How strange it is to hunt for polluted beaches and yet all around the world I’ve tried to locate the dirtiest strips of sand. While everybody else is tracking down waves, I’m tracking down garbage—using stolen afternoons on vacation or on assignment to find what nearly nobody else is looking for.
It’s this damn sea glass that enchants me—in opaque blues and mossy greens with its sand-softened edges, it calls out to me and demands to be collected.
In the United States, this hobby is far from strange. While other’s devotion might not be as extreme as mine, I think most folks can’t resist the urge to pick up a piece of sea glass when they spot it glistening against the sand.
Outside of US shores, however, this urge seems to be non-existent. They have different names for ‘sea glass’ in Italy, Indonesia, Thailand and Australia: trash, garbage, pollution. The notion of hunting for it or collecting it has struck many as absolute insanity.
For example, on a family holiday to Thailand this year, I pulled in a particularly large haul. I left my findings on the bedside table in my hotel room and went out for dinner. When I came back, it was nowhere to be found. The maid had come and assumed I was kindly cleaning trash off the beach and did me the ‘favor’ of throwing it away. “You’ve thrown away my glorious, kitschy collection of trash-turned treasure!” struck me as so deserving of a #whitegirlproblems hashtag that I didn’t even attempt to explain—I just thanked her for trashing it and stashed the rest of my finds in my suitcase like illegal cargo.
So I’m the crazy trash lady casually combing foreign shores and I’ve got used to the questioning looks that come with my apparently confusing habit—they don’t dissuade me, nor have they forced me to question what or why I’m doing what I’m doing… That is, until this past week.
I’m in Ortygia—the quail shaped island off of Sicily’s Siracusa—it is one of my favorite places on earth, one of the few places that I’ve bothered to consistently come back to.
Ortygia boasts one tiny beach, just off of the marina. The ever-changing colors of the Mediterranean might make this beach picturesque but the trash on it and the concrete slab wall surrounding it detract slightly from the photo-worthy quality of the turquoise waters.
Most Ortygians don’t even consider it a beach and prefer to swim off the rocky ledges around the island but this beach is one of my favorites because what it lacks in ambiance, it makes up for in sumptuous sums of sea glass.
I have dedicated at least an hour each day to combing it and locals walking by have given me an amusing diversity of confused expressions and disapproving looks. Despite the relative lack of glamour, I’m not alone on the beach—it is regularly populated by 20 or so adolescent refugees who spend the day swimming, doing flips off the dock and garnering what I truly feel is a disproportionate amount of amusement from the strange new character on the shore: the crazy trash lady. (Me.)
It might surprise many to learn that Sicily is just a 40 minute boat ride from North Africa (Tunis, Tunisisa to be specific) making it a geographically logical refuge for many. Tunisia: one of those countries most U.S. citizens didn’t know was a country until a few years back when a merchant lit himself on fire, ending what was a long winter and ushering in the first wave of Arab Spring. And yet the hopes and optimism that came with Arab Spring have somewhat cooled in the face of the inevitable violence that comes with any emerging democracy–forcing many to re-negotiate and re-imagine their future and where it might be brightest.
These refugees in particular are not all Tunisian but it was their collective gateway to Sicily: in a jumble of Italian-French-Arabic-English, they communicated to me that their origins are diverse. Egyptian, Tunisian, Sudanese and they have all been in the Country for less than a month. For one reason or another, their parents had decided to flee their home countries, bringing their children to this strange place beyond the sea.
After becoming acquainted and moving past just laughing at me, a few of the kids decide to join me. They wade into the ocean in search of hard-to-reach finds and when they return, they empty their handfuls of sea glass into my plastic bag.
I’m wondering what they’re expecting: they’ve seen that I only came with a trash bag, they can’t be hoping for money. Funny how it comes to that, isn’t it? When somebody is kind or helpful to us without clear motivation, we wonder what they are trying to get out of it.
In all honesty, I think they were just looking for something new to occupy the time—taking refuge is a waiting game and often a long if not never ending one. The last time I was in Sicily, I had the chance to meet with and interview adult refugees and learn this first-hand. They must wait for papers and then wait for help with papers and then wait for a hearing and then wait for more papers and then wait (and hope) to become ‘legal.’ (How strange it is that we call people ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’, as if a person could ever be against the law.)
After several days of aided collecting, I decided I want to explain ‘sea glass’ to my helpers but as my Arabic is limited to roughly six words and phrases, this is an impossible endeavor. I turn to Google translate, thinking I can memorize a sentence or two but on the landing page I’m stuck. I realize that I can barely explain the purpose of collecting sea glass in English, let alone in Arabic, let alone to refugee kids struggling to make sense of a brave new world. So for the first time, I am forced to stop and carefully consider this strange fascination of mine and for the first time I truly understand the litany of confused faces: why the hell am I wasting time on dirty beaches picking up remnants of things that other people threw in the trash?
And herein lies my tiny moment of realization: people did not throw these once-bottles and once-jars into the trash; they threw them into the ocean. After thousands of years beside the ocean, after thousands of years of pulling sustenance from it and using it to travel upon, after thousands of years of benefitting from its beauty and its richness, somebody decided it was just a trashcan.
By any rational human standards, by the laws of any land, the ocean should have punished us for this injustice. The ocean should have taken our trash and crushed it into sharp pieces, scattered it across the shores and laughed as we got tetanus and wide, bloody gashes in our feet. Instead the abrasion of waves and sand make once-sharp edges too soft to penetrate skin, instead the ocean uses salt and water to make the trash new and beautiful and worthy of washing up on her shores.
As I see it then, sea glass is tangible evidence that dark acts can be transformed, that ugly things can be re-imagined, and that there is always cause for mercy.
Unfortunately, there is no way in hell Google could adequately translate that explanation—and absolutely no possibility that I could memorize it. Luckily, there is a much simpler way of putting it:
The word is pronounced ‘amal’ and it is Arabic for ‘hope.’
I collect sea glass because in every piece I find another reason to be hopeful.
The next day, I tell my friends that ‘sea glass’ represents ‘amal.’ They smile and nod and most of them go back to jumping off the dock but before one of my new friends dumps his finds into my plastic bag, I see him slip a piece of sea glass into his pocket.
Amidst the sea breezes in these the last days of Spring, I choose to believe that hope has found a new collector.