Sunday, 9 February 2014

Teach a man to fish

Haji Wahiib teaching fishing, Cocos-style 
 We know this planet as EARTH. But over 70% of the surface of our planet is water and within that water exists 90% of all living creatures. Life on this planet began in the water and the oceans of this world are vital to our existence. Our planet should be called OCEAN. (Glen Cowans, Beyond the Edge, 2009)

Sundays on Home Island are seemingly devoted to relaxing. The ferry doesn’t run and the lagoon is criss-crossed by fishing boats. The upshot of this for me is that while Saturday might have been more cement (see Blog “Laying some foundations”), Sunday was fishing. Haji Wahiib, who is also a captain on the ferry,  had taken me under his wing and invited me to accompany him fishing. This was a great privilege, as tourists pay a lot for this kind of experience. It would also be my first fishing trip on a boat. “Where will we go?” I asked. “I’ll wait and see; it depends on the wind and the tide”.

Fishing was very relaxing but eventful. Everyone knows, it appears, that you shouldn't take bananas on boats. I won't dwell on how bananas are successfully transported around  the world and accept the taboo as fact. In any case, I hadn't heard about it and transgressed the rule by taking a banana on the boat. As a result, apparently, the boat almost capsized. I stood up to cast my rod just as a 1ft wave came from nowhere to slightly upset my balance. I tumbled and the boat almost came on top of me, taking our catch, fishing gear and Haji Wahiib with it. Thankfully Haji Wahiib responded quickly and righted the balance. Then, we spotted turtles. Jumping in to photograph them, I got quite close and could see the head and shell but none of the pictures could be found when I got home. They also swam off extremely quickly. Obviously, they were hantu (ghosts).

Back to more worldy matters...As I walked home through the village, Nek Kyya called out "balek mancing" (finished from fishing)--it's a kind of idiom.We ended up with quite a bounty, most of which will be placed in the freezer for dinners during the week. Haji Wahiib’s wife, Hajah Atie, is a talented cook and we have engaged her to prepare meals for us. A few guys I have spoken to say they have large freezers full of fish, obtained from angling around the lagoon, and I have noticed these large freezers in a couple of houses. I’d like to see how common this is.

The photographs below document the day, while AV footage combines two separate incidents--a reef shark that got away and a sweet-lipped emperor that didn't.

Connecting boat trailer to 4-wheeler

Lowering boat at ramp 
Kepiting ketam balong (land crab) to attract fish

Spreading land crab to attract fish.
Hook has octopus for the littler fish to nibble on. Then gong-gong (spider shell) for the larger ones

Ikan gerapu (Rock cod); meat is soft and great to make ikan sambal (a spicy condiment) but scaling is difficult, so we returned these to the lagoon.

Ikan babi (trigger fish)

Ikan kakap kuning (Sweet lipped emperor)

Ikan mak keripuk (wress)

 Later on...Haji Wahiib and his wife Hajah Atie, who turned part of the catch into a delicious dinner

Fishing has contributed significantly to the diet in the past and today. PJ recalled to me that in his youth:
[We fished] on the lagoon mainly. Most men went every weekend because every single weekend we had to go to South Island to feed the chooks [chickens] because we had a pondok [beach shack]. So on the way back we would fish. We would anchor the boat to fish. Once you got extra you share it around. And when you cook it you put extra oil it will last a couple of days. My parents said as long as you don't touch it [the fish], it will last.... [We did] not fish for fun that time. 
When, in mid-February 2014, volcanic dust from an eruption in Indonesia saw flights to Cocos Islands cancelled, Pak Imannya said even if there are no shipments, and fresh food doesn't arrive, he joked "don't worry, here in Cocos we have plenty of fish". But I think this reflected a truth, fish are truly plentiful. But fishing is not just about survival, it also says a lot about society and culture.

Woman (left) and man (right) fishing at beach
Fishing plays an important role in the reciprocal economy. I will explain, in another Blog, that an economy of gift giving sits alongside the capitalist economy on Home Island. Cocos Malays returning, taking the flight to mainland can often be seen carrying eskies (large Styrofoam boxes) full of fish, I think to give to relatives. In this gift-giving economy, fish are crucial. Put another way, fish are often gifts.

Fishing reflects a gender divide. Angling is largely undertaken by adult men. You can see women and children fishing, casting from the shore sometimes. I've also been told that women do go fishing on the boats. However, I have seen no women fishing out on the lagoon. While women are highly integrated into the capitalist labour market (see the photos in Blog “Earning a Living”), fishing seems to be something of an obsession for men. This might compare to rearing roosters for Balinese men, surfing for surfers, or motorcycle maintenance for bikers.

Fishing is a meaningful activity. Getting money from the ATM is not something about which much significance is placed. It is mostly an ends oriented, instrumental action. For people on the mainland, when you add the cost (petrol, bait etc.) and effort (usually several hours) involved, fishing makes no sense. It would be more efficient in time and money to buy fish from a professional fisherman. But a different kind of rationality dominates in angling. The point is to do things the right way, and the right way is for a man to go and fish for his family. From this perspective, fishing is eminently sensible. On Home Island, it might also make sense from a 'rational' economic perspective, as meat is dear and fish are plentiful.

None of this, of course, is exotic. Fishing resonates in many other cultures, as books, magazines, and a huge international industry attests to. History supports the point; we could look to the Christian tradition. Aspiring to escape what they saw as religious persecution,the Puritan forefathers approached King James I to endorse their project of settling in the New World. When his royal majesty was told the little band proposed to support itself by fishing, he exclaimed : "So God have my soul, 'tis an honest trade! 'Twas the Apostles' own calling." James was probably alluding to Matthew 4:18-20, one of my favourite New Testament passages:
Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men."  Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.
The symbolism wouldn’t have worked if Peter and Andrew had been butchers or mowers! While the specific symbolic significance clearly differs between cultures, looking at the Christian tradition shows that the appeal of fishing as a symbol is clearly not limited to the Cocos Malays.

Finally, in the broader context of human culture, oceans have played a crucial role. Incas and Aztecs built civilizations in mountains. The Mongols built a civilisation on grasslands. Generally, however, civilisations have been developed in river valleys (Ancient Egypt on the Nile; Mesopotamia built around the Tigris and Euphrates). Sometimes these are a fair way up river, such as Indus and Angkor. Others are near the sea. The Indian Ocean has provided a freeway of sorts for trade in goods and ideas for two millennia. It was in this context that the Cocos Keeling island were inhabited in 1826. Through the fish and trade the Indian Ocean has supported the Cocos Malays and peoples on its shores in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

In sum, fishing for Cocos Malays, as in many other societies, is much more than an activity sourcing fish from the sea. However, to understand what fishing means among the Cocos Malays, I need to go much deeper than these opening observations. I feel confident that, if I can explain fishing better, I’ll be able to explain Cocos Malay culture better too.

(For anglers who might be reading this Blog, I am learning about fishing as we go. Anyway, in the fishing excursion pictured above, we used mono line. We used no sinkers and, after we lost our rigs on the bombies (protruding reef and coral), no swivels; just the hook and bait. The idea was to get the bait to move around, attracting the smaller fish, and then the sweet lips we were after. Haji Wahid used a hand line; I used a small rod. The boat was anchored and the water was probably 2-4 foot in depth on the mid-tide.)

Postscript March 8: Fishing is real

After I wrote the blog, Monika posted it on Facebook. Hajah Atie was kind enough to comment "this is real":

On a subsequent fishing trip, I also found myself thinking, without reflection, "this is real". 

Haji Wahiib was idly sketching this while passing time. It's a drawing, but fishing is 'real'. You think about fishing even when you are not fishing. It is a deeply meaningful activity.

On the one hand, of course it's real, like your experience of your nose or my experience of the laptop I'm writing on. But there are experiences that strike us humans as much deeper--the kinds of experience or behaviour people are referring to when they say "keep it real" or "the real thing". Haji Wahiib has invited me on another fishing trip, "but no camera" he insists. And now I understand. The camera just gets in the way--on the boat, when I cast the rod, and stop to take photos. It's just a distraction from what really counts; the fishing.


  1. Great post!!!!!!!Consider that different cultures learned things at different times. The oldest civilization on earth is the Australian Aborigines. They came to Australia 35,000 years ago. That's 25,000 years before the 'agricultural revolution', before written language and farming and civilization and village building. Nobody knows where they came from, and how they managed to get across at least several hundred miles of ocean.Thanks:)

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