As I look at the unending expanse of a sparkling blue ocean, I imagine myself on a century-old, sailing expedition, out to discover new lands. Ferdinand Magellan might have proved that the earth is round, but right now, at this moment, I feel like I might have found the end of the world. I am spending a morning with a batch of writers and photography geeks, learning to fish, in the deep Pacific waters that run along the western coast of Taiwan or Ilha Formosa — a moniker, bestowed upon it by its Dutch colonisers.
As a big wave rocks our white charter boat, I clumsily hold on to a fishing rod, desperate to hunt a mackerel. I am distracted by the happy shrieks of my co-travellers, all of whom seem to have mastered the art of fishing. “Our lunch depends on the amount of your catch,” teases Captain Suay, further mounting the pressure on me. Captain Suay, a lean 30-something with a wide smile, is a fisherman from Nanfang’ ao Port — a major coastal fishing base. He’s also our host for the day. It is on his invitation, that we decide to try out our luck as fishermen and women for a day. However, suddenly, nausea hits our motley gang and and cries of “let’s go back” bring a dramatic twist to our fishing expedition. As if by divine intervention, my fishing rod starts to roll. Thankfully, the captain rushes to my rescue, rejoicing finally at the prospect of sufficient food for our lunch.
More excitement lies in store for me, as the captain promises a special gift for all my hard work. But before that, there’s a quick tour of the fishing museum which houses miniature models of fishermen with their boats, nets and ropes, and, highlights local fishing traditions. “Earlier, under the dark skies of the night,” the captain explains, “fishermen would set off from the coast with a bamboo stick. They would then light fire to the stick, and wait for the fish to come. Like a magnet, thousands of fish would leap towards the bright light waved by the fisherman, while his entourage would angle their colourful nets and hale the catch.” But, he laments, “Today, sophisticated technology has paved the way for a new but dangerous fishing style, putting marine life at risk.”
Later, at the lunch table, I salivate at the delectable spread of prawns, served with the natural Nanao farm rice porridge and a big portion of yellow-coloured watermelon. I sit on a stone-henge-like patio, overlooking the harbour. Time seems to have come to a standstill. Fishermen with small boats anchor at the dock, with their daily catches of small and big oysters, octopuses and lobsters. At this cinematic unravelling, right before my eyes, I am transported to the pages of history books from school. I remember, having grown up dreaming of tangerine ocean sunsets, discovering faraway islands and blessing Christopher Columbus for having bestowed upon earth, the spirit of adventure. This trip, seems like a win-win situation for the little girl that I was.
Soon, I hear the soft waves of the ocean give way to the captain’s more urgent “Come on!” As I move towards him, there’s a heated debate among the gang about whether we should head back to the waters for a two-hour snorkelling lesson or not. Soon, the group splits up. Most of us head for the underwater paradise, the rest of our entourage proceeds to the hotel.
At the dive spot, my instructor demonstrates a few SOS signals to us, before we slide off the paddle boat. The first brush of the water is cold, making me shiver. “I can’t swim,” I insist. But he laughs it off and pushes me deep into the water. The increasing warmth of the water feels welcoming. Like a child rallying after the pied piper, I follow a bubble trail, emerging from the divers moving around a giant tortoise. Feeling a tinge of envy, I try to catch up with them, when the captain suddenly points out an enormous carpet of corals — from grey to green to pale pink to blue. In my excitement, I somehow lose my oxygen mask and start taking enormous gulps of air and water while bobbing my head in and out.
At that moment, I see a school of golden and crimson fish. I feel the urge to reach out and touch them. But mother nature has other plans. The skies turn sombre, the waves get rough and the grey clouds start thundering. We turn back towards the shore at the hint of possible rain.
Looking back, I realise why a fisherman sails and I travel. Both of us know that the sea and the world can be a dangerous place, but these still aren’t reasons enough to remain anchored to the shore or at home. Are they?