Last week I wrote about my moral dilemma around eating meat. I’ve decided it’s morally incongruous to eat meat if I’m not prepared to kill, butcher and cook some animals with my own hands. As a city dweller, I’ve never experienced the killing and preparation of meat, or going fishing for my dinner, because they’ve been far removed from my daily lifestyle. The only way for me to resolve this dilemma is to go out and kill some animals, then prepare and cook them, before reflecting on how I feel about the process.
My recent holiday in Goa, on the west cost of India, should have provided abundant opportunities to head out to sea and catch some fish to begin exploring this dilemma. Whilst there I decided to embrace the chance to seek out and hire a boat, then catch some fish to prepare and eat for dinner. This post is the story of what happened, because going out on a fishing boat in a coastal area wasn’t quite as easy as I expected.
The Journey Begins.
After consuming a slap-up Goan fish vindaloo accompanied by fresh naan on Ashrem beach, I was fired up and ready to seek out my fishing experience. I chose to tap into the local knowledge by asking the restaurant manager if he knew someone to take me fishing. “No”, he said, then advised I should travel to Shaolim to buy equipment, then travel to Morjim at 4-5pm and I will find a place where I can sit and fish. “It’s easy, many people fishing” he said, adding the tantalising suggestion that I could catch snapper, cat fish and more. The bounty of the sea awaited.
The only drawback was the idea of travelling around all day to buy my own fishing equipment, which seemed ludicrous when staying in a tourist destination, where I could no doubt procure most other services at the drop of a hat. Part of me was drawn to the autonomy of it, a romantic vision of sitting by the harbour at sunset, casually catching fish and then cooking it on a small fire. However, I didn’t want this task to consume countless hours of my holiday, as it was a precious and highly finite allocation of time before I had to travel home and end this period of relaxation. I needed someone with a boat and a fishing rod who could take me out on the sea.
I set off down the beach optimistically, in search of the abundant fisherfolk and tour operators who would no doubt be clamouring at my Rupees to get me out to sea.
The Journey Continues.
I asked more people, to no avail. Shrugs, denials and dismissiveness were the order of the day. Finally, a beach restaurant called Gopal cafe with a friendly, happy owner said “yes, go and speak to the fishermen at Morjim”. Where’s Morjim? “10-15 minute walk”. Awesome. I bought a cold soft drink in celebration and slugged it hastily.
Continuing my schlep down vast swathes of baking golden sand, I had covered nearly 4km and my legs were pulsating to the heavy beat of my heart under the 2pm sun, a dizzying 34ºC heat. I’ve always maintained that up to 35ºC is the perfect temperature for a holiday, as long as you don’t have to do anything. However, I was doing something and it was not fun. I became coated in a dense layer sand, adhered cleverly to my body by the factor 50 sun cream I had wisely plastered across my skin. My water bottle had become warm. This was not relaxing.
A short distance down the beach, the obvious shape of a pair of lone fishing boats sitting next to a beach shack came into view. Could this be the fabled fisherfolk of Morjim that Mr Gopal had spoken of? I was filled with joy, realising that success would be mine for the taking, the abundant fish would soon be clamouring to get hooked by my line as soon as I had located the boat’s owners.
I stuck my head into the shack behind the boats, to see a room full of nets, but alas, but no people. Failure again.
Sea, Fish, Boats, Nets… But No Fishing.
On several occasions I spoke to well meaning, but ultimately clueless Indians on the beach, who claimed to understand what I wanted yet ultimately failed to give a satisfactory answer, whilst gazing straight through me with a thousand yard stare, mixed with a soupçon of anxiety, before executing a swift Indian headshake. This shake is merely a gesture of vague acknowledgement and should never be taken as anything more than “I heard that you said something”. After further discussion about my holiday, where I was from and where I was staying, I was able to confirm that I was in Little Morjim and that Big Morjim was merely a short walk further down the beach, or ‘the bitch’ as my feelings of desperation, anger, heatstroke and dehydration grew.
As I stumbled into the delirium of sunstroke and overwhelming self pity at this seemingly pointless task, which I was executing for tenuous personal reasons that ultimately had no bearing on the quality of my life, I wondered what the point of it all was. Is this just for me to write about for the one and only reader of my blog? (that’s you, by the way). Or for me to decide that meat would be struck off the menu for me permanently? How ridiculous, “I’m on holiday ferfuxake” I said to myself on many, many occasions.
I found a surf school, where I staggered in feeling like a vagrant begging for change to buy a cup of coffee, and found a short, buff, befreckled Ukrainian called Ruslan in board shorts. His experience was even more disheartening, he explained he’d wanted to add fishing to his activities but couldn’t find anyone to take care of it. Seriously, I’d had enough. I wanted to go home. But I was miles from my guest house and not very close to a taxi either. I was incredulous that I was by the sea and nobody seemed to offer fishing trips. How utterly, utterly ridiculous.
Big Morjim became my last chance saloon. I decided it was Big Morjim or bust, if I didn’t secure a fishing trip shortly I would go home in abject failure. Which is fortunate, because I walked around the next corner and found a small bay with about 30 fishing boats resting peacefully in the sun and the backdrop of Big Morjim’s restaurants and bars nestling behind them.
One of the huts behind these boats appeared to have people in it, so I ventured up and found five drunk fishermen. I asked the four who were still conscious whether they were able to take me fishing, which upon reflection is a stupid question to ask a fisherman, especially a drunk one. Of course they were able to. At this point they forcefully offered me some swordfish as proof of their finely honed piscine entrapment skills, proffering it in a bowl rescued from amongst the whiskey and Bacardi Breezer bottles on the table.
This enforced hospitality left me bewildered, feeling as though the potential decline of my digestive health and the execution of a fishing adventure rested solely on my acceptance of this fish. They were insistent and I felt that declining the fish may be taken as a slight against their prowess as fisherfolk. This sits in stark contrast to the advice about what food is safe to eat in India, which broadly says put nothing in your mouth except hot cooked plants. I can’t begin to imagine what advice would be given about eating cold, leftover fish from four drink fishermen celebrating the birthday of their unconscious friend, but I guess it wouldn’t be affirmative.
Facing the Russian roulette of gastroentiritis, dysentery or perhaps even more exotic or parasitic digestive ailments, I nervously accepted, breaking a small chunk of fish from the cold, greasy swordfish steak that was nestling in a basket of oil sodden newspaper, slowly bringing it to my mouth. My thoughts came to the bottle of anti-bacterial hand gel in my bag, whilst simultaneously thinking that any bacteria nestling here would probably laugh at said gel, so I placed the fish in my mouth and gingerly chewed. The expectation of projectile vomiting the very second the fish made contact with deeper parts of my digestive system, which I have no control over, faded quickly as I remained conscious and vertical long after swallowing.
Back to the fishing.
Can I Go Fishing? Please?
After much discussion and trying to reinforce the fact that I wanted to catch, kill, cook and eat the fish, they insisted it should be an 8am start. I asked if it would be possible to go in the afternoon, to which they said “yes”, “no” and “you need to speak to our (unconscious) friend”. I arranged to come back the following day at 5pm, when they guaranteed he would be conscious, sober and ready to arrange the trip.
I bid them farewell, walked 10 metres further down the beach to find a road and a taxi, where I stumbled upon a large poster advertising fishing trips and other excursions. I silently cursed the fact they had neglected to advertise their services at any point in the preceding 2.5 miles of beach, the absolute bastards.
However, I’ll take success regardless of how small the victory and now that I was bearing details of the advert and a commitment from some drunk fishermen, I took a taxi back to the town I was staying. I took care of some essential requirements; hiring a moped, buying fresh coconut water and a chocolate ice cream, then headed back for a shower.
As I sauntered down the lane towards the big Banyan tree where I was staying, a motorbike pulled to a halt next to me, with a beaming Ruslan asking if I had found somewhere to fish? After a quick chat I was on the back of his motorbike kindly being whisked down the road to my accommodation.
Ruslan was working in Goa for the whole season and gave me some sage advice. He warned me of the fact that, much like Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond saying ‘TIA’ (This is Africa), that I should be wary of the fact that “This is India”. Making an arrangement to go back at 5pm the following day was no guarantee of anyone actually fulfilling my desire to go and catch fish. More than likely I would arrive at 5pm and find no-one there, or else an array of blank, confused faces denying any knowledge of my request or the ability to go fishing.
In the aftermath of this news and once I had separated the afternoon of toil from my body in the shower, I opted to call the number from the advertisement I saw shortly after speaking to the drunkards.
With this, a 7am fishing trip was arranged, where I would be taken out to catch fish and they would provide me with everything required to eat the fish, which I would very obviously catch lots of. I’d only been fishing once before in my life, as a child sitting on the banks of a murky Thames, getting cold, impatient and bored. I don’t remember ever having caught a fish before in my life. The night before the fishing expedition I was wondering what will happen. Will I catch many fish or just a few. Will I catch anything at all?
The Fishing Trip.
Early the next morning, wrapped up in a thick hoodie, I sped through the cold December Goan darkness on my moped towards Big Morjim for 7am and found Chandu, my skipper and his friend, gathered around a fire on the beach. Although the temperature is in the thirties in the daytime, it’s blooming cold overnight. Our boat for the day, Sea Queen, was resting on the water, waiting for action.
Once on board, we pottered over to the harbour across the bay, where a bag of fresh shrimps was bought from another fisherman, to use as our bait. We then motored out to a spot on the sea just within earshot of an all night trance party that was still banging out hypnotic Goan trance at 7.30am.
I was passed a rod, which had a line coming from it and a shrimp barbed on the end. Although I understand the concept of letting the fish in the sea bite the shrimp, which then hooks them and allows me to catch them, I genuinely didn’t know the details of how to go about this. After a quick chat, they suggested letting the bait sink to the bottom of the sea, then wind back until the line had a little tension to it. Then just wait until there’s a pull on it, occasionally checking the line to ensure the bait is still there.
Within a few minutes the fish were virtually jumping out of the sea. First up was a rockfish. Lots of rockfish, we caught about 11 of these in an hour. Next up was a fish that looked like a small sea bream, but with yellow fins. I was reliably informed it was a Goldfish. I nodded in assent, despite my mind actively dissenting at this identification. We also caught 3 of these. The identification was reminiscent of my experience in a restaurant a week earlier, where I had asked for a whole fish for lunch. They presented me with a long, round, pointy fish, thus proclaiming it to be seabass. I pointed out that it very clearly wasn’t seabass, however the reply was merely an acquiescent Indian head wobble and no more suggestions. Sometimes it’s easier to say nothing.
Anyway, the point of this whole exercise was for me to experience catching and killing some living creatures. So what happened when I actually caught these fish?
Firstly, I was scared. Seriously. Not in a ‘life or death’ way, but because I had to grab this slimy, spiky, slippery, struggling fish quickly and firmly to remove the hook. Doing slowly, or incorrectly would result in cutting myself on it’s spiny dorsal fin which leapt into action every time the fish began to struggle. In contrast, I definitely wasn’t as scared as the fish looked, he clearly understood this was a life or death situation. I tried to grab him a few times, recoiling as he leapt into a frantic struggle as my hand approached. Finally, I worked out what was required of me. I managed to grab him firmly and swiftly remove the hook, once I’d done so, I put him on the floor. To suffocate.
I’ll concede that I hadn’t considered the humane method for killing fish. I was in my jolly holiday mood and simply wanted to catch some fish, leaving the details up to some other people. But as these warm fish flapped around in hope of finding some water to sate their ebbing life forces, I felt some sadness. Although people advocate humanely killing fish by various methods, the reality is that a large percentage of commercially caught fish simply suffocate, it’s a very common method.
Food For Thinking With.
As I looked at the fish, I felt a connection. As he desperately grabbed the air and gasped for water, seeking life, I felt compassion for him and didn’t feel as though what I was doing sat in perfect alignment with my feelings. I felt a hint of sorrow. I felt the only way to accept what I was doing would be to shut off, to blank my feelings, because if I accepted them, I would have to admit that I felt I was inflicting pain on a living creature, which didn’t feel good.
In a true emotionally repressed style, I carried on, catching several fish in that hour of fishing, and it did get easier. However, by the end I was sick of it – mainly due to the constant rocking of the boat – I felt incredibly nauseous and seasick. Undoubtedly that seasickness contributed to the sense of uneasiness I felt with this process, because it wasn’t very fun.
As I watched a Kestrel swoop across the early morning sun, I wondered if all hunting requires a predatory mindset and that’s something I lack. After all, the fish is just a life form, so why should I kill it? Why should I trick it into eating a shrimp, only to whisk it from it’s home and leave it to suffocate on the floor of a boat? Why should I inflict pain on another creature? Emotionally it feels uncomfortable for me and as a sport it wasn’t exciting in any way, frankly, it was pretty boring.
I got back to my accommodation wielding a bag full of fish which we latterly prepared and cooked in Goan style. Cleaned, then soaked in tamarind juice and coated in spices and semolina. They tasted amazing, in the way that incredibly fresh fish always does. By this point, any thoughts of killing, maiming and suffering were distant memories and I had settled back into the comfortable distance of eating meat whilst well removed from it’s actual source. This is the place that 99.9% of the UK population sits in, eating meat as part of everyday life in the UK without ever having experienced what happened to procure it.
With the hot Goan sun now being a distant memory, replaced by the cold winter sun of England, I can reflect upon this process. I feel comfortable eating meat and fish, but that’s a habitual process, the comfort comes from a lifetime of eating them. They’re a learned taste and consuming them is as unremarkable in my world as going shopping or reading a newspaper. But I did feel uneasiness with the hunting process and ending of life, I didn’t enjoy the predatory nature of fishing and felt uncomfortable just letting them die. This sits in stark contrast to eating the fresh fish, because it was amazing, it was lovely food and great fun to cook.
The complexity of this situation is borne out here. As someone who truly loves food, especially making it at home, I’m loathed to restrict the range of ingredients available to me by cutting out meat and fish. I’ve always been proud of my position as an omnivore and the opportunities for ingestion which that creates. However, I could also argue that a position of wanting to eat everything, regardless of feelings, is only supported by a baseline desire for gluttony, which was we all know is a sin. I’m not religious, however the seven sins are a solid foundation for moral direction in life.
Therefore, my decision whether to carry on consuming meat comes down to a choice between two paradigms. On one side I have the emotional processes, which were demonstrated in my gut instinct, the feeling that I was uncomfortable with the ending of life. This path logically leads to becoming a vegetarian. On the other side I choose being omnivorous, which is to ignore my feelings and stubbornly continue to eat meat, as an inalieanble right of my position in the food chain and a privilege of being a citizen of a developed country, where eating meat no longer requires me to be connected to the slaughter of animals. Arguably this second choice is founded in greed or gluttony, by obstinately ignoring my feelings and deciding I want to have my cake, and eat it.
Despite this conclusion, I want to continue to explore these thoughts. I want to kill some land based animals and see how I feel about that, I just need to work out how and where to do this, and with which animals. Any final decision I make is going to be the result of thoughtful contemplation, I’m not in a hurry, plus I’d need time to plan my blow-out steak tartare as a grand finale, if I were to give up meat.