Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Lives of Fishermen

I got my first canoe when I was twelve years old. It was a dugout, which I bought new for I think forty bucks from a skilled local craftsman whose name I can't remember. A criminally low price for something he’d worked on for weeks: chopping the tree with an axe, burning out the middle, and then hand-hewing the wood until he had the perfectly shaped little boat-for-one. And a small one, at that: I was a pint-sized, introverted, and bookish little pre-teen, the child of missionary schoolteachers growing up barefoot and half wild in the Amazon basin of Peru, South America.
I spent my childhood on a missionary center built on the shore of Yarinacocha, a muddy oxbow lake outside of the jungle town of Pucallpa. The area was fairly well populated by the time I came along. But in 1992, when I was twelve, there were still toucans and the occasional monkey in the trees. Iguanas skittered through the bushes, and if we were lucky we might catch ourselves a pet boa constrictor in the grass.

photo by Eric Rutter

In rainy season, the water level of the lake would rise twenty to thirty feet, so the lower-lying opposite shore was dotted with only a few palm-roof houses on stilts, and the lake itself was home to more than a few piranhas, freshwater dolphins, and one morning, in high water when the greater Ucayali river ran through brown and quick, a lone manatee that I saw as I headed down to fish—a whiskered old man poking his beard up through the water hyacinths to have a look at the boy peering at him from atop the muddy bank.
My new dugout canoe opened the lake to me. The vast, sweeping body of water became a playground where I would dip my hand-cut paddle, propelling myself quickly up tributary streams and all over, looking for a better place to fish, to swim, or just to lie back and watch the thick clouds rolling by overhead.
When a pod of dolphins was passing, I would often pound the handle of my paddle rhythmically on the sloshy wet bottom of the canoe. Sometimes this would make them curious and they’d swim over, popping up at the last moment to give me a little bump or a rolling eye-glance before continuing on their way. Bufeos, they were called. The locals said they were possessed by evil spirits and would steal the souls of children in the night. But I—the outsider with the TV and VCR in the one air conditioned room of his home—thought of the dolphins as friends. To me, they were Flipper… or even the bottlenose on that Seaquest show, the one that would swim around defusing bombs, or whatever else needed doing.
To my knowledge, none of the dolphins in Yarinacocha ever defused any bombs… nor did they steal any souls. But I was still afraid for their wellbeing the morning I paddled out into the mist that was playing its white fingers across the glassy surface of the lake, paddling my dugout toward the fishermen who were just then beginning to lay out their nets.
The fishermen had a long boat called a pequi-pequi, after the sound of the Briggs & Stratton engine on the back. The engine was controlled by the boat driver with a thick metal handle that he used to steer the propeller that whirred in the water at the end of a ten foot metal shaft. The engine sat in a hole in a metal plate, designed so that the driver could quickly lift the shaft free of the water when it was shallow, or to ensure the propeller would clear an underwater branch.
There were seven fishermen in the boat. All with tree-trunk legs and thick, corded muscles on their arms, necks, and backs. Most were dressed only in cheap cotton, speedo-style underwear. They had cut off their engine and paddled in silently, but when they reached what they determined to be a good spot, the driver stuck the knot of his nylon pull-cord into its slot, wrapped the cord in tight circles around the metal on top of the engine, and yanked hard on the small wooden handle. With a puff of blue smoke, the Briggs & Stratton engine roared to life and the driver lowered the propeller into the water as, at the same time, the smallest of the fishermen leapt from the prow of the boat into the water, holding tightly with one hand to the piece of wood that was tied to one end of the net. In his other hand was a small wooden paddle. As the boat made its full-speed arc in the water and the fishermen still in the boat fed out the net as fast as they could, the man in the water kicked his powerful legs and beat on the surface of the lake with the flat of the paddle—presumably driving the fish toward the net that was already beginning to close back in on him.
When the circle was complete, the fishermen in the boat grabbed the wooden handle and pulled it into the boat as their companion scrambled up as well. The driver cut the motor and all seven of the fishermen hauled the ends of the net in, the corded strands of their muscles rippling and glinting as the morning light cut through the mist, sparking the lake water that was sheeting up with the dark green nylon of their nets.
I’d watched a man making one of those nets, once, with an elaborate wood framework and a spool of green nylon string, tying knot after knot after knot. An old, near-blind man with gnarled fingers who was probably much younger than he appeared—stooped and worn out by years of doing what these men were doing.
That morning on the lake, though, there was no age or death looming. There was only laughter and adrenaline, the joy and thrill and excitement as the fish began to flash and leap out of the water, frantic to escape the vibrating alien force they sensed closing in on them. I watched the fishermen as they heaved in perfect unison. I felt their adrenaline rising as they knew, from experience and smell and the hundreds of small movements traveling through the net to their fingers, that this would be an especially good catch.
photo by Eric Rutter

I watched, a small boy on the cusp of a painfully drawn-out path to manhood. I, a late bloomer who already was beginning to feel isolated from my friends, who were living an experience I could not yet comprehend. I watched the fishermen in their unity and masculine solidarity. They were men, working together with their bodies, straining to catch the fish that would feed their families and pay for their children’s school uniforms—their hope, perhaps, for a future beyond the day to day hardscrabble of life in Peru in the early nineties, where the income gap seemed insurmountable… at least for poor men whose blood was more native than Spanish invader.
Such was the class divide of Peru. And there I was, a little white boy with his TV education and his destiny across an ocean in a country where he’d be given a college education and handed the world on a platter. A little white boy who ate balanced meals and had new clothes and, while not rich by the standards of the world he’d been brought away from, still knew enough to feel the distance between himself and these men of strength and fish and water and sky.
As the net closed and they hauled their flashing bounty from the lake, I marveled at the diversity of their haul. The deep, striped green of huge tukanare, or peacock bass; the long, silver-flashing barracuda-like fish with curved, cruel-looking pincer teeth; the piranhas with their bear-trap mouths opening and closing as the fishermen carefully flicked most of them back overboard—too bony to sell. The net and then the boat filled with the bounty of the lake, with fish that I in all my long days of pole-fishing had never imagined, nor seen. There were no dolphins, thankfully, but all the sudden I was struck with a lancing feeling of deep loss. That all this beauty would flop around in the water  at the bottom of the boat and then slowly choke and die, to be sold and cooked and eaten in the town down the lake, before the day was through.
I felt that loss but also the shame of being myself as I watched them pile up their nets and start their engine and turn back for the port, and the market. I was just a boy—an outsider to the world of men: their work, their struggles, and their joys. This was what they did—what they had to do—to survive, while life gave me a dugout canoe and leisure time to enjoy it. These men had been working since they were children. These men would fish together, like this, until they were gnarled old men tying knots in the shade of a tree.
And me? I would grow up, eventually, to step into a gleaming silver tube and wing my way into the sky. Across the ocean to a world where these fishermen and their lives would seem to be nothing more than a quaint anecdote or a cultural footnote; their stories and laughter and blood forgotten by the sweep of history. I would carry them with me, though, into manhood in a world lived not in flesh and bone but in digital flashes across an impersonal and uncaring web. I would sit in my box of a house all day, writing my stories and theirs. Wondering if, for all the convenience and privilege I’d been granted, there might not be something in the struggle of those fishermen’s lives that made them far wealthier than I could ever be.
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Note: This post originally appeared on the "VIO Adventures" travel blog of one of my old pals, the illustrious Jared Bodner. Jared's older brother Jesse was one of the very best treeplanters I ever had the privilege to work with as a foreman, and Jared went on to be an absolute pounder on my brother Jo-Ben's crew as well. You should check out Jared's stuff, because Jared's amazing.

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