Wish You Were Here: Life in an East Javanese Fishing Village

by Owen James Burke

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In the East Java fishing village of Pancer, households come second to boats, and school often second to fishing. Many houses were lacking windows, furniture and even doors, but one look through the tiny haven and you’d have no difficulty seeing where the attention is paid.

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A fishing boat is not only a means of subsistence in Pancer; it’s a point of pride. From the largest, most seaworthy vessels meant for several-day deep-sea excursions down to the smallest outrigger canoes, you won’t find a single drop of paint out of place, nor a corner of rot on deck.

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Traditionally, the boats in Pancer were all wooden, and fiberglass boats only arrived here in 2009, but they’ve made all the difference.

There may not be much in the way of material possessions in Pancer, and I don’t think many would have it any other way, but what they do take care in owning receives attention in the utmost detail.

I arrived in the village late in the morning and drenched in sweat, but I was still invited to take a seat beside a group of fishermen on a rock wall in the shade beneath a tree. They were visibly tired from an early morning’s haul, and though they seemed a little intrigued by my arrival, were far too exhausted to engage with me. They also seemed reasonably skeptical, and neither of us spoke the other’s language, though they did offer me some sort of homemade liquor in a plastic bottle that took on a greenish hue distinguishable as that of petrol.

One portly fisherman, whom they called “King Kong”, had some energy left, and a great deal of gall in him. He walked up to me and took a playful tug on the hair of my chest. A couple of women standing in the shade turned away and smiled, and the fishermen, not so discrete as the women, cackled like a gaggle of girls.

I motioned to the men them that I wanted to go fishing, but my series of charades failed me. I decided to pull out a large pack of fishing hooks as a gesture (and a clue), and a small commotion began around me as I handed out fistfuls of hooks to each of them. They were happier than I’d expected them to be, and I only wished I’d brought them more. Fishing line, hooks, weights, lures, swivels, and pretty much every bit of tackle a fisherman could require, is a tough commodity in Pancer.

After I ran out of hooks and things settled down, I began to stroll along the beach and the brightly painted outrigger canoes and into the small marketplace. In no time, I had a crowd of children surrounding me, puling at my hair and poking at my skin.

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This woman pointed at the children surrounding me and then to her eyes, shaking her head and hands, maybe to indicate that they’d never seen the likes of a pasty yank before. She tried to tell me I was handsome, and I replied that she was much more beautiful. This bashful grin was her response.

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The following day, I took off on a fishing trip which brought me twenty miles offshore in a tiny outrigger canoe with nothing but a 15 horsepower Yamaha outboard and a single gas tank which could not have held more than 12 gallons. There was only one paddle, should things have gone wrong, and there were no life jackets (not that they were to be expected). The old fishermen I was sent out with, however, turned out to be much less of a fisherman than I’d hoped, and it ended up being more of a leisurely boat ride with a couple of fin whale sightings than a fishing trip.

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Later on, I asked a friend I’d made in the village why they didn’t have life jackets on their boats, they gave the same answer that most every traditional culture responds with: “Why? You’re going to die anyways. Why wait for the sharks?” He was right. Historically, the idea of learning to swim was nothing more than sadistic. Sailors have figured traditionally that, if you went overboard, that was it. Why would you want to prolong your drowning by learning to stay afloat longer?

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The staple diet here consists largely of skipjack tuna and mahi mahi, slowly smoked over an open fire and served with aromatic rice and samba, a sort of Indonesian chile paste made with a mortar and pestle.

The people of Pancer may not have much to spend, but they’ve got plenty to eat, a vast sea brimming with fish in front of them and a lush jungle as a backdrop. Life is nether easy nor simple here, but it is simplistic, and that’s something with which no one is in any position to argue.

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