I was hit with the distinct smell of fish that had been sitting in the sun too long as the ocean breeze whipped across my face. Combined with the shade from the canopy of trees above me, I almost remembered what it felt like to be cool. It was the first time since I arrived in India that the heat didn’t hit me like a brick wall. I redirected my attention to the massive nets moving in and out of the water to my left. I’d read about the Chinese fishing nets in Kochi while looking up things to do and didn’t really understand the draw.
Now, I could see why people found them so impressive. The huge teak logs plummeted up and down in the water, a net stretched between them, and men running back and forth along the beams with monkey like balance. I stood still and focused on them from a distance while trying to figure out how the contraption worked when I realized I was being watched.
A man whose skin had been darkened from long hours in the sun stared. His clothes were loose, a size too big as if he’d lost weight and didn’t realize. He waved at me the way you wave at a child to take a closer look. “Go ahead, get closer now. Yes. Yes. It’s okay.” I looked around to make sure he was in fact talking to me. “It’s okay?” I said as I approached the dock and stopped again.
“Come on. Come on,” he said walking past me and out onto the makeshift dock which was just pieces of frail ply wood, too thin to possibly hold one person’s weight, nonetheless two. I felt compelled to follow him even though I knew I’d be asked for a tip at some point. The people of India were friendly beyond belief, but there was always a moment at the end of each wonderful conversation where you were either expected to buy something or to tip. Friendliness seemed to be a tourist trade in and of itself.
But my curiosity got the better of me. “Where are you from?” I said, “New York” and was so thankful that the next words out of his mouth were not ‘Donald Trump.’ A phrase that had been uttered every time I said America in this country. “What is your name? I am James. My western name.” I have such a hard time remembering foreign names that I was grateful I wouldn’t forget his right away. Being bad with names was an understatement for me. I’d meet someone and a minute later forget. It was a trait I constantly worked on overcoming, repeating people’s names ad nauseam until I could remember.
“Come here. Come here,” he motioned eagerly. “We take photo. Where is your camera?” I pulled out my phone and his friend (whose name I can’t spell, possibly Ranoul) took it from my hands. I hoped that he wouldn’t just start running, a common fear when anyone asked to hold my camera. James was already seated on a beam with his pose all worked out. They’d done this before. “Sit. Sit. We know how to use all cameras. We have lots of practice.” I sat down unsure of how much this photo would cost me. After a few shots, I was given my phone and told not to move. It was time to raise the Chinese fishing net.
I stood as the beams came down slowly on either side of me, the wind blowing fiercely across my face. Cranes came flocking out of the sky as the net appeared, hoping to steal a fish or two. The net contained barely any fish and those it had were meek. “We do this all day every day. We get here at dawn, pull up the net and leave at four. Five other men take the night shift. The Chinese fishing nets in Kochi cost one million rupees to make. Rich man’s game. We sell all the fish at market. Then we go home to our families and sleep, wake up, and do it again. Very hard work. Come. Time to pull net again.”
I followed him and my phone was removed from my hands once more. The men all lined up and pointed for me to stand next to them. A rope was placed in my hand, and I posed for a photo before realizing that I was supposed to actually pull on it. “Don’t step back. Pull in place.” I looked around confused when suddenly someone started yelling in Hindi. Then the rest of the men yelled in return. I started to pull on my rope and the giant piece of wood in the sky started to lower down to us. It was a giant pulley with one ton of rocks attached. The chanting continued around me and I began to join in. My voice sounding odd in contrast to the men with Indian accents.
When it was almost lowered to the dock three of the men let go of their ropes and ran toward the net. Two jumped on the beams, using their weight to lower it to the ground. I wanted to try it knowing it’d make a great photo but also knowing I have terrible balance and might fall in to the thirty foot deep water. Not the way I wanted to spend my day. But my reverie was broken when I realized we still needed to pull down. The weight was distributed between three of us now, and it was so heavy I could feel the strain in my arms. I pulled as hard as I could while James grabbed the net and scooped out the fish. Our catch had significantly more fish, and I welled up with pride.
“We do every five minutes,” he said and showed me his calloused hands. I admired their strength and told them how strong they were. They all nodded somewhat solemnly. We sat under a covered section on the dock where the men showed me a photo of Jesus and Mary. “We pray every morning. Cause it’s very dangerous work,” he said seriously. “Has there ever been an accident with the rocks?” I asked wondering if it was a common issue. They all broke into smiles and bobbed their heads back and forth as their shoulders moved up and down with silent laughter. “No. No.” he said, “but we still want to be safe.”
We sat silently for a few minutes and then all of the men introduced themselves. One was deaf and didn’t speak. He waved his arm in the motion of a wave and I looked out at the water. “Dolphins jump sometimes,” James said and pointed away from the dock into the distance. I looked not seeing any but turned back to the quiet man and made the same motion with my hand. He nodded and then looked down at his feet.
Five minutes passed and it was time to pull the net again. I jumped up and took a position. “You want to do it again?” one asked, clearly wondering why I’d want to do this work. “Yes, if it’s okay?” I replied. I was handed a different rope this time and began pulling with the men and chanting their fishermen song. We sat around a bit longer, and I asked where they grew up and how they knew each other.
Slowly the conversation died down, and I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. I reached into my bag and pulled out a tip and handed it to James. I thanked them for letting me hang out with them and for teaching me what they do. They all nodded looking a bit bored while I felt enthralled. I spent a moment in their lives, excited to learn, but for them, this was never ending labor that barely resulted in enough money to support them all.
James looked at the tip, frowned, and said “Can’t you give more?” At first, I felt guilty, but that guilt quickly turned to anger. It was incredibly rude for him to look at the tip and evaluate it. I started to let it ruin my entire experience. Not to mention, the tip I had left was more than anyone would have paid for a fifteen minute tour. I’d seen day tours advertised at twice the price. I told him I was on a budget and couldn’t afford anymore, and he accepted my response. The men all nodded at me and said goodbye.
I began to walk away from the Chinese fishing nets and down the boardwalk. I purchased some fresh cut pineapple from a street vendor. It was perfectly sweet, which began to lift my spirits. I looked out toward the ocean and smiled. I’d had a wonderful experience and the last few seconds wouldn’t ruin it. Even the trash blowing in the wind and brushing against my ankle wouldn’t bring me down. I watched as the paper promoting some kind of event continued to float past me toward a young Indian couple holding hands. A sense of calm washed over me, and I felt at ease.
Suddenly, something grabbed my hand, and it startled me so much that half of the pineapple fell onto the floor. It took me a second to process what happened, when I noticed a crow flying off with a piece of pineapple in his talons. Ten other crows descended from the tree trying to grab the dirty pieces on the ground. I hid my pineapple and threw my other hand up, thinking WTF, and continued to walk down the dirty boardwalk while the smell of old fish continued to assault my nostrils. Welcome to India.
Want to visit the Chinese fishing nets in Kochi? Ask me any questions about them in the comments!
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.