As the cold spell brought about by the recent monsoon surge petered out, Artemis I set out on a slightly different kind of adventure. She was supporting a session conducted by My Fishing Frenzy Academy as part of a retreat held by Transient Workers Count Too for a group of 50 injured foreign workers. The day would comprise a short theory lesson immediately followed by two hours’ fishing on land, before five lucky anglers were to be selected to come aboard for some offshore action. And what action it would turn out to be!
We left the marina and set course for St John’s island, and upon our arrival were met with the tranquility that usually cloaks the island on a weekday. Unfortunately, there were no available berthing spots on St John’s island, so short of dropping anchor and swimming to shore, we berthed at the nearby Lazarus island and disembarked to begin the trek to the St John’s island campsite.
After negotiating a sinuous coastal path followed by the hilly terrain within the campsite, we arrived at the longhouse where the workers and the TWC2 volunteer staff were staying for the night. It seemed that our arrival had been well anticipated, and we were met with an energetic welcome from a group of excited men. They trooped into the makeshift classroom to begin the lesson, and it was soon full to capacity. Over the course of the session they listened intently and participated ardently, and this enthusiasm would become the hallmark of our interaction throughout the day.
The lesson over, everyone was more than eager to put theory into practice. Rods in hand, our new friends made their way to the bridge between St John’s island and Lazarus island to begin fishing. For those who were hoping to get to fish aboard Artemis I, the stakes were high: one spot was reserved for whoever caught the most fish, another for whoever caught the biggest fish, and the last three for the next three men assessed to be the most competent in the operation of a fishing rod and reel. Among the lucky ones was Rifat Khan (pictured below), who would later stun us all with his culinary prowess.
Soon, it came time to conclude the land fishing session, and a quick debrief was held to determine who was coming aboard to fish. The five chosen ones accompanied us back to Lazarus island, while the rest departed for a swim at the beach. With no time to lose, we swiftly cast off and headed out. Captain Q opted to remain close to shore in calmer waters in order for our five anglers to gain their sea-legs. Close to the island we found plenty of small reef fish like this butterfly whiptail, named for the delicately elongated top ray of its tail fin.
After some time, our Captain made the call to head further out. Artemis headed for deeper water, while all the anglers put fresh bait on their hooks in preparation. Upon receiving the call for ‘lines down’, the baited hooks were lowered to the seabed to await the attention of any hungry creatures below. At first, it seemed like the same mix of fishes were visiting our hooks, until the second or third drift, when two rods took hard bends in quick succession, and a couple of golden trevallies were brought in.
Around this time, the Captain, who had been probing the water column with a small metal jig, registered a series of hard takes that did not convert into a solid hook-up. He immediately attached another hook to his jig, and reset for another drift. Heeding his advice, some of the anglers (including myself) opted to switch to metal jigs as well, and started working them briskly as soon as we felt Artemis glide to a halt. One particular jig had barely left the seabed before the angler felt a heavy tap which preceded a series of quick, darting runs. A short fight ensued while everyone on board debated the identity of the predator on the end of the line, before the angler was rewarded with a gleaming silver queenfish.
Now that we had pinpointed the location of the school, the Captain wasted no time in placing Artemis right back on top of the fish. With mounting excitement our jigs slid beneath the surface once more, and this time I felt the line go slack well before my jig was supposed to hit the bottom. I immediately engaged the reel and gave a sharp strike, and felt the fish go on a screaming run. Two rods down from me another angler also found himself locked in combat, and we made it two for two with this fine brace of healthy queenies brought into the boat.
Throughout the course of my (limited) experience in fishing, it seems that instances of predictable action are usually far from predictable. I am not sure exactly when the realisation that this was something special hit me, but I do know that I was well aware by now that this was a session to be savoured. The anticipation was palpable and the fish obliged with nearly clockwork regularity with each drift, taking the jigs with gusto throughout the water column. It was not uncommon to witness a pack of fish pursue our jigs almost to boatside, and double hookups were a frequent occurrence.
It turned out that that short session lasting barely a couple of hours would be our best jigging session yet in 2018 (the year is still young). We took half a dozen sizeable queenfish for the barbecue pit in order to ensure that there would be enough to feed over fifty people at the campsite, and it is safe to say that not one scrap of fish was wasted. It turned out that the TWC2 volunteers had prepared charcoal, tongs and other supplies for the barbecue in anticipation of any potential catches from our short trip, and we were only too happy to deliver the goods.
A trip would usually conclude here; however on this particular occasion we were still some way off from the end of the day. We returned to land at Lazarus island, and our five new friends departed for the campsite laden with fresh fish, but not before extending an invitation to us to come over for dinner. After a quick wash-up we cheerfully obliged, and upon cresting the last of the many slopes in the campsite were given a warm reception and ushered into the cooking area, where Mr Khan was already hard at work processing the fish while helping out with the dinner preparation. (Warning: image below may be graphic)
The barbecue was to be held after dinner, so we were promptly seated at the head of the table, and treated to king-sized portions of authentic Bangladeshi fare. One way to experience a people’s culture is through their food, and it felt oddly surreal to be able to taste a slice of Bangladesh in this remote corner of an island off our island. Dinner for each man consisted of a mountain of rice on a sheet of brown greaseproof paper, with a single piece of curried duck, a slice of this fish known as the ilish (Bangladesh’s national fish and a larger relative of the terubok or gizzard shad), and some tomatoes and cucumber. For us though, it seems that the proportions were reversed: initially taken aback by our requests for less rice, and lesser rice, they heaped on the rest of the ingredients with stubborn insistence. Here is a portion of what we ate for comparison.
The picture far from does justice to the food: the curry was made from scratch with spices brought in from Bangladesh, and was full-flavoured but not overpowering or extremely spicy. The fish had similarly been imported, and had many fine bones in the meat, which I was given to understand become crunchy and edible when deep-fried. Otherwise the meat was soft and rich, quite unlike that of any local fish I’ve tasted. Again it felt a bit out of the ordinary to be hosted by foreign workers, and their generous hospitality made the already delicious food unforgettable. Not one grain of rice was left on my plate.
While dinner was taking place, our catch had been left to marinate in a metal tray sealed over with aluminium foil. Each fish had been gutted with its fins sliced off, and scored vertically down the length of its body. Fresh lime juice was liberally squeezed over the fish, turning the eyes and flesh slightly cloudy, before a paste made of masala, tumeric, cumin and coriander powder was rubbed over the skin, turning it bright yellow. A blazing fire was set up, and the fish were placed, whole, directly over the flames.
The whole process of barbecuing took about half an hour, during which we chatted with the TWC2 volunteers as well as the workers about their lives back home, their experience in Singapore, and their plans for the future. While a lengthy discussion about how ethical some of the current legislation governing the employment of foreign labour is should be best reserved for another day, it will for now suffice to say that many of these individuals are victims of circumstance, and suffering the ill-effects of events far beyond their control.
I found it extremely touching that these people still found within themselves such warmth towards us as guests, and repeatedly expressed their gratitude towards us for spending the day with them. Pictured below is Hossain, who was on board with us that afternoon, energetically fanning the flames to ensure that the fish were well-cooked. Once the first fish came off the fire, it was promptly arranged on a tray and brought straight towards us guests.
The open fire had given the meat a char-grilled quality that complemented the marinade perfectly, and I was so enthralled by the taste in my mouth that it took me a while to notice that we were the only ones eating. Everyone else had held back politely until we had had our fill, and it was now our turn to insist that good food is made better when it is shared. Overcoming their initial reticence, the crowd set upon the tray, and the entire fish was consumed in minutes.
I have written before about the process of fishing being a series of probabilistic events leading up to the eventual (with persistence) occurrence of a catch. On this occasion, I was fortunate to be able to play a small part in a spontaneous symphony of sorts, in which the fishing, fantastic though it was, was but a link in the chain of beautiful memories formed that day. The passion of the TWC2 volunteers and the stories behind each of their charges, coupled with their warm hospitality and of course the excellent home-cooked fare, ensured that we stepped out of the campsite with full bellies and fuller hearts.
You can view an excellent video log of the day by clicking this link or the picture below. Should you desire to reach out to TWC2, please do not hesitate to do so here; I certainly found it extremely fulfilling to be able to brighten their day a little.
Till next time!