The Sunday after Idul Fitri began like any other day from the past month. I woke up around five, mandied, had breakfast, and continued to read my book on the history of the United States Postal Service (it’s fascinating). At some point midmorning my host family niece (I think, the family relations are still uncertain to me) asked me something. What she asked specifically, I do not know. But she used the words ambil, ikan, and kolam. Something about taking a fish, but I couldn’t understand whether they were asking if I had taken a fish, if I would take a fish, if they should take a fish, or some other equally odd question. Eventually, and after some helpful charades, I remembered kolam means pond. They were inviting me to a pond with them to go fishing.

Living with a host family has been amazing, but at no time has it been an easy one. The invitation to go fishing was the first time I had been invited to do anything with my host family. I had been living with them for more than a month and I was mostly left to my own devices to figure things out. Granted, most of my time with them has been over Ramadan, a time when not much happens anyways, but I have had to set up my own clothesline, procure a bucket to wash my clothes, go to and find a market, and meet people in the village all by myself. My experience with an Indonesian host family is atypical for Peace Corps Indonesia volunteers. Though my requisite independence has provided many opportunities of growth, for which I am grateful.

Given my past month of life in the desa I was eager to do something beyond sit at home and read. I asked when would leave and responded, “nanti,” later. Jam karet. So I went back to reading. A little less than an hour later my host brother-in-law walked by my room and said, “mister, ayo,” let’s go. No one in my desa calls me by my given name. I am generally addressed as “mister,” which has taken some adjusting—I stopped cringing after the third week.

My host brother-in-law and I left our house and started walking towards my school, or clockwise if you’ve read about the time I got a haircut. This is the direction I most commonly travel and which I am most familiar. About halfway to my school we turned off the road and onto a path I had never noticed before. The path leads through a fairly wooded area and up a hill. We walk past a cemetery then reach the top of the hill and start downward. At the bottom of the hill we cross an irrigation channel into a clearing above a series of rectangular ponds with concrete banks. The ponds are just off the edge of the tree line and beyond them is a vast open area of sawah, or rice paddies likely 40 acres or more.

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The bucket he’s carrying is full of old papaya. Fish love papaya.
There are no more than a dozen people scattered throughout the sawah, working. Between a few of the sawah there are small lean-tos where, I imagine, the rice farmers rest occasionally. The view is beautiful. The area is reminiscent of my family’s farm in northeast Oklahoma. An expanse of cultivated land bordered by tree-covered hills and a stream of cool water. Of course, the differences between this plot of land and Oklahoma were innumerable but the few similarities, however small, created an air of welcome familiarity.

My brother-in-law led me between the ponds to a hut propped above the water by stilts. Shortly after we arrived my bapak came walking towards us up out of the sawah. Resting on his shoulder was a tool commonly used by rice farmers. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that up until this point I didn’t have a very clear idea of what my bapak did for a living. I knew he helps my ibu run a warung near my school but I had suspected he worked elsewhere as well.

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Bapak walking out of the rice fields.
Eventually my host sister and the rest of the family showed up with provisions for a picnic. I helped move everything into the hut and everyone else started wading into the pond in search of fish and oysters. They used nets to capture their prey and placed them into a partially submerged woven basket. After watching for a couple minutes my family started to implore me to turun, and get into the water to help them find fish. “Turun, mister, turun,” my little host niece would command. I was hesitant to step barefoot into water which I knew nothing about, but after seeing my family survive the shallow waters without losing a toe, or becoming covered in leaches, I joined them. Though my skills as a fisherman were seen to be much worse than even the youngest of my host family.

Despite knowing better, I had many assumptions about how this afternoon of ‘fishing’ would happen. For one, and I don’t know why, I had imagined we would be fishing in a creek or some other flowing body of water. I had no reason to believe this and much evidence to suggest otherwise. Most people in my district have a pond, or several, right next to their house where they farm fish. I also thought we would be using fishing rods or, at the very least, baited hooks and string. Nor had I suspected the pond we would be fishing in would be falling, as we fished, so as to make catching fish easier. As we worked the water level appeared to be dropping. I suppose, in his search for dinner, man cannot be concerned with the ethics, fairness, or sportsmanship of his hunting strategies.

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By far the largest fish in the pond. Eventually he had to swim sideways because the water was too shallow for the height of his body. He was not eaten this day.
I also assumed that once the fish were caught we would return home with our catch, then clean and cook them in the kitchen. This was proven not to be the case. Once a sufficient supply of fish had been obtained the inflow and outflow of the pond was adjusted so it began to fill and retain water again (I’m sure the surviving fish were much relieved). My host brother-in-law began to make a small fire just outside the perimeter of the pond. My sister and her daughter worked on cleaning and gutting the fish, then handing the prepared fish off for cooking.

The fire was made out of sticks, branches, and pieces of brush found in the woods nearby. The fish were wedged between split palm branches and cooked above the open flame. Watching people work so closely with their food, partaking in every step of its preparation from pond to plate, was fascinating. Catching, cleaning, cooking, and eating fish all within a couple of hours felt incredibly novel to me but was clearly routine to everyone around me. In America this labor is divided amongst many people. The fisherman likely never meets the man or woman who cooks his fish, or the person that eats it. And there might be many more people between those steps.

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Fish cooking over the fire.
The relative worth of one of these systems is hard to gauge; however, there are some features of the American food industry I greatly appreciate. Such as the level of attention paid to safety and hygiene. Indonesian and American perspectives on cleanliness differ greatly. For instance, no one washed their hands throughout the duration of our outing. Unless dipping one’s hands into a pond to rinse off the fish guts counts as ‘hand washing,’ then I suppose a few people washed their hands.

The dubious nature of the sanitary practices used in preparing the fish and my questions about the origins of the pond water itself led me to only eat half of my fish. I thought eating all of it, considering how little attention had been paid to hygiene, would be too risky. I mostly stuck to eating rice, and the rice stuck to me.

I clearly haven’t mastered eating with my hands because it seemed like many thousands of grains of rice adhered themselves to my hand rather than be put into my mouth. The sight of my hand covered in rice created quite a comical scene for my family to enjoy. In fact, my rice-covered right hand was hilarious enough to merit taking pictures. People stopped eating, for several minutes, to roll on the floor, laughing in hysteria at how ridiculous my rice-hand was.

After we finished eating, and people stopped laughing at my poor rice-handling skills, we gathered our things and went home. The entire excursion took perhaps four hours. It was unlike anything I had expected or anticipated and better than I could have possibly imagined… despite the food likely not being able to pass an American FDA inspection.

6 thoughts on “Fishing

    1. I’m in West Java! And yeah, I bring a lot of Indonesian words into my English now. It seems odd to suggest that showering is the same as taking a mandi, even though mandi literally means “shower.”

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  1. Very interesting! I didn’t know that fish like old papayas. I am glad you immersed yourself into the culture. Btw where does the pond water come from? I am rather curious 🙂

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    1. The pond water comes from a spring that runs off Mt. Tampomas. There are several such springs around the mountain, two of them being hot springs.

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