How I learned to swim from a giant, carnivorous lizard: a true story

I’ve been swimming “daily” — that is, every day I’m not too busy, too lazy, too tired, or otherwise distracted; in practice maybe 70 days a year — for more than six years.I would like to have you over for dinner.  And I would never have started if it weren’t for a (to my mind, wholly reasonable) aversion to being eaten by giant, carnivorous lizards.

In the summer of 2005, I took my family to vacation on the island of Bali.  I did some research on the Internet and found a very nice resort on the beach, the Jayakarta.  A junior suite, suitable for four people, went for a trifle: $85 a day.

It turns out, not everything you read on the Internet is true.  The Jayakarta is a ripoff.  The room wasn’t a “junior suite”, it was slightly larger than a hotel room, but not nearly big enough for four.  Plus, it was dank, cramped, and dark.  My wife protested vociferously, the kids echoed her complaints.  I protested, futilely, that I had paid for three days in advance. I went across the street to an Internet cafe to search for a better place.

First, though, I checked my email.  There was a message from my sister-in-law, who had been dog-sitting. Dreadful news: our beloved dog Sammy had fallen ill, and at the vet’s recommendation, she had had him put down.  Requiesce in pace, cane nobile.

I went back to the little room, and tried to tell my wife without alerting the kids, but she began to weep, and the two girls instantly knew what had happened.  We spent the evening mourning our faithful pup, only 17 years old.

The next morning, I resolved to find us the best possible place to stay.  We walked around Legian Beach until we found a lovely compound of teak villas.  We rented a lovely 3BR-3BA house there for $95 a day.  The ground floor was open-air and all marble, even the ceilings.  There was a phone that ran to the compound’s little restaurant on the other side of the swimming pool.  Over the 10 days we stayed, we probably had 25 meals either at the restaurant or delivered from there.

One day, we went white-water rafting. The four of us on a big inflatable boat slid through the steamy Balinese jungle, my wife up front to navigate, the kids sitting on the gunwales to paddle, me in the stern steering. Along one long slow straight passage, a large boulder stuck out from the bank, and on the boulder rested a gray-green log. Not a log, I realized, a big lizard, longer and bigger around than my leg.

I was going to say something—Look, kids, a big lizard—but the lizard looked me in the eye and somehow I could not break the spell. He looked at me and and I looked at him. The raft floated past his rock and I twisted around so not to break eye-contact with the basilisk. I leaned back as the current carried us further and further, and I had only a split-second’s notice that I was overbalanced before I tumbled out of the raft and into the warm bubbling water.

A tough nylon rope ran the circumference of the raft’s hull and when I surfaced, I found I still had that rope in my hand. The river had gotten shallower and faster, and the raft towed me briskly downstream. I heard my family shouting and bustling around in the flimsy boat, and they managed to help me back aboard.

“Did you see?” I gasped, sheeting water. “Did you see?”

The next day, we took up a local tout on the offer of a day on a swimming barge.  I don’t remember how he could have explained such a thing, but it turned out to be wonderful.  The nicely appointed vessel was moored over a coral reef in the middle of the Badung Strait, off Bali’s south-east coast.  The barge had unlimited food, water toys, a hygienic bathroom, a sun-deck, a slide.  The water was warm, the coral and the fish were beautiful, everything was just lovely.  Perhaps 50 tourists deported ourselves in the roped-off zone around the barge.

They called us in for lunch and everyone climbed aboard and sat at the tables in the bottom level of of the barge to eat rijsttafel or sandwiches.  I finished early and decided to take advantage of some time in the water alone.

I put back on my snorkel, swim-mask, and fins, and dropped back into the sea.  As long as my air held out, I swam among the fern-coral and the iridescent fish.  When my lungs ran empty, I surfaced.

I found myself pushed by the tide quite a ways downstream from the barge.  The floating rope-line that was supposed to mark the boundary between safety and danger was only four feet away, but there was no question it was four feet in the wrong direction.  I was outside the safe zone.

I felt a little foolish worrying about it.  The water was warm; the waves were gentle.  Still, though, better safe than sorry, better get back inside the rope.

I put my head down and swam a few strokes, the four feet or so back to the rope.

When I looked up, the rope was six feet away.

The tide was faster and stronger than I thought.  I put my head back down, stroking with my arms and kicking with my finned feet.  When I didn’t reach the rope, I looked up again.

The rope was now eight feet away.

I could see the barge, perhaps 25 feet away through what seemed like freshening seas.  Everyone was inside, still eating.  I tried calling for help.  Even to my own ears, my voice was weak and indiscernible.

Just swim.  I put my head back in the water, stroking and kicking.  When I tired, I would look up to check my progress.  I quickly learned that swimming at full power, I could counteract the flow of the tide, and stay the same distance from the rope, but I could not get closer.  Whenever I rested, the tide pulled me further and further away from the barge.

As I swam, I tried to consider my options.  Behind me, the direction the tide was running, was the Bali Sea and certain death.  To my right was Bali, but the speed-boat had taken perhaps fifteen minutes to bring us from the shore to the barge; I could no more swim that distance than I could fly.  Straight ahead was the barge, no more than thirty feet but unreachable against this flood.  What was to my left?

At the next rest period, I looked.  When the wave pushed me high enough, I could see the island of Nusa Lembongan.  No signs of life, but a beach, probably no more than half a mile away.

I continued to struggle towards the barge while I forced myself to calculate.  The swim to the beach would be difficult, but doable.  It was across the tide, that was the vital thing, across, instead of against, the loathsome tidal flow that caught me now.

The beach was reasonably close, but not very long.  Downstream, the island just ended.  If I didn’t get to the beach before the tide swept me past it, I would drown.  Simple as that.  If the sharks didn’t get me, the best I could hope for was that my body would wash up on the shore.

The islands around there are populated by huge monitors, vicious, odious lizards the size of crocodiles.  I had the most vivid picture in my head, one of these gruesome saurians ripping sodden, rotting flesh off my skeleton.

Think, Michael.  The tide is running faster than you can swim.  Is the closest point on the beach less than half as far as that point is from the far extreme of the island?  Maybe.

I think I was kept from panicking, and still marginally able to do the rough geometry in my head, by the sheer surreality of the situation. I wasn’t going to die, I wasn’t going to drown. People like me don’t die, not in stupid, preventable accidents. I had a family aboard the barge; I had rented a lovely teak-and-marble villa; I had a luxurious home to go back to, and an little sport-car.

I did not, however, have a dog. The lizard the day before had tried to warn me. Death came for my faithful dog, and it would come for me too, someday and maybe today. In twenty minutes, in ten, I might very well be dead.

Once I made the decision and turned from swimming towards the barge to swimming towards the beach, I was committed: in a few moments, I would be too far from barge to even been seen, and no rescue would be possible.

Putting off the decision was almost as bad: I was rapidly tiring.  A few more minutes of fighting the tide, and I would not be able to make it to the beach at all.  Even rested, it was a 50/50 chance at best, and I was not rested, I was tired, I was nearly exhausted.

I saw the barge now only in flashes; from the crest of a wave, I could see the infinitely desirable craft for a moment, but then I would fall into the trough, and my face would go momentarily under water.  I tried not to think of my girls, growing up without me.

Decision time: go now or give up your last chance.   Live or die.  I ventured one last glance at the barge.

My wife finished her lunch.  She wiped her mouth daintily and cleaned her fingers, and then put the napkins and all the plastic and waste back in the box the lunch had come in.  She closed the box back up.  “Where your daddy?” she asked her daughters.

“He went swimming,” they chorused.

She went to the rail.  There were a few young Australians bobbing in the water, but no one who could be mistaken for her bald husband.  She walked through the dining room to the starboard rail.  No one in the water there either.  She trotted completely around the boat, annoyed and anxious.  Nothing.

She checked the bathrooms, one was empty, the other held only a French woman, not happy to be interrupted.  She went back to the rail and called my name, getting scared now.  She ran up the companionway to the sun-deck, even though she knew how her husband hated to sunbathe.  There were more Europeans, roasting their skin, but no Michael.

She ran back downstairs.  One of the Balinese life-guards was talking with a waitress and she grabbed him.  “My husband, I think he gone.”  Her poor English clashed with his poor English, and he shrugged uncomprehendingly.  “My husband, gone, gone!”

“You husband?” the man echoed.

“Gone.”  The life-guard maddeningly walked her back over the same path, rechecking the port side, starboard, the head, the sun-deck.  “I tell you,” my wife insisted.  “Gone!”

There was a small flying bridge above the sun-deck, and the Balinese climbed it.  Shading his eyes, he scanned through the circle.  He saw something and called down to to a deckhand in a stream of excited Bahasa.  He stripped off his t-shirt, climbed up on the rail, and dove into the water.

The barge was now just a silhouette, but amazingly a figure appeared at the very top.  Just a dark curve against the brilliant Indonesian sky, like an apostrophe, a little diacritic suddenly visible above the blocky text of the boat.  I tried to wave, but could barely get my arm out of the water.  The apostrophe detached itself, falling out and down, and I realized he had dived from the barge.

The tide was with him, and he swam like a seal and in a few seconds, he bobbed up next to me.  Balinese are a small people, and this one was no exception.  He was no bigger than my 14-year-old daughter.  “Did you come out to watch me drown?” I managed to gasp out.

“No worry,” he urged me, keeping his distance, bobbing on the next wave over, mindful of the many life-guards before him dragged to bottom by panicking swimmers they set out to save.  “No worry.”

And sure enough, I heard the blessed sound of an outboard.  A wave took me up and I could see another life-guard in an aluminum runabout, motoring towards us.  I coughed on a mouthful of water and resolved not to die, not now, when help was so close.

The runabout pulled up, and the life-guard in the water slid up into the boat, seal-like in his effortlessness.  I could see only the top of his head over the looming gunwale; as he settled in a thwart, he gestured casually for me to join him in the boat.

With a burst of effort, I managed to get my hands up over my head and grab the edge of the gunwale.  I tried to pull myself up, but I might as well have been anchored to the bottom.  How I ever thought I could swim the half-mile to Nusa Lembongan I didn’t know.  I could barely hang on to the motorboat. 

The two Balinese looked at each other.  They each grabbed one of my cold slippery forearms and tried to haul me into the boat.  The two of them together weighed less than I did, and they did not have the strength or the grip to pull me in.

“Just go back to the barge,” I told them.  “I can hang on.”  They either did not understand me or just realized what a dangerous plan that was.  They continued to drag and tug at my arms.  I gathered whatever energy I had left and twisted my body, somehow got a leg over the edge.  One of them grabbed my leg, and with the combined exertions of all three of us, I was gradually levered into the boat.

I lay in bilge of the little runabout, staring up into the blue.

The woman wore shorts over her one-piece swim-suit; her hair was in pigtail braids.  She looked perky and athletic, and she had a clipboard, and I think she would have been more comfortable if she had a whistle too.  She walked between the lap-pool and the kiddie pool, kicked a pool noodle to a toddler splashing in the shallow water.  She walked up to me, and she smelled of chlorine, even above the rank chlorine of the atmosphere.  “Can I help you?” she asked, talking loudly over the echoes.

“I guess,” I said.  “I’m here about swimming lessons.”

2 thoughts on “How I learned to swim from a giant, carnivorous lizard: a true story

  1. The same thing happened to me in Croatia… Fortunately Eva could just see me struggling and got the boat to come back for me…. I thought I was gone… It was my 4th near death experience on boats…. I don’t go on them anymore.

    • Four near-fatal experiences? I think Darwin is trying to give you a hint.

      No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned. A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company. — Francis Barber

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