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  • I am departing for Rio de Janeiro tonight, and there is a flight to New York boarding a few gates down. Stupidly, I want to go up to one of the New Yorkers and touch him or her, or say hi, or ask him to kiss the ground (fetid as it is) at JFK for me. Because for what seems like the umpteenth time in the last two years, I am flying away from my place of origin. The people accompanying me on my journey are going very far indeed; it is an Emirates flight from Buenos Aires to Dubai that connects in Rio, meaning that most of my fellow passengers will be flying well into the night when I am collapsing into my hostel bunk in Ipanema. And I find myself wondering why I have chosen to keep moving, keep wandering, keep boarding the flights that are always next to, but not, the ones that are ferrying people to any of the places that I might rightfully call home.

    I haven't seen my parents in over a year.

    It is the last call for the flight to New York, the letters on the screen are flashing ominously. There is always something last and final about merely hearing the "last and final" call, even if there's no personal urgency involved. I once was chatting on the phone with Maureen while she was waiting to board a flight to France at LAX, and suddenly she yelped (with usual Mo charm, even in crisis): "Oh FECK! Last call?! I have to fecking go, Val, my flight is like, leaving without me. Jaysis. Love, sweetie!" I think about Mo and that phone call as I watch the flashing letters: New York. Nueva York. This is the last and final call.

    Later my plane flies towards Rio through the tropical night. We're all docile passengers, strapped into our seats and eating lamb and rice, choosing movies from a selection that portrays the UK at the height of its power (Jane Eyre) and at its nadir (The Remains of the Day). I go with the nadir. I feel better in transit, it seems I always do.

    We land in Rio at midnight. My cabdriver doesn't speak any English, and my Portuguese is nonexistent, but he points out Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado way in the distance, long before I'd ever imagined one would be able to see him. The tunnel that takes you out towards the Zona Sul, which encompasses famous coastal districts like Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon, goes right underneath Corcovado, and the cabbie says: "Cristo!" and knocks on the roof of the cab as we are driving through it. I don't know quite how to react. Nod politely? Do I cross myself? I mean, I'm nominally Catholic and all, but I only set foot in church for weddings and funerals these days. Is an "Amen" appropriate? I go with the smile and the nod, always a safe option.

    When you are a solo traveler, you often find that cabbies are your friends. Yes, I've had some propositions, though no flashers yet. There was the one cabbie in Bangkok who balked at driving me because my hotel was across town and it was rush hour, and when I refused to get out of the cab (because it had taken me almost half an hour to flag him down) he got volcanically pissed at me. So he floored the gas and we took off with the tires screeching and suddenly we were on the most terrifying ride of my life. But I sat there in the backseat, refusing to show fear in what became a ten-minute battle of wills- with him careening through turns at ever higher speeds and braking abruptly and then checking my reaction in the rearview mirror; and me yawning theatrically and applying lipstick and casually checking my cellphone to show how *obviously* not bothered I was- when in actuality I thought my parents were going to have to come scrape my battered corpse off a lightpost from some corner in Bang-rak.

    But he was an exception. More often, I've had restaurant recommendations and curious questions and hilarious attempts at communication and drivers flipping open their gloveboxes to retrieve photo albums of their kids. And always, always say that the son looks like him, even if you suspect alternate paternity. I've been shown lucky rocks, lucky crosses, lucky beads. And at 4:45 AM, on a street in Bangkok not too far from the one where I almost met my demise, a street that is positively mad by day but was deserted at that hour, I watched as my cabdriver bought a garland of marigolds from a vendor at a red light, wound them through his fingers, and silently, briefly bowed his head in prayer at the steering wheel.

    I'm not a woman for prayer, not a woman for most types of belief, really. But after sitting in a lot of seats lately, I've reached a point where I'm beginning to think that a little faith may not be so bad. As Mario Benedetti puts it in the ultimate lines of his poem "White Lies:" "y la felicidad tal vez consista en eso/ en creer que creemos lo increible." "And maybe happiness is nothing more than believing we believe the unbelievable." I can believe that.
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