Aramcon Travel: The sampan and wonder of a single silver fish
A visit to a family ancestral home in Indonesia reveals the wonders of fishing.
The welcoming community of Talango sits on the northwestern tip of Puteran Island in East Java, some 160 kilometers northwest of the popular tourist island of Bali. Puteran — roughly 15 kilometers long by 4 kilometers wide — is separated from Madura Island by a narrow straight of the Java Sea, which people can cross by ferry boat or sampan, a traditional wooden boat common in Indonesian waters.
Puteran remains undisturbed by international tourism because of its remoteness and absence of hotels or guest houses, but I was there in August to visit family on the island where my wife had spent most of her childhood. The ubiquitous fishing boats, ferries, seafood, and salty breezes around the island spurred us to go fishing during our visit.
On the morning of our fishing adventure, we set out early after a breakfast of fresh fish, rice, soto (a flavorful soup), fried cassava patties, and coffee. We boarded a sampan at Talango’s lively harbor, already bustling with people going to the market or waiting for the next ferry. The becak (pronounced “baachak”) drivers were already lined up, smoking or drinking tea, and waiting for customers.
Our small fishing party included Haris, a retired headmaster who had worked at Talango’s elementary school for 36 years, and Hani, who teaches fourth graders in Kalianget, just across the straight from Talango. Shamsul was our pilot and had lived in Talango for all of his life. He earned a living by conveying people between islands. Fortunately for us, they all had “the knowledge” needed to locate the best fishing spots, much like a London taxi driver knows how to find the most obscure alleyways.
We had thought about stopping at Gili Labak, a tiny coral island popular with snorkelers and day trippers. On a previous visit we had been enchanted by the pristine isolation and brightly painted fishing boats left high and dry on the beach by the low tide. But this time, the large seasonal waves made visiting there impractical. We might not have been able to keep our breakfast, swallowed with such gusto barely an hour or so earlier, in our stomachs. As Talango’s harbor receded into the distance, the sea swell gained strength and eventually made the boat rock from side to side as if we were seated in a gondola at a fairground.
The fishing areas around Puteran are often marked by lengths of bamboo that poke high enough above the water’s surface to be spied from perhaps as much as a mile away. Even though they appear haphazard in the way they are positioned, they help identify the fishing grounds and provide tether points for preventing boats from drifting. After reaching the first fishing spot, Hani and Shamsul tied the sampan in place, while Haris prepared a line and hook to attract the fish.
We were happy to let our hosts prime the fish hooks with shrimp without any help from us; their stomachs were obviously more resilient than ours. Haris and Hani forcefully lobbed their lines overboard multiple times as we waited to see what would happen. We asked ourselves, what kind of fish were there and would they bite? And how long would it take for us to catch enough fish before we could return to calmer waters?
Eventually, Hani caught an Asian seabass. Its silver scales glinted in the late morning sunlight as he held his writhing prize for me to capture with my camera. Unfortunately, our excitement at catching this miraculous creature was short lived. After about 30 minutes — having been unable to land anything else — we weighed anchor, untied the sampan, and moved to another location about half a mile away.
We tried four different fishing spots but only caught three fish. Still, the seabass were all big enough for our evening meal. Our hosts would later inform us this time in August was not the best season for catching fish around Puteran, but we did not know this while out at sea. Despite our meagre haul, journeying out to the fishing grounds in a traditional sampan and experiencing the beauty of the sea, with a privileged view of the Madura coastline, somewhat obscured by a blue-green haze, seemed like reward enough.
Before heading back to the harbor, we stopped at a sheltered bay, lined with the muddy sand of Ponjuk Padike Beach. We saw some of the floating bamboo “frames” that local villagers use to harvest seaweed, a valuable resource for manufacturing popular food and pharmaceutical products. We spent long enough on the beach for our stomachs to recover from the dizzying waves and to watch a sailboat pass by. After we left the bay we saw other boats tethered above favored fishing spots, and we hoped they would be luckier than us.