This is not an epic fishing story like The Old Man and the Sea. Rather it is a tale of fishing with Sammy—check that—Sameh. For Sameh is from Cairo, Egypt, and ever since coming to Bonaire several years ago, he has dreamed of landing the big one. Sameh blamed his lack of success to access. He has been restricted to humble attempts of casting a line from shore. That was until he met me.
Two months ago, my sailboat, Kontentu, was on the hard. I had taken it to the El Navegante boatyard for a few repairs and maintenance. The infamous Swedes, those nautical jokesters who manipulate fiberglass like Houdini finessed chains, took my boat on as a project. However, these blond-haired, deeply tanned Scandinavians have really gone island since arriving here. They are always smiling, knowing that they won’t be spending the next winter in frigid Göteborg. Gone is their uber-regimented work ethic. I find this strange, too, since one of them in a former life worked as an engineer for super efficient Swedish company, Volvo. Blame it on a change of horizon. Their work pace now can be best defined as, please permit me, glacial. These guys have really slowed down in the land of poco poco. So after leaving my boat with them and returning 3 weeks later from Holland, nothing was done. “We didn’t know when you were returning”, they lamely explained even though I had clearly informed the Swedes of my return date before departure. I recognized the game. If I didn’t ride herd on these Nordic dudes, I wouldn’t be sailing this summer. From that day on, I went to El Navegante every day to, let’s say, observe the progress.
What do the Swedes have to do with my Egyptian friend? Not much other that I realized that the more I worked on Kontentu myself, the faster the boat would return to sea. And as for the Swedes, seeing me sweating under the hot tropical sun made them feel as guilty as getting caught sneaking too much food from the smorgasbord table. It was past midsummer night’s eve. Time to start your engines, gentlemen. One project I wanted to complete was to increase the boat’s flotation. I had a plan to stuff it with foam block under deck from the midship hatches back to the stern. I headed off to City Shop, an appliance store, to see if I could score on some foam for free. As I drove away, I looked in my rearview mirror. Yes! Swen just picked up a sander and started to work on my boat. This “leading by example” method was at least temporarily overpowering poco poco.
It was at City Shop that I met Sammy, uh, Sameh. “Sure. We get refrigerators and stoves here all the time. After we deliver them, I have all this foam packing material that we take to the dump. I’ll set some aside for you. Just come back in a few days.”
I returned two days later and Sameh helped me fill my Outback station wagon full with foam block. This would surely be enough. I returned to El Navegante. The Swedes smiled with their shining, blue eyes and grunted with approval. If this were an Ingmar Bergman film the voice-over would be something like, “Perhaps the Amerikan is on to something.” I went to work. I took my mountain of foam and spent two hours cutting, cramming, cajoling, cursing and coercing the white beady blocks into Kontentu. When I ran out, only the starboard side of the boat was complete. I immediately drove back to Sameh, my supplier. “Sure, I will have more foam in the few days. Come back then and we will fill up your car.”
Again, we filled up the Subaru. I returned to El Navegante and finished the job. There was no instruction book on this task. It was only a concept in my head. The Swedes checked out my work and again grunted approval. Skol! I left, bought a case of ice cold Polar Beer and drove to the City Shop warehouse. As I entered with the frosty box of suds, the Lebanese workers cast suspicious looks. Sameh appeared with his usual gracious smile.
“Sameh, I bought you a case of beer for all your help getting me the foam”, I declared.
“That’s nice, Patrick. But we are Muslim and we do not drink alcohol,” Sameh smiled again.
“Oh man, I’m sorry.”
“No worries. I’m sure you can find friends to enjoy the beer. But if you would like to do something for me, I would love to go fishing from your boat.”
* * *
Five weeks later it is Ramadan; a month of fasting that Muslims believe delivers patience, humility, and spirituality. These seem like qualities from which all fishermen could benefit. Sameh and I are on Kontentu along with his Dutch wife, Lisette, who is also now Muslim. Once again, I am the only gringo on the bus, so to speak–or at least, the only infidel on the boat. But we are having a grand time.
I must state that I am a sailor, not a fisherman. I like to cook fish and eat fish, but have no interest in the hunt, the kill, or the fillet preparation. But Sameh does. We sail off the mooring in light winds of twelve knots. He sets out three lines off the stern—one with a very expensive lure, two others with local baitfish of bongo and ballyhoo. We sail and wait for a strike, traveling over 200 feet of water.
Lisette takes one of the lines and actively jerks it so that the bait mimics the movement of a fish underwater. She tells of her days fishing the Dutch rivers as a young girl where the endeavor usually went on all day. Sameh seems content to tie off his lines and enjoy the ride. I am amused at the couple’s cultural contrast of completing the task. Lisette symbolizes get-it-done Dutch proficiency. Sameh imparts the image of a pyramid moving slowly over sand.
We begin to fantasize about how the soon-to-be-caught fish could be prepared. I discover that we are all foodies. I reminisce about my time a few years back when I was on a deep sea fishing boat off the coast of Guam. The first mate had just landed a Pacific bluefin tuna, and in a blink of an eye, chop-chopped sashimi for all of us. Talk about fresh. Sameh follows with cuisine dreams along the Nile—fuul, the quintessential Egyptian dish of fava beans; fetteret el Sabanekh wa Lsin el Asfour, spinach orzo pie; and, asabi’ gullash bi-l-lahma, dry pastries with tasty meat filling. And if that was not enough, Lisette speaks of spicy Indonesian delicacies that she enjoyed while living in Jakarta a dozen years ago.
The morning sun grows strong and Sameh sticks to his strict Ramadan diet of no intake until the evening hours. Lisette sips a Coca Cola and nibbles on BBQ chips. While Muslim, her doctor suggested to her not to fast due to a high blood pressure condition. I guzzle water against the heat and rays. We sail to Donkey Beach, tack to the Plaza Resort and then head downwind for miles until we cruise by the Andrea II snorkel site. I spot nasty storm clouds building up over the northern peaks of Bonaire. I call a tack to avoid the gray and we head south to Klein Bonaire. One more tack from No Name Beach and we head home.
The morning of sailing produces no trophy fish. The biggest we bring back are the bongos, the unused bait. Hemingway would have been bored with this expedition, but I am not. I had fun on my little boat with new friends from Egypt and Holland. And the Swedes? They enjoyed Saturday on shore slamming down the Polar Beers that I had eventually delivered to El Navegante. I’m sure they are smiling broadly, far, far away from the looming Göteborg winter.