I looked at Long for reassurance but found a blank stare, mouth agape.  I made a silent pledge to myself that I would not meet the same fate.  In addition, they told me I must tell no one I was here until I had left the country, and I promised to never write down their names.

A Myanmar Fishing Story 

Wooden fishing boats at anchor near Ngapali, Myanmar

Wooden fishing boats at anchor near Ngapali, Myanmar

Many boats placed flowers on their bow as an offering to the sea-gods

Many boats placed flowers on their bow as an offering to the sea-gods

At 6pm I found him waiting in the open-air lobby of the hotel.  He greeted me with a smile, though his eyes portrayed a hint of worry; trepidation. Together we walked the length of the beach and found two men waiting for us in a small boat, no larger than 20 feet.  I took with me the bathing suit I was wearing, a rain jacket, my headlamp, and a bottle of water.  We jumped aboard and the driver fired up the sleepy engine.  With a “putt-putt” and a moan, we were on our way.  I caught Long’s (name changed for protection) anxious gaze and shot him a reassuring smile.  “You take care of me and I’ll take care of you,” I told him, and we shook on it.  The small vessel took us past the fishing village, around the rock jetty built by hand decades earlier, and into the temporary safety of a cove, housing dozens of larger, open-deck boats.  The driver steered us towards one and after a few shouts of Burmese a rope was thrown, linking the two vessels.  The engine of the larger boat awakened, emitting a deafening sound reminiscent to the beating of a helicopter, a thousand whips splitting the quiet dusk air every second.  The vein connecting the two bodies drew taught, lurching us forward, to sea, to the great unknown.    

I sat quietly, day quickly turning to night, the great sun gently placing a blanket upon us all.  The darkness did not last long, the moon soon making its presence known before we even had time to question its whereabouts.  In that moment of darkness, I sat in silence, pondering the undeniable power of light and dark.  Although light may think it travels faster than anything, it is wrong.  No matter how fast light travels, it finds that darkness has always gotten there first, and is waiting for it.  On this chilly night I was thankful both myself and the darkness did not have to wait too long for the comfort of light.  

With the sun now departed, a new glow crept its way along the horizon and into the fog encroaching on the night.  I thought back to the light bulbs I found scattered on the beach and grew hopeful they were in some way related to this unnatural illumination.  The farther we ventured into the awaiting sea, the brighter the lights became, calling out to our tired eyes, attracting us like a moth to a lonely streetlamp.  The source of the illumination was finally known: dozens of “light-boats” were spread out in the sea, each containing multiple outriggers with rows of lightbulbs attached to them, the bulbs pointed downward in a meager attempt to bring light to the depths.  The light attracts fish to the surface.  The darker the night and the longer they wait, the larger the fish. 

 

A traditional fishing boat. Notice the open deck, lack of railings, and net.

A traditional fishing boat. Notice the open deck, lack of railings, and net.

The lead boat slowed 100 yards from their designated light-boat and a crew-mate slowly pulled our vessels together.  I hopped onto the larger boat and was greeted by the captain.  Tired, wrinkle-lined eyes and a coarse handshake gave me the first glimpse at the lifestyle these men lead.  I took a seat at the rear next to him and was introduced to all on-board.  There were 18 people on the boat, including myself.  The youngest was 13 and the oldest was the captain, age 29.   

The boat was simple; spanning roughly 40 feet in length it was composed of an open deck, no railings, and a single, massive net.  The trawling net stretches nearly 1,000 feet long and 50 feet high.  It took up the majority of the deck, inviting an unwary foot to become entangled in its web.  We sat in a large circle, 17 pairs of curious eyes exploring the features of this mysterious white man from America, known to much of Burma as the land of Obama.  The man I came with spoke very good English and acted as a translator.  “The only thing foreigners want is luxury, they told me, and how incredibly special it was to them that I had come to the fishing grounds.  I smiled and returned the compliment, telling them how honored I was to be in their presence.  I did not understand the true magnitude of me sitting on this boat in the rocking sea, miles from the Burmese coast, hours from the nearest foreigner, until they told me I was only the second foreigner the village has ever brought fishing with them.  A few years ago, the first foreigner to ever witness the fishing had his foot tangled in a rope when the net was set, was dragged overboard, and drowned.  

 

 

An abandoned fishing boat turned into a shelter

An abandoned fishing boat turned into a shelter

I looked at Long for reassurance but found a blank stare, mouth agape.  I made a silent pledge to myself that I would not meet the same fate.  In addition, they told me I must tell no one I was here until I had left the country, and I promised to never write down their names.  I learned the life of a fisherman is very difficult.  They work throughout the night and many can barely swim.  A misplaced footing or a slip could be their last.  But out there in the open ocean they are free.  In their world it is the only place they know of where they can speak their mind without fear of the wrong person listening.  Myanmar was under military rule until very recently, and freedom of speech was a dream shared by many and performed by few, aside from these fishermen who were able to escape mental incarceration and make it to the open sea of thought and speech.  

The captain told me that on most nights they drink heavily, both to stay warm and to ease their nerves.  However, tonight was different.  Tonight they had a guest and they were very eager to learn about his home.  I answered as many questions as I could; covering everything from movie stars to politics.  Laughs abounded, fueled by their new knowledge of American customs.  Of course I hadn’t a clue what jokes they were making, but it hardly mattered.  There was never a moment in which one of them wasn’t intensely staring at me, perhaps in an attempt to convince himself that I truly was present.   The next few hours were spent playing cards and smoking really bad cigarettes.  Before the fishing could begin, we had to wait for the moon to set and the wind to switch directions.  

 

We lay on top of the massive net and rested for an hour, all of us huddled under some decades-old blankets in an effort to escape the high winds and relentless spray from the turbulent sea.  At 2 AM the moon finally set and it was time to begin.  We stood near the bow of the boat in a silent, shivering huddle.  The captain made a few circles around the light-boat, each tighter than the one before.  No one said a word.  I looked around, catching the captain’s eyes some 30-feet away.  They were calm, yet his brows were brought together in such a way that indicated he was not so nervous about the action so much as the result.  What we would catch that night directly impacted his, and many other families’, well-being, and it was this pressure the captain carried on his shoulders.  It was the pressure of survival that brought his brows together.     

 

At his command, the net was let go.  Circling the light-boat, the massive net slithered into the dark waters, a scaly serpent methodically trapping its prey.  After completing a circle roughly 60 yards in diameter, a rope was pulled on deck and passed through pegs spread throughout the entire boat as a make-shift pulley system.  The colossal rope criss-crossed the deck a few times until it reached my trembling hands. There was no turning back now.  The captain yelled in rapturous Burmese and we heaved in unison, the rope slowly closing off the bottom of the net, trapping everything inside.  Once this was done we grabbed a section of the net itself and slowly began pulling it aboard.  For the next 2 agonizing hours we pulled the vast net, inch-by-inch, over the railing, the circle growing smaller and smaller.  The net was saturated with fish scales, each handful felt like gripping sandpaper.  The main catch is sardines so the holes in the net are small, dragging more water than an oar.  

 

I questioned whether Poseidon was tying concrete blocks to the bottom in an attempt to drive me to quit.  Throughout the night the winds grew and at times we were forced to lock arms to avoid being swept overboard by the large waves.  What had before been a cold night quickly turned into a sauna, causing all of us to strip down to our underwear to avoid overheating.  After the circle was closed to no more than 10 feet across, the youngest boys reached over the side of the boat, barely holding on to a piece of bamboo wedged between the panels, and, using straining buckets, began frantically scooping fish into the light-boat.  As was expected we caught mostly sardines with the occasional barracuda and squid.  After the net was emptied it was dragged on-board and reset.  We then moved to the next light-boat and the process was repeated.  

 

      As night turned to day I bid a happy farewell to my new friends with the meager energy I had left, knowing a bond had been formed that transcends race, nationality, and language.  I hopped back on the small boat and we headed to shore.  After over 13 hours I stepped back on the beach from which I had left, overcome with exhaustion.  I would not sleep until I arrived back at the Explorer, which would be the first time my head would hit a pillow in 40 hours.  Though my legs were cramping and my back was stiff I had never felt more fulfilled in my life.  I am so very lucky to have experienced and helped a secret tradition.  I did not bring a camera and there are no records of me being there, aside from the ink in this journal.  I paid for this service in sweat and muscle.  My night on the open sea can only be described as special, and I can assure you I will never, ever, look at a plate of fish or a can of sardines the same way again.  

 

Photocopy of my journal, including the sketch of the "light-boat"

Photocopy of my journal, including the sketch of the "light-boat"