Travel, Samara

A Night in the Watery Deep with Captain Astua

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It is late afternoon when we leave Samara, Matapalo-side from where the taxi boats depart, heading for the “camaronero”. We are with Antonio Astua, Luis “Negro” and Rafael “Boludo” Rocha. Astua is the captain of the shrimping boat where we will all be spending the night. Negro is the chef onboard. In addition, he is a fishermen, as is Boludo as well.

The rickety taxi boat awaits but Astua seems unphased, wasting time proudly showing-off his belly as he tidies his shirt over his belly button. Negro becomes annoyed by his captain’s behaviour.

He shouts a rebuke, Astua retorts; insults begin to fly back and forth, echoing over the sound of the waves. I get my first taste of foul-mouthed fishermen language. Meanwhile Boludo is laughing his head off. It is not for real, he assures me.

It is time to go. The small boat struggles against the waves. Each person has to maintain a steady position for the boat to stay balanced. The sun is shining on Boludo’s happy Buddha-like face, probably because of all the provisions we are carrying with us for the night: chicharrones (pork rinds), tortillas, beans, eggs and delicious fruit. The goods are moved onto the larger boat and a fisherman onboard shows us his prize catch of the day.

An hour later we recollect the nets with enough shrimp for dinner, and the fishermen affirm that it’s a good spot to cast the bigger nets. Whilst everyone goes about casting, Esteban on the back deck busies himself preparing the shrimps while Negro assembles the rice, fresh onions and cilantro for his best dish, arroz con camarones (rice with shrimp). An outstretched hand offers me an enormous portion and I notice that the shrimps almost outnumber the grains of rice. I dig in; it’s heavenly.

Negro tells me about his life at sea. He became a fisherman before he became a man. He has cruised the Atlantic and caught tuna off the coast of Africa. Winds from around the globe have hit his face and the sun has warmed his shoulders in many locations. His face tells a story with every lined feature. He tells me about his many kids spread all over the world.

It is time to rest for a couple of hours and let the nets fill up. Negro takes me to the front deck. He tells me I must sleep on the hammock here. “Mas rico!” He convinces me. I settle in and hope that we are not in the process of harming any endangered species. But if not tonight, is it not inevitable that it should happen at some point in the future. The thought leaves me perplexed in my hammock for a while. I like these people and I cannot condemn them for what they are doing. They are simply doing their job with the methods they have been offered. We are not here to judge them.

At 2 a.m., they wake me up shouting, “Pepe, saca la camara!” (Get out your camera). Apparently there is a school of dolphins swimming alongside the boat. I run but it is too late. I cannot see them.

Time to pull the nets up. The sound of the engine is loud and grating. The chains screech with the heavy load in defiance to the silent night ocean. There is a sense of both excitement and anxiety. Depending on what they catch, they will be rich or poor in the days that follow.

Here we go, nets are out and…. they are full! The fish fall onto the deck. Astua studies the catch: shrimp, calamari, sole, snappers… It’s a decent catch, he concludes. Tomorrow will be a good day.