I love the beach but not at night. I look out into the roaring black and am filled with a kind of dread at the open ocean, the loneliness it recalls, the thought of being stranded in the midst of a lot of nothing without so much as a source of light.
I said this to my husband once, some years ago, at night on a beach in Isabela, on Puerto Rico's rocky northwestern shore. It didn't seem so unreasonable that I should feel this way, at least in that particular moment. After all, draw a straight line north from Isabela and you won't touch any land until Nova Scotia. Do the same due east and you'll cross the Atlantic entirely, just skirting the Cape Verde islands before you land in Nouakchott, Mauritania. I am always reminded of how small and exposed (stranded, alone) Puerto Rico seems when I see it on a map, when some hurricane is bearing down on it from the west. Perhaps it's some kind of island psyche that cows me in these moments.
In Puerto Rico, anything approaching a clear picture of life before Columbus is pretty difficult to come by.
But my husband is no island person. He's from India, and his own memories of the beach at night come from Kerala, the tropical state in the southwest. There, fishing boats linger offshore in the Arabian Sea from dusk until dawn, and as the sun sets, bulbs and lanterns are switched on, forming constellations on the horizon. For him, there is no loneliness in such a scene. Life at sea is well populated and just in touching distance. It was appropriate then that the first time I went to Kerala, arriving in Thiruvananthapuram at 1 a.m. after many, many harrowing hours of travel from New York, the first thing I saw were those very lights on the ocean.
Whenever I go to Kerala, I revel in the familiar—the heavy, humid air that greets me straight off the plane, the palm trees, the big billboards against the green foothills along the main road, the constant construction and seeming lack of zoning. Hotels stand next to gas stations stand next to one-story houses—that sort of thing. There is a good deal of outdoor dining. I sip sweet, milky coffee or frothy, fresh-squeezed pineapple juice while jet black birds lift entire slices of abandoned toast from other tables. At lunchtime, like in Puerto Rico, I'm served fish that's just been pulled from the sea that morning and fried.
Even the name Taino seems to not have been a name at all, but a way out of a tough situation.
I went on and on like this during a recent trip to the city of Kozhikode (pronounced KOHRR-uh-kode and formerly known as Calicut), in the north of Kerala. Kozhikode is an old port town, and its long history is quite palpable at every turn. As a Puerto Rican, the idea of ancient history in a tropical place—of ruins or, even better, intact, pre-European monuments—seems an impossibility. Think of the humidity and salty air corroding wood and stone, the thickets and trees overgrowing everything.
In Puerto Rico, cave drawings, carved stone statues known as cemis, and burial grounds do survive, but anything approaching a clear picture of life before Columbus is pretty difficult to come by. Even the name Taino—the term for the largest group of the now-vanished indigenous people of Puerto Rico—seems to not have been a name at all, but a way out of a tough situation. As the story goes, a group of native Puerto Ricans were being held captive by a rival tribe. When Columbus encountered them, the captives (stranded, alone) sought to distinguish themselves from their captors, insisting they were tayno or taynon, "good guys."
Meanwhile, in Kozhikode, we visited a mosque built some 700 years ago by a Yemeni merchant, attacked and burned some 500 years ago by the Portuguese, and rebuilt shortly thereafter by a Hindu king using wood he took during his own retaliatory raid of a Portuguese fort. That mosque still stands today, painted aquamarine and surrounded by rows of checkered black and white tile.
A large rock Vasco da Gama would have passed is now covered in Communist party graffiti.
By contrast, the monument marking where Vasco da Gama landed in 1498 is a small obelisk on a pedestal on a roadside in a residential neighborhood near the beach (the sea has retreated a bit since da Gama landed there). A large rock da Gama would have almost certainly passed on his way in is now covered in Communist party graffiti.
In an unexpected detour, our guide in Kozhikode brought us to his brother's shipbuilding yard. We expected to see a few fishermen hammering away at some small wooden boats on the beach. Instead, we were greeted by towering ships in various stages of construction. Each could easily carry over a hundred people, my husband estimated. Among them was a gorgeously crafted wooden boat with fans engraved along the bow. When it is finished, it will be hoisted onto a larger boat and brought across the Arabian Sea to Dubai, where the wealthy will admire imported palm trees and glinting glass skylines from its deck.
Most of the boats in the yard, however, were steel. These were Indian fishing boats. When they're built, they'll go out into the Arabian Sea, too. They'll stay there for weeks at a time and come back with big hauls. At night, the crew will light lamps on board. They'll cook and eat and chat by that light. Perhaps some of them will miss home, but they will hardly be alone.