Fresh Off the Boat

To live just a breath away from the ocean, you’d think fresh seafood would be abundant in the local grocery store. Oh, they have fish, but it’s frozen and not local and I don’t trust it. Not one bit.

So for the last 9 months we’ve relied on Tony Mr. Meat for our supply of fish. He raises his own organic tilapia and promises they’re fed quality food, and the fish is delicious. But the dry season reduced his ponds by a shocking amount, and he quit offering fish on his weekly menu of fresh meat.

My friend Anna mentioned that she buys fish directly from the fisherman who launch their brightly colored panga boats from Playa Pelada. She gave me directions – go to a tico house behind Olga’s bar and ask for fish. How hard could that be?

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But which house? Olga’s bar sits just off the sand of Pelada, and behind it are scattered several small tico houses. One had a hand-painted sign offering fruits and veggies for sale, so I thought I’d start there, with the child sitting outside.

“Hola. Estoy buscando pescado,” I said.

“Pescado,” he repeated. Fish. And he pointed to his neighbor’s house. I felt very foreign strolling through their yards, but I found a friendly gentleman who informed me there was no fresh fish, but I should come back in an hour.

I got busy and didn’t make it back for a few days. Again, no fish. “Mañana en la mañana,” he said. Tomorrow, in the morning.

So the next morning, Anna, a neighbor and I showed up at the fisherman’s house at the appointed hour, just as the pangas were to arrive from their morning expeditions. We were told to wait, that they’d be back soon.

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This gave me a chance to look around. Faded lettering on the side of the house was the only indication that fish was sold here. Chickens strutted around the yard, criss crossing between discarded bicycles and old tractor tires, pecking at the wet earth. Another hen clucked impatiently, trapped beneath a red, plastic milk crate. I tried not to think about what fate awaited her once the fishermen returned.

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Finally, weary of waiting and concerned we’d misunderstood, we wandered down to the beach. That’s where we saw the two fisherman, kneeling in a low tide pool, surrounded by vultures.  They were gutting the fish on the rocks, letting the sea wash away what the vultures weren’t quick enough to consume.

Sometimes I really want to be a vegetarian. This was one of those times.

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But no. I rallied as the men loaded the gutted fish into a crate and carried it back to the house. They laid their spoils on steel tables in one of the rooms, and told us the names of the fish, which were unfamiliar to me. I asked if I could take a picture, and not only did they oblige, the asked if they could pose.

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As much as it makes my skin crawl to stare into the dead eyes of my next meal, there’s something that is also beautiful about being so close to the source. The men were proud of their hard work, and pleased that we wanted to buy their fish. Between the three of us, we bought about half of their morning’s catch.

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So it took three separate trips, and then about a 45 minute wait to finally get some fish. But oh my, that ceviche was good.

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