Spring break is upon us. This made me recall my childhood holidays, quite different from my own children’s.
For a summer holiday to qualify as ‘successful’ you had to return from it with new scars and a tan. The summer holiday I turned ten was therefore very successful. I returned with a butterscotch tan and a proud scar on my kneecap, strategically displayed to major advantage for the appreciation of those milquetoast weaklings who could only boast having had tea with their aunties.
Our family holiday consisted of a road trip culminating in a camp-out at a fairly isolated caravan park right on the beach. Money was in short supply, my parents very young. We ran a little wild, one could say.
The trip down to the coast would be spread over a couple of days. We traveled with a couple my parents had been friends with for a long time, the unit having developed an idioglassic (yep, I like that word) rhythm: our VW Kombi was named Trouble, theirs Strife, a true reflection of the vehicles’ performance. The road trip consisted of eating too much fudge, lounging in the back without seat belts, hammering on the partition that separated us from our parents, playing cards and fighting. The partition had been one of my father’s brainchildren- two sliding doors that attempted to seal the driver’s space off from us and our endless are-we-there-yet and sibling strife. We knew not to sit too close to it at the height of fisticuffs during territorial disputes. We’d learnt that the partition could open suddenly and the wrath of the father visited on whomever the poor hapless victim closest to it was. Sometimes we’d try to strategically maneuver our opponents into the back-hand-slap position before pinching them and eliciting the necessary noise level required for the partition to fly open and deliver.
Anyhow. Having survived the journey of extreme boredom, punctuated by inevitable nausea and bouts of sudden-onset vomiting, we’d arrive at the golden beach, pale and über-ready to start our holiday. The first challenge upon arrival would be the pitching of the tent. Ah, the tent. Our initial tent had been a simple affair, a blue-striped three-sided piece of canvas that hung limply off the side of the camper. As the years progressed, and the family grew, the tent and sleeping arrangements became more elaborate, even including a separate roof-tent on top the camper, with a little ladder down the side. My father prided himself on on his design abilities and my mother herself on her sewing prowess. A gentle rivalry existed between them and their friends to have the most innovative and comfortable shoestring budget camp set-up, no selling out to ready-made and commercially available solutions. They were free spirits, drinkers of cheap (but good!) red wine, smokers of Gaulloise cigarettes and listeners of anti-war folk music. My parents were at a distinct disadvantage though- they had noisy sproglings, whereas their long-suffering friends were not so encumbered yet- with the superiority that only idealistic future parents could have.
Back to the tent that summer. It was an elaborate contraption, designed by my father-now a qualified architect. It consisted of many numbered, color-coded poles that had to be assembled in a certain order. To this frame the many designer panels of zip-together partitions were added. Each and every tent-erection was guaranteed to lead to bitter arguments. Even we as children knew that by then. We also knew it was inexcusably stupid to be caught up in this brutal task, where innocent under-footedness of being could lead to boxed ears. So, we knew to hardly give the engine noise time to dissipate into the mosquito-laden greenery of the campsite before we accelerated through the settling dust, storming through overgrown pathways that led down to the beach, away from the tent-erection site, with whoops of excitement.
The first step in a successful holiday was avoiding any involvement in the tent-erection. The second step was building an enormous sandcastle and populating it with a gazillion sea snails. The sandcastle would have elaborate drip-turrets, decorated with seashells and moats packed to the brim with bluebottles. Every good holiday saw at least one sibling stung by a bluebottle or other small sea creature. Other deserving experiences included barnacle scrapes, mussel cuts, fishhooks in strange places (leaving that memorable scar) and the obligatory five handfuls of sea sand in the crotch of our swim shorts. Baby oil was used liberally to soothe sunburns, our hair bleached straw white in the harsh African sun as our skins scorched and bubbled and peeled.
Of course, every good-enough holiday contained many mouthfuls of swimming. We were champion body-surfers in tall waves. We swam with dolphins, swallowed liters of seawater and raced each other to the beach, body-surfing on crests of foam. We were invincible mer-people.
The ultimate requirement for a successful holiday, however, was a visit to “the Arch.” Arch Rock was, as the name suggests, a rock formation in the shape of a huge arch. It stood about a hundred(!) meters tall. At high tide the sea thundered through the arch. At low tide it withdrew so far that at times, especially during the ebb of spring tide, it was possible to stroll through it. Some years the sand on the landside of the arch was infested with vicious, biting reds ants. Other years there was no beach sand, only football-sized white boulders resting cheek-to-jowl, filling the whole landfall area. Our obligatory yearly pilgrimage to the Arch included the rite of stone throwing. Through a miracle of nature the Arch had a round hole at the apex of the rock formation. One had to throw a rock through this opening before one was allowed to eat an orange.
It’s been more than thirty years since then. I clearly remember my last visit to the Arch. Long since living in Canada; I wanted my own three offspring to have a taste of that idyllic African childhood. It was an overcast miserable day when we arrived there. We had driven past shantytowns from the airport that had horrified the children. There was the necessary stopping for vomiting- clearly that gene had been inherited. My teenagers looked at the beach with disinterest. To be fair, it didn’t look very attractive in the hazy mist. The sea was supernaturally calm. Where were the glorious tall waves?
“Is it safe to walk here?” my husband asked. I had to see the Arch. We pulled on our coats, turned up the collars, the children pulling their hoodies over their heads. The walk took about forty minutes. There were small holiday houses on the beachfront where the camping terrain had been. There were ants at the Arch. I felt suffused with disappointment.
“We have to throw a rock through the hole,” I said weakly. And then the magic came back as we each searched for the perfect missile. I never did get one through, my feeble attempts hardly reached halfway up the stony outcrop.
“I am the champion!” I heard my son tell his cousins that evening. I massaged my sore shoulder and felt happy.