I was in Phuket one Christmas, visiting my friend Andre. He lives in Nai Harn with his wife and six-year-old son Nicholas, and one night he told me he was worried about raising his son in Thailand. He goes to school with other expat kids – mainly Kiwis and a couple of Australians – and Andre feared this might have a deleterious effect on his character.
‘Not this again,’ said his wife.
‘It’s true,’ said Andre. ‘He’s turning into a Kiwi!’
One morning on the beach we watched some Kiwi kids building a feeble sandcastle. Their dads looked over and gave them the wishy-washy New Zealander thumbs up, even though these were very obviously meagre efforts resulting in a woefully substandard structure.
‘See what I mean?’ said Andre.
‘Come,’ I said to Nicholas, ‘let’s show them how South Africans build a sandcastle!’
How do South Africans build a sandcastle? With bravado, pointless competitiveness and excessive displays of force, that’s how. At first Nicholas just watched as Andre and I scrabbled and heaved at the sand to form a mighty moat, creating a growing mountain in the middle. Then he began to get it. He scavenged pieces of wood and rope and we grunted and sweated and constructed impregnable walls and a drawbridge and piled the sand higher and higher.
The Kiwi kids looked over at our castle in awe. They cast accusing looks at their parents, no doubt regretting their degraded genetic heritage, then came to ask if they could help.
‘Of course,’ I said graciously, for it behooves the lord of the castle to be generous to his vanquished foes. The Kiwi dads sulked under their umbrella. For hours we laboured away, constructing an increasingly baroque pleasure palace that soared and loomed and crenellated, a magnificent folly, a grand and occasionally collapsing vertical sea-sand Nkandla. Andre’s back was in spasm. I had sand in my eyes. We were exhausted but proud.
‘See!’ I said grandly to Nicholas. ‘That’s how a South African makes a sandcastle!’
Then I noticed a couple of Swedish guys watching us. They shook their heads and tutted.
‘Who could live in such a building?’ they said. ‘It would fall down.’
They had a quick conference and sketched out plans with a twig in the sand, and started to work. In three minutes they had a broad square base, smooth and planed. It looked like solid concrete. I glanced back at our castle, which was already beginning to crack. Small sandslides were happening on the north face.
‘Quick! We need to build it higher,’ I hissed at Andre.
We sweated and grunted and sobbed as we tried to bolster our palace. The kids all lost interest and wandered off to swim. ‘Traitors!’ I wheezed after them. No matter how we strained, in half an hour the Swedish castle loomed high above ours, rising like a ziggurat in level architectural platforms, solid enough to bear a human’s weight. They tied a shirt to a spade to make a flag and planted it on top, where it fluttered proud and true. And then a wave rolled up the sand and washed over our sandcastle and it melted before our eyes.
‘We built above the waterline,’ said the Swedish guys solemnly, ‘so ours is more permanent.’ They shook hands with each other and walked off to go and listen to Roxette or something.
Andre and I slumped there, shattered. Then the New Zealand guys wandered over. Silently they handed us each a beer.
‘Sorry, fellas,’ one of them said. ‘Nothing worse than being beaten by a bunch of Scandos.’ ‘
Southern Hemisphere must stick together,’ the other agreed.
‘You know,’ said Andre later, back at the house, ‘Kiwis aren’t so bad.’
Getaway, December 2016