There are certain rituals I practice when I fly. When I was very young, my father bet me that I could not lean forward against the thrust of the winged craft’s engines. I used to try, my small abdominal muscles tensing at the moment that the wheels left the ground and the tail dipped and that monstrous contraption with all those lives aboard suddenly became airborne and weightless. Decades later, after thousands of hours in the sky, I still try that every time, leaning slightly forward and smiling to myself as my muscles meet acceleration’s resistance, my father’s voice as clear in my mind as the first day he whispered his challenge in my ear.
A more recent ritual is the take off song, Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. That started when I bought some snazzy new noise cancelling headphones after six hours spent browsing duty free got the better of me. When played from the moment engines are powered at the start of the runway until the moment the plane’s belly skims over clouds, the combined beauty of that piece and watching the world from on high does not fail to bring a tear to the eye.
My newest ritual is perhaps the most annoying to other passengers. I’ve only been practising this one for a couple of years, since I started regularly flying a new route: Sydney to Santiago. About halfway through the 12 hour flight, when the cabin lights are off and most passengers are asleep, I check where we are on the curve of the red line tracing our flight path. When we are in the right place, I open the window shutter a crack and briefly let the blinding sun flood in. I lower my head, place my hands at my temples to shield others from the light, and peek through. Sometimes, if I am lucky and I have timed it right and it is a clear day, I see the vast and crackled expanse of Antarctic sea ice against deep blue-green ocean, stretched to the horizon in every direction.
You do not normally notice the huge number of dogs and birds that live in Santiago. It is only on rare occasions, when people are in their houses, and the traffic stops and the military are on the streets, that you can hear them in their thousands. I first experienced it the morning after the riots started. As night fell, the rhythmic banging of pots and pans also rang through the city: cacerolazo, the people’s protest whilst confined to their homes. A cacophony punctuated by shrieking sirens, shouts, and firecrackers answered by gunfire as the authorities dispersed protestors. A State of Emergency to quell political unrest. The second time, as the pandemic began to sweep its way through Latin America, all you could hear were the dogs and the birds.
The dogs bark less in West End, Brisbane, but as the sun rises the crows rambunctiously squawk their presence. I open bleary eyes to the morning sun filtering through windows to red-brown hardwood floors. The front bedroom of this workers cottage has remained much unchanged in the seven years since I left this city, bar the addition of storage boxes in the built in cupboards, and a plethora of Aboriginal artworks on the walls which I purchased during a stint working in remote and remarkable corners of the Northern Territory. I have only slept a few hours, the jet lag making sure of that. The normally busy street outside is quiet. A soft knock on my door tells me that breakfast is ready. I voice thanks and pad across the hall to a tray left on a table in my brother’s empty room. An act of love. It will be two weeks until I am allowed to hug my parents.
I take my breakfast and sit on the front veranda in the sunshine. At least from here I can watch the street and feel a part of the world. At least I am safe in my parents’ house. At least I got in before they sent me to a sterile hotel room by myself for two weeks. I savour my breakfast and the sunshine. I try to formulate a plan of activities for my day in an effort to keep my overactive mind from overthinking. There is so much time.
In Santiago, you normally have to leave extra time to get to the airport. The last time we drove there, the highways were empty and the trip went far too quickly for someone trying to hold tight to what moments remained. I was so focussed on remembering everything, that I remembered barely anything, only glimpses of moments. The angle of his nose and his jaw, the curvature of his shoulder into his arm, the shape of his fingernails against the steering wheel, the feeling of my fingers entwined in curls at the nape of his neck, his smell.
“It will only be a couple of months,” he said.
“I read this morning they're expecting it could take eighteen.”
He exhaled, his tight smile overwhelmed by the sadness descending from his eyes.
I finish my breakfast and place the tray on the record turntable in my brother’s room. I go back into my bedroom, close my door and open my laptop. I send some emails to colleagues from work, professors from university, asking if anyone wants my help to do anything, anything at all to fill in time. I stare at the jigsaw on my floor. I buy a used violin online. I flick between activities, not focussing on any one long enough to achieve anything. I put on some music to psych myself to exercise.
An early 90’s love ballad was playing on the radio as we approached the ramp for the International Departures drop off point. I started sobbing. He eased the car up the ramp and found a park. He started crying too. We leant across and held each other for the whole duration of that song, shaking softly, drawing ragged breath, until we finally tore away, leaving damp patches on each other’s shoulders. I mustered all my willpower to heave myself from the car, pick up my bags, and walk into the airport. The doors slid open and I turned around and waved, then went inside. It was safer for him if he didn’t come in to see me off. He slowly drove the car away.
I put on a track with a decent beat and stand with my feet grounded on the red-brown hardwood floor. I begrudgingly bend my knees and lower myself into a squat, and repeat that process twenty times, I then move on to sit-ups, then push-ups, then squats again. Over and over I do this until I’m sweating and I don’t think that I can do anymore and then I do another set. I hate exercising like this. My preference is for climbing cliffs, hiking mountains and kayaking rivers. For now though, this is the best I can do, and it feels like a minor achievement in the gaping space of time unfurling before me.
Inside the shiny, cavernous space of the Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, masked strangers left spaces between themselves, gloved officials urging those standing too close to step away. Departures screens normally full of far flung places were almost empty, ‘cancelled’ the most common status scrawled next to city names. I followed familiar accents to find the place to queue, comforted by voices that sounded of home. The owner of each voice had its story. Stories of people driving back from the end of the Earth. Stories of hikers leaving long walks unconquered. Stories of hitched rides, packed buses, of disorganisation and lockdown and confusion and mass exodus. Disappointment at dashed dreams.
Sweat now dripping from me, I step into the shower. I luxuriate in that steamy space, a short and sweet relief from the monotony of days of nothing. When I am done, I step back across the hallway into my bedroom and close the door. A soft knock again and a takeaway coffee appears on the table in my brother’s room. I fail to see why national parks are not considered essential but cappuccinos are, but as I smell the warm drink’s aroma, I am immensely grateful for that strange circumstance. I collect my coffee and take it and my phone to the front veranda where I call a Chilean number. A few rings and then, like magic, he is there, the angle of his nose and jaw, the curvature of his shoulder into his arm, the curls at the nape of his neck. Both there and not there, connected by satellite whilst separated by sea. Kind eyes smile at me.
At the airport in Santiago, a couple stood at one of the check in desks for an hour, making the decision to stay or separate. Australia had closed its borders to foreigners the night before and one could travel but the other could not. We had made that decision too, in the comfort of his bedroom. It was best for both of us to be home with our families, rather than on 3 month tourist visas in a foreign land, with the risk of insurance lapsing and visas lapsing and being unable to get home. That couple were not the only ones making that decision that day.
The call has ended and I stare at the blank screen of my phone for some time before pacing back into my room to sit on my bed. I read a chapter of a book on permaculture. I search online for window shades for my car. I share memes on social media that make me laugh. I phone friends to tell them that I am back home, but cannot see them. I read one page of a Spanish grammar textbook before discarding it to instead stare at the jigsaw puzzle on the floor.
Whereas the airport was almost empty, the flight was almost full. There were spaces in seats where people ought to have been, like the other seats in my row. In normal circumstances I would have been gleeful at that discovery at the beginning of a 12 hour flight. I wondered whether they had left earlier, or if they could no longer leave. We sat on the plane and we waited. We waited for passengers to be on loaded and then to be offloaded and their bags removed from the flight, as they no longer met Australian entry requirements. We waited for rescheduled take-off clearance. We worried that we would not leave. This was one of the last flights out before the planes stopped. Later we learned it was to be the last flight for the staff, who were stood down en route home, announced by a shaky voice over the loudspeaker as we began our descent after the seatbelt sign came on. If we could have, we would have given them a standing ovation but we did the next best thing and broke out in applause.
Another soft knock at the door, another voiced thanks, another expression of love through food. I open my door and pad across the hall to find a fresh salad sitting in a bowl in my brother’s room. I take lunch to the front veranda and sit in the sunshine and eat it slowly, paying attention to every mouthful. The street is still empty, quiet but for the squawking crows. When I finish I carefully place the empty bowl on the top of the record turntable, return across the hall and close the door to my room. I browse Netflix. I nap. I read more about permaculture. I write job applications for jobs I do not expect to get. I tune the guitar and play one of the two songs I know, hoping I make more progress with the second-hand violin when it arrives. I stare at the jigsaw puzzle on the floor. I wait for responses to my emails. I wait until this isolation period is over and I can go outside. I wait until we can travel again, work again. I wait until I can smell his smell and entwine my fingers in the curls at the nape of his neck.
Finally, the moment came when the plane taxied onto the runway and gunned its engines. I commenced my rituals. Pachelbel played through headphones as I tried to lean forward when the wheels left the ground and the tail dipped. I watched through tears as the few cars on the quietened streets of Santiago turned into matchboxes, and I looked for his small silver hatchback, heading east along the highway to his mother’s home. When we were level with the snow-capped peaks of the mighty Andes I whispered goodbye, wondering when I might see them again. We turned southwest and headed into the vast Pacific, that huge expanse of ocean that separates my two homes. Halfway across the ocean, when the cabin was dark and everyone was sleeping, I opened the window shade, just a crack, and looked out into the white below. No Antarctic ice that day, only cloud.
Sara Lane is a lawyer who decided to take a gap year to travel the world. Then COVID happened. Unexpectedly winding up back in Australia, she is making the most of being home.