It’s Saturday night around 10:30 pm and I’m sitting in the back of a small sedan rocketing south on the Panamericana Del Sur, the cool air of the night fluttering on my face. Summer is now waning in the southern hemisphere, and the nights are not the sultry, sweaty affairs they were when I first arrived. At my feet is my backpack, holding my sleeping bag, a towel, and a few beers. In the trunk are two hand-crafted nets, empty plastic bottles, uncracked glowsticks, and an empty dogfood bag. Tonight, we are going fishing.
Twisting my neck and running my arm across the top length of the back seat, I peer out the rear window. Lima’s warm glow paints the night sky a deep orange-grey, fading upwards to a deeper blue-black, punctuated by a few persistent stars at the top of the dusty auto glass. The sprawl splashes up the cerros— the rocky, sandy hills that wedge in the city’s periphery— marked by streetlight pointilism and nothing more; the residents of the shanty towns in the hills surrounding the city are often too poor to afford electricity that isn’t municipally funded. Unwinding my body I retrain my gaze frontwards. Ahead lies only the darkening night and a damp, chilly beach, the site of our night’s work.
As we ready our net, the sand cold between my toes, I turn to my friend Malte, who I met surfing when I first arrived. I tell him that what we’re about to do is fucking crazy, and ask him if this is an actual method of fishing or if they had just made it up. He laughs. “Just don’t get caught in the net yourself.” I take a sip of my beer to calm my nerves. Malte is a 30 year old German who has been living with a Peruvian family since late last year. The oldest son of the family, Juan, fishes for a living, He has now enlisted the help of Malte, who accompanies him multiple nights a week. Six-foot-something, blonde, and standing a full head over most Peruvians, Malte is probably the only person I’ve met who stands out more starkly than I do. At times I think he’s a damn robot. I’ve never seen the dude’s feathers ruffled. Never does he seem scared or uncomfortable, too hot or too cold. Oh also, he’s a doctor, but he isn’t quite sure he wants to practice medicine. Not right now, at least. Anyways, some nights he and Juan catch enough fish to make them both plenty of cash at the market the next morning; other nights they return empty handed. But it’s always good work. Physical work. Work during which you routinely put your body to the mercy of the ocean.
As I prepare to put entrust my own wiry frame into the hands of Pacific, the net lies on the beach, clean, untangled, and ready. Twenty-five meters long and two meters wide, it consists of three separate meshes of increasingly small weaves. Juan wove the nets himself. He cracks a glowstick, puts it into a plastic water bottle, and fastens it to the far end of the net. “Estamos listos,” he said, “We are ready.” He, Malte, myself, and the two others making up our fishing party pick up the net. I shiver. Brush sand off my gooseflesh. We’re all in our boxers. Juan is ass-naked. “Vamos,” he says calmly, and we proceed walk towards the water.
The waves are strong tonight, and the water is cold. But I’m not scared. Well, I’m not that scared. Because, after all, I'm comfortable in the waves from my countless hours surfing, and I’m a confident swimmer. But that’s during the day, and that’s with my wetsuit. I swallow but my throat is dry despite the lingering aftertaste of the Pilsen Callao, which didn’t really do much to calm my nerves anyways.
Malte leads the charge, taking the front end of the net along with the dogfood bag, now full of rocks and bound with a rope to serve as a sinker. Obviously he’s in front because he’s a damn bionic man who’s not scared of anything. I’m second in line, because despite the Peruvians’ clear knowledge and experience fishing, none of them are really that confident when it comes to swimming. Strange. I begin to wonder if they’re just using us crazy gringos as tools to help them complete the night’s oceanic errand. But as soon as the first wave strikes me, nearly knocking me over and sending frigid spray over my shoulders, these thoughts are washed away and adrenaline takes over. The net is heavy, and the drag only increases once the majority of its length is in the water. I readjust my section on my shoulder and tug with all my might, forcing forward in the ghostly half-light. We work with the waves, making small advances as the water retreats from the beach in the backwash; then, digging our feet into the sand, we watch the next wave form above us like a rearing horse. Then we brace and hold like hell. The weight of thousands of kilograms of cold water descends upon us. Further and further out we advance in the cyclic dance of the waves, until we can no longer touch the bottom during the swells.
The deep slow thunder of the breakers roars all around me. I feel it in the ears, in the chest, along the heart. The power and potential terrifies me, but counter-intuitively, it's soothing too. Like the serenity one might feel while free-falling. Then, without warning, a liquid freight train obliterates me. Caught wholly off-guard, I feel my section of net wrenched from my hands. I'm thrown about as a small dog would wring a ragdoll in its jaw. I’m engulfed, puny, helpless. I thrash and realize my feet are in the net. As I run out of air, I feel tightness in my chest, ironically, like a balloon filling to its bursting point. But then somehow I regain tranquility. I let the cold water move me. Everything is quiet and slow, like one of those movies. Breaking the surface and the silence, I gasp as the swell recedes back out into the sea and I free my feet from the net. It's surprising how long a breath can last when it needs to. Or perhaps it’s surprising how long a short time feels when the possibility of drowning looms in the black water. The moon is shimmering on the glassy patches of water between the seafoam. I look up and see the stars, crisp and clear beyond the light pollution of the city.
At this point Malte calls out saying that he is letting go of the rocks (how the hell he has been carrying these the whole time as well as the front of the net is beyond me, seriously). We body-surf the waves back to shore and I truly process the epic-ness of this moment. As we walk back onto the beach, my soul is pumping, my skin is tingling, my core is warm despite the chilly sea breeze. I realize I’m grinning in silence. I let out a “whoooooop” and laugh heartily much to the Peruvian’s delight. Malte gives me a high five and explains to me that a rip current running counterdirectional beneath the waves will now suck the net further out, while we tend to a rope attached to the net, which we’d previously fixed to the shore. Sure enough, the glowstick in the plastic bottle bobs increasingly further out, disappearing and reappearing between the breakers.
After about half an hour, we begin to pull in the first net. It’s heavy. Just as when we were bringing the net out, we must cooperate with the cyclical movement of the water. The anticipation of the catch is palpable. Would the net be empty despite our efforts? No way man, I was hopeful. Sure enough, as the net crested the sand ridge, there were about 10 wriggling fish in there, deeply ensnared, and suffocating in their final moments. I marvelled at the lethal nature of the net. It was certainly a death trap. I let myself feel the slightest bit of guilt as I looked into their beady little eyes. But then I shook my head. This was simply the process by which fish fulfill the greater purpose of becoming ceviche. And I love ceviche.
We repeat the netting process about 5 times between 11pm and 3am with varying degrees of success. After a while I realize that no one else was wearing their cold wet boxers; taking Juan’s lead they’d just followed suit in their birthday suits. I also come to realize that my own boxers— wet and full of sand— aren’t doing much good at all. In fact they are actually making me cold. I remove them. So here I am with a bunch of strangers more or less, ass naked on a dark beach dragging a fishing net across the sand. It’s probably the most manly I’ve ever done.
Like most worthwhile things, manly and otherwise, it’s not easy. But it sure is fun. Not passive, immediately-pleasurable fun, but rather challenge-and-reward fun. Some call this “type two fun.” Each return to the icy waves requires a strengthening of resolve, and elicits a surge of nervous adrenaline. But each return back to the beach brings that same tingling of the flesh, the same warmth of the core and of the spirit. Each reclamation of the net from the sea brings the excitement of seeing wriggling fish on the moonlit sand. This is good work. Ancient work. I begin to realize why Malte doesn’t want to return to Germany and practice medicine just yet.
At three in the morning we decide to get a little shut-eye and retreat to our sleeping bags on the sand. My body is exhausted after the rope-pulling and wave ducking, not to mention the three hours of pick-up soccer I played with the guys beforehand, during which I had my ass handed to me on a platter, obviously. I experience the deepest sleep I’ve had since arriving in Peru, despite being atop cold sand and shrouded in the coastal fog… I wake to a playful whistle, mildly surprised that it is already beginning to become light out. I am informed that we’re going to do a couple more nets as the pale sun rises over the mountains in the east. I’m so warm and so cozy and so deeply sleepy. But the other guys are already stripping down and getting the net ready. “Up and at ‘em,” I exclaim. Neither Juan nor Malte know what this means, but they understand my cheerful tone and they start singing in spanish as we jog straight into the icy water. Ninety seconds before I had been fast asleep. The pre-dawn ocean proves to be more effective than any coffee I’ve had.
Nine in the morning on Sunday, not quite twelve hours since the adventure began. We’re back at the house. The fish are cleaned, the limes juiced, the onions and aji peppers diced, sweet potatoes boiled. It is time to enjoy the fruits of our labour. We combine the ingredients into the biggest and freshest damn ceviche I have ever seen. My mouth is watering. Juan brings over a few cold ones. Bread and wine? No thanks, I’ll take some raw fish and beer.