As the evenings of the late summer days become shorter and cooler, when the crisp air of autumn begins, most adults, look forward to the quiet after the rush of summer. I have finally decided to reflect on some of our favorite summer activities.
My family has been fortunate to be able to squeeze two or three of these vacation excursions into a year. Most families vacation during the summer months, since children are away from school, the days are longer and the outdoors is more welcoming. One of the most desirable destinations are bodies of water. It may be our reptilian brain that draws us back to that watery element from where we come from. Top on most people’s list of vacations spots are exotic and beautiful sandy beaches with coconut trees and a comfortable lounge chair. I surmise this much by the barrage of ads that feature this type of idyllic locations just when the days are coldest and shorter in the dead of winter.
Choices vary from lakes, rivers, inland seas and, of course, the mother of them all, the ocean. Most families have a preference, usually determined by what the parents were exposed to when they were children; we seem to be creatures of habit. There are two main camps, the fresh water and salt-water enthusiasts. Some even enjoy both of these watery habitats. In our family of three, my daughter Veronica is undecided, even though she has gone to the salty ocean element every summer of her life. My wife Marie is decidedly on the salty camp; she argues, as often as the subject arises, that she would love to have a view of that watery body for the rest of her life. I, on the other hand, have discovered a few years ago that I have a marked preference for mountain lakes.
Sometime last autumn my dear wife reminded me to draft our annual letter of intent for the rental of an apartment at the shore from the gentleman from Ellicott City that we have never met, for our usual two week stay. I complied; without questioning; I have been doing this for the past ten years. This reminder from my wife, starts a series of events that culminate just this week with our return from the shore, only to begin again sometime in a couple of months.
After posting my letter; where I reiterate our interest in renting for two weeks the apartment, usually for the second and third week of August; a brief discussion centers on early planning for that excursion months away. We consider if and to whom we might extend an invitation for either a partial or whole period of our stay. Great thought is given since cohabitation with strangers is often idealized as being better than what it usually turns out to be. A companion friend for Veronica is considered first. Her wellbeing and consequently ours is definitely on top of our list. Company for Marie and me is as well considered, if only to maintain some modicum of domestic peace. Discussion of my need to briefly return to the city closes the conversation.
Several months later, Marie again reminds me to print an envelope, insert the cheque for the deposit to secure the rental of the apartment, and to make sure it goes out with the next day’s mail. This, I do automatically, and once again we made additional plans for those days.
By about the middle or the end of June, when Veronica is finishing her school year, when longer and warmer days are upon us, a more in depth exchange happens, since the anticipated vacation is getting closer. It always seems to me as if we were planning an intergalactic voyage, full of unforeseen surprises, as well as extremely rewarding moments of sheer pleasure spent with dear friends and family.
The first time we went to the shore ten years ago as a family included Marie, Veronica, my mother-in-law Amelia, my sister-in-law Rosalind, and myself. We met at the shore with Marie’s then boss Dick, his wife and their three kids, that had been doing this much longer than we had. Since then, the apartment building where we rent has accommodated for various lengths of stay, several of our dear friends and extended families.
That first salty water excursion of two weeks left a mark on me. I not only produced a list of essential items for purchase specifically for the trip, but I had to find a way to pack them all into my then family four door sedan, which proved to be a daunting task. The morning of our departure, with checklist in hand, I was attempting to complete the task of fitting everything in the car. I had started the day before. I had placed in the trunk some items; such as the beach chairs, umbrella, sand bucket and playing toys. These items could remain in it overnight. Thanks to my previous experience as a employee in a transatlantic shipping company, and my own personal delight in cramming as many things as possible into small places, I was able to make space for Marie, Veronica, her infant car seat, my mother-in-law, myself and the assorted cargo of bare necessities for our sojourn to the shore. Rosalind was meeting us at the shore since she had travelled separately.
About four and one half hours later we finally entered the paradisiacal grounds of the Sunspot building. Ordinarily, this voyage takes only about three hours without traffic. “How long did it take you?” asked Dick coming out to greet us, I said four and one half hours. “You must have hit traffic”, he said and I agreed. We had to stop for the customary exquisite nourishment (McDonalds), as well to relieve our over extended bladders, and, of course, the filling station.
The trip was adorned by the inescapable heavy traffic. We were privilege to experience not only the good, but also the not so courteous drivers: the speeders, the ones that drive too slowly, the ones that feel they own the highway, driving on the left lane at or below the speed limit, and drivers that either by ethnic, physical, emotional or mental handicap should be barred from driving at all.
The highway to the shore in those days had only two lanes each way, requiring drivers to stop at a toll booth, produce U.S. $1.75 for a two-axle vehicle, to cross a large portion of the bay over a narrow bridge. Since then, this has been alleviated by the construction of another four-lane bridge, and additional travel lanes on portions of the route to the shore. Unfortunately, all this progress pales in comparison with the additional traffic that has rendered the improvements inadequate.
After unpacking the family sedan of all “essential” items, we proceeded to arrange things in their proper location, my wife Marie, always insists on doing this immediately upon our arrival at any domestic or foreign destination no matter the time of the day or any other circumstances that may possibly postpone it. She reminds me of a sign my mother had me design and print for her refrigerator, it read “a place for everything, and everything in its place”.
This process sometimes takes longer than I would prefer, but I am a patient man, I’m on vacation, and since I will have two weeks before I have to pack it all back into the family sedan for our return trip home and unpack again, I do not complain. Finally, with every sock neatly folded and every head of lettuce stored in its proper place, we are free to enjoy our two week stay in paradise. Depending on the hour of our arrival or how we feel, we usually proceed to venture into the elements, air, sun, sand, surf, crowds, kiddies, fun, etc.
Since this our major excursion to the shore, the inevitable yearly concern arises. I started looking for my infamous bathing suit, thankfully, since we occupy this same apartment every year, we have found it easier to put our things back in the same places as before to avoid adding to the feeling of being in an unfamiliar location. I get my bathing suit from the designated bathing suit drawer, I try to get it up my legs without ripping, attempting to hide the inevitable effects of that force of nature called gravity on my once youthful body without much success. I have not renewed my bathing attire in years, add to that at least eleven months of hibernation, not speak of the unappealing and sickly color showing that that my skin has not had direct sunlight in as many months.
The process of disrobing starts, so far so good, no one looks at oneself in the mirror naked at this age, unless they are looking to get depressed. Now the fun part begins. As the swimsuit is carefully pulled up, I begin to notice that this grander, paler and whitish body, riddled with new wrinkles, blemishes, may not be suitable for public display. With renewed vigor and possibly a total disregard for public decency, gained after years of practice, I make myself believe that there may be worse cases out there on this sandy paradise. What a consolation.
After, I have totally convinced myself of this and achieved with great effort my task at hand, the next step is to apply copious amounts of an oily ointment to the entire surface of my exposed skin. Assuring not to miss any skin surface during the application, I make sure to chose well when deciding which level of protection is suitable for my skin tone. Too high a protection and you look as if you have applied white powder, too low, and for me at least, means that I may have to spend a couple of days in a darkened room applying aloe vera to my scorched skin every 15 minutes. My skin is very sensitive to the rays of the sun even though I do not possess a very fair complexion, this has force me to discarded my previous assumptions that darker skin fares better to the ravages of the sun. Last but not least, an even application is preferred than globs and shallow patches, this will ensure an almost even, natural tan, as opposed to those red, pinkish, and peeling areas of human flesh.
A point about tanning, tanning is the process of making leather, and until the late 20th century, most mortals avoided the tanning practice, preferring the beauty of ivory white skin. Leave it to the French. It was not until some French sexpot starlet started wearing a new two-piece bathing suit called bikini, that the amount of clothing covering the skin as opposed to showing it was inverted. This meant that the abdomen and entire back were exposed in addition to her face, arms and legs. “Quelle domage”. Undoubtedly people followed, as people unwittingly do. Excluded, of course, were the lily-white folk, and the proletariat that was being exposed to the elements as they worked out of doors. The tanning fad has reached epidemic proportions, now prompting warnings from most authoritative health specialists that remind me of those placed on tobacco products.
After the application of the sun protective ointment is achieved, a collection of items for the better enjoyment of the beach, are located and collected for transport to the shore. With my zeal for packing perfection, I try my best to pack these assorted items as well as possible to minimize weight and bulk. Unfortunately between a folding chair for each beachgoer, a bag full of sun block and sun tanning lotion of various degrees of efficacy, a cooler bag stocked with drinking fluids of various kinds, a cap, sunglasses, snacks, cigarettes, reading material, T-shirt, shoes, and a parasol. You almost need a checklist and a porter to make it out the door every day.
The apartment is ocean side, meaning about a block away from the beach, the shore is about another block away. This “short” pilgrimage is repeated at least twice daily, to and fro. Sometimes Mother Nature provides a cloudy or rainy day. The trip back to the apartment is usually a bit better for me since the fluids and snacks are mainly carried by whoever consumed them, have evaporated sweating or have been conveniently released during a visit into the ocean. Although the return trip is made slightly less pleasant by some sun burn and the grains of sand that inevitably find their way into places in our bodies I cannot even pronounce.
Things get a lot better after our return to shelter. A quick shower that attempts to remove the ointments applied making sure to remove sand, salt and other ocean dwelling creatures being transported by our bodies. Then a quick trip to the refrigerator for an additional snack accompanied by the fluid of choice, and a moment of rest before diner time.
Dinner can be either a family or a communal affair. Outings to local restaurants, cookouts, and or pre-cooked meals are common. General over-indulgence is the mantra of these vacations. Food and drink are greatly consumed. This daily routine is carried on thru sunny days.
When visiting local restaurants one has to remember that one is on vacation, patience is necessary. Most shore restaurants make patrons wait between one half to one and one half hours, depending on demand. Prices also reflect the vacationing location. Our restaurant outings are like a barometer of our financial situation and reflect the economic success or disgrace of the year that had just passed. There are fat and lean years.
I have never been too fond of the beach; there I’ve said it.
While I was writing this story, which I started years before I finished it, I realized that when I was a child, my first experience with the ocean was in my native land of Peru, specifically Lima, where I grew up until my late teens. I do not recall at what age I was introduced to the majesty of the sea, since I lived not more than three blocks away from it most of my life there.
I recall that I was in awe of the fortitude of the surf; the waves towered over the swimmers that dared to confront them, the thunderous pounding and trashing sound produced by crashing waves made me fearful. After assessing the raw power of the ocean, I decided that it would be best not to yet face it, but to give my back to it, as I did. I have often considered why would I opt for this simple but certainly revealing option. I had forgotten my childhood approach to the ocean, until some years ago my dear mother jokingly reminded me of it.
After some analysis and regressive therapy, I realized that the strength of the ocean was formidable, and that was too big for me to comprehend, I chose to ignore it. I now reconcile my then incomprehensible fear and later respect for it.
I remember at least twice of being lost on the ocean shore with a sea of people in front of me, a roaring ocean behind me and my parents nowhere to be found. I have also witnessed on more than one occasion, the daring, or unskilled and certainly unfortunate swimmer being pulled out from their watery grave. I believe these are the answers I was looking for to explain my fear of the sea.
Things were not made better by the timely intervention of my godfather. I liked him well enough until he volunteered to teach me the pleasures of the ocean, or as the expression goes, to make a man out of me. I believe my parents did not know how to deal with my rejection of the sea. In retrospect I shudder to think that this gentleman, my godfather, would have inherited me, the ocean hater, if, heaven forbid, my parent would pass away.
I remember, when I was about six years old, and was carried by the ignorant, but well intended godfather, into the bowels of the ocean. I could not release myself from his grip; he was intent on making an ocean lover out of me. He took me beyond the point I would have considered prudent, but what did I know at the time, I was only six. I figured he was standing in my father’s shoes.
I was floating in his arms, he was treading water. I soon realized that the dark waters below my toes, where the habitat to creatures that could consider my flesh part of their daily diet. I was afraid of the dark, the unknown, which, since I could not see what lurked below, terrified me.
In conclusion, after seeing what the ocean could do to people, and unable to see into it’s depth, I figured that keeping a cautious distance was the wisest thing to do. This knowledge has colored my entire experience of the ocean ever since and all activities relating to it.
Now, I have grown up and have been able to coexist with that great body of water, which I feared as a child. I learned to swim, and was able to enjoy the ocean. One would think that I would have overcome my earlier fear and was cured, unfortunately not. Fortunately, where we go on vacation, the surf is docile, warm and gentle, the sand is soft and the experience is muted by seeing my daughter, wife and friends enjoy this inhospitable habitat. I used this term, because to me it remains inhospitable.
First, there is the inclemency of the sun, for which a coating of protective sun block is necessary to avoid first and or second degree burns, not to speak of long term damage to the body in the form of skin cancer.
Second, the ever abrasive sand, that feels good for about five seconds between your toes only when it is warm; not cold or scalding hot, but when a slight breeze blows, you can resemble a breaded piece of veal. No wonder it is the main ingredient in sand paper; you would not consider replacing toilet paper with sand paper, would you? Not to speak of how much work it is to remove said sand from everything exposed to it.
Third, there is the labor of having to lug all kinds of items to ameliorate the shore for a comfortable stay, such as drinks, chairs, towels, sun block and the piece de resistance for me, my savior, the parasol. The parasol that barely makes my long stay by the shore almost bearable.
Fourth, there is the ocean itself. This body of water has its own temperature, rarely one that agrees with mine. You see children frolicking in it; adults usually remain in it for much shorter periods. As they come out and rejoin their tribe, the ever present almost meteorological description follow: water temperature, tide direction, surf strength, presence of fauna, air temperature, all as a measure of how each body reacts to it. On the other hand the ocean provides a refreshing break from baking in the sun, where sunlight is reflected by the ocean and sand acting as mirrors. No wonder I never step even an inch outside the shade of my parasol and yet by the end of the day I still feel my skin tingle.
As you leave the ocean, you are reminded that this magnificent element is a challenge to any air-breathing creature, and that its surface is the beginning of an entirely new environment, inhabited by creatures that do not share our air breathing world. You always have to be vigilant; the ocean has been known to swallow imprudent and ignorant individuals, giving them a good tumble, making them savor its liquid nectar, and for those unfortunate, a more final resting place.
Lastly, these moments at the shore are spent by most people reading, conversing, and watching the surf and every celestial body orbiting around them.
About conversation, most people try to gather in groups for this activity, which makes sense. After all we see our immediate family members all the time, and there is not much more to talk about. Conversation with them is generally limited to instructions to make sure the household runs smoothly. Neither my wife, my daughter, nor myself would want to talk between ourselves for more than twenty minutes at a time. When it comes to conversing with friends, lets be frank, the conversation dries up quickly, and only additional outside guests make it bearable after a short period.
Look at it this way, why would anyone get excited to go to a place so perilous. An inclement sun that burns the skin possibly causing irreversible damage, a body of water that is just waiting to test your strength and stamina, that could threaten your, and those tiny grains of sand that seem to be attracted to you and to all your possessions.
Beyond this unwelcoming habitat, add the cost of the stay, the carting of objects back and forth to the shore, an unfamiliar bed, shower, etc. It all seems like someone is playing a joke on us. We have been sold the hedonistic idea of a laid back, carefree, indulgence, when in reality it’s only a great marketing idea, and by now, I am not surprised that we buy it.
Some paradise. Tsunami anyone?