WHAT IF ALL WE DO when we travel is acquire reminiscences?
I gazed at the canoe, admiring its simplicity and durability and, in the same way I might drift off to sleep, I began to wonder who the shoes belonged to, what the owner’s life was like, whether he or she was happy, compared to me.
The drifting raised an echo from long ago, which came to me across the years, transmitted through the warm, slow tropical air. A different continent: the northwest coast of Ecuador. I rented a hut at the back of the beach near Atacames, which in those days was a backwater already becoming a tourist attraction. (It was, after all, where I met the American woman.) I got up early in the morning to go for a swim. It might have been a Sunday because the beach was deserted but for children clearing the bottles and other debris of the night’s parties into rice sacks that were almost as large as they were. I swam out some distance, letting the cooler current ease me along, then floated on my back for a while. The sky was still pale, a thin layer of cloud stretched across it, and I was thinking I must be the only person in the world to notice it. Drying off in the sun, I watched four men push a launch out from the beach. It was about ten feet long and I could see it needed repainting. Two of the men were standing, black, tight cropped hair and cheap, old clothes, pushing the boat out with long wooden poles. All four chatted incessantly, or so it seemed. When they cleared the rocks the men became silhouettes, ink sketches against the sea and sky. The throaty snarl of the outboard kicking in must have been a signal for them all to sit, and they rode out further. When they stopped, two men slipped over the side with what looked like baskets. The swimmers disappeared beneath the surface then, a few seconds later, so did the baskets.
I didn’t understand what they were doing. Fishing, but for what? All I really understood was that I didn’t understand, and so my attention wandered.
Nearby was a coconut tree, twenty-five feet tall, as straight and as upright as a telegraph pole. I looked around, confirmed that the tree was indeed an anomaly: the neighbouring trees were warped, and because of this they seemed somehow deficient and inferior. As I studied this perfect and unique tree and its array of deep green, fish bone leaves shattering the sky, I realised that if I had seen only this one tree I would have concluded that all coconut trees were the same: just as erect, just as pristine. I would have returned home and told people this and they would have told others.