Thursday, September 6, 2007

Melakan catch of the day

After another bone-rattling tour of the area in the perahu, Abdul returns to where his net has been laid and signals to his partner to start pulling it in. Today’s haul does not appear to be particularly rewarding – a lot of small fish that cannot be useful for eating, some ikan duri, which is also known as goat catfish, a couple of malong (yellow pike congers) and a snapper, which Abdul calls jenahak. The snapper is the best of the catch, since it will fetch the most at market. Once we get back ashore, Abdul will pass his catch onto a middleman who then takes it market across the street. After all is said and done, a fisherman here can make 200 Malaysian Ringgit on a good day – about sixty Canadian dollars. That is then split with one share going to the junior partner and two shares to Abdul.

As they two men finish hauling in the net and stowing the larger fish, I notice that the gentle swells that had welcomed us a few hours earlier have become angrier and that the wind has shifted around from the south to the west. Abdul notices it, too, along with a dark mass of clouds that’s lying off over Indonesia somewhere and heading our way. He doesn’t like this west wind and neither do most of the other fishermen: we’re one of the last boats out. Abdul starts up the engine and orders his partner to pull in the anchor; I'm left to sit on my ass and hold on as the bow swings around and we begin racing to shore with the wind at our backs.

Fishing villages like Abdul’s are found all over the coast, but in this part of the country they are under increasing pressure as developers seek to build resort complexes and vacation condos. This leaves small villages with roofs of corrugated tin sitting in the shadow of gated communities that rise ten or twenty stories high. In fact, most foreign tourists who visit this area probably don’t even realize there are fishing villages tucked all along the coast. The impact of all these developments is already being felt, as some villages are relocated to make way for new construction. For fishermen like Abdul, it’s yet another assault on a lifestyle that has been an important part of Malay culture for thousands of years.

As our perahu nears the shoreline our speed doesn’t slow one bit and it appears we’re going hit the beach with the throttle wide open. Since the village shoreline is crowded with all the other boats that have already come in, I’m wondering where Abdul intends to land us, and how. I glance over my shoulder at him but he barely registers my concern, sitting with one hand on the tiller, the other holding a smoke. At the last moment, he steers for a small opening among the other perahus and we hit the sandy beach at full speed, sliding up until the boat is completely clear of the water. Abdul grabs the engine and pulls the prop out of the water at the last possible moment, then shuts then engine off.

We clamber out of the boat and unload nets, catch, engine and fuel tank. The wind is now really blowing as we heft the perahu above the high water mark and secure everything from the approaching storm. We’re the last to return today; most of the other fishermen are up beside where the catch is sorted for market, watching television in a covered meeting area. Actually, they’re watching professional wrestling on the tv; American professional wrestling. Abdul smiles as we walk past the wrestling fans, shaking his head in the same way I am. “That is not real sport,” he says. “Is not even real job.” Tomorrow I am promised I can see some more aspects of this community and the way it is trying to maintain traditions.

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