Yesterday I stepped out of my cabin with my camera, with no inclination as to what I was going to do with my day. Many days here start this way, and I just wander around like bait until a fish bites me. And yesterday one did, a big one. And, pun unintended, it was actually the chance to go sea fishing with a group of eight men. I was walking down the beach pretending to admire the tide, while actually looking for company, when my friend Renulfo emerged from the water in his fishing mask and spear. “What’s the gente up to today?” I asked him. “They’re going fishing. You’re not going with them?” The people here have a way of asking a positive question by phrasing it as a negative question: “You’re not hungry?” instead of, “Are you hungry?” and, “You don’t miss your family?” Of course I miss my family! But anyway, in retrospect I think Renulfo was joking when he asked me if I wasn’t going fishing. But I responded, “Can I?” And one thing led to the next, and in a matter of 60 seconds I was speeding off in a motor boat on what was probably supposed to be a “men’s day out.” But it’s alright, I’d be their discreet photojournalist for the day, I thought. I ended up having a blast. I am so impressed with their skill. I think about something Joe Rogan once said about the gratification of eating something that you caught with your bare hands or that you sniped with a rifle when you’ve been hungry for days, on the hunt, with your appetite at the futility of your alacrity to catch the prey. And how good the food tastes then, when you’ve gone through that whole cat and mouse chase to get it. How good food tastes when your camping, my dad would say. And I learned later that tourists in Panama City will pay $18 for one of these Combute conch shells that the men here dive for. I think of the invisible asian hands in the sweatshops sewing nonstop with honed precision, and the “made in china” merchandise we assumed just appeared out of thin air.
Men like to go fast. And off onto the horizon we sped for about thirty minutes, alongside the coast of lagoons and caves and deep green forest. We finally reached an inlet where we stopped. Each man abruptly put on a mask, grabbed a spear, and jumped overboard. They took off in different directions and within about ten minutes, they were returning one by one with spears full of fish: big, small, wide, speckled, the thin tall ones that look like they’ve been put through a pasta press, lobsters… others managed to swim back to the boat with three or four gigantic conch shells. I couldn’t help but notice how out of breath they all were. But they were having so much fun. They’d holler and curse and pant and in the next instant be diving down again. When one returned to rest I took his mask and tried the task out for myself. It was impossible. The water was crystal clear yet I didn’t see a thing! Not one dern conch shell! And I must have been swimming for thirty minutes. It really takes a trained eye to see some things. I’m sure they just camouflaged into the deep-sea backdrop of the ocean floor. Underwater I saw the others gracefully and deftly glide by, pivot, plunge for a shell. With the current and the waves as strong as they were, I lost my breath quickly. And soon I couldn’t replenish my oxygen enough to dive deep enough to make a good effort. I returned to the boat and the others, audibly exhausted persisted. Some swam all the way to the shore and collected sacks of mussels from the beach boulders, and then swam back to the boat carrying the loaded sacks. Again I was baffled by how virtually absent complaining is from these people’s verbiage. At least complaint of physical ailment. The other day my host sister was pealing rice, which, if you don’t know, is extremely labor intensive. When the rice is picked from the stalk, it looks like a fan of wheat grass. You have to comb all the rice kernels from the grass blades. Once you have a huge barrel of rice kernels, you lay them out on a blanket in the sun to dry. And when they have dried for a couple of hours you collect them again and put them into a big mortal, take a pestle that looks like an amateur weapon from the cavemen days, and you pound away for about an hour like Fred Flinstone, until the shells have separated from all the individual pieces of rice. But the pestle itself is so heavy, it is like pounding a forty-pound barbell up and down for an hour. I tried it myself and became exhausted within a matter of minutes. But Angelica never let on to the pain it caused her. And I did not know of it until later that night, when she laid motionless on the floor of the kitchen, her cold having moved to debilitating lethargy from the task.
me sitting in a rice field
Angelica pealing rice
But what impressed me even more about these men as they fished was that they hardly acknowledged when they caught a fish. Whereas anyone I know would be flooded with pride, quick to take a picture, quicker to bloat the story with exaggeration, these men didn’t congratulate each other, or themselves, just kept on going. They kept going until the three or so hours were up, and when they returned home and presented the catch to their wives, the wives did not jump for joy. They did not pellet their husbands with kisses thinking how able, and heroic, and sexy they were for providing for the whole family. They just took the catch in their arms and turned around and put it in a pot to prepare.
But before we got home God granted us one more treat. A whale came up to greet us, no more than thirty feet from our boat. It blew water out of its blowhole, flipped its tail, and disappeared again under the water.