By Richard Boughton
“Alligators, you say? Abandoned alligators? Starving alligators? Where?”
I’m not the world’s greatest cynic, nor even the island’s 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, Vick and I, 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 lumber, 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, blonde-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 10 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.
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.