...After giving it one more long push into the surf up to his neck, spitting and grabbing the side, with a trampoline bounce, he landed feet first on the deck. The three-horse-power engine looked no bigger than a pressure cooking egg-beater as Dai leaned it back into the water and yanked the starter cord. It coughed, spat, smoked, and started, gargling us out into the gulf, barely strong enough to lift the bow of our eighteen-foot oversized rowboat. Kop's engine echoed our asthmatic start as the two boats puttered along like racing go-carts. Half an hour later, still shivering with goose bumps in the early morning breeze, I could see the lights of Pattaya across the gulf, like looking across the Long Island Sound from Connecticut and seeing those of New York.
Fishing in Hua Hin, Thailand
Pattaya cowered in comparison to Hua Hin, exposing a shanty town of makeshift bars, aging whores, and polluted beaches that exhumed the stench of the sleazy shoreline nightlife. Mike was still doing his movie and would probably be staying in town, but he wouldn't be filming there. They would film a few miles south where the deserted beaches looked as pristine as those in Hua Hin, except they wouldn't have Hua Hin's rustic charm of seafood restaurant piers on a waterfront backdrop of colorful fishing boats.
The sun yawned out from under purple and yellow blankets of rippled mist somewhere over Pattaya as Kop steered his boat up alongside, squeezing the lapping waves, until they overflowed into the boats. Except for two container ships in the distance, reflecting the sun's beams like a car's early morning headlights, low in the water, laden with their heavy loads, laboring their way to the port of Bangkok, we were all alone. Only the frenzied squawking, echoing from the zigzag darting, and kamikaze diving of seagulls, stitching together an imaginary seascape tapestry as they followed and eyed our buckets of fresh-cut bait, interrupted the hum of the engines and the lap of the waves. That was until Kop called out, pointing back to the way we came. I could make out the shoreline and the monkey temple easily enough, but only when we hit the crest of a wave could I make out Ta's house. Behind I saw the mountains of grey. Kop waved his hand and shook his head. We'd be back in plenty of time before the afternoon rains.
The boats became a flurry of activity. Farst baited and tied off the drop lines slipping the notched bamboo slats into the predrilled slots to prop up the lines and give the first sign of a strike. Kafe shoveled ice in anticipation of the catch. Dai's Muslim wife in the back of the boat had a fire going in a clay stove, heating a pot of rice porridge, waiting for some of the day's catch, to finish making breakfast. Kop and Dai were laying out a huge net in folds between the boats getting ready to drift apart as its weight slowly sunk it to the bottom. I took off my shirt, looking over the side at the seaweed floating by, and the colored prisms dancing on the waves. It looked like a good day to work on my tan.
Farst let out a yell. Two of his drop lines went taut with a zip at the same time, snapping the slats, as the lines started zigzagging back and forth almost in sync with each other. The lines went so taut they squeezed the beads of water off the sweating line. Dai threw me a rag. He only had one pair of gloves. Farst and I pulled together like grunting rock climbers. His fish broke the water first. He tied off the nylon line on a wooden knob while he grabbed a gaff with his right hand and unsheaved a six-inch serrated diving knife strapped to his calf with his left. In one clean swoop, he had the frantic red snapper by the gills; and before the eighteen incher hit the deck, his blade went deep between bulging eyes, clear to the brain. It went limp even before Kafe could pick it up. With the dexterity of a Las Vegas card shark, he had the hook rebaited and in the water from a gooey bait bucket of squid and mussels in seconds, using one hand, while he locked down my line with the other. But my fish was bigger. It was a grouper. Having broken the water once, it looked almost four feet long. Farst grabbed the line with me. He looked up at me excited and worried, shaking his head that the line wasn't strong enough. Finally, his father made his way over with a long pole, pointing it out to me with covered eyes, before looking back toward shore, hushing his lips, and shaking his head. I understood. What he was about to do was illegal, and I couldn't tell anyone. Even possession of a single shell guaranteed a year in jail. The grouper broke the surface one more time and with a loud bang it rolled over dead.
After mooring it securely alongside, Dai grabbed my arm as he, his wife, Farst, and Kafe all went down on their knees with folded hands, bowing to me, and mumbling a prayer. Seems they thought I had brought them good luck. But a second later, Kop yelled out. His boat was drifting towards us from fifty feet away. His five drop lines were pulling all at the same time. Farst had just enough time to get a nod from his father before he was in the water. Almost just as quickly as he dove in, he got a hand up onto Kop's boat. We were in a school. For forty-five minutes we tied off, gaffed, stabbed, and rebaited; and then they were gone.
Twenty-seven red snappers and a hundred pound grouper later, me with nylon-burnt hands and drenched with sweat, it was time to pull up the net. Dai and I, Farst and Kop, Dai dug his foot into the side of the boat and grabbed the one-inch diameter net guides in both hands. He motioned for me to do the same. Every time we met a weight, it was one meter and time to make a fold into the boat. We pulled. They pulled. The net drew us together. Soon the boats would meet and each would have its share of fish.
Dai's wife quickly grabbed up an assortment as the first of the fish dropped into the boat. Her porridge had been waiting patiently for a long time, and she knew everyone had worked up an appetite. She sliced and diced with sushi chef skill, filling the pot until it was overflowing. Finally, the boats touched with the overlapping net holding them together. Kop looked at me, nodding his head, obviously tired and still sweating with his hair tied back with a leather lace. He gave me a thumbs up as he jumped into the boat and headed straight for the porridge. It was steaming hot by now and Dai's wife gave him a generous bowl full sprinkled with an assortment of green and brown herbs. He gulped it down like it was a cold beer. Smiling back at me with a porridge mustache, he pointed back the way we came and poked his wrist like he was pointing at his watch. That only led to Dai's wife scolding him. I guess she figured, if all those tourists on the mainland can get breakfast in bed, at least after all my help, I should be able to share with them before we headed back.
But Kop was right for both our sakes. None of us caught up in the moment had thought it through, before moonlighting out into the predawn ocean breeze. Mutual curiosity had an excitable pull all its own. We were just supposed to be gone long enough to drop the net, catch breakfast, and maybe have a little something left over to sell in the market. Who knew, besides the grouper, we'd run into a stray school of snapper and have the time of our lives for another couple of hours? Now it was near midmorning and Ta was surely awake. Not knowing where I had gone off to, she was probably having a fit, growing quite concerned about, what had become of my touch everything curiosity. And being the landlord's daughter, she had Kop quite apprehensive, about getting his first stern reprimand.
Except we both had to contend with another strong-willed woman first. Dai's wife thought it was bad manners if she didn't offer me breakfast, and I in the same fashion thought it was bad manners if I didn't accept a bowl. But as opposed to Kop's gluttonal excellence, I needed time for mine to cool. Throwing up his hands at the delay, Kop went about unlashing the grouper and transferring it to his boat. Looking back as I blew on the bowl, he started loading the snapper and refolding the net. Then as I started to sip, Kafe came over to sit. Seeing me put the bowl down empty, she opened my palms, looking at the nylon-line burns, and scooped out chunks of ice to place in my hands, before folding up my fingers tightly around them. She looked up smiling with playful eyes as she pressed my fingers tight, beading water droplets onto the deck. I'd caught a grouper, and now daddy could pay for her and her brother's tuition, new school uniforms, shoes, and books. Kop, his boat loaded, finally understood, taking a break to wait patiently, as she showed her thanks in the only way she could.
With the ice melted and all the bigger catch and net loaded on his boat, I kissed Kafe on the forehead, shook hands with Farst, waayed Dai and his wife, and joined Kop still straddling the boats for the puttered ride back. We left them cozy there, eating and playing, like they were in a roadside park, having a picnic. While the sun kept baking me brown and the salt air kept clearing my nose, I couldn't help thinking, as I sat in the bow and Kop tended to the engine, what an innocent, enjoyable morning it had been. We barely knew each other. We could hardly communicate. But I knew it would be a day I'd never forget. They thought I'd done so much for them. I just wish they knew what they had done for me. Opening up and sharing their morning, they gave me a glimpse of rural life and living carefree.
(excerpt from "Thai Lies")