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On Learning How to Fish

Living and Fishing in Brazil with the Locals

I had been mislead to believe that it was best to fish when the moon was full and the tide low, under the night sky or at the break of day. Instead, it was dusk. The setting sun had stripped the color from the beach. I was sitting in the sand with my quiet friend Danilo. He had spent 20 of his 30 years on a fishing boat and had only recently begun to work at a posada instead. He set me straight when it came to fishing. “Sarah,” he said, “If there are no fish it doesn’t matter what time of day it is. Fishing is a matter of luck.” I watched him slice triangular fish heads with empty eyes and hook them onto fishing wire. He swung the lines in wide circles and cast them above his head and into the sea. As I observed him from my seat in the sand, I thought to myself, I know so little about his life (world), and he knows so little about mine. What a wonderful thing; we have everything to learn from each other. Mostly, I had in mind learning how to fish.

I considered spending a few days or a week in Boipeba. I was following the Northeast coast of Brazil. Instead of reaching Belém and traveling the length of the Amazon by boat as planned, a few days in Boipeba became one month, which soon became four. There, I spent my time with nativos, foreigners in similar situations as myself, and tourists who came to know the island's beaches. Not infrequently, the latter would regard me with an incredulous expression. "I could never stay here for four months. What do you do?" They were referring to the size of the island, to the streets of sand and the houses with no walls, to the absence of cars and motorcycles, regular and reliable internet access, functioning cell phones, cinemas, bookstores, nightclubs, theatres, a life of diversions. My response frequently varied: "Well, the days fly by; I'm learning to fish."

Boa Sorte, Má Sorte (Good Luck, Bad Luck)

As it happened, there were plenty of opportunities to learn to fish. One morning, not long after daybreak, Felipe came by and called up to me from the porch. I was living on one of the two main streets in Boipeba, on the top floor of a little blue house. Felipe's voice entered through the front door and crossed the hallway to my bedroom and into my dreams. It said, "Sarah, the sky is blue; the sun is shining. Today is a perfect day for fishing." I had only just gone to bed. I had been dreaming about the bat that had taken up residence in my apartment (and, apparently, my dreams). But I considered these the first clear days after months of rain. Also, someone appearing at your front door to take you fishing differs from a vague promise on the beach.

When fishing, luck strikes more often in some spots than others. In Boipeba, the river winding west through the mangroves towards the mainland is just such a spot. So it was that I found myself nodding in and out of sleep in a canoe bound for the mangroves. Felipe steered, and Raimundo paddled at the front. It took me most of the morning to remember Raimundo's name.

Raimundo was 51 but could have been 45. He insisted on telling me his age with the pride of someone who knows they will gain years of life in the answer. At 31, Felipe was several years younger and also Raimundo's employee. Felipe patrolled the beach with a Tilley hat and an orange lifesaver. He preferred to never wear shoes. Perhaps shoes would never again contain his feet. Raimundo worked for the prefecture. He liked Sarah Brightman and football. Throughout the morning, Felipe and Raimundo bickered like children. But it was good-natured bickering that is only possible in a friendship that spans half a lifetime. They argued about which spots to fish in, who was working harder, and who was catching the best fish. Once Felipe questioned Raimundo's virility. Raimundo responded by insulting Felipe’s mother.

Something is to be said for enduring relationships that make bickering possible, especially atypical relationships, as they are founded in something stronger than superficial commonalities like age. Underlying the bickering is the knowledge that the other person will remain as fishing companion bar none, through a marriage and a divorce, through the birth of one child and then four more, with one woman and then another, and then another.

This is their weekly tradition. Every Saturday or Sunday, Felipe and Raimundo borrow a canoe and argue over who will go and fetch it. They paddle to the mangroves during low tide. There, waist-deep in oozing black mud, swatting black flies, they talk about their lives and, this Sunday, ask me questions about mine.

In life, there are many opportunities where you can surprise yourself, such as learning something new. Placing yourself out of your element facilitates the process. On the Sunday in question, I was far out of mine. Physically speaking, I was in a swampy river with worm-like creatures below and black flies above. The worm-like creatures were tamarú and were why we were there — to pluck them from their muddy homes and drastically alter the course of their lives. Soon, they would be bait. It was also, culturally speaking, in the middle of a conversation whose limits of convention knew no bounds. Felipe, Raimundo, and I talked about women, boyfriends, children (between them, there were almost 10), mothers (between them, nearly as many as children), and relationships. We also talked about luck. Felipe thought he had received a fair share in life, except with women. He couldn't seem to get lucky with women.

But we were fishing after all, and luck was on our side that day. We caught many small fish, mostly silver and fringed with pink or orange. Fishing entailed the following: we stood in the water, pierced a squirming tamarú on the hook, tossed the line into the water, waited 30 seconds, and pulled out a fish. I caught the fish, and the task of unhooking was left to Felipe. Something about the erratic movements of a fish in the throes of death makes me recoil in disgust. But I'd have to learn if I was to be a pescadora proper. I unhooked one small silverfish and was told I performed my task well. Felipe called me a strong fisherwoman and promised additional excursions.

Two colorful fish caught and held in two hands in Brazil.

I hoped so because we brought back enough fish for a seafood dinner that served 8. Also, we caught 30 baiacu (blowfish). Raimundo told me that it was a sign of bad luck to bring home baiacu. He showed me how to hide our catch by placing their swollen bodies at the bottom of the fish bucket with the silver, pink, and orange fish on top. What matters is not showing that you have caught baiacu and less the actual catching.

I had regarded our fishing excursion as lucky. In fact, the baiacu was my favorite fish to catch. The second a baiacu leaves the water, it rapidly sucks in the air between its teeth and makes a sound like an air mattress inflating. It does this as a defense mechanism. Unfortunately, it is too late. Another untimely defense mechanism of the baiacu is the release of poison. I asked Raimundo why we were keeping so many poisonous blowfish. He said, "Sarah, the flavour of the baiacu is very rewarding but you must know how to prepare it to avoid the poison." Felipe told me that 10 years ago, a whole family perished from the poison of one incorrectly prepared fish. But one man's meat is another man's poison. We dropped the fish off at the house of a senhora with a reputation for being an excellent cook. Upon seeing the 30 hidden baiacu, she must have regarded that day as fortunate.

Baiacu fish in Brazil.

Ô Pai do Céu (The Father of the Sky)

The town of Velha Boipeba contains about 2,200 people. Before you are introduced to someone, you have often seen them so many times that you feel you already know them. One afternoon, I ran into Leo on my way up from the beach. We had previously crossed paths at his sister's restaurant but never spoke. Still, he knew my name, and we paused to chat. He told me he had spent the day in another sea, far from Boipeba. I looked at the pail of silverfish weighing down the left side of his body. He took my right hand in the forefinger and thumb, which are all that exist of his, and told me about the day he had spent at sea.

He said, “Sarah, today I saw whales, a baby whale and its mother.” I had never seen a live whale before, only the dead whale that washed onto the beach a couple of weeks prior. It had been quickly reduced to a spinal column and skull in the sand, and the black urubús were still circling above the death below.

I let Leo know that I was fond of fishing myself. He said that we could go together and suggested Tuesday morning. On that day, the full moon would draw out the tide to reveal a kilometer of coral reef that is at times exposed to the sun and at others buried under the waves. He said, "Sarah, I can't wait to see the look on your face when you take a fish from the sea."

We took five rainbow-coloured fish. One by one, Leo added them to a wire that ran in through the mouths and out through the gills of its companions.

Rainbow fish in Brazil.

While we fished, Leo and I told each other about our lives. I told him it was hard to believe two months in Boipeba had come and gone. With every additional day, it became more difficult to grasp that I should have to leave one day. He said, "You know Sarah, you only have to go to the consulate and fill out the papers to stay longer." I told him that the process was a little more complicated than he had been led to believe. He told me that maybe it wasn't, that once he had known a Chilean woman. Then he elaborated. She was half Chilean, half French, and had been his lover. He explained that she married a Brazilian man to acquire the documents to live out her days in Boipeba. "So you see Sarah," he said, "You could consider this option."

With the sea already lapping at our ankles, Leo told me the story of the half-Chilean, half-French lover he met on the beach. When the time came for her to return to Paris, they promised themselves to each other. She would call from her office and reach Leo in his swimming trunks on a pay phone in the sand. For six months, from telephones an ocean apart, they told each other about the moments that filled their lives. One day, she stopped calling. He was never able to find out why. For a whole year, Leo couldn't communicate with her. Finally, he could no longer deny the truth and became engaged to another woman. So it was that when his former half-Chilean, half-French lover appeared unannounced two years later, Leo was already spoken for. She married Leo's best friend instead since she had already decided to live in Boipeba.

Leo and I found ourselves in the middle of the encroaching sea. Three hours or 30 years had passed. We walked towards the shore, dragging the five rainbow-colored fish behind us. Later, Leo prepared them in his home. He watched me arrive from a fading front porch and, when he led me indoors, waived his hand across the spartan room in an apology. He showed me with pride his collection of dubbed DVDs and pictures of his teenage daughters. We ate beans with rice and a moqueca of fish heads and backbones floating in an orange sea of palm oil and coconut milk perfection.

He told me in a voice that was a mixture of sadness, longing, and regret that he had lost many things in his life. He raised his right hand. He lost three fingers and a best friend since childhood in a motorcycle accident. He had been driving. He had been drunk. He lost his half-Chilean, half-French fiancée to his best friend, his first wife, and then the second, the mother of his teenage girls, to a neighbor. He lived alone even though he had enough children to make up half a football team. "But," he said, "Did you know that I am an Evangelical Christian? That's something." He had converted to Evangelism from Catholicism three years ago. He told me that today, he was a very religious man and made references to Ô Pai do Céu. I wondered what the father of the sky thought about multiple wives, 10 children with almost as many women, and a few not-so-subtle words over dinner.

But from Canada, you can't see Brazil. My views would have been out of place amongst the coconut trees and the sea breeze. What is common in one part of the world is unfathomable in another. It doesn't serve to look at an island in Bahia, one with a reputation for being quente, for its heat, from a cold Canadian perspective. I thanked Leo for a day in the sea, for dinner for two, and for stories about his life. In the gentlest words I knew, I told him that going fishing tomorrow and also the day after probably wouldn't be possible. And he referred to Ô Pai do Céu. “Sarah, a esperança é a última que morre.” Hope is the last to die.

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