Two Beaches, Worlds Apart

I’ve seen my share of beach. From Spain to France, from California, Florida and Mexico to Bermuda and Turks and Caicos, from Thailand to Vietnam and beyond. Beaches that glisten from the proverbial pearly-white sand, pretty shells gracing their shores, sandpipers dodging approaching tides, knotted hammocks under palm trees, reading under sumbrellas, sipping mai-tais and slurping on sunsets. Most of them, tropical beaches worthy of glossy tourism brochures and travel blogs and mags. Beaches that dreams are made of.

But these are not the beaches that occupy my mind these days; a predictable homogeneity characterizing the bunch of them (and others like them), so much so, that you’d be hard-pressed, in many cases, to distinguish a swath of cream-colored beach in Nassau from its soul-sand-sister in the Philippines.

The beaches that today inhabit my imagination are as far removed from those photoshopped images of uninhabited shorelines as one could get; they are the beaches peopled by locals. Throngs of them. In two coastal cities, as far removed from each other as they might be: Sanur (Bali) and Tel Aviv (Israel).

Last Sunday, late in the day, I went for a stroll along a nearby beach, well-known for the mass of Balinese families and friends that descend each Sunday, spreading themselves thick, elbow to elbow, knee to knee, from waterline to footpath; their plastic bags bursting with towels, toys, and treats.

Little kids peel off their outerwear, kick off flip-flops, and in an instant make a beeline for the inflatable swans and ducks. Mothers and siblings follow closely behind, with babies and hunchbacked grandmothers in tow. Unlike their kids, the adults who wade into deeper water, sport shirts and pants (or sarongs), a nod to cultural – Hindu or Moslem – modesty.

A handful of pot-bellied, tattooed men lie sprawled on the beach, while behind them, a somber-looking Hindu priest lights incense, prays with a plate full of offerings and petals, then removes his outfit, singlet andted vendor wielding scissors, dumped into a paper cone, then doused with a spoonful of peanut sauce, topped with a couple of five-star spicy chili peppers. A toothpick spears the topmost chunk and it’s ready to go.

As these scenes of water-play, family gatherings, toys and snacks unfold in front of me, I call up memories, with images not entirely dissimilar, from those of my youth. Growing up in Montreal, my family often spent summers in Israel, visiting aunts, uncles and cousins. We were based in Tel Aviv, generally living for a month or so in a rented apartment, a short walk from the beach.

We’d announce our arrival; and the relatives would come. They, and family friends, would head to Tel Aviv beach, where we would meet up for hours at a time, surrounded by hundreds of other Israeli families following the same rituals and routine.

There were beach umbrellas. Beach chairs. Thin cotton blankets and towels. Inflatables. Rafts. Games. Sunglasses. Food. Coolers, hauling LOTS of food. We noshed on falafel (I’d wager, the Israeli beach-snack-equivalent to lumpiang), salad, sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots. We drank soda. We gorged on watermelon and cactus pears. We built sandcastles, jumped the waves, and played matkot. And, only once we – the kids – had finished our creamy popsicles, and the sun had crept past the horizon line, would we pack it all up, try to scrape the tar off our feet, and call it a day.

In Bali as in Israel, these beaches– not those unspoiled coastlines – are where the joy and messiness of life happens; where overdue reunions take place; where births and achievements are celebrated; where great quantities of food and drink are ingested; where sand sticks to dampened soles; where memories are made and where the human spirit, in all its shapes and sizes, ages and genders – spotless patches of clean, raked sand be damned – truly comes alive.

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More about the highs and lows of family (and blood ties) in my upcoming memoir, (Un)Bound, Together: A Journey to the End of the Earth (and Beyond). Coming out soon. Stay tuned!

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