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Jaws!!!: Kevin's Attack

Kuna women in a kayuko
While growing up, just about the only thing that I refused to eat was fish. This is rather funny, since fish is a major part of the Vietnamese diet. Had I grown up in Vietnam, I would've eaten fish all the time. Here on the San Blas islands, fish are eaten just as often, nearly every day. My host, Alalan took me fishing in his little kayuko and I got to see firsthand how the Kuna catch this important food source and turn it into a tasty meal.

Kuna Snapshot

The three hour limit on electricity is not much noticed on the island. During the day, the hotel guests are at the beach, the police station runs on two battery powered radios, and planes can land at the single strip airport without a tower. At 6 PM the electric generator is switched on for three hours, at which time I use my computer, charge batteries, or eat dinner with electric light. As the power shuts off and the island is lit only by moonlight, everyone retires for the night. Yet, I lie wide awake following the rhythm of the island, the pulse of the Kuna, and end my day in anticipation of the next.

A kayuko arrives at port
The kayuko that the Kuna use for fishing is smaller than either of the boats used for commuting from island to island and the mainland. It's made of wood, left unpainted, and generally looks much older and less sturdy. It also has two oars, instead of a motor, so it doesn't scare the fish. Nearly every family has a small fishing kayuko. Fishing is normally done very early in the morning. As early as 10 AM, fisherman approach the yachts anchored offshore, hoping to sell their catches. Afterwards, they proceed to the villages and sell or cook the leftovers.

Kuna Snapshot

The Kuna are a warm and colorful group of indigenous people who have managed to retain most of their culture even to this day. Every morning in agreement with the sun, I wake up at 6 AM as the Kuna are beginning their day. I greet my friendly hosts calling, "Tegite! Tegite!" knowing that they've already prepared coffee for me to share with them.

Setting the net out, which hangs from the floating wooden balls
When fishing, some use fishing rods or spear-fishing, but we use a large net. After Alalan rows us out to sea, we begin the process of setting the net. The nylon net is enormous and it takes nearly twenty minutes to slowly let it out of the boat. It is necessary to let the net out a little bit at a time, while the motion of the waves pulls it further out, until it stretches over a vast area of the ocean. The ends are weighed down with rocks that act as anchors and secure the net in place. A string of wooden balls border the edges, causing the net to float on the surface of the water. This also acts as signal to other boats that there is a fishing net to be avoided. Finally, we wait. Sometimes it takes up to 4 hours until the net settles and the fish come around. After waiting so long, I was surprised to find out that even with such a large net, it's typical to only catch between ten and twenty fish.

Kuna Snapshot

Alalan operates his "kayuko taxi"
I befriended a Kuna man named Alalan, who operates a sea taxi service to the other islands on a kayuko, a canoe with a motor. He and his eleven member family live on an island in a hut with walls made of white cane and a thatched roof of dried palm tree leaves (which is practically waterproof). As I entered their welcoming home, I counted exactly twelve hammocks, one dresser, and two stools inside. Just as I was about to ask how all the family clothes could possibly fit into one dresser, I looked up and noticed that hanging from the all of the supporting beams of the roof were multi-colored garments of all sizes!

Gutting the fish: yum!
Many kinds of fish are caught in the waters between the San Blas islands. There are barcos, sierra, bonito, and baracuda. The largest is the mero, which measures over two meters long! I watched Armando, the cook, prepare the fish for frying. This requires a very large sharp knife and a steady hand because the fish are so slippery. First, he cuts off the tail and fins. Then, he cuts under the fish's gills and makes another longer cut down the belly. He reaches in, grabbing the tripas, or innards, that are not fit for eating. Finally, he makes two broad cuts at an angle into the sides of the fish so that the blood can drain and the fish fries evenly. After he is finished, Armando has a whole bucket full of tails, fins, and fish guts. Like Armando, I try to cut the fish but it slips out of my hands and ends up on the ground. Armando may be good with fish, but I'm better with the camera.

Kuna Snapshot

A small space exists between the presence of company and lonely isolation, and it's called solitude. What better place is there to find this peace than lying in a hammock tied between two trees with my favorite book on one of the islands of the San Blas? Reading has never been more enjoyable.

Cooking urel is rather simple. You merely take the whole fish and deep fry until the entire outside is crispy. It tastes particularly good with a squeeze of lime and some hot sauce. Often, it's served up with white rice and beans. I'm so glad that I've grown to enjoy fish, since it's been on my plate every single day for a week now!


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