“DO Not Disturb: Alligators Praying!”
Someone should mount a signpost with those words boldly written on it by the waterfall at Ohum Monastery, Nigeria. With teeth that mock the pillars of the Himalayas, the monstrous creatures lurk underwater and in the surrounding forest and seem to appear only when a prey is alone.
I did not know that when I decided to visit the monastery a year ago in the hope of conquering my writer’s block.
Why a monastery, of all places?
Believe me, I had absolutely no religious reasons. So it is not like I went there for a fast-and-prayer session in order to regain my muse. The monastery, located in Enugu State in the southeastern Nigeria, is popular for its scenic views – a mountain most pilgrims climb with naked knees as atonement for their sins and the waterfall which most people believe is filled with God’s presence and healing.
On the way, I felt my troubles shrink away from me towards Ninth Mile, the market town behind. Perhaps they could not handle the peaceful trees flanking the pothole-ridden road, or maybe they found the distance of the monastery from town disquieting.
If only I had known my excitement would be capped with a dance with hungry alligators, I would have commanded our quaky bus to a halt and alighted with the excuse that I could no longer endure the absence of a shock absorber on the skeletal vehicle. I would have retreated along with my troubles.
On our arrival at the monastery, I wondered how a place so crowded with visitors could maintain such unflinching quietness. However, since I found watching people meditate boring, I proceeded to the mountain, only to discover there is nothing mountainous about the grassy hill. Well, I did find the climbers’ bleeding knees perturbing.
After a day of enjoying the music orchestrated by the grand piano and the rich voices of monks in their hollow praying hall, after despising the lacking meals served every eight hours, my muse did not return. So I thought camping in the waterfall (that includes a lonely six-mile trek into the woods; don’t these monks love endurance activities?) would be refreshing and inspiring.
The waterfall was as well lonely and pathetic, and I went skinny-dipping, meditating in the medley of strange sounds, scent, and greenery, and disregarding whatever myth surrounding it.
I suddenly felt a rhythm in the water, giant ripples flowing my way. Something—something really big—stirred behind me. I froze, pleading with God to forgive me for skinny-dipping in his presence.
Then I spun around.
Three hungry-eyed alligators skulked towards me and I remembered I was told visitors to the waterfall should always have company. I quickly swam towards the bank. The ugly creatures turned furious, forming a triangular perimeter as they splashed after me. I intensified my efforts. How could such an alligator-ridden waterfall be filled with the presence of God?
I reached the bank, picked up my clothes—I did not have the luxury to jump into them— and dived for the nearest tree around, the animals in my wake. I was about shinnying up the tree when I felt a tug on one of the clothes in my hand. I looked down and screamed, letting go of the garments.
The alligators tore at them, probably frisking them for pieces of me. I used the opportunity and sprang onto a low branch, then scrambled the rest of my way up.
The alligators rounded the tree, salivating as they stared up at me. I wonder what would have become of me if they could climb trees.
I hovered on a branch, shivering, praying someone would come and find me. But I was miles away from the centre of the monastery, and the sun was already sinking in the western horizon. The beasts would not leave. They all huddled there by the trunk, hoping I would drop from the sky.
Finally, darkness blanketed the sky. I could not sleep. I did not sleep. Fleas fed on my naked skin as if sent by the alligators to bring me down. The night lethargically crept towards dawn. I waited.
At last, the sun awoke, and the alligators were gone; but I clung to the tree, dreading the possibility of them lurking nearby or in the water, whose bank was dangerously close to the tree, waiting for me to alight.
I had to wait thirty more minutes before a search party – including three females – came looking for me. I have never been more ashamed. I was nude, my clothes lying in scraps on the ground.
The leader of the party was a bushy-bearded monk. As he neared the tree, I sensed the water ripple, as though something inside was cowering. Of course, I immediately recounted my encounter, but the monk said that I had had a rough night and affirmed that by swimming in the water.
Up until now I still wonder if the alligators were afraid, perhaps, of him. Or is the waterfall truly filled with God’s presence and he was the keeper? Or were the beasts merely daunted by the number of people in the search party?
In any case, the adventurous break got me back on track, and I went home feeling recharged, my mind seething with new story ideas. However, if I ever revisit the waterfall, it would be only to plant that signpost.