A white sail gleams

A white sail gleams by Andras Ikladi

About 15km long and 200m wide at best, the Xiamen beach and surrounding park areas are stuffed to the brim on a weekend afternoon. Locals seeking refuge from boredom or the less lucky from the lack of air conditioning in their flats and a few tourists who escaped the forced shopping trips and tasting sandworm jelly. An unfathomable concoction, if you ask me.


The strip is a monochromatic sliver of blistering sand, contrasted by the marine hues of the sea in the early afternoon. The piercing sun is unbearable on the average summer day, and locals are not keen on exposing their precious whiteness to it either. I wander down the deserted walking path, breaking a sweat, only to be remedied by the breeze under the palm trees.


A routine I developed since I arrived in this city. It might have been one of the reasons to land that tedious job that sounded good on paper, but deep down, I knew I was done with it before it started. After only a year, I feel strangely at home here, enjoying the scorching hot light, slowly easing into the shoot. Burned highlights and deep shadows - who needs mid-tones in life?


Later on, the parking lot and the upper cycle path come to life in a cacophonic traffic jam of honking electric cars, rented quadricycles, runners dodging grandmas screaming at their screaming grandkids, with an overtone of the coconut seller’s megaphone blasting “冰椰子”(cold coconut). The local who-is-who of the parking lot quickly gives way to concerns on a shared, more humane level.


Welcome to the strip, the great equaliser. It melts away most of the social norms and concerns in a human cavalcade that peaks at low tide when all walks of life unite, digging away in the muddy sand looking for sea-dwelling creatures. Tens of thousands of people engage in this activity at once, wading in the shallows on a warm summer afternoon, making it a miracle for the beach to maintain a population of any life form. Uncles and aunties wielding repurposed fan grills. Spoiled kids with plastic shovels purchased from the mobile seller. Specialists with woven baskets to keep the catch fresh, all thigh-deep in the warm water. 


Feet sink into the soft ground; minds fall into a more relaxed state. A mass undressing is well on the way, stripping the attitude together with designer clothes (unless it’s fake or it really doesn’t matter). Locals who tapped into unimaginable wealth created by the scarcity of land and supportive policies are transported back to a poor and perhaps pure childhood, keen to pass on the same experience to their kids. Like history ever repeated itself.


Some have other concerns: like its Vegas counterpart, the strip, a natural Corso attracts newlyweds and everyone looking for 2 minutes of glamour. 2-300 couples, dozens of cosplayers and an army of best-dressed youngsters on a better weekend day. Seemingly every rock and each square meter of sand is assigned to a wedding agency and their clients, allowing photographers to create the perfect sunset backdrop hundreds of times a day. Every day. A genuine wedding factory, well and alive, despite the alarming divorce rates.

The most picturesque stretch happens to be the best swimming spot: a once-in-a-lifetime occasion for the young couple near the daily routine for local elderly swimmers, who idle time away blissfully retired, hanging out at the beach club with old mates or swarming in shallow waters dragging the indispensable orange balloon is a lifestyle to own.


Following the crowd, I wade through the waters, camera in hand. Like the sandworm jelly for the locals, the strip is an interesting concoction for the photographer. It definitely, has an acquired but addictive taste.


But maybe it’s something deeper in my psyche? I distinctly remember those autumn days sometime in the 80s, sitting in my primary school library, reading a book titled “A white sail gleams” by Russian novelist Valentin Kataev.


My fascination with the sea started then and still, 30 years later I’m magically attracted to the beach, spending every possible moment wandering now with the camera, looking on the horizon for the little white triangle from the book cover to show up or at home obsessing over tide charts to find the optimal angle.


Or could it be a symbol of longing for a home in this country so distant from land-locked Hungary?