The Warmest Welcome Without Words

At last, after what seemed an eternity of flying over limitless miles of jungle, our prop airliner landed at the Rio de Janeiro airport.

We had left New York 23 hours ago. My eyelids felt leaden as we looked around for my husband, Eric. My 11-year-old, Mike, clung to his beloved fishing rod. ''Now what do we do?'' he asked.

Where was Eric? He had told us before we left New York: ''In case I'm held up somehow, here's a phone number to call,'' and added, ''In Rio you never know how long anything's going to take.''

Rio! Never in all my growing-up years had I ever contemplated going to Rio. The Southern hemisphere was the world's other dimension to me.

And here we were on a permanent visa. ''It'll take at least two years to finish the film,'' Eric had told me.

How lighthearted his letters had been - full of adventure and optimism. But he wasn't even here to welcome us.

My heart was sinking. The air was soggy, and it was getting dark. How could we even find a phone? A man on the plane had coached me in how to pronounce 251512 in Portuguese. He'd rehearsed with me endlessly.

''You've got to pronounce it right: Dois cinco, um cinco un dois,'' he had insisted. ''You probably won't find a dial phone.''

How could Eric do this to his one and only wife? I thought to myself in self-pity. Then, suddenly, there he was, streaking across the tarmac, apology mixed with embraces. ''Held up for half-an-hour on the way!''

''Look at those stars!'' he enthused as we drove out of the airport. ''Mike, there's the Southern Cross. You've never seen that before!''

All I longed to see was the good old North Star.

A wild truck driver careened in front of us. Eric lay on his horn. A woman, with a huge basket on her head out of which protruded a live chicken, plunged across the street.

''Eric, how much farther is it? I can't hold my eyes up any....'' I pleaded.

He glanced at me. ''Sorry, but actually we're going to visit one of the port workers. They want to meet you. They're so grateful that we're doing the film.''

The film, of course, the film! That's why we were here. That's why 20 of our crew, all volunteers, were already here. Overwhelmed by the strangeness of everything, I'd forgotten, and I was ashamed.

The port workers had done the hard part. All we had to do was reenact it with them. It was they who had accomplished what people called the impossible.

All we'd done was volunteer to put it on film so that other countries would have the chance to know how these men had thrown out the gangster boss of the port; how they had returned truckloads of stolen goods they'd taken; how each one had decided to leave his two guns and his knife at home when he went to work; and how they had held the first democratic election ever in the port and, in spite of the Communists' wild promises, had won.

''Please,'' they had written Eric, ''if a film could be made about how this happened, we wouldn't have to travel so much to other countries to tell about how we did it. And we can't afford to be away from our work and our families so much.''

At the ''Villa Portuaria,'' the tiny fourth-floor apartment opened onto a common balcony. As we arrived, 10 people rushed out to meet us with shouts and embraces. The words were totally beyond me. In the excitement, translation was impossible. If it had been Italian - or even German or French - I could have understood at least a word or two . But Portuguese!

We sat together, crammed into the minute room. The furniture was sparse: a few straight-backed chairs and a rickety table. But above us shone an incredibly elaborate chandelier.

Everyone seemed to talk at once. They included me in their glances, but I couldn't enter in. There was some translation, but not enough. In the midst of them all, I felt excruciatingly alone. I tried desperately to keep awake. I told myself: Forget the endless jungle you crossed; forget the wild traffic; forget the strange language. Just forget yourself!

Suddenly, there was total silence in the room. I looked around: In the doorway stood a young man holding a tiny black-haired baby in his arms. No one said a word as he stepped into the room and came straight over to me. Without a word, he gently placed the baby in my arms. Still silent, he turned and vanished.

The baby must have been only a few days old. He looked up at me, a total stranger, in perfect contentment. No whimper, no fear. His trust was total.

My heart flipped over. I touched his head, his strong black hair. There was the flicker of a smile. I looked over at my new friends and could say absolutely nothing in English or any other language.

Finally, one of the women spoke, with translation: ''He wants to thank you for coming,'' she said. ''This is the most precious thing he has in all the world, so he is sharing it with you for the evening.'' She paused a moment. ''You see, he wants to make you welcome.''

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