Fishing in Paradise

I was stranded in a boat in the middle of Pulau Perhentian's harbour, surrounded by perfectly still turquoise water. It seemed like hours since Richard, our taxi-driver turned fishing-instructor, led my partner Sam through neck-deep water to the shore to pick up the fishing gear.

Just minutes round the corner from the busy, hostel-filled Long Beach on the smaller Perhentian island, Kecil, lay the local fishing village where Richard lives. Small, one-story buildings with flat roofs lined the make-shift harbour in utter silence: everyone was at sea working the local trade. In the distance, two children were crabbing from a tethered raft; their skinny half-naked bodies silhouetted against the bright sky.

Finally, Sam and Richard returned, holding fishing gear over their heads triumphantly as they half-swam back to the boat. Richard started the motor and we zipped away, bouncing weightlessly over the waves. There's only one rod, Richard shouted matter-of-factly over the sound of the buffeting wind, so the men will use their hands. The image of Sam snatching fish out of the water made us both laugh.

Richard had dark, weather-beaten skin, with a flutter of grey whiskers across his chin. It was difficult to guess his age. In his baseball cap and t-shirt, he looked like an overgrown child, and he seemed energetic and full of life. His eyes, upturned crescent moons, constantly disappeared behind a web of smile lines.

The boat, with peeling white paint and cyan trim, seemed repeatedly restored. The metal bars holding up the awning were held together by red tape. Scruffy fishing equipment littered the floor; a plank of wood used as a table to cut up the bait, which was being stored in the lid-end of an old cola bottle. The sickly-sweet smell of rotting fish was overpowering.

It turned out that using their hands equated to a piece of fishing line dotted with hooks, that had to be yanked up hand over hand. Sam's first few attempts were fruitless and Richard began ribbing him, particularly when I wound the rod in on my first go to reveal a single, gasping fish, its pale red body flashing in the brilliant sunlight.

When we'd booked the trip that morning, we were all slightly unsure what was being arranged. Once we'd gotten started, it dawned on me that Richard had been expecting two experienced fishing enthusiasts. He seemed thoroughly disgruntled to find himself babysitting a pair of novices. Richard grew more and more impatient with me as I struggled to unhook my flapping catches, or skewer slimy octopus tentacles onto the fish-hook.

The language barrier proved to be a huge obstacle. I could never quite tell if Richard was joking. He seemed to be laughing as he shouted at Sam for cutting the bait too slowly with the blunt knife, but it was hard to be sure. I found myself trying extra hard to pick up the basics, to avoid another scolding.

The breeze at sea was a pleasant relief after days on the sand under the baking hot sun, as was the cool water when I took a sneaky break to drop my arms in. The fishing trip also provided us with a view of the sun setting behind the pretty little island; a small strip of white sand and dense green jungle, with waves dazzling in the changing light. A tropical paradise straight from a Hollywood film set.

Back on the beach, the fruits of our labours were barbecued for us by restaurant staff somewhat baffled by our triumph. Over a plate of the freshest fish I've ever eaten, deliciously moist and tender, we recalled the encounter to our friends. In spite of the gruffness and scoldings we'd been putting up with all afternoon, it was impossible not to describe Richard fondly.

E Luxton

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