July 30, 2011

As a citizen of the largest maritime country beyond planetary perimeter, I grew up to believe that a perfect holiday would always include a boat, a large body of water and rigorous swimming. But I found out long time ago, I was in the wrong. Three hundred and fifty years plus plus of colonialization turned the nation into dry land oriented people. Fish was no good to be imported during colonialization when freezer on board was just a far reached dream. Spices was. So, everyone was forced to cut down trees and plant. Even the fishermen. The unconvinced sailor-tribes who grew up with religion so weird telling them to sail all over the world, were the only one left who knew how to sail the unchartered water fearlessly. The song “My Ancestor Was A Sailor” (Nenek Moyangku Seorang Pelaut) became a feel good song no one really feels good about. Sailing is now a forgotten skill. Coastal villages are ruled by these unconverted sailor-tribes, blameless strangers to the idea of conserving and preserving coral reef ecosystem.
In modern days, anything to do with sea became something of a luxury, except for the fisherman’s live. So, when an opportunity came for me to join a friend’s fishing boat to sail along the northern coast of Flores Island, I quickly ignored and discarded all my promises to the big city of Jakarta. Sailing is tragically expensive. I had to go.

Heru is a friend whose business was trading live reef fish for Hong Kong and Chinese market. He was to sail along the coast between Ende and Maumere stopping at villages to convert fisherman’s bomb squads and cyanide killers to a fishing method that was friendly to the coral reef ecosystem. He is an unusual character in live fish trading. He is a regular young bubbly Chinese businessman, but what sets him apart from many of his business counterparts is his advanced level of ‘greed management’. He believes in long term community based business and to expand slowly while caring for ecosystem to save for future generation. (I know, I know, it sounds like the damndest cliche, but it is just something that has to be witnessed to believe and I do not want to risk sounding like an over enthusiastic Fish Prophet/Profit follower, worse still False Fish Warrior. So, read on.) Besides, whenever I joined his fishing boat, a holiday was never just a leisure time to enjoy the scenery in slow pace. It would definitely tear my heart to pieces and my big city conscience would be bruised, black and blue. I needed it after the numbing effect of fast big city life style. I needed to become human again. To be Freddie Freeloader with conscience.

May 27th, 2011 – Jakarta to Denpasar

We flew Air Asia, not knowing that they did not waive diving equipments. Carrying nearly 200 kilos of baggage consisted mostly of diving and filming equipments, it caused a rather hefty damage of nearly three million rupiah to our pockets. I prayed the trip would be worth it if not more.

Once we checked in a hotel in Sanur, the divers and cameramen double checked their equipments and discussed ‘rescue scenario’. In emergency, a lift bag carried by safety diver would rescue the expensive equipment while the cameraman had to save his own life. Pretty damn tricky. I guessed it was one of the reasons I gave up diving long time ago. I just did not see the point of unnecessary hassle to see fish.

May 28th, 2011 – Denpasar to Ende

We flew propeller plane, but this time Wings Air waived diving equipment and we ended up paying only three hundred thousand rupiah. On board, my eyes feasted on the amazing aerial views of East Nusa Tenggara. My heart skipped a beat knowing soon I would be immersed in the beauty below. Fudge. Life’s good!!

Light rain greeted us in Ende and we had to forget the idea to see the wonder of Kelimutu Lake to be able to reach the small remote village of Watu Bara before midnight. The scenery that caught our eyes before night fell looked amazing, but after that we had to be content with inky black night. On typical Dutch colonial built road, our cars twisting and turning smoothly along the mountainous region. The air was cool and unmercifully froze the entire smoking passengers with their windows rolled down. After going uphill for at least one and a half hour, the car made a turn and I felt warmer suffocating air hit my face. We were approaching the coast line and leaving the melancholic smooth colonial built road to experience newly built one full of potholes. At one point, we even had to get out of the car either the bridge looked too rickety or potholes resembled small ponds. I knew we were approaching the so-called disadvantaged areas of NTT: the coast line. Somehow the Dutch legacy of prioritizing plantation in the high dry land continued, and fishermen were mostly overlooked.

During the ride, our driver Nelo told us ‘heroic’ stories that gave me a glimpse of the locals’ temperament. A corrupt village headman, just last month was beheaded by the villagers. Eight villagers came to the police to submit the head and confessed guilty to protect the whole village. Nelo’s stories continued more or less in the same tone. Once blade was unsheathed, blood must spill. By then the air was so thick by humidity and it definitely did not put our minds at ease.

After nearly three hours of back breaking drive, we arrived at a darkened beach. Lighted by the dim torch light, I could see it was not a beautiful beach at all. Three motorized dinghies awaited us, swayed wildly by the crashing waves. That was not the first time I joined the fishing boat, I was familiar with the drama involved in getting in and out of dinghy that looked like more of a motorized fiber bucket. Afar, I could see the majestic well lit fishing boat. It gave me comfort and diverted my attention from the dinghy drama that soon would slap me in the face. Turned out it was quite a gentle slap, and we were approaching the boat under the stars lit sky caressed by sweet sea breeze.

The boat called Pulau Mas 168, she was a simple beauty. It was a modified Phinisi around 60 gross tonnages, capable of transporting 2.5 tonnes of fish manned by 12 crews. After putting all luggage safely in captain tiny cabin (the only cabin), we hung out at the back of the upper deck where hot drinks awaited us. The memory of rough dry land journey evaporated into thin air. For me, returning to the boat was like coming home and for other first timers in the team, they were completely awe struck by the combination of calm water, stars lit sky and the comfort of the gentle giant we were riding on. Of course everyone got ambitious of where to sleep and started looking for their spots on the upper deck, while I knew I would take the captain’s bed safely enclosed within the tiny upper cabin. Open air sleeping was never my forte. That night we slept like babies.

Day 01 – Dayat

There was only one reason why we were all onboard the fish boat: we were there to do what we could to see, to document, to research lives of Indonesian fishermen. Part holiday, part personal CSR – we didn’t get paid, but we worked (according to our individual skill) to get the right portrayal of Indonesian fishermen. Get this: Indonesia is a maritime country, yet the fishermen are amongst the poorest. What’s gone wrong?

Staggering beauty that surrounded us could not hide the fact that fishermen’s livelihood were under so much pressure and the clear blue water was on the verge of overfishing. It was an empty beauty. It was a beautiful picture without depth of field. A Monalisa reprinted on cheap calendar paper. And I met Dayat….

My job was to find out about his life, but had to do it in a way that was unobtrusive. I met him at Heru’s fish cage. He was introduced to me by fish cage’s caretaker. Dayat was a young man of late 20’s. He was a native Ende from the mountainous region of the island. He had the usual hardened face and burned skin of a fisherman, but not unpleasant to see because the twinkle in his eyes and his easy going nature. He was one of Heru’s 4500 fishermen spread all over central to eastern Indonesia. He was an ex-blast fishing fisherman and his front teeth were clipped like many of them. I was not weary of him unlike some sleazy destructive fishermen when they approached me. Dayat did not seem to hold any anger or looking for a peace of mind. He was just a peaceful creature. A very rare quality to be had by a fisherman.

“It used to no one could tell me not to blast the corals and if anyone dared to do so, I would not hesitate to blow them up,” he said calmly.

“Heh? Why?” I could not hide my reaction.

“Well, I needed more money. I needed it fast. Got mouths to feed.”

“You mean, you could not make enough money from line fishing?”

“You must be kidding, Miss. Before Mr. Heru was here, fresh live fish only cost a third of what it is now. With blast fishing easily I made more in a day.”

He must had been really cold blooded judging from his composure.

“So now that you change your fishing method, have you came across any difficulties or substantial decline in your earning?” I seriously hope he would not find my inquisitive questions annoying.

“Miss, you have to understand that he was born with scales!” I heard the fish cage caretaker interrupted the conversation.

“What do you mean?”

“He’s the best fisherman around here. Fish literally came to him. That’s what makes him five times more dangerous than other fishermen if we let him do destructive fishing,” the caretaker glanced knowingly at Dayat who looked sheepish, not knowing whether it was an insult or a compliment.

“Yes, I am rather good at what I am doing,” softly he added without a trace of arrogance.

“Tell me again, so you came from the highland of Ende, correct?”

“Yes, my parents are farmers…”

“So, where did you get this sea faring and fishing skill?”

“I don’t know. I was already in love with sea since the beginning of time…,” he laughed uncertainly. “I never wanted to become a farmer. I always felt this strange attraction to the sea and spent more time at it than helping my parents. My sisters, they all went to university and became civil servants. I never wanted to do anything but close to sea. I skipped school and didn’t finish my education.”

“So, you’re happy now being so close to the sea?”

“Very content and cannot be happier. Besides, I am making more money than my sisters who are working in the city,” he smiled proudly.

“Are you married?”

“Yes, to a woman from a Sulawesi.” The afore mentioned sailor-tribes, again.

“Why? Can’t you find local woman to marry to?”

This time he could not answer my rhetorical question. Even Dayat needed a woman who could understand his attraction to the sea that might be too difficult to comprehend for any local girls from his native village. The coast of Ende was inhabited mainly by people from Sulawesi. It was understandable if Dayat who spent so much time at the sea, found a woman at the very place he felt most at ease. A stupid comment popped up in my head ‘hope she’s not a mermaid’.

“Last but not least, do you understand now why you should stop doing destructive fishing? Honestly?”

“Honestly, I just realized that my love to the sea is because of its unsurpassed beauty and excitement it offers. I inherited that from people before me. Why would I inherit an empty sea to my children? I want my children to be able to enjoy everything sea can offer. I want a standing legacy for them. I know it’s really hard, but I don’t see anything’s wrong with it, do you?” This time he said it looking far into the horizon, the playful twinkle died. He even doubted himself, but at least the knowledge that he was blameless could console him. I said farewell to him and headed back to PLM 168.

We spent the rest of day ‘playing’ in the water. Three motorized dinghies ferried us around the bay. Some went diving, taking underwater footage; some went snorkeling to observe shallow waters. Long time ago, Heru boasted about the area: acropora as big as A1 battery. It was basically untouched, unless the bomb squads and cyanide killers got there before us. We found it. I saw dinner table corals which would be able to accommodate the whole Last Supper contingent. Truth be told, I had never seen those acropora as big as A1 battery in all colors: blue, green, purple, pink. Blah blah blah blah. 99% of it was in very good condition. A confused 2 meter black tip shark circled us twice, instantly sent me into panic mode, but Heru did not let me get back to the dinghy. He said,”What’s a shar that’s gone compare to what you’re not going to see in front of you?” He pointed out to the part of the bay we had not explored, yet. I tried not to look in dismay at the distance we had yet to explore, at least 3 kilometers in length. Dang!

Soon I calmed down and snorkeled in complete awe, while the conversation with Dayat was being replayed constantly in my head. ‘I want my children to be able to enjoy everything sea can offer. I want a standing legacy for them. I know it’s really hard, but I don’t see anything’s wrong with it, do you?’ Thank God, we all know sea was body of water, one or two drops of tear would soon disappear without a trace even shark with its superior sense of smell could not tell….

Day 2 – The Bomb Squad

In the morning we sailed on, from the village of Watubara to Ngagekeo. Everyone was nearly silent enjoying endless cups of coffee while looking at the view. It was so hard to believe we were not in location of The Lord of The Rings. The sea, the hills, the greens, the isles were out of this world, gracefully surrounded in flawless light blue water while the sun unmercifully blast through the cloudless blue sky and burn our skin to be perfectly cooked, yet we sat unflinchingly.

In a few hours we arrived in Ngagekeo. Too lazy to get into the water right away, we sat around the table and discussing the main problem of the area: BOMB SQUAD. Head of village came over to our boat and started spilling raw facts of blast fishing casualties. Coral reef definitely suffered, but families also lost bread winners. Unneccessarily tired in the morning from hearing the head of village, we got on the dinghies to visit white sandy beaches. We saw the proof of the over active bomb squad. Underwater, it was as smooth as a golf course, decorated with white rubbles. Everything was literally blown to smithereens. Tiny transparent fish looked desolate swimming back and forth in the clear water. No doubt, it was the perfect condition for worriless swimming. I didn’t have to be worried of stepping on underwater objects. I didn’t have to be worried of intimidating school of fish. I could swim in complete silent. But, silent ocean was an eerie thought. It was not supposed to be silent.

We planned a barbecue at the beach, and silently we managed to catch a snapper without Heru’s knowing. The staff beat on the fish while he was not looking. Somehow the fish was quite determined to live and refused to die, while we were all worried Heru was going to catch us at whatever we were doing. And it could not be more wrong.

“Heeeyy, you rascals!! What are you doing there?” Heru yelled on top of his lungs and ran towards us.

“Hey Pak, the guys caught a fish and we’re preparing it for lunch,” I tried to butt in bravely so he would not blame his crews.

“Nooooooo!! Don’t you dare! Now let the fish go!!” Heru did not even look at me, he just barged into those guys who did not have any choices but let the fish go.

“Paaaakkk, are you crazy letting the fish go? He has concussion already! He won’t survive. Look at how it’s swimming now,” I still tried to save the fish for our lunch.

“Noooo. Fish will heal itself in the water. We have plenty of dead fish already!”

We were left looking at him who walked off hurriedly. Damn fish prophet!! There went our fresh lunch swimming limply further into the sea.

“He’s always like that. He will not eat fish when he still sees it alive. He just wants to eat dead fish. He’s not fun!” complained one of his crew. I could not agree more.

Lunch was heaven, barbecued fresh dead fish and it was not an oxymoron. Just perfectly delicious. Happy and rested, we swam back to the boat slowly, floating half way through and let the current drited our weary bodies. I believed we looked like scattered human blimps from aerial view.

Once on boat, I was thinking to lie down but a rickety wooden boat was seen approaching our boat and I heard footsteps running towards us.

“Pak, bombers are here!!” a crew announced the arrival in panic.

“Oh, what to do? What to do?” Heru reacted the same way.

“Why are you so panic?” I asked.

“Well, it’s always a dilemma with bombers. They’re unpredictable. Once, one of our fish cage was blasted by bombers just because we caught them blast fishing again and according to company’s regulation that meant we have the rights to take back our boats, engines, etc. But, if we don’t help them this time, who will? Ok…, tell them to come up here,” Heru made a sudden decision.

Six men and a little boy who looked malnourished, came up and joined us. They introduced themselves, though I did not quite catch their names. It was hard to predict their age, but I could see some missing their fingers, a man had a scar running accross his face to his bald skull, and they all had lizard skin from being under the sun too long. A man started speaking, seemed he was decided as the group’s spoke person. He had missing fingers.

“Thank you for welcoming us into this boat, Pak.”

“You are very welcome. So what is it that you need to see me?,” Heru replied gracefully with a smile.

“We would like to ask you for help. As you are probably aware, we are blast fishing fishermen. We know the consequences of our profession especially after your fish cage caretaker told us, but we did not know how to fish but blast fishing,” he explained in loud clear voice. I was amazed how he spoke with very good structure.

“Yes, I am aware of that. But how can I help you?”

“We would like to learn to fish, Pak. We do not want to continue this. I heard your fishermen make good money without unnecessarily risking their lives.”

“Just learning?” Heru asked suspiciously.

“Well, we also would like to ask for equipments credit,” he said without smiling.

“Didn’t the government fisheries program was in this village and supported you guys by providing boat, engines and others?”

“Yes, but they had different priorities,” he answered.

Heru tried to probe him further and demanded explanation.

“Well, the program did not teach us how to fish, their families got the priority for equipments allocation and nothing for us and they did not help us with selling our fish. Honestly, I hate them,” his voice was rising.

Heru nodded and I could see his face changed into pity.

“I’d like to ask you questions, but you have to answer me honestly,” Heru spoke in such a way that six grown men could only looked at their toes.

“If I help you, will you stop blastfishing? You know it takes time to learn to fish. Will you be patient enough to wait? It is a skill that requires dilligence and you might not be able to do it.”

“Pak, our families at home are all disapprove of what we do, but we have no choice. We were not fishermen in the first place, but back in our land we could not farm anymore. Life in the mountain is harder. Please take us. And we have seen the consequences of our wrong doing. It is harder now to get fish and we are always watching our backs from police who will gladly catch us for a hefty bribe!”

“So you think you’ll be ready to learn?”

“We swear, Pak. We will learn out best,” he said resolutely.

“You will be given lessons and credit for new equipments, but I will watch you guys closely. If can be honest with all of you, as long as I have been in this business, bombers are the most difficult to convert. Because they are too familiar with ‘easy money’ and usually you guys have the worst lifestyle. Am I right or am I right?”

“You are right, Pak. But we are at dead end, here. We don’t see any other solutions for our lives. We need to do this, or we cannot feed our families, Pak. I vouch for everyone here that we will try our hardest. We want our children to get higher education. We want to have a future,” he said without blinking. I could sense that he spoke the truth.

Day long gone, and I was sitting with others without saying a word. It had been a long day and we only had one thought: saving the ocean and fighting poverty were really a lonely race. Heru was there as a contender to win an endless race. Would he win? Would he lose? In the mean time, we were losing a lot if not too much. It was only the second day of the whole trip along the coast of East Nusa Tenggara. Yes, our physical existence was caressed by the beuty surrounded us, but the conscience is getting tender by the day.


To be continued…

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