The Day We Went Shark Fishing in Our Underwear
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you might exercise better judgment. Or just stay home.
The three of us were standing in waist-deep surf. In our underwear. In the dead of night. Shark fishing.
I remember thinking, This is probably a really bad idea — and, no, we weren’t drunk. The big greasy hunk of raw meat on the end of a huge hook, tethered to a ropelike line I was gripping tightly, just had to be spreading blood in the water.
It was a beautiful night, though, there on the north side of Trinidad on my last day visiting my friend Jim on the island. We had earlier motored to his grandmother’s place outside Toco to give her a hand in cleaning up her house. Her much-lived-in home was still located by a fallow cocoa plantation, owned generationally by Jim’s family for as long as anyone could remember. The house was a huge place, with just her rattling around inside of it. While currently in disrepair, the tropical home clearly at one time had been the center of a large family and many glittering events. It now sported out-of-control foliage, peeling paint, rickety stairs and a lot of webs spun by huge jungle arachnids of indeterminate origin and intent.
We cleansed the house of both spider and web, ruining a number of brooms in the process, and adjourned in victory to a local bar with dirt-floor décor and one chuffing refrigerator, which meant cold beer. The joint was packed.
By my second beer, Jim had disappeared. A man walked up and began talking. Loudly. Angrily.
“Why me?” I thought, and then realized that picking me out of the bar crowd would have been only marginally harder had I been a pig wearing britches.
I smiled and tried to be pleasant, but the loudness from my new friend turned to shouting and gestures. The problem with my “be pleasant” plan was that I couldn’t understand a damn word he said, he shouting in island patois and I having nothing to draw on but American slang.
Then he pulled a knife.
It was hissing and gnashing a mouth full of very sharp teeth.
I remember it as being a big, big knife … but it probably really wasn’t all that large. Because what he pulled and deployed was a “snap knife.” That’s the kind of knife, much favored back then by workers in the tropics, that conceals a wicked blade until the wielder palms it and “snaps” their wrist. Upon that movement, the blade instantly pops out and locks in place, ready for whatever business is at hand.
Unfortunately, at that moment I appeared to be the business at hand. And I can personally testify that in such situations, the room temperature actually does drop by about 6 degrees.
As I frantically cast about for an escape route, Jim appeared with his arm around the shoulders of another guy, obviously a friend (it turned out to be his uncle). They broke through the circle of onlookers, who I believe were placing bets, and started laughing at my knife-wielding acquaintance. This was a tactic I had not thought to employ, but fortunately for me it did the trick since the knife guy was an old school chum of my host.
Mr. Knife then bought me a beer, under the basic heading of “no hard feelings, eh?” I couldn’t understand that either, of course, but I figured on top of all my other troubles there must be an earthquake going on, as the free bottle of beer was shaking badly as I raised it to my lips.
Jim’s uncle watched this in silence. Then he said, “You need to come shark fishing with me and Jim. Tonight.”
I had arrived in Trinidad some days earlier, as an invited guest of my college chum Jim, a native Trinidadian and a member of Trinidad’s Olympic team. He was a runner, and although he didn’t medal, he was FAST. At his invitation, I raced him on the water buffalo-infested training track he had frequented for years in order to gain a slot on the team. Not being into continual humiliation, I did that only once.
He started skidding out to sea.
Jim went out of his way to introduce me to various aspects of island culture. I was particularly enthralled with three things: a lethal concoction of rum and fruit juice that was poured into a machete-opened green coconut full of its milk; steel drum bands that seemed to be everywhere; and a delicious Trinidadian snack called roti, a sort of spicy burrito stuffed with meat.
Prior to our expedition to Gramma’s house, we had hung out exclusively in Port of Spain on the other side of the island. Interesting place that, and still a cruise line destination, I understand, as ships can pull up, dock, and be virtually downtown, thereby spilling tourists directly out into the city and into the loving arms of various hustlers. Although I’ve heard things are vastly tamer now, back then it was all still a bit wild, albeit beautiful. We were sitting in an outdoor café overlooking the ocean when a cruise ship appeared on the horizon.
Jim looked at me over the edge of his glass. “Watch this,” he said, pointing out the steel band that magically appeared, placing itself right in the path of the tourists being disgorged out onto the dock. Almost all the tourists appearing were older couples, so there wasn’t much for the prostitutes to do in one sense, but most of them were dual-career, as they were also accomplished pickpockets and ad hoc members of the band.
I never would’ve noticed the hustle had it not been for Jim pointing it all out. The beautiful music of the steel band brought everyone to a halt, cameras snapping. The pickpocketing auxiliary band members flowed smoothly through the crowd, lightening the pockets of God knows how many of the ship’s passengers. Then all of them faded away just as the first anguished cries of “Hey, my wallet!” began to drift up from the dock. We adjourned to my favorite roti stand for a cheap bite of lunch. My favorite roti was filled with meat, the whole dripping bundle seeming quite delicious and exotic.
So now my last day on the island had arrived, punctuated with dead spiders and a derailed bar fight. Jim and his uncle extracted me from the bar without further incident, and we went over to the uncle’s house. Once darkness fell, we traipsed through what seemed to me to be dense jungle until, after a considerable time, we arrived at the beach, where I now found myself pantless and waist-deep in shark-infested tropical waters, holding a line attached to a hunk of raw meat. We had all removed our pants and shoes because, as Jim’s uncle put it, “we don’t want to walk back in wet clothes.” It wasn’t until we were in the water that it occurred to me that perhaps all that bare skin now just made us look tastier.
Since nothing was happening, strangely enough it was actually peaceful standing in the moonlight-dappled water. Right up until something, a big something, hit the uncle’s line.
He started skidding out to sea. We grabbed him, and the line, and soon the three of us pulled a very large ocean dweller with big snapping teeth up onto the beach. It wasn’t a shark. I don’t know what it was, and probably never will know. It was about 6 feet long, and thicker than the biggest anaconda anyone has ever lied about — an eel of some sort. I seem to remember it was hissing and gnashing a mouth full of very sharp teeth. But I have been told on the best authority that sea creatures don’t hiss, so surely I must be mistaken.
Jim’s uncle cheerfully picked up a big rock and beat the sea creature about the head and its nonexistent shoulders until calmness prevailed. He then announced that fishing was over, and we pulled our lines in. My huge piece of bait was totally gone, and I hadn’t felt a thing.
It seemed like we walked forever through the dark foliage carrying that damn whatever it was before we arrived back at the house. Once there, I was invited in for something to eat; a delightful prospect that I gratefully and immediately accepted.
Inside, Jim’s uncle slapped our catch down onto the kitchen table. Producing a hammer, he nailed the head securely onto one of the table’s planks. He cut a T behind the head and just a bit down the backbone separating the skin, which I remember as being bright yellow, dappled with brown spots. In a single motion, with the help of pliers, the skin was pulled off like a sticky sock.
So we capped off the day with fried Denizen of the Deep fillet, supping on the table alongside the carcass of the creature that had given its all for our meal. I remember the entrée as being delicious. And it didn’t taste a bit like chicken.