left in my sweltering attic at home. It can’t be helped now so I wrap my light sweater closer and lay my arm across the warmth of my sleeping daughter. There is little light, too. The sun finally wills itself to rise at a leisurely 8am only to settle back down again at not quite 6pm.
Montevideo looks and feels nothing like where we came here from. The ride from the airport is blanketed in a marine layer so dense that the water, a couple of hundred feet to my left, is barely visible. Less densely packed, wealthy houses grow gradually more and more urban. Since my last visit, lines have been painted on the multi-lane highway, La Rambla, that separates the city from the water, making the forty minute drive at least degree or two less terrifying. The air is salty, damp, and filled with a strong, but not unpleasant smell, that is Montevideo. Tall apartment buildings press against the Rambla, each angling for the best view of the water and here and there I catch glimpses of unmoving porteros looking out from spotless, glass-walled lobbies. Four years ago we lived in one of these buildings. The windows in each room looked out onto highway, pedestrian walkway, green park, palm trees, rocky shoreline, and beyond it all the seemingly endless water. The beauty of the view was offset by howling winter winds and the near constant blare of car alarms. We’ve chosen to forgo the view this time and so the car leaves the highway to climb a few blocks inland on narrower streets. Every minute brings us closer to our home for the next 365 days. It’s one I’ve seen only in pictures, but that my husband I chose together over faulty internet calls.
Without warning (and perhaps this is because the driver is as convinced as I am that I cannot possibly muster conversation in Spanish) the car suddenly stops. We, our bags, two realtors, the apartment owners, the drivers and the portero all pile into our own glass-walled lobby before squishing a few at a time into a small mirrored elevator that draws us up, with no great hurry, to the top floor. Through the fog that also seems to blanket our brains, we manage introductions, kisses, signing papers, and the small people racing at top speed to see every inch of the space. It is a bright place even in the gloom of cloudy winter. The windows look out across white, flat rooftops to the higher rising buildings nearer the water and then to the water itself, dark and choppy today in the distance.
Then the door closes behind the realtors and the owners. The lock turns with a sliding of metal bolts that reverberates through the furnished, but still largely empty apartment. We stand silently together, finally alone in this house that is not yet our home.
The silence is short-lived because neither children nor apartment buildings are quiet for long. The children’s sounds of bickering, playing, and endlessly questioning are familiar, but the building’s voices and sounds will take some time to learn. When the children are finally, finally asleep in their beds I listen and wait. Sound is always the unknown in any apartment. Here, from the street we hear little except the occasional motorcycle, car horn, or alarm. Snippets of conversation often explode into the bathroom through the central air shaft and with them comes cigarette smoke, billowing unwanted into our nostrils. The near constant sound is the elevator as it clicks and whirrs its way up and down, coming to a stop with a final wheeze and clunk. It reminds me of the sound of the water train in Spirited Away and it comforts me to think of people going from home to street and back again in the permanently lit box. This is the last sound I hear as I fall asleep here in Montevideo.