We sit and eat lunch by the sea, our cars parked up on the sand, engines running, air-con on. In front of us, waves roll into the shore bearing an ocean’s worth of hydrocarbon flotsam. A nylon rope from a Malaysian yacht, perhaps; a Madagascan trawler’s fishing floats, or a sandwich carton blown into the sea from a cruise ship—it all washes up here, where the wide Indian ocean begins to narrow.
Further out, a tug boat steams slowly down the coast, pulling behind it a crane barge off to some new construction or oil project. Behind them, almost lost to the haze, a horde of tankers and vast cargo ships wait patiently for their turn to refuel from the vast offshore buoys that tower like houses over smaller vessels.
At night, their lights look like a mirror image of the city; a mirage of some other town on some other shore only a few miles away.
Behind us, a gale brings a country’s worth of sand through the mountains and down to the sea. We face towards the sea not just because it’s a good view—coming from a place without them, I would much rather see the mountains—but because we have more shelter than the sand that way. It stings the eyes, chafes the throat and sticks in patches on sweaty skin.
No wonder the locals think of the beach as a place to park their cars.
I am from Britain, a country which by global standards has a very odd relationship with its beaches. For many countries—the hot ones especially—the beach is where a desert or a salt flat unceremoniously meets the sea. Even in other countries with a coastal tourist industry, where the beaches are cleaner and cared for, they are at least a contemporary place where people come to have fun. But in Britain, we go full-on quaint.
In the British consciousness, beaches are intertwined with the idea of times past—perhaps a national reminiscence about seaside holidays. Our hotels are set back from the beach to make way for beach huts, places for the Victorians and those with their sense of modesty to change into their swimming costumes. Nowadays they cost as much as houses. There are beach-front bingo halls and arcades, concert halls on piers and helter-skelters and Punch-and-Judy shows. The beaches are policed by council litter-pickers; the town desperate to keep the “Blue Flag” status that could—in the councillors’ minds—make or break a seaside town.
The sheer suggestion of driving a car on that is enough to make a Brit squirm uncomfortably.
Our lunch finished, we drive the fifty metres or so to the industrial-size rubbish bin in the middle of the beach. As I throw in a stack of polystyrene cups, one of them slips from my grasp and tumbles away towards the sea. I chase it half-heartedly for a few seconds, but the wind carries it faster than I can run. It skitters off into the breaking waves, gone to join its plastic cousins that will still be washing against these shores a hundred years from now.
I have, unwillingly, become part of the problem.
But to my left stands a forest of oil tanks, millions of cubic metres in all, and a few miles offshore in front of me sail ships with millions more. Behind me four-by-fours screech along the sandy highway, burning petrol like it was as cheap as water—because in this part of the world, it is.
I am a very small part of a very big problem; a problem that easily escapes your mind when your beach is neat and tidy and every second lamp-post bears a recycling bin.