A few days after Donald Trump won the Presidential elections in the U.S., Ulrich announced that he had arranged for a local fisherman to take him out to a distant island.
Unbeknownst to us then and probably he also, it was a monumental journey, one which would mark an end and also a beginning……
The fisherman belonged to a community living in the tidal mangroves on our side of the island, about a kilometre away from the wharf. We had seen them on some mornings when we walked into town – along the coast rather the road – hauling their lines and nets out of their long tail boats.
Ulrich didn’t know where the local fisherman was going to take him; I suspect the language barrier might have played a part here. All he knew was that the two of them were going somewhere behind the large island visible from hut resort.
Hovering on the aqua blue horizon that island made a beautiful sight, like a mirage, especially in the mornings and evenings. But who knew what was on the other side? On the dark side of that iceberg moon? Or how it would be venturing out there on a long tail?
In any case, this venture was a clear break with Ulrich’s normal routine, when he got on his Honda and went somewhere on the island and cast his line out into the sea; when fishing was as a way of passing time rather than a dedicated attempt to catch fish.
Now thanks to Donald Trump, fishing took on another incarnation.
Was it as quest to catch a trophy fish?
Or an attempt to free himself of his personal ghosts?
He was more complicated that he seemed.
On the night before he was due to go, Ulrich drank only one glass of whisky before retiring to his bungalow early in the evening: just after 10pm. He had to get up at 5am, in the dark, and drive his little Honda into the town and then out to the fishermen’s community.
Before he went back to his hut, he joked:
‘I am paying this guy to take me to a good place to catch fish. Maybe I don’t catch anything…another sardine!’
On the following day, after our morning ocean swim and breakfast, we walked into the town and had lunch at our favourite stall. We sat there for quite a while and looked out over the bay.
In the afternoon, on the way back, I went to the shop which sold the whisky.
Then we began the walk back to the guest house. It was hot, in the mid-30’s. We stopped at a small shop at the outskirts of town. The roof protruded out a way, offering a precious area of shade. In the shaded area was a cement bench seat and table. We sat there and drank a can of cold lemonade and watched the passers-by, some walking, others on bikes.
Then we saw someone come around the corner of the road on a motor bike, steering with one hand.
It was Ulrich.
He saw us and pulled over.
The hand that wasn’t steering the Honda was holding a huge fish slung over his shoulder.
There was laugher all round.
‘Kind of a big sardine Ulrich.’
‘Ya! Big sardine!’
After a bout of animated conversation, Ulrich said: ‘You like fish?’
‘You eat a lot tonight!’
Ulrich was back to his normal self.
In the meantime, several locals gathered around and admired the big fish.
Then he drove off.
I had a feeling that the bottle of whisky I had in my rucksack was going to be empty by the end of the night.
The fish was barbecued.
It was more than enough to feed Ulrich, Anya and I – plus the fisherman and his wife who Ulrich had invited to come along. I went back for seconds – and thirds.
The fish was delicious. I had never eaten so much fish in one sitting before.
Then we started on the whisky and Ulrich told the story of how he caught the fish.
As he told his tale, there was an unmistakable air of almost child-like excitement:
‘It was so quiet when we started. It was dark. A beautiful time of the day – ‘
A time of the day he hadn’t experienced since being in Thailand.
‘The motor seemed very loud. We were out to sea when the sun came up, so suddenly, like a big orange light, fantastic!’
The sun rise we had seen every morning when we went for our swim.
‘When we got near to the island, I saw these big walls of rock rising out of the water. The fisherman motored in close to the wall. The water was as clear as a mountain stream, only it was deep. It was like the boat was floating in the air. Then we went over a reef, a big reef. The water became shallower. You could see all these plants under water, like an underwater forest, and schools of fish swimming between them. Then a big wave head towards us. It rose up and I was certain we would capsize. But Abdul …he knew what to do. He went straight into the wave. We rose up and up and then down. Then another one. I was shitting myself. I wanted to go back.
Abdul started singing. It was a song to bring good luck he said.
Then we came to deeper water, but the swell was still big, only we didn’t go up and down as bad. He told me to cast a line and I did, but all the time, I was worried I might fall out of the boat. I could see fish swimming under the boat. Almost like you could reach your hand in the water and grab them.
Abdul motored around the island. I cast out a line and then I knew I’d got something big. The rod was almost pulled out of my hand. I played out the line. It just went and went. He motored the boat in the direction the fish was swimming and I began reeling in. It was a struggle between me and the fish. Like the kind of stuff I’d read about, you know, in boy’s adventure books. I’d never fought a fish before. Ok, a fight when you pull in a trout but this was different. I knew this fish was much bigger than a trout.
I began reeling the fish in closer towards the boat. After about half an hour I had him. As it got nearer our boat I couldn’t believe it. Fucking enormous! We landed it on board. I wouldn’t have got him on board if it hadn’t been for Abdul. I had no experience with this. He knew exactly what to do. ‘
On the second glass – or probably the third – Ulrich became philosophical:
‘Fishing here is …how do you say? Opens your eyes. In Europe, you’d never be allowed to get into a small open boat and go out to an island on your own. There are laws. The boat must have fire extinguisher, roof to protect you from the sun and rain, life jackets, two-way radio, insurance …..you know what’s it like. Too many laws, you can’t do anything these days, there’s no freedom…’
I don’t know whether it was me or Anya who interjected with: ‘Yeah, but there’s a reason for all the laws, Ulrich’.
‘There is a reason for them! Sure, there is!….But I’ll tell you something…we’ve come too far in Europe. We’ve reached the point when you can’t do anything without breaking a law. Your life becomes regulated for all the right reasons. There’s lot of right reasons. No end of them. You reach a point when you think….what can I fucking do?’
I didn’t say it, but this sounded rather like Trump.
‘It was a crazy trip in the long tail boat today, I was scared, I’m this over protected man, grown up in a country where risk has been outlawed. The fisherman here, he sings to catch a fish, sings to ward off evil spirits, sings to ward off ghosts….yeah, they believe in all sorts of stuff, never mind that label of Islam. You see crazy stuff all the time here, three, four, five people on a motor bike, mum and dad and their kids, no helmets. There’s no rules here and if there are, everyone ignores them. I won’t defend that. But it’s how they live. They don’t look unhappy to me. They look a lot happier than a lot Austrian people I know. I’ve been up to Scandinavia you know. Took my fishing rod up there. You read these surveys that say that these Scandinavians are happy. All these statistics are fed into a computer. Out comes the answer. Tell you something. Walk around and see all these grim faces. No one laughing. No smiles. Faces like masks. If they’re happy, then I don’t wish it on anyone….’
Shortly afterwards Ulrich left the island. He had a job to get back to. He worked as a carpenter in Innsbruck. He invited us to come and stay with him. It was attractive offer. We liked Innsbruck and had stayed there in between walking trips in the Austrian Alps.
Some months later, back in Rotterdam, I sent him an email suggesting a time we could come over and see him. I got no reply. It was odd. He had seemed so enthusiastic about us coming to stay with him.
A year later, when Anya and I were on a bike riding journey in Queensland, Australia, I got a short email from him.
He had got married and he and his wife had a baby daughter. He didn’t seem particularly happy with his lot. The email was a statement of fact, like a report.
He had committed himself to living in the over organised, rule based society which he had derided. He had reconciled himself to spending his days in a society where in order to catch a fish you needed a licence.
Perhaps having landed that ultimate catch had formed the closing chapter to a period of his life which he concluded he could not continue living: a life of aimlessness, of casting his line into the sea under the shade of a palm tree and pulling in sardines – and drinking and smoking.
His was a life change alright. The man was a mystery. Like all of us.
I would miss his stories. These were his greatest catch.
Maybe he had never put much value on them.
How could you?
You couldn’t get by on stories.
I wrote a few lines back to him, wishing him well. Added a few details about where we were and what we were doing.
Never heard from him again.