Saturday, 22 February 2014

Eat, Pray, Crab

The ecosystem of Home Island has been barely conducive to gardens or rearing animals. In this context, produce from the ocean plays an enormous role in the economic and ritual life of Cocos Malays here. One prized food is mud crabs (kepiting rajungan).  Haji Wahiib invited me to accompany him on a boat trip (Friday night, 21 February) to South Island (Pulu Atas) to search for this elusive crustacean.

Calm waters at the jetty augured well for the expedition.
It was so still, the water surface appeared oily, but when I looked down I could see turtles, reef sharks and other creatures.
The sun was setting, so Haji Wahiib needed to get set for prayers.
We stopped at this pondok (beach shack).
While there was still light, Haji Wahiib fixed the lamp we would be using.
Haji Wahiib was happy with Coke, but he obliged when I asked for a coconut. 
Cutting to the core of the coconut.
Ritual ablutions (wudhu) before the prayers.
Before heading out into the dark, it was necessary for Haji Wahiib to perform sunset prayers. Here was one man, on a beach, the sun setting, praying alone on this Island. Yet he also praying with millions of fellow Muslims for whom the sun was setting. In Java, Sumatra, Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand, western China, in big cities, little villages, and some most likely too, outside on tiny islands, all were praying in unity facing the Kaaba (the Cube) in the city of Mecca.

Sunset prayers (Magrib) facing towards Mecca.
Lamp at the front of the boat is on and we are ready to go.
After prayers as darkness set in, we waded knee deep in water with our reef boots on. I pulled the boat along while Haji Wahiib spotted crabs. As soon as he saw one, he rushed over to spear it from above. The mud crabs would try to burrow under the mud, hold onto the roots of trees, and burrow under rocks. One time Haji Wahiib missed the crab on the first attempt to spear. The mud crab used its pincer to hold on fast to the spear. So tight was its grip, that after a few minutes of Haji Wahiib furiously shaking the spear and the crab attached to it, the pincer eventually fell off the crab.

When I tried to spear one, I found my spear deflected off the thick shell. I found it was hard-going, as the mud underwater sometimes gave way from ankle-deep to knee-deep. I was covered with sweat and insects seeking out the lamp light. We frequently came across turtles and gropers sleeping in the water, not to mention little reef sharks, one of which, dazzled by the lights, swam into my legs. 

Shaking crab off the spear and into the red bucket on the boat.
We ended up getting 9 crabs. You can see little holes in their shells, where they were speared.
One of the land crabs Haji Wahiib caught escaped from the red bucket and decided to hide under my seat. Luckily, this gave me an excuse to lie across the seat on the trip home, with my feet hanging off one side of the boat and head resting on the other. I hovered between sleeping and waking, dreamily gazing up at the Milky Way, feeling very fortunate. It’s not often that an outsider is lucky enough to have an experience like this. I hope I never forget it.

We got home at 10pm. I asked Haji Wahiib to strike a pose with one of the crabs.
The next day Hajah Atie made chilli crabs with her husband's haul.
The next day word had spread about our catch. Pak Azrani, Maz and some other guys asked me about our untung (luck/gain) from the previous night. Hajah Atie cooked up her husband's haul. Given the size of the mud crabs, there is a lot more meat and it takes longer to cook as the shell is thicker. The resultant meat is sweeter than other crabs.
Mud crabs in the wok.
Different aspects of Cocos Malay culture are evident in the crabbing expedition. Making the whole exercise meaningful was  economy (survival and making a living), social structure (male and female separation of labour), beliefs and ritual (prayer). Put another way, culture provides a framework within which we humans orient ourselves to the environment, to each other, and to the greater principles or powers we see as underlying reality.

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