I was 21/2 and on a Pan Am flight leaving the Andes with my folks. What a sight, cloud banks towering out the window, brilliant sunlight as I'd only glimpsed on occasional forays into the foothills up and away from the perpetual winter smog and limits to hope of Lima in the 1950s.

What chariot of the gods was this? Gray upholstered seats, linen headrest covers, stewardesses dressed in ensembles to match -- and what stewardesses! It was the first time I'd seen real live gringas!

Having spent my life until then in a land where a 500-year colonial hangover still inculcated prejudice equating skin tone with social rank, it astounded my parents and me, in a way I could not yet grasp, to see a troop of these stewardesses, waiting on me. Tall, beautiful, long-legged porcelain-skinned women, pillbox hats on their heads; it was unlike anything I'd ever experienced. I thought: these are angels, such as were otherwise never seen outside Life magazine and Hollywood movies.

The trauma of separation of just a few hours earlier, cabin doors sealing, the sudden silence of an entire life's trajectory now cut off forever, was beginning to recede even then. No looking back. It was heaven.

And when the server came to my seat, I will never forget looking up at her as she set before me a bowl of fruit. No ordinary fruit this, yet one more thing I had never seen in my short life: fruit as sweet as candy, no seeds, no skin, not a trace of sourness. And topping it was a preternaturally red cherry, maraschino I later learned, which I still love to this day. That was my passage into this life, my passage into the promised land.

Carlos Aranaga is a U.S. foreign service officer whose postings have included Calcutta, Dhaka, La Paz, and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, New York.