Castles In The Sand

While we were overseas one summer in Europe, my parents decided to take the Green Eggs and Ham down to Spain for an extended stay on the beach. Rattling our way through Luxembourg and France, we avoided most of the major cities, sticking to back roads and small towns. Trickling down through high Alps, then across the rolling Spanish hills, we found ourselves at a large Spanish campground located on the Mediterranean.

The countryside was poor by American and Northern European standards, but rich in diversity. Ancient architecture, grand cathedrals, and Roman aqueducts competed with woman hauling buckets and baskets full of straw, rough paved roads and low slung rows of dirt colored buildings. Colors were either extremely bright or earthen, depending on whether you were looking at the people’s clothing or the houses they lived in.

The campground we found ourselves in abutted the Mediterranean shoreline, and was filled with a mix of gaudy tents (folks from Germany and France), mid-sized shelters, and lastly us in our ghastly green VW camper with its bright yellow bumpers. Pitching the Army pup tent outside, we settled in for a protracted stay.

I spent the first few days turning red as a lobster, then the remainder of the week shedding my skin. I’ll never forget the extant of that sunburn – how my shoulders and back were covered in huge blisters, how the tears would run down my face as my mom applied the “standard cure” – a sponge bath with cooling vinegar, which would leave me stinking and reeking for hours on end. This was long before the advent of sun-block, and before they made the connection between sunburn and cancer.

We lived simply, feasting on sandwiches and hot dogs and sampling the local fare. Most of our cooking was done next to the van on an old Coleman stove – an explosive affair, given to unequal scorching and bits of raw meat. But eventually my mom mastered the thing, allowing us boys to “pump up” the tank, and producing reasonably fried eggs in the morning and hamburger based meals in the evening. During one of our forays across this foreign land we slipped into the local restaurant where, gathering my courage, I tried what was to become one of my most favorite of seafoods – fried calamari. After a single bite I was hooked.

It was strange, yet beautiful, living there in the sand beneath the trees. We didn’t have anyone to talk to except ourselves – I didn’t know a lick of Spanish – and the cool blue waters of the Mediterranean beckoned just beyond the edge of the campsite. One thing I didn’t like about the Mediterranean was that it sometimes smelled like sewage, especially near a breakwater that had been erected near the far end. I suppose this was due to the practice of releasing untreated sewage into the ocean. Even as a kid I knew this was bad, and we tended to stay away from that particular part of the ocean. But the water – bluer than the Atlantic, with gentle crashing waves – called me from morning until night, and I found myself staying on the beach, day after day, diving through the surf and riding the rolling swells. I turned brown – a deep brown which reminded me of my days in the ‘hood, and lost some weight, trading in my fat for some muscle.

It was during our last week while I was there, sitting in the sand on the beach while struggling to build a sandcastle, that I met her.

She was a small Spanish girl with skin the color of aged bronze, and long black hair that fell down her back in curling locks. She was a few years younger than I, with thick black lashes and big expressive eyes, and she squatted next to me, watching what I was doing. Having no “beach toys”, not even a plastic shovel, I was scooping up handfuls of sand and clumsily attempting to form an outer ring of walls. She would look at me, look at my hands, then look at my ragged construction as though it was something to be pitied. And then she showed me a better way.

Without a word, she began to dig, forming a shallow hole. Unable to speak a single word of Spanish – and she evidently knew no English – I settled back to watch, curious as to why this girl had chosen me, my place, to dig a hole. Glancing up at me from beneath her eyebrows, she waited until water began to seep into the hole, then she began dipping her hand into the water, stirring it around. I watched as she withdrew her hand, the water sheeting from her fingertips in a shimmering cascade, and then she did something amazing.

Pulling out dips of mud, she began “pouring” a sandcastle. Letting the mud flow along her graceful brown fingertips, she showed me how to make a drip” or “dribble” castle” – one in which you let the mud flow out of your hand – soupy and thin – and wherever it would land, it would start to build up. One by one she constructed miniature minarets, graceful towers, and moving her hand back and forth in a steady line, built a connecting wall. Encouraging me with her other hand, she guided my clumsy movements until I, too, began trickling sand in the appropriate fashion, learning the proper consistency of sand and water to make these marvelous tool-free creations grow. And after that I was hooked.

We met each day at the same time and place – I don’t recall a word ever being spoken between us – letting our love of building sandcastles bind us together. She couldn’t talk to me, nor I her, yet we did not let this barrier to our communication stop us. Silently we would work – her smiling when she saw me (for it seemed I was always the first one on the beach) – and me smiling back as she ambled over across the hot sand, my heart warming at the sight of her. Yes – she was much younger – perhaps eight or nine? – and I was thirteen, but after what she had shown me, I knew but did not feel any disparity in age. She was teaching me something – and something more than just building sandcastles – for I grew quite fond of her presence there at the beach, teaching me, guiding my hands, and sometimes softly laughing at my failed attempts. We worked together constantly, sometimes for hours on that beach, listening to the waves crash and silently enjoying each other’s company under the blue sky and blazing sun.

Since then I’ve sometimes wondered about that little girl who taught me so much; what happened to her, how I may of affected her life – for she surely affected mine. I learned that it doesn’t take words to form a relationship; that nationality and ethnic background makes no difference when it comes to certain things. Forming a common goal, and working towards a single creation has more to do with life and loving than anything such as words can describe; she taught that to me, as well as teaching me to build sandcastles using nothing except my hands.

As a result, when I go to the beach, I build sandcastles – even to this day – in the way that that little girl taught me. (I wonder if she’d be surprised to know how highly I regarded her, our relationship – and that I still build sandcastles now, here some thirty-seven years later.) I’ve since learned to construct bridges and and balconies, and using my hand to support thin arches of sand, make those famous flying buttresses I had seen in Europe. People come from all over the beach to take pictures of my four foot high towers, the sweeping turns, the miniature minarets; kids wander about amazed, peering down into the hollow towers, wandering around the mud formed walls. And all the while in my mind I’m taken back to those days on the Mediterranean, building sandcastles in the sand – with a little girl beside me, showing me the way.