Thursday, June 16, 2011

Down to the Sea

In olden day I used to occasionally hear it said that one who lives at the beach never actually goes to the beach. This was in the U.S., by the way, where beaches are generally far away from the lion’s share of the nation’s populace. These are the domain of the few who happen to live on the edge (geographically speaking), while the rest find themselves separated from surf and sand by amber waves of grain and purple mountains’ majesty (as the old anthem has it).

Nonetheless, I found this notion suspicious at best, very possibly wholly fallacious. What, to live by the sea and the fresh salty air, the foamy whispering of the tide, the awesome crash of white topped breakers and yet not set foot upon the sand? It cannot be!

Why then have these people lied, I wondered? Do they seek to devalue the thing in order to keep it all to themselves, to protect, with premeditated greed, their purchase on the pleasant shore, their place in the sun, so that more will not come and altogether spoil what must surely be Eden?


I reckoned this was the case, anyway. Until I came to live in Bali, that is.

At the outset, I must say, I did take full advantage of my new proximity to the beach and the sea, and it seemed for a time to be all that I had imagined it would be--proof, moreover, that those lucky folks back home had been either bald-faced liars or simply dull of spirit. Not a day did I spend in my house or in the town without making a special point of going down to the sea, to bask in the sun, to lie back on Sanur’s calm, buoyant, salt leavened water-bed and, floating face up, gaze at the tropical heavens and the coming and going of all their pillow-like dreams, chariots and dragons and sails and sheep.

“I must down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship, and a start to steer her by . . . “

And then two things happened, more or less at once.

The one was that I was told I could not sit (much less lie) in any of the fifty-two generally unoccupied chaise lounges on the beach front without paying Rp30,000 to the restaurant that owned them. This despite the fact that I had already paid for coffee, and sometimes breakfast (albeit, admittedly, the cheap continental one). Highway robbery! What avarice is this? Clearly there is a matter of principal at hand. All I want, after all, is a tall ship, and etcetera.

The other development was that I began, little by little, and then by ever increasing degree, to prefer the dry and comfy path-side table to the gritty sand, the gritty towel, the sticky surf, the beating sun.

Oh, I still go down to the beach, but the salt surf and the downy white puppet shows in the sky have somehow been left behind; for more often than not I will be found sitting at a table at Luhtu’s cafĂ©, sipping a coffee, reading the Jakarta Post or the Bali Times, my back to the breakers and the bubbling tide, watching instead the passers-by on the foot path, the tourists and the locals, the sellers and their children, the health-nut Europeans who jog by in Nike Gear, dripping and huffing, dripping and huffing, teeth clenched in bitter determination, little knowing where they are. I ask you, how many Balinese folk do you see jogging under the dripping son, Nike Gear or no Nike Gear? I mean really, get a clue.

What is more interesting, after all--the march of the surf or the march of humankind.

And . . . Hmm . . . I wonder if these couch potato fat cats in America already knew all this.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


“Alligators, you say? Abandoned alligators? Starving alligators? Where?”

I’m not the world’s greatest cynic, nor even the islands greatest one, but I’m not callow either. I’m more like St. Thomas, the disciple who doubted, and these alligators sounded like myths to me.

Show me the marks of the nails in your hands. Show me the wound where the spear pierced through. Show me the alligators.

So we headed, me and Vick, for the beach at Padang Galak, otherwise known as Taman Festival Beach after the sprawling tourist park that had once graced its shores. And yet the Festival opened and closed within a handful of years, victim, as is so often told here in Bali, of an imperfect permit. So it stands, or rather slumps, fallow now, deserted.

What better attraction for two friends without wives to tell them what they ought to be doing instead? For mine has gone to LA, and his to Java--equally, by practical measure, far away.

At Padang Galak a wide footpath and a breakwater barrier of enormous black rocks separates the surf from the tangled green of terra firma. Tall breakers roll in at high tide to batter the face of the barrier wall like tireless, grey-knuckled fists. It’s a working man’s beach, is Padang Galak. A sober beach. A relentless beach. No tourists here; no sellers, no shops; no sunny chaise lounges or plump sunbathers. Fishermen, teetering like reeds on the mountainous rocks, ply the chaotic crevasse where sea meets land for the meagre sustenance of the day. Driftwood lean-tos dot the carpet of gritty black sand to the surf, and here the fishermen, their wives, and their children kindle their fires, cook their catch, and lie in the shade during the height of the day.

But we have come to see alligators, and therefore turn from sea to land. Here we find a huge barn-like structure, dilapidated, half eaten by weather and wind, arising from the jungle like a castle in a mist to loom above outlying huts and outbuildings, all sinking as one to the eternally ravenous appetite of the island, for lumbar, for stone, for buildings, for men.

A high-walled concrete canal defines the outer edge of the Festival grounds.

. “This is where they used to swim,” Vick says.

Further in through the knee deep green are the Java huts, where food and art and souvenirs were once sold. Pathways, grown over with vines and brambles lead to signposts now bereft of messages. And here is where the swimming pool once had been--or rather still is, and yet is not. For what is a pool without water, without swimmers? An open mouth, a parched tongue.

One envisions brightly clad clumps of humanity, Bermuda shorts, Panama hats, blond haired girls, shouting boys. One tries, I should say, but it is quite impossible, for the land, the trees, the flora, the fungi have reclaimed time itself and cast a palling hush on the place. Whatever this was, or was meant to be, has now become ethereal Stonehenge.

In the past ten minutes we have whispered but three words apiece.

We stand now above a flat green lake, the very colour of the monster which ate the park--silent, still, patient as a predator. This is where the alligators live and thrive. And so we wait, gazing forward, standing back. And the green water returns not so much as a ripple.

“They’re in there,” Vick says.

We wait. We wait. And the ocean and the wind and the sky and the dusk begin to creep stealthily upon us from behind.

Hush, my darling, don’t fear, my darling, the lion sleeps tonight.

I will say not that I saw an alligator, for indeed I did not. And yet I came away a believer. It’s more than the testimony of circumstantial evidence. I know by faith they are there.