Small town Malaysia has always occupied the back of the minds of us urban folk. Most of Malaysians are driven by food, but when we’re stuffed, I think there is an inherent pull within us to go where less feet have trodden, to less accessible places — a break from a constantly connected city.
And so, when my father said he knew someone who had a fishing boat on the coast of Terengganu, who graciously agreed to take us out to sea for this festival called Pesta Candat Sotong, we excitedly marked our calendars and… waited.
The day started with a 3-hour drive to the east coast, and of course we had to have a heavy lunch at a popular local coffee shop. Once we got that out of the way, we were off to one of the fishermen’s place to wait out the tide, in order to follow it out to sea. While waiting, we ate some more, played with the children, got sticky with sweat and grew ever more impatient.
When is it time to leave? Our irritation started to become apparent.
It struck me, as I seethed in the heat, doing absolutely nothing, that we are so used to being in control, so used to immediacy, that a little pocket of involuntary idleness holds enough power to turn our minds so quickly.
Maybe it was my obsession with the finiteness of time, or my loss of power to almighty Nature, that would aggravate me so. There is no rushing the rhythm of the earth. Well, in this case, the moon too.
In any case, when it was time to go, it was time to go, and we went with great enthusiasm.
It took another hour or so to prepare the boat, but of course us city dwellers managed absolutely nothing except getting in the way.
And then we were off! We were to spend one night out at sea — the plan was to fish through the night, then follow the rising tide back to shore after dawn.
I distinctly remember the thrill of riding the choppy waves, breathing the salty and slightly pungent air, wind in our faces wind in our hair. The excitement of just starting. We were on the move — not much can beat the feeling of progress.
I have realised that feeling of satisfaction in most of the work I do, and even in the games I play. Another item checked off the to-do list, another photo album filtered and edited, a messy room tidied once again, another level higher on my in-game avatar.
Merely starting kicks things into action. Gets the ball rolling, gets the gears grinding… however you like to call it. The magic of starting is like the first fantasy book or adventure novel you picked up as a kid. The wonderful imaginative mind of a child first activated, first electrocuted into seemingly impossible realms of discovery, of flight, of immersion. What a joy!
Candat sotong means “squid jigging” — the action of jerking the line up and down through the water. I have no clue as to why this is the way to catch squid, but my uneducated guess would be that the jerking of the fly imitates bait.
We were informed of squid behaviour like we were five — “The squid wake up in the evening, and feed through the night. They like bright things and are attracted to lights.” And in fact, that is all I can convey now because I know absolutely nothing else.
Spotlights attached to the boat provide said light, which causes the squid to swarm to the surface. “Swarm?” I asked. But I didn’t, because we didn’t speak English to each other. The boatmen did, however, describe the scene as macam pasar malam. Like a night market. This is because of the fact that apparently massive amounts of squid are attracted to the light, and this in turn attracts other fishing boats, which have their own spotlights, and the whole surface of the sea (we were told) would be a free-for-all. I think someone even described it as a “frenzy”. Now isn’t that exciting?
In my head, I’m imagining excited shouts and loud splashes and endless reeling and dollar signs as eyes and really just squidmania. We licked our lips at the thought of the various squid dishes we were about to devour.
We began dropping lines in the evening, although having been informed multiple times before that the squid really only come out in larger numbers when it’s dark. I think our asses looked so impatient that the fishermen let us start early just to take the piss out of us among themselves.
For the next 3 hours, we caught nothing.
It was sobering, but we weren’t discouraged. Although silent, I knew we were clinging on to the hope that the squid would show up after dark.
Our arms have begun to grow weary after hours of jigging. Our backs stooped a little lower. Our spirits dampened. Standing switched to leaning to sitting. Conversation dwindled.
What surprised me, though not for the first time (can one be surprised a second time by the same thing?), was the lack of things to look at. Initially, the vastness of it all evoked feelings of wonderment and thrill and even a little nostalgia. After a while, curiously, the unchanging ocean somehow elicited a creeping sense of bleakness, helplessness and hopelessness.
The endlessness of the blue water somehow managed to colour my mind the same shade.
Also, I was properly sick of the unceasing rocking and pitching of this small blasted boat on the ocean surface.
Night came, and with it the shocking, swallowing darkness. The world, from 7 billion, became us 7. But with it, also came our first catches of SQUID. We would chance upon a school (?) of them below us, and hooked a good few in a short span of time.
The excitement was short-lived, though. The gaps between catches were long and empty, and it was obvious that boredom was setting in. We’ve been at the rods and lines for hours, and the number of squid amounted to no more than 10 or 15. It was disappointing, because we were naively expecting the “night market” and the “frenzy”. I say now: they never came. A few other boats here and there, but none of them seemed like there was much activity on board. In fact, amidst our gloominess, they were depressing sights — blobs of cold white light bobbing up and down in the black distance.
At around 10pm, we ate.
After dinner, was when we were really tested. We were full, heavy and groggy. We reluctantly retreated to our stations and picked up the rods grudgingly. “Another 8 hours of this?” was all I could think of. It was all starting to feel like a drag.
But the real enemy wasn’t the poor catch. It was fatigue. Our heads rocked with the rods — up, down, up, down. I began to loathe the sound of the repititive gentle lapping of the waves onto the hull of our boat… a sound otherwise rather pleasant in a different setting, reminiscent of a bubbling brook or the shore of a pebble beach.
For the first time in my life, I was glad about getting a tangle. It was a distraction from the dullness, as we took our time with the puzzle.
One by one, we abandoned our duties for sleep. Corners and flat surfaces were taken up by reclining bodies, as we tried, in vain, to achieve even the slightest level of comfort. Sweat clung onto our skin, and soon dirt too, and dust, and eventually, as our tolerance for hygiene dipped from giving in to our bodily needs, we opted straight for a lie down on the dirty boat floor, smearing ourselves with seawater, black ink, blood, bait and really just squid juices. Maybe, even some curry.
We were so tired, we didn’t care.
Special shoutout to that legend of a deckhand that clambered into the engine room and fell asleep directly next to a hot, roaring metal machine.
Close to dawn, or what felt like dawn, we awoke to shrieks and sounds of wet splats. “Are we in an orgy?” I mumbled to no one in particular. It took a wild minute for my brain to register this ridiculous aural stimulus — it was raining squid!
To be more precise, the commotion was caused by the sudden large number of squid being hooked, unhooked, and chucked onto the deck by the skilled fishermen.
We scrambled to our rods and dropped the weights in, all traces of sleep gone.
However, all traces of squid seemed to follow our sleep — they simply disappeared.
We were befuddled. A hot minute ago it seemed like we struck gold, the next… gone. Just gone. Such is the way of wildlife, isn’t it? They operate on a completely different, most times unknown scope. They do this with no regard to human beings and all the intricacies of human life. And we can do absolutely nothing about it.
To think that there are living things out there that are capable of perfectly and utterly disregarding us and all that defines us — I feel there is sanctity in that.
A decent amount was caught by the fishermen in that 10, 15 mintues. We had enough squid to bring home for a couple meals each, and that really was plenty.
We continued jigging for a good hour or so after that. The fishermen started calling out “Janggut janggut, datuk janggut!” (which translates to Grandpa Beard) in a bid to “summon” the squid. It was amusing, but at the same time it came off as a beautiful gesture, at least to me.
Naming is a powerful and empowering thing to do. To give name, is to give identity, recognition, acceptance, belonging, purpose. We don’t give credit to the importance of naming enough. Our dark thoughts, our secret, evil desires, our hurt, our heartbreak, our brokenness and our anger — all the blackness of an imperfect human… they should be given names. They should be acknowledged, and put out to light. If not to others, then for our Selves.
This “naming of the squid” reminded me of my time trekking in the Bornean jungle. As we approached our campsite for the night, the local guides would always call out “Atuk atuk!”, or a version of that. Asked, they explained that they were calling out to the elephants, which were common in that area. A “datuk” is a respected elder, a figure of wisdom, authority, and experience. I mean, don’t we all respect our grandfathers?
The guides were greeting these animals, acknowledging their ownership of the land, informing them, even asking permission from them, for us to camp in their territory — the jungle.
Woah. That’s insane. That’s insanely beautiful.
The rest of the dark morning had nothing else to offer, save for a glimpse of a flying fish skimming over the surface of the sea.
If you didn’t register that, I’ll say it again.
A flying fish skimming over the surface of the sea. A flying fish.
We returned to shore at dawn, caught the pink sunrise, packed up, and went back to Mr Fisherman’s. There, his family fed us the most glorious breakfast.
That was the highlight of the trip.