The Heat of Home
I find myself holding a hot stone, alone in La Isabela, on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, alone in the remnants of what is reportedly the first tentatively successful and permanent European settlement in the New World. I had driven to this spot in order to see firsthand the shores explorers saw five hundred years ago. In seeing, I hoped to intuit a taste of their desires and motivations, emotions and impressions.
I expected the usual dribs and drabs of tourists, having run into them a few days earlier in Puerto Rico, but the DR was another matter. While the beaches pumped reggaeton and were flush with dancers and sunbathers, historic outposts like the Altagracian house of Ponce de Leon had to be opened especially for us.
Now in La Isabela, I am on my own for the first time. I try the entirety of the Spanish vocabulary on Maria, the ticket taker. The only other people in sight are a handful of older men chatting and sleeping beside the shady main road. I am free to wander the single ramshackle pier and the strip of coast where the ruins of the original site lay.
If I look out to sea, there is nothing of the modern world to invade my fantasy of the past, but the site itself contains a haphazard mix of the new and old - cracked concrete pathways, grayish rocks piled into the outlines of foundations, a bevy of gumbo limbo trees whose roots are warping and displacing what look like suspiciously well preserved cross-shaped headstones in a makeshift cemetery. I want to ask someone to verify whether the ruins are original, but I do not have the words. Even if I could form the words, would I believe what was said? It is hard enough to separate legend from historical half-truth in your native language.
Unsure of what to do, I pick up a strange stone, small and oblong, the size of a small kumquat. A wedge has been cut out to reveal a blue-gray starburst center, fruit-like and warm with the heat of the sun. I think longingly for the first time in a week about home - my language, my friends, my ocean. I squint into the sunlight and for a moment believe that if I carried this stone home with me, I could carry home with me also the heat of this hotter, more solid Dominican sun, to shine whenever I pick up the stone talisman.
In the following days, I am captured by the net of tourism. Hawkers of wares and experiences use their most imploring looks and voices, holding out their arms to us beseechingly to seek not affection but money. Unable to blend in, it is impossible to shake the identity of the western tourist, and I am cast in a role I have no choice but to play.
But it is difficult to conjure up the feeling of escape and leisure that tourism requires in a place where the banks, resorts and affluent gated communities are guarded by men with machine guns, and the cane fields are worked by men carrying machetes. Poverty is in full evidence in the single room concrete homes on the roadside along smaller highways.
The larger byways are rowdy with thousands of fearless, swerving, lawless cars and motorbikes, on which riders carry everything from propane tanks to animals. At intervals, we spot reject yellow buses from English speaking nations, where they had apparently failed to pass smog certification. Each trails an angry wake of smoke. In fact, at least one of every ten vehicles emits a plume of smoke on a gradient from fuming black to an innocent, if not less noxious, white.
People fell into the same spectrum of light to dark. The country is 73 percent mixed race, 16 percent white and 11 percent black, a distribution that hints at the slaving and colonialism that erased and diluted the indigenous populations of the past. When the island's gold stores were revealed to be much smaller than was hoped for, the Spanish turned their sights to cheap labor and sugar. Cane from Asia took hold of the island, and remain in evidence in the lowlands. Slave labor was imported from Africa to man the fields when the natives proved resistant to bondage, and presently 70 percent of the population have African ancestry according to DNA studies, while only 15 percent retain any semblance of indigenous Taino blood.
You could call the foreign graft successful - cane is a part of everyday life, and so is Christianity. The island is 95 percent Catholic. The cry "Cristo Viene" appears on roadside signs and buildings like mile markers. In Higuey, we walk into the Basilica of Altagracia, whose concrete exterior gives no clue to the revelation of light and space within. A swoosh of stained glass and concrete at once leaden and delicate, the space combines earthy brutalism with fractal luminescence and an incredible anti-gravitational verticality.
Spanish missionaries brought the painting of the Virgin housed in the church to the island in the 15th century, and pilgrims come regularly to lay hands on it. I line up with them, since there is no other way to approach the painting. Each person steps up, touches the glass and makes the sign of the cross after a moment of prayer. When it is my turn, I cannot bring myself to make any sign of respect other than to raise my camera. I have nothing to ask of her, and a touch is an act that is too intimate, too familiar. It would be a pretense, and I am uneasy with the feeling that to do so would be to lean into an arrow aimed at my heart, though it is hard to see a place so otherworldly without the temptation to believe.
I could give in to that temptation if I could forget the Requirement. Possibly the world's first sneaky legal disclaimer, it was read in Spanish by missionaries to an uncomprehending indigenous populace or sometimes to unpeopled coastlines in a laughable attempt to establish the legal legitimacy of conquest and conversion. The document established the dominion of God, and therefore the Pope in Rome, over the entire earth and all who reside on it, promising benevolence in return for speedy submission. All manner of undesirable consequences await those who resist, while a blanket indulgence excuses the sins of the conquistadors:
I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us.
I imagine that those who chose life chose to submit, not to the faith than to the men who carried it, and over the generations, belief became voluntary. The graft became indistinguishable from the original.
An image from La Isabela reappears in my mind: the gumbo limbo trees reaching up toward the sun with limbs veined with the shelter tubes of termites who build their tumorous colonies in the crook of branches but cannot survive without the damp underground environment of the soil. So they bring the soil with them, constructing these tubes out of earth, plant matter and their own saliva. Over time, the heartwood - the dense wood at the center of the tree - is hollowed out unless the tree produces a defensive resin which deters insects. If the organisms are to coexist, then a balance of give and take must be established in the interest of a mutual peace.
The tree can certainly live without the termites, but it abides their presence too, and if it isn't the existence that it imagined for itself, it is still a future, a way to go on living, a way to carry your same self into a different tomorrow.
I am carried back to Puerto Rico on a vessel that is nominally a ferry but towers like a cruise ship, with its shops, casino and karaoke bar. Despite the size and stability of the boat, I feel the edges of nausea blooming in my gut. Funneled between the bulk of Hispanola and Puerto Rico, the waters of the Atlantic enter the Caribbean in the Mona Strait. The tidal currents make for rough passage, and the strait was infamous even in the days of exploration.
On deck, the wind is not the invisible vapor that I've known but a twelve-handed beast that is as solid as all the other elements. The trade winds we had felt along the coast were fierce - they picked up every evening, battering the clouds and whitecaps toward land. But this wind is downright malevolent. It strikes me from every direction and leaves me wishing for landfall.
By ten o'clock, the Caribbean horizon is still visible, a lip between grey and black. The stars are out, flickering with old light, but they do not take me into the past, do not put me into an explorer's mindset. I cannot see into the distance, beyond the lit bubble of the ship. I do not find absolute darkness that I had hoped for. I can only see the residues of the ship itself. We leave a wake of churning water and billowing smoke.
The next morning, when I step through customs, the officer expresses surprise. Tourists do not travel by ferry, they travel by plane. There is no joy in the Mona Passage and there are no scenic vistas within the ferry. I explain that I am curious. I don't mention conquistadors or caravels sailing from Spain.
In my last days in San Juan, I visit Castillo San Cristobal, the largest Spanish fortification in the New World. Only El Morro, a mile away on the tip of the peninsula, is older. The two forts still fly the Cross of Burgundy, and both were, under Spanish rule, connected by more than three miles of masonry walls enclosing the entire city. Only segments currently remain, but still, in places, they are thicker than a man is tall.
I return to one particular spot again and again each day. A low battlement faces the northern edifice of San Cristobal. I climb into the throat of an embrasure and slide down its sloping sole. From where I sit, the fort completes a perfect picture of sea, beach and cliff. I have an unobstructed view of La Garita del Diablo, a bartizan sentry box built just above the waves, below the bulk of the fort.
A system of tunnels runs beneath San Cristobal, and one unseen tunnel runs out to this isolated outpost. It looks exposed and vulnerable beside the dark stone of San Cristobal. Built in 1634, it's one of the oldest structures in the fort, and it is hard to believe that it has survived more than 400 years in the unremitting waves that have cut the rock of the coastline into pocked shelves.
The intense aqua of the tropical sea erases memories of my own sea, my grave Pacific. Is this the same sea seen long ago? To know whose eyes have fallen on it in the past is to know history and significance of the place. Without that, the place has only visual shock. But history is a minefield of unreliable narrators and lost incunabula, alive only in hearts and minds, interpretations and crumbling artifacts. Unable to travel through time, we can only make our best guesses.
Being there is to avail yourself of the highest possible resolution of experience. An experience of secondary sources, of written accounts, artifacts and of photographs, is a filtered and compressed one. An author or artist filters experience, deciding what to spotlight and what to omit. Being there is to seek the primary source, of deciding for yourself what is the most important part of the experience, of having access to other people's discards, in which you may find your own gems.
But the trouble is, how does one preserve that primary experience? Take a photograph? Hold on to a stone? What does a photograph contain? I find it impossible to fill the frame with my thoughts. Where does emotion reside if not in a person's face? I don't know, but I continue to look.
At home, I need to walk along the Californian shore to remember what my Pacific looks like.
At home, I reach for my Isabela stone, and it is cold.
Published in LPV 7.