Entry #1: The Swimming Hole
The beaten dirt path was inconspicuous to say the least. I’d already ridden past it several times that day and paid it little mind. I was too focused on the gleaming white concrete road that hugged the winding canal. Perfect smooth sailing for my most trusted road companion, my folding, Golden-Gate orange, Brompton bicycle.
As per routine at festivals, our crew was promptly banished from the stage at 11:00 A.M, not to be welcomed back until late in the evening when our act was set to perform. It was just another work day, and a perfect day for a cycle. It was my first time in Ghent, although I had previously visited Antwerp and Brussels on previous tours, and this city was different from the other two. The looming stone Medieval buildings, almost completely unscarred from the atrocities of the World War that ravaged so many other European cities, dominated the skyline with hardly even a trace of modernity.
There was a sense of timelessness on this road that gave me the feeling that the scene of both young and old stretched on their blankets across the curving riverbanks was one that surely had been witnessed for centuries. My mind slipped back in time and even though my eyes saw the University students who snacked on their boterwafels and snapped selfies, my mind saw sheepherders who took their respite from the summer heat.
I passed that dusty trail four times before I decided to investigate it. The thin low suspension tires of my bicycle left the comfort of the concrete behind and dug firmly into the loose dirt, as I passed under a dense thicket of trees and brush. It wasn’t long before I came to a clearing and realized why I had seen so many others on foot dip into the overgrowth earlier that day. They had found a swimming hole.
Idyllic to say the least, a reservoir on the river widened and partially separated the canal into a miniature lake and the people had taken notice. There was a small artificial sandbank of beach dominated by mothers and their offspring who squealed with glee. Next to them was a small grassy knoll where most of the fathers and other adults sipped their wine and the finest of refreshing Belgian beers. A middle-aged woman heavily caked in makeup and lathered in tanning oil cackled into her sequined gold Samsung. A young girl cautiously dipped a single, curled toe into the cool dark water before her and smiled to herself about something only she knew. A brown leathery man in his faded maroon speedo nibbled the end of a baguette while he smoked the nub of an exquisitely hand rolled cigarette, a talent he must have mastered over a lifetime of practice. They were all there together, and I became a part of them.
As I continued to scan the dense crowd, my eyes focused on a terraced, grass field more than 100 yards away. I noticed that the grass field gave access to a larger spot in the swimming hole that was occupied by a much smaller population of daytime revelers. I had the sudden urge to find the path that led me to that side of the water. I needed to get there, but I just could not figure out how.
The swim was much too far for a casual daytime dip, and I hadn’t come across a bridge to the other side of the canal. These pitfalls would not stop me though, as I was determined to find the land I had spotted. I saddled back up on my bicycle and began to meander West across the lakeshore. Dead-end. The joyous reprieve of nature was abruptly halted by a paved road that led to a bleak looking “Activités Récréatives” building. I turned back East and began to scour the riverbank for another overlooked trail and after a long search, I finally found it.
The downtrodden dirt pathway was barely visible and it went straight into the heavy green overgrowth. Although I still heard the gentle flowing of the river, the water was now completely obscured from view by the dense copses of trees. The branches overhead formed a stunning natural tunnel of fresh, verdant summer leaves. As I drifted further down the path, I was met by small man-made clearings that had been hacked out of the brush and fitted with tiny, worn wooden docks. The docks were just large enough to barely fit two people across them, and while the first one I encountered was desolate, each one I continued to pass was occupied by a couple, most of their feet lingered in the water as they soaked up the clearing’s sun and held each other in loving, lazy embraces. The docks came to an end and I approached another clearing, only this time it was the ruins of an old abandoned riverside cafe that still advertised the joys of an ice-cold Coca-Cola on a hot Belgian summer’s day.
Shortly after, I made it to the promised, terraced land I had spied at the beginning of my explorations. This was the land of youth, puberty, and mischief. The teens of Ghent had planted their flags firmly here and dominated the new coast. The techno and rap beats of their Bluetooth speakers competed against one another for superiority, as they sipped from their cold aluminum beer cans and smoked a pack of cigarettes each. Most of the young men donned their boxers while the girls lounged in their lingerie. Black seemed to be the prevailing color of choice for those women, even in the heavy summer heat. The tall, rail thin brunette with a roughly drawn lotus tattoo on her left rib cage, who could not have been a day over 19, reached behind and removed her bra. She dangled it between her fingertips before she slowly dropped it onto the grass beneath her. She shone as bright as the sun as she sashayed across the lawn and disappeared into the cold water before me. The boys only pretended not to stare.
My body could no longer take the grueling summer heat, so I stripped into my briefs and followed the young enchantress into the inviting water. The cold waves soothed my body and forced me to forget the previous moments that led me to this place.
My trance was shaken when a large Pyrenees-esque mutt with its long, white tangled hair jumped in and out of the swimming hole with so much force that he changed the water’s calm demeanor. I laughed as it bit and pounced again and again at the water like a pair of young children in galoshes who found their joy by stomping in newly-formed puddles of rain.
Now, almost fully doused in water myself by the exuberant animal, I lunged over the drop-off and dipped my head below the surface. I exhaled slightly and let my body begin to sink thirteen feet until the my toes found the ice cold mud and twigs that littered the bottom of the swimming hole. I let the mud ooze in between my toes before I pushed off the bottom with as much force as I had. I sprung myself towards the surface to find the air above me. As my head crested out of the water and into the sunlight, I wiped the beads from my eyes. I took another look around and embraced the vibrant shades of green that encompassed me all around the shore.
“Today was a good day,” I thought to myself. It was the first time that my soul has smiled in years.