Day 14: First tears wet Dice Man's eyes
Few things can get me to rise faster in the morning than fishing. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
My eyes pop open as soon as I hear the alarm go off.
It's 4:30am. Traditionally, I would start snoozing for the next hour or two – I believe my record is hitting the snooze button every five minutes for three hours; I have a couple ex-girlfriends who can verify that habit.
This morning though, there's shrimp fishing. Very few things in the world can make me rise in the morning more quickly than the prospect of casting a net or line into the water.
I step out of the room, the house is hushed. Afraid of disturbing my hosts, I skip the instant coffee return to my room, leaving the door open and lights on
Tar, in a yellow long sleeved Tesco Lotus shirt, peeks in.
“Oh! Pa Mour thought you would not wake up,” she says with surprise by finding me dressed and ready to go.
A few drinks, a few hours of sleep and being ready to go again does seem like a stretch, but this authentic fishing experience is exactly why I want to be at a homestay.
We make our way out the front door. Poor Kahtong is throwing a fit in the arms of Pa Mour – the little girl is upset with her mother stepping out so early in the morning.
Moving down outside walkway of a neighbor's house, we get to a dock made of branches, and climb into one of the many longtail boats tied up there.
Al is already in the boat, ready to get started.
In total darkness, Al swings the boat around and starts heading to the mouth of the bay. Occasionally, he turns on his headlamp and shines it at other boats that are just patches of deeper darkness against the night sky.
There are no red and green, port and starboard lights. Given that Al doesn't speak a word of English, mnemonics such as: "If to starboard red appear, 'tis your duty to keep clear. Green to green, red to red perfect safety, go ahead.” would be meaningless anyway.
The for once, the sound of the enormous re-purposed car engines used for longtail boats don't sound overwhelming. The night manages to muffle it's rumbling as we silently look up at the stars.
Tar offers me small pack of sticky rice with warm palm sugar on top of it. She then checks another bag in our snack sack. Her head snaps back, clearly whatever it is has gone bag. She lifts the smelly little bag out and throws it into the ocean.
I silently watch the piece of trash drifting on top of the nearly flawless surface of the bay.
Al gives the signal and Tar gets in place to drop the first end of the fine meshed, bottom set gill net. At each end of the red netting there is a stick with a flag at the top and a can of cement at the bottom, three empty 1-liter bottles of coke keep the marker afloat when it's thrown in.
The marker hits the water with a big splash. The net zips out behind us, the hard plastic floats at the top of it clacking against the wooden brim of the boat as Tar keeps it from tangling, her gloved hands occasionally grabbing the net and giving it a couple quick pulls. The net, in a pile on the floor of the boat, keeps going and going, more than 50 meters of netting must have slipped overboard before the end marker float is chucked off the boat.
The sky is starting to brighten, not a brilliant sunrise yet rather a horizon painted by a child wanting to use all the colors in his watercolor set who has gone about diluting the deep blues of the sky down into a watered out brown as the clouds touch the gulf.
The silhouette of the fishing boats west of us are becoming more clear. Al calls out to a nearby fisherman. They chit chat for a minute or two while he figures out where to drop our next net. We have a total of four nets to drop.
It's impressive to see Tar fall right into place, I wonder if she'd have come out on the boat to drop the nets if I wasn't coming along. I don't think she would have, but she's clearly an old hand on a fishing boat.
By the time the third net is dropped, the sunrise begins to unleash its brilliance. Streaks of deep pink jut up into the sky, obscured by the dark cloud heads jostling for space on the horizon.
“Now we wait for the sun to come up,” Tar says, as she sits down in the boat.
With the rest of the nets in the water, I prop myself up at the bow. Tar holds out a smoke rolled in a dried banana leaf. I accept it.
The first two drags make me cough. I take a few more deep drags and hold them, letting the smoke gently out between my lips. There is deep herbal earthiness to the flavor, which lingers after I flick the last bit of banana leaf over the side of the boat.
I lean back and watch the sunrise. I think it was weed. It tastes like weed, but then again, maybe it's just rough cut tobacco. Either way, it doesn't matter. It tastes delicious, and they sky is undergoing a magical transformation above the water.
The sun breaks the horizon, obscure it in a blinding white.
Al starts pulling in the first net they dropped, Tar lays out the weighted end of the net as Al goes through the floats.
Within moments. there is a healthy shrimp entangled in the net. Tar swiftly removes it and tosses it into a blue bucket before they return to pulling in the net.
It's hard to to get involved, but my ignorance and clumsy hands will just be a hindrance.
Al yanks up the net and there's almost a dozen small tuna wriggling in the air, trapped in the netting. It's a lot at once, so I swoop in.
Tar makes space and shows me what to do: how to squeeze the fish through the netting and then toss it into the bucket.
Once the fish are clear, I've established myself as a useful member of our crew of three. The net keeps coming in with me sitting between Al and Tar.
When a shrimp shows up, they slide that part of the net to me and I start untangling the creature.
Shrimp are delicate creatures, their exoskeletons so soft.
By bending the back segments of their tails it's possible to get part of them out of the net and the gently slide them threw the hole. Occasionally, a thread in the net gets wedged tight, cutting below a plate in the shrimps' feeble armor. Gently, I work it free, making sure not to rip the valuable catch.
I'm so slow, but they've not suggested that I stop.
I do my best to keep up.
After the first net of shrimp comes in we have 25, a handful of tuna and one catfish.
There had been a number of other little bait fish, equipped with painful barbs. These little fish, nobody likes; Tar and Al pinch them hard, pull them free of the net and throw them back into the ocean to die.
I'm still hoping for a sea horse to show up. The majority of seahorses caught and sold in Thailand, which is the largest exporter of sea horses in the world, are bycatch – usually raked in by fishing trawlers.
When it's time to pull in the second net, I resume my position.
“You're good,” says Tar. I beam back, knowing I can't be modest due to the language barrier. “Much better than my first time.”
I might have misunderstood, but I'm pretty sure she was four her first time, so being better than a four year old is hardly a badge of honor that needs to be sown into my vest. Nonetheless, she keeps insisting that I'm doing well, and I keep beaming back at her. I'm a puppy delighted to get a pat on the head after returning a tennis ball to its owner.
A baby ray, smaller than my palm, wriggles in the net.
“Don't touch, dangerous,” Tar says. She nips off the barb from its tail and then tosses it back into the ocean. Sadly, it flaps in the water, descending in slow circles to a certain death.
Al calls out to a few other fishermen. Tar, reports their catches to me in English.
With nets set further out, they've pulled in many more shrimp them we have. One had sixty from one net, more than a hundred a couple days ago.
“He's professional,” Tar says.
The sun is all the way up, but Al takes the boat a little further out. Tar drops the two nets we just pulled up.
The catch is pretty slim as we pull up the final nets. The ones dropped after the sun was up are completely empty.
I try to stay optimistic, still taking up my post as they pull through the net, square after empty square passing through their hands. By the last net, my optimism fades and I retire to the bow of the boat.
It's hot as we start back with our meager catch.
Just as the boat pasts the pier, hundreds of tiny white and yellow butter flies come fluttering out of the jungle. Most fly in pairs, their wings beating as they filter past the line of stilt houses out over the bay. It's not an overwhelming flurry, but subtlety beautiful dusting, like the first snow of the year. [This moment was mistakenly attributed to Day 13 – this is what the writer gets for missing deadlines – Ed]
Al seems slightly disappointed with the morning's results, but Tar's optimism goes unruffled.
Tar cleans the little tuna we caught and Pa Mour starts cooking up breakfast. While they are working in the kitchen, I start the slow process of packing everything back up on the beast. As Tar pointed out the day before, my room was a mess.
All packed up, I sit down for break-feast, which seems to be the only way Pa Mour Homestay does breakfast.
Meekly, Tar and Kahtong walk in with plates of plain rice in their hands.
“Can we join?” Tar asks.
“Of course, of course,” I enthusiastically say. Finally, people to share a meal with.
“Last night, she [Kahtong] was 'blah blah blah' in English,” says Tar.
“Okay, okay, okay; yes, yes, yes,” Tar says mimicking her daughter.
Tar picks an eye out of one of the fried fish and puts it on Kahtong's plate with her rice. Fish eyes are her favorite. The smiling child happily gobbles they eye up. After a little prompting from her mother she starts to sing. She loves to sing.
Her song starts off quietly, but quickly gains strength with her confidence. Her beautiful little shining across the dinner table as she goes.
As we finish breakfast, I finally get around to asking how much everything is going to cost.
“How much was your last place,” Tar asks.
“500 baht, but no food,” I say. She talks with Ma Pour.
Three nights, four days for 2,000 baht, reports Tar. She's giving me a massive deal on what she normally charges.
“Pa Mour likes you. I like you. Kahtong likes you. Everybody likes you,” Tar says.
She explains that most people just treat the homestay like a hotel: they sleep then go, go, go. I, however, just hung out, poked around, strolled up to the pier with a giant stupid grin on my face.
Several more times, Tar insists that everyone likes me. I really wish I had the Thai language skills to be modest, or at least return the compliment.
“Everyone is so nice,” I say, which ends up just causing a bunch of confusion.
For the boat trip island tour, Tar asks if 100 baht – three dollars – is okay. It's a ridiculous price. She admits that she normally charges 1,500 baht. At that price, it's not a discount, it's a token fee. Several hours of her time, of Al's time and the use of the boat for just 100 baht.
It's so kind of her.
When it's time to leave, I give her 3,000 baht for everything, she beams back puts her hands together and “wais” me.
“Next time you visit,” Tar says, planning for my next venture to Thong Tom Yai. It feels a little sad to agree to a “next time” when it seems so improbable. However, there is always a chance, and I'll be pulling for this one somewhere down the line.
Back on the road, it hits me.
My head is heavy from lack of sleep.
Just outside of Sawi, I pull into the same gas station that busted my ATM card.
The die orders a black coffee. I order a Thai Red Bull, which is the same sugar, caffeine injection you get with a normal Red Bull, but without the carbonation. I also devour a Snickers candy bar. I drink the coffee for the die, who seemed more keen to order than to partake in the drinking.
Hyped up on caffeine and sugar, and with a few episodes of This American Life lined up – my first break from the chatter in my head while on the bike – I'm ready to roll.
Tears well up in my eyes, brimming, but not running.
It's the first time I've cried since Dice Travels started. The emotional response is brought on by the usual trigger – sports.
I'm not a sports guy. I don't know the players on any team in any sport. I don't know the stats. But the players' stories, they strike a cord.
Their is probably some serious emotional blockage that allows the story of the relatively obscure black figure skaters battle for recognition on the world stage to bring tears to my eyes, when leaving a girl I love and all my wonderful friends in Phuket doesn't blur my vision at all.
I savor the feeling, cruising on.