Cape Town - Have you ever been on a beach, enjoying the white sand and the yellow heat and admiring the warm blue sea, and looked around at the other people who are doing exactly the same thing and thought grumpily: “What are these swines all doing here?”
I don’t know what it is about a beach that makes me think I am the Emperor of the Earth, lord of all I survey, and that everyone else is intruding upon my royal domain, but that is exactly what happens. I don’t think this in other public places, like a rugby stadium or a shopping mall, so why do I think that beaches should be reserved for my private use? Why do I sit there thinking that all these people are just here to unfairly ruin my day?
I was in Thailand, on the island of Phuket, and I wasn’t staying in Patong, where all the package tourists are, I was further out, in Nai Harn. It’s a residential area, a kind of tropical seaside suburb, where locals live and also the ex-pats who work on oil rigs in the Gulf of Siam for three months then come home to recover for three months, living cheap and eating good food and drinking cold Singha beers. I’d been assured that the beach in Nai Harn would be empty, so what were all these people doing here? I mean, it wasn’t jam-packed, it wasn’t like Camps Bay in December, but still there were so many people that I could hear their voices and sometimes when they walked past their shadows would fall across my recliner. Unacceptable! People! Ugh! People are the worst!
I glared at them all from under my palm-frond beach umbrella, wishing they would be eaten by sharks or carried away by extremely specific mini-tsunamis. There was a young guy nearby with his girlfriend, the two of them behaving in a nauseating fashion, holding hands, tickling each other’s arms, playing footsie in the warm sand. Echh. They built a sandcastle together, laughing and carrying on and so obviously in love that I just wanted to bury them both upside-down in the sand. But then suddenly she gave a cry of alarm.
“My ring!” she said.
She held up her hand. No ring. They looked down at the sand. There was a lot of sand.
It turned out that they’d been engaged just two days before, right there on that very beach. He had gone down on one knee to offer her the ring, and she accepted it happily although it was a little bit loose on her finger. He had suggested she leave it in the hotel room until they could get it resized, but she was proud to wear it, and she’d insisted, and now it lay somewhere beneath the fine white Phuket sand.
She started crying, and he started frantically sifting through the sand, asking her where she’d been and where she’d walked. But she’d been in a lot of places on the beach over the course of the day. Together they scratched desperately through the sand, and other people got up from their lounges and came over to join them. I was one of them, reluctantly at first, rooting around on my hands and knees, trying out a manoeuvre where I raked my fingers through the sand like chopsticks through a bowl of flour.
More and more people from around the beach came to join us, laughing and joking and being of good cheer.
“Don’t worry,” we told the crying woman, “we’ll find it.”
And as much as I tried to stay grumpy, it’s difficult when you’re part of a large crowd on a beach, men and women, all of different nationalities, all mucking in together, united by the desire to help a stranger, ordering beers from the restaurant, working out grid-systems and widening our field of operations. There is something heartening about it, something beautiful, something of what we might have once thought the world would be like when we grew up.
The sun was setting gold over the Andaman Sea but still we searched. They brought flaming torches over from the restaurant to light the dusk. Then someone yelled, “Here it is!”
There were cheers, but when it was presented to the couple their faces fell. It wasn’t the same ring. It was some other ring, a lovely ring, lost who knows when by who knows who. We tried to insist that the couple take it, but they gave it to one of the guys doing the searching, a kid who had been telling us how he wanted to propose to his girlfriend but was saving up for a ring.
Somehow, unbelievably, with all those people searching, we never did find it. Sometimes I suspect that she may have found it in her pocket later, or back in her room, but was too embarrassed to let us know. Afterwards a bunch of us ate noodles together and shared stories and laughed late into the night. People, we agreed, are the best. Life would be awful without other people. We didn’t find the ring, but we found something else.
Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a columnist, screenwriter, travel writer, author - follow him on Twitter.
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