Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Gone fishing

Mid-morning in a small coastal village in southeast Asia, a couple of hours south from Kuala Lumpur, and I’m struggling to help three guys heft a fiberglass boat down into the warm waters of the Strait of Malacca. How I ended up here sliding in the dirty sand with a bamboo pole over my shoulder and a trio of Malaysian fishermen laughing at me would require more time and space than this blog offers, so read the damn book when it comes out. Just suffice it to say I’m going fishing.

The open, six-metre boat, what they call a perahu, wallows a bit in the shallows as her master drops the outboard engine into the seas. Abdul starts the Suzuki motor up, calls out a brief warning and then the boat jumps forward through the swells, heading for the fishing grounds about five kilometers offshore where the men work. Slamming through the waters, I’m incessantly jarred as we careen off waves and Abdul periodically swerves to avoid logs floating in the Strait. He’s over a decade younger than me with features already weathered from setting out daily upon these waters since he was twenty-one, the son and grandson of fishermen.

It takes about ten minutes to make it to the fishing grounds, where at least a half dozen other boats are already moored. Abdul cuts the motor, talks quickly with another fisherman and then sets about preparing his net. With his partner, they lay it out and send it over the gunwales and then tell me there’s nothing more to be done for a couple of hours: it’s all up to the fish now. So Abdul fires up the outboard and takes me sightseeing, out towards the main shipping lanes of the Strait of Malacca.

The Strait of Malacca is one of the most important waterways in the world, a place in which a third of the world’s commerce traverses every year, with hundreds of tankers, container ships and other vessels transiting each day. It has also been one of the main locations for modern-day pirates to ply their trade, attacking commercial ships and local fishermen with a regularity that is shocking.

About 25 kilometres out, Abdul slows the engine of the perahu. He doesn’t have to tell me why, because there is a line of immense vessels plodding past us: oversized oil tankers, a container ship laden with metal boxes and a couple of tugboats hauling barges. We watch this display of international commerce for a bit, and I am reminded of the scene in Jurassic Park when the visitors to the island first see the dinosaurs – those immense brachiosaurus behemoths slowly walking along. That’s what these steel ships are like; quiet, intent and powerful.

Returning to the fishing grounds, we throw the anchor over and settle down to wait another hour before pulling the net. Between drags on his cigarette, Abdul tells me the struggles to earn a living fishing extend beyond the weather and the risk those big ships will run them over. Lately, they've had to deal with Indonesians coming over in the middle of the night to steal their boats and engines. Last month the village saw five engines and seven boats stolen, which amounts to a huge financial loss for these people, and there’s no insurance or other recompense available. Abdul sits by his engine waiting for his fish and tells me that every village around here – every village, he emphasizes – is dealing with the same problem.

I ask if there's a local name for these thieves and Abdul gives me a look of disgust. "Perompak," he says while flicking his cigarette into the sea, "But you can call them pirates".

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