Caught in a Nica Net 

10/13/17

By Paul Paytas

Photo by Gulf Lite Magazine

It is 5 am in Playa Gigante and I am tightly holding on to a motorscooter, while Panchito, my  Nicaraguan host, carefully drives around the potholes on the main road to the marina. I am a guest from the United States, staying at Panchito’s house for the week, while a student at the Pie de Gigante Spanish School. Panchito has offered, as he does for other students, a taste of the life of a Nicaraguan fisherman. The director of the school, Juan Delgado, heartily endorsed the offer and said it will be a great learning experience.

There are no lights on the road, but our headlight and Panchito’s knowledge of the road guides us smoothly past the ups and downs of the road. All is dark and quiet on the side of the road, except for the occasional grunt from a startled pig in the shadows.  At the marina, El Capitan Panchito meets his two crew members and in the semi-darkness, they gather the gear for the day. At this point my help is not needed, so I stay out of the way, like the pig in the shadows, except, I don’t grunt.

Eventually, the motor and the 3’ x 3’x 3’ freezer  is brought out to the  beach. Then, we begin the process of pushing the panga, nicknamed La Reina after Panchito’s wife, to the water, about 100 yards away. We push the panga  from the stern and the sides for about 10 feet, rolling the boat on two  4 foot logs, which are under the bow and stern. After10 feet, we remove  the log under the stern  and put it under the bow. We repeat this process about five times. With our pushing and the force of gravity, the 25 foot, roughly1800 pound panga moves smoothly down the beach. In 15 minutes, the boat is at the water’s edge. Then, the motor and freezer are hoisted on board.

Now comes the fun part. We need to make a mad dash with the loaded  panga up and over the crashing 3-4 foot waves. With Panchito in the boat, the crew moves to spots along the sides of the boat. During a lull in the breaking waves, we get the signal from Panchito and with Swiss watch precision, we heave the boat forward through the incoming surf. At the same time, Panchito lowers the motor and starts the engine.  The two other crew  members hop into the boat, as if they have been doing it most of their lives, which they probably have. But el Yanqui  is slower. So, while climbing over the side of the boat, the boat crests a wave, then slams down, sending me forward into the aforementioned freezer with a jarring impact to my shoulder. I don’t want to lose face in front of my Nica hosts, so I give them a smile and a thumb’s up, as if I meant to do that.

As we begin our ride to Panchito’s fishing spots, I see a beautiful sunrise and I forget about my sore shoulder, mostly. Soon, we are alongside an orange buoy and I guess I am about to experience the real physical aspect of a fisherman’s life; pulling up the nets.

To pull the nets out of the water, two people pull on the port side and the two people  behind them haul the net into a heap in the center of the boat. Even though the panga is anchored, we rock back and forth, occasionally getting thrown off balance, me more than anyone else. As we pull steadily hand over hand, the ocean grudgingly and gradually releases the net. My back and my legs begin to ache.

While wrestling the net on board, the crew removes the fish from the net. Now, all of the fish appear dead in the net, but are they? This New Jersey native does not recognize any of the fish. Are they aggressive, are they docile, do they have sharp teeth or no teeth, do they have pointed spines on their dorsal fins or not?  Do I really want to know?

However, I do want to be an active contributor to today’s haul without further injury to myself, so I pay close attention to the crew plucking the fish from the net.. I learn quickly and soon I am  adding fish from the net to the freezer, without being bitten or jabbed. Despite my care, I soon notice a stinging sensation on my arms. Panchito sees me scratching and tells me it is pica pica from the water. Ah hah, so that is why everyone, except me is wearing a long sleeve shirt.

Allow me to digress. During my 22 years as a high school science teacher, I organized high school trips to Costa Rica and Belize. On those trips we snorkeled and sometimes we experienced the rash from pica pica.  That rash, which can be mild to severe, is caused by a reaction to the poisoned barb from the microscopic, juvenile, jellyfish when they come in contact with one’s skin.

For more information and tips to avoid the rash go to:

https://ambergriscaye.com/pages/town/picapica.html 

Two hours later, after pulling up 5 nets, filling the freezer with fish and feeding many gulls and frigate birds with fish guts, we head for shore.

When we return to shore, we park right at the water’s edge and the motor is removed. Now we get ready to “dock” the panga high up the beach. Suddenly, like birds descending for a free meal, other fishermen gather around the boat, tripling the number from this morning’s push. We lean forward, dig our feet into the sand, and strain to move the boat uphill, rolling, removing, replacing the logs as we did in the morning. While moving the panga, I thought of a popular exercise program in the US called cross-fit.  This program uses many novel weight lifting exercises such as flipping over massive truck tires. I think pushing a panga up a beach would be a super exercise also.

Once the panga is docked above high tide, the freezer is removed. Then, Panchito’s crew gets the fish ready to be sold. Since, my assistance is no longer necessary, I bid farewell to my fishing buddies and Panchito drives me back to his house.

As I hurry to my Spanish lesson at Pie de Gigante Spanish School, I thought of this morning’s lesson. The life of a commercial fisherman in Nicaragua and undoubtedly in other parts of the world is physically and mentally challenging, requires cooperation and  is very satisfying.

Juan was right, it was a great learning experience.

By the way, the fresh ceviche that night was very tasty.  I think I pulled that fish out of the net. That night I reflected on my experience and realized that, like the fish in the net, Nicaragua had a hold on me.

Thanks Panchito, Panchito’s crew and Juan for being great teachers.

Author: Paul Paytas     ppaytas@lelandandgray.org