In the course of reporting this story, I have been pleasantly surprised by countless little things. The tremendous knowledge of fishermen of their craft, the persistence of ecosystems here to continue in the face of constant fishing pressure, beef tacos just off the Malecon in La Paz.
However, the traditional Mexican fishing boat – known as the panga – is not one of them. In many ways the traditional boats of a fishing culture represent a part of its soul. For instance, in Thailand the longtail boat, with its comically long propeller, wooden hull, and brightly decorated bow will forever be linked in my mind with the Thai philosophy of sampok (please don’t ask me if I spelled this right) – the idea of taking joy in everything you do. The Mexican panga, as far as I can tell, is tied the Northern Mexico notion that they are the biggest hardmen who ever lived.
The panga looks simple enough – flat bottom, fiberglass hull, five benches separating compartments for fish. Not your standard image of a medieval torture device, but that’s only because so few people have survived one to tell the truth. The truth is that these are grisly devices of terror, designed to bring all but the hardened fisherman to his pasty white knees.
Yesterday was a perfect example. They are fine enough floating in calm water. But when the driver fires up the engine the pain begins. With every wave, the flat bottom of the panga slaps against the water like a cross between a belly flop and a shot to the kidney from Oscar de la Hoya. It’s sort of an unrelenting soft punch to the gut every four seconds.
All of this gives me the vague feeling I am somehow the butt of a vast fisherman joke. Of course, being the only gigantic white dude here, the last thing I want to do is complain, thus casting gigantic white dudes everywhere as total wussies. So I just quietly take it and try to make conversation like a normal person while my spleen jolts against my throat.
“Those – whumpf – brown pelicans – ungh – on the horizon – mughhh – remind me –hunghh – of a the last – oof, sonofa! – scene in – ugh – Jurassic Park – mmmmoof – right?Muh. Or am I – gah – crazy?”
At the end of this joyride of pain, the fishermen finish with one last indignity. Everyone braces against whatever is nearby and with a whoop, the driver rams the beach as hard as he can, the effect being that the entire boat is shoved straight up your nose and out the back of your head.
I am all for cross cultural experience and braving the wild seas. But next time I do this, I am going to bring along a Thai longtail and a better barf sack than my computer shoulder bag.
- Erik Vance