The thing that I like most about field work is that it is a lot like life. You never know how it is going to turn out. It might end in tears. You might start your day over a good cup of coffee and end it in a swamp. You never can tell.
I got up Saturday morning not really anxious to go out to the field. It was Saturday, after all. I’m trying to confine work to Monday through Friday – because I can. But, our livelihoods coordinator said that the fish farming training would only run on Saturday so if I wanted to go I would have to go on Saturday. I persuaded her to go in the afternoon.
The drive out to Cot Mejid is a good one. The road running parallel to the coast is new and has recently been paved. If you ignore the tuk-tuks, water buffalo, and suicidal motorcyclists it’s what I would call an enjoyable drive. To your left is nothing but flat swamp still brackish with ocean water – the path of the tsunami. To your right, more swamp and jungle. Everything is green. The jungle is green, the water is green, the mountains in the distance have a greenish tinge. It’s like a landscape artist ran out of other colours.
The fish farming training is finishing when we get there and so I run a short focus group and ask them how they feel about their new livelihood. (They used to be rice farmers but their land is now to salianated to farm). They think that this is a strange question. I realize how strange this question is but have to ask it anyway. We’re concerned about their feelings about their new livelihood. They’re happy to have a job – any job. It’s not a matter of ‘liking’ rice farming or fish farming to them. It’s a matter of having a job. Still, we want to know that they’re happy so I ask. They are. I write that down. I ask some more questions and then we go out to see the fish farms.
We get there by driving to their village and then being ferried – one at a time – in tiny canoes to where the fish farms are anchored. By ‘anchored’, I mean that the farms are essentially floating docks with giant square holes cut in the center that hold nets in which the fish live and a small hut in which the fishermen sleep and guard the nets. The ride up the river is quiet because the fisherman rowing doesn’t speak English, he doesn’t even speak Indonesian – only the local dialect. Monkeys watch us as we make our way up the river swiftly moving in the other direction. The jungle on either side is alive with the noises of different insects.
It is a beautiful feeling to sit in the middle of a muddy river flowing out to the ocean on the other side of the world and drag your fingers in the water – even if your canoe is taking on water at an alarming rate. The prayer call starts as the fisherman rows and the sounds is exaggerated by the silence.
When we reach the fish farms the fisherman lets me off and rows away to ferry others and I am left alone with the prayer call, and the jungle, and the rushing water. I sit down, and put my feet in the water to wait and think how I am truly one of the most lucky people in the world to be here right then, in that moment.
The fishermen appear in other canoes and bring with them a feast of seafood for dinner. Crabs the size of a small dinner plate, the best grilled swordfish I have ever tasted. I choke on a fishbone and wonder which is worse – choking to death on a fishbone or drinking the water straight out of the river. I was spared though as one of the fishermen had some water still warm and smoky from being boiled over a fire.
The fishermen all light up clove cigarettes and the smoke is blown downstream as we huddle around the light of the single, solar-powered lantern. When it’s to leave and our canoe-er stares out into the darkness at the river. No good, he says. The river is flowing too fast. We cannot go the way we came. Instead, he will paddle us half-way down river and then turn inland and drop us up the road from the village. Why not? I’m game.
I’m game getting into the canoe in the pitch black and drifting off into the night with the other staff yelling useful tips about ghosts and large lizards. I’m game as we turn off the river into a shallow marshy estuary and duck under trees. I’m game as the bamboo scratches my arms and as we get beached in the shallow mud. I start to lose my game when the fisherman motions for me to get out and I sink up to my calves in thick, oozy mud. Right. So, we walk then? Right. I roll my jeans up further and follow the fisherman the best I can. He moves quickly and deftly through the swamp. I have about as much finesse as a water buffalo. I’m having trouble keeping track of my shoes while I try not to contemplate what I am probably stepping in/on/through. It’s pitch black as we weave around. What we’re weaving around I have no idea but these are the sorts of questions you don’t ask when you’re following someone in a swamp. In fact, I’m mostly thinking about a book I read a few years ago called, ‘Not So Funny When It Happened.’ Eventually, the mud gets shallower and firmer and we come to ground in someone’s backyard. They seem to take it in stride this white girl popping out of a swamp; like it’s an everyday occurrence. Maybe it is, what do I know? The kids wave. I wave back. The fisherman takes me to the road, shakes my hand and turns and heads back to the fish farms for the next trip.
The whole thing makes me laugh. Out loud. Alone. In the middle of nowhere, sitting on the edge of the road, carrying my crocs, with muddy legs and jeans, I laugh because what else can you do? You never know how life is going to end up.