“I like it here!” I’m trying to remember the sound of my childhood voice. A voice I’ve forgotten and maybe wouldn’t even recognize if I heard it today. That’s the strangest part of our design: that we live a number of early years we’re destined to forget.
What I do remember is that, for the first time in my life, I had been at an airport, then on a plane, then at another airport, and now I was lying in bed, five years old, my voice still full of clouds from the flight.
“I like it here,” I said again.
What was it I liked? And where exactly was here? I remember here being night. And a house. There had been a lizard in the bathtub. My aunt had escorted it out like a guest who’d overstayed her welcome. I remember the mosquito net over my bed, a chandelier of translucent cotton, soft rays of white light cascading down from it. I remember the heat. Even at night: the aqueous, everlasting heat.
Writing this today, as an adult, I am an ocean that has forgotten the rivers that feed it. The mind for some reason is made this way. We are full of early moments that bend out of sight and away into distant lands, leaving us with only our actions, our tendencies, and the tenacity of our memories. The rivers chase down the ocean; the ocean remembers.
“Do you like it here, Ricky?”
My childhood name, winding its way back to me.
Night is framed by a window. The equator’s stars are so bright in the sky and so different from the vague constellations I’d stitch together through guesswork while falling asleep in New York. And behind the question, the black oceanic face of my father’s father through the haze of creeping sleep and the mosquito net.
“Yes, Grandpa, I like it here!”
Here I am now, trying to remember why I love to travel, why on instinct I go to the beaches in Rio, the Costa Brava, Cape Cod—anywhere—at daybreak, and what I hear is the voice of a child who hadn’t been to those places. Just as the sensation of sunlight on your back is impossible to describe, that voice is impossible to describe. But it is also absolute. How many affirmations do we make as children that end up being, unbeknownst to us at the time, affirmations of a life’s journey?
“Good. This is your home. And you haven’t been to the beach yet. I’ll take you tomorrow. Good night.”
The moments of my childhood I remember most vividly are when I wasn’t speaking, when the mysterious mind of the child imprints sensations upon itself. I remember my grandfather’s words at that moment because of the image they set loose in my mind. A familiar image: the beach as I’d seen it already countless times at such a young age. A midday sun, blankets, a parasol, and above all, idleness. Even then, at five, I knew that a day at the beach was a rebellion against the tyranny of routine. I went to bed with dreams of an afternoon like that. I had been to the beach before, but never in Antigua. And so, as night descended, I closed my eyes and dreamed of that beach: packed and sizzling under the afternoon sky.
The next day, my grandfather came to pick me up—at seven in the morning. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, but not the disbelief. When we arrived at the beach, we had it to ourselves. The early sun, crisp as a lemon rind, speculated across the face of the cool water. I realize now that at that moment I both gained and lost something. As when Satan saw Eden for the first time in Paradise Lost and Milton wrote that he beheld:
…where the morning Sun first warmly smote The open field, and where the unpierc’t shade Imbround the noontime Bowrs: Thus was this place, A happy rural seat of various view.
We left long before noon. But I was already profoundly changed. I didn’t know that I would never see my grandfather again. I had found paradise, and I had lost it. I was five. Antigua was still a colony. I have traveled widely since then. I have lived in four countries. And, if I can help it, I only go to the beach in the morning light. Because I like it there.
This article appeared in the August/September 2020 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.