Christmas Island's Bread and Butter: Fish

Part Two of a Two-Part Series Focusing on Christmas Island

As I reached for my pack, and was looking around, onto the counter the grilled tuna came, lightly browned...

The Fish-Restaurant's proprietor greeted us through the service window above the counter that leads back into his kitchen. But only his blue and green apron was visible as he maneuvered between grill and counter and back, seasoning the tuna and laying out silverware and soy sauce bottles. It wasn't until I pushed open the kitchen door that I was able to see his dark and grinning face.

There is no printed or posted menu, just a few covered tables and ashtrays. When the lone chef finishes a dish, it appears in the window. Upon our mid-afternoon arrival, a couple of customers were taking their grilled tuna and rice to their seats. Nicholas called into the back for two orders of the same, apparently the only option. While we waited, I got my lighter ready and stood in the entrance, taking a good long look outside at London.

London is Christmas Island's largest village. It serves as the economic and social center of the entire atoll. Small material supply companies, household goods stores, two restaurants, a gas station, an ice cream shop, a few government offices, and a motor pool convene around a few dusty, but paved, roads near the wharf at the lagoon's entrance.

Though the I-Kiribati (Kiribati people) survive mainly through subsistence agriculture means, the export of fish, salt, seaweed, and coconut products gives the local economy a little international flavor. Tourism too, generated by bone fisherman from the U.S., also adds to the coffers, though without the flavor.

I turned around to the sound of two plates hitting enamel.

The tuna comes on a full plate with rice and vegetables, all smothered in a light gravy sauce and all for two Australian bucks. We found a spot near the entrance. I put my pack on the table for later.

"These bone fisherman," Nicholas said, his mouth full of rice and sauce, "they're really pieces of work. They come in here with their poplin shirts, khaki pants, waders, fly-decorated vests, panama hats, and custom fly rod setups. Sure they help out the island by employing fishing guides and whatnot, but I don't think they really see much of this atoll beyond the tips of their rods during the day or the rims of their whiskey glasses at night."

I grinned and thought back to the morning when Nicholas picked me off the beach while I was composing a few thoughts. "So did you think I was a fisherman? Is that why you decided on giving me the island education?" I scooped a large hunk of tuna into my mouth.

"Nah, you just looked particularly pathetic," he said with no hint of sarcasm. "But as I showed you today with our trip out to the scientific relics at the southeast end of the island, there's more to this place than quaffing beer with dancing girls."

"What dancing girls?" I demanded, recollecting nothing in the way of dancing at my hotel the night before. While inching a cigarette from the pack, I was able to recall, though, the quick jig a cockroach put on in my toilet before I pressed the lever. However, I quickly conceded him his reference to beer and his prior allusion to rims of whiskey glasses.

"Tonight," he said, his plate now clean, "I'll show you. But first I think you should develop an appreciation for how important the sea is to this island."

I polished off the last of my fish and applied lighter to cigarette. We set the plates on the counter and bid farewell to our host.

The shark had a narrow face and a sleek gray belly, that shook when gaffed, all foul and smelly...

With the bright sun overhead and the clouds having mostly disappeared, the sun's reflection off the main thoroughfare's predominantly white powdery crushed coral landscape provided quite a striking contrast to the dimly lit restaurant. Along with a few passing Japanese cars and trucks, a policeman, snappily dressed in blue shorts, hat, and a nicely pressed shirt, passed on foot. He was poking his head into each shop, maintaining order. But other than a broken bicycle chain or a couple of runaway chickens, there is little that could ever be out of order in London.

Sprinkled outward from central London are small individual communities of huts, separated perhaps by large unused oil tanks, a church, a school, a park, or even simply a row of coconut trees. Within these neighborhoods, young children run with livestock between rain-filled potholes while their mothers supervise and wash the family's clothes. The fathers, though, usually have bigger fish to fry.

At the water's edge near the wharf, we found a family gutting and carving a white tip reef shark. With small boat and motor resting inside, the father skillfully sliced the day's catch as his eager and proud clan stood by.

"The waters around this island used to be filled with many black tip reef sharks but the Taiwanese came and fished them all out over the last 20 years or so," Nicholas said, pointing down at a species still remaining in plentiful amounts.

Large black and white frigate birds, suspended by the oncoming breeze swooped down, picked at the shark's discarded entrails in the shallow water. Stringy and bulbous, the shark's insides proved too difficult for even the largest bird to haul away at once. With so much activity nearby, a fast swoop, a quick peck with its long and thin beak, and an immediate return to the air was the best any bird could muster, that and a few laughs from the family's youngest child. Unconcerned with the birds' plight and too wrapped up in the task at hand, the carver continued.

"You see, most I-Kiribati here fish with hand lines or nets," Nicholas said. "They don't see the sport in it. They don't understand returning a fish to the sea like these bone fishermen."

After the rows of the shark's teeth had been removed, the boat was hauled up onto the beach and its motor stowed. The birds had free reign with what remained. We kept walking further, down towards the central section of the lagoon.

She spoke not a word, but went straight to her work, and laid out all the seaweed; then turned with a smirk...

Christmas Island is the largest coral atoll in the world. There is no better place to view its immensity than from the edge of the lagoon. Here the water spreads out in varying shades of turquoise, blue, and green. Near the lagoon's edge, thin fingerlings of raised land, sometimes occupied with small bushes and palm trees, extend in varying patterns and orientations to form small pools and flats. This is the home of the bonefish.

"You ever felt what it's like to have a bonefish strip 60 feet of line off your reel between the time you've set the hook and can start reeling?"

I thought back to last year when I took junior reporter Junko to the concrete fishing holes in front of Ichigaya Station for Secretaries' Day. I shook my head.

"Those strips of land separating the flats form a maze of small roads back in there," Nicholas said, pointing to out over the blue and green water. "If you don't have a guide you'll get lost before you have a chance to cast once."

Through the glare of the sun, I could see rows of wood stakes protruding up from the sea a few hundred feet from us. I pointed and asked what they were for as a man walked between the stakes retrieving a fishing net.

Nicholas directed me down the beach back in the direction of the wharf where a woman was carefully placing brown and green seaweed out on mats for drying. "This seaweed is for export to Japan and Germany," he said. "It gets harvested after growing between the stakes that you saw out there."

I stood with my pack in my left hand while small ripples lapped the shore and thought about what a German would do with seaweed.

"But speaking of the fishing guides," Nicholas said, taking my shoulder and making a turn back for the car, "tonight you'll meet a lot of them at the disco."

I nodded approvingly and lit another cigarette.

But I heard him say, as he walked into the night, "I've got a busy year ahead and must wake at first light."

On a concrete slab behind the Captain Cook Hotel on Friday and Saturday nights, girls dance beneath strings of overlapping lights to a blend of hip-hop and reggae while middle-aged fishing guides stand around discussing their former days as captains and deckhands when they cruised the Pacific.

Nicholas and I stood at the bar enjoying our first drinks, regaled under a clear night sky of stars by stories not too far-fetched from former sailors.

"Buenos Aires, heh, heh," Bob said, his skin deeply darkened from his seven-day a week work schedule, talking about his days sailing between North and South America. "Mucho bonita seniorita!" He added, laughing and poking me in the shoulder. To that we clinked beer cans.

Captain Moana, the senior fishing guide, his face like a catchers mitt with gray whiskers, stumbled over with drink in hand and joined our conversation.

With the laughs starting, Nicholas made his way for the exit. I ran over and yelled but he didn't stop. Over my shoulder I could hear Moana attempt to recall the Queen Mary from his visit to Los Angeles in 1972, "What's the name of that ship in Long Beach Harbor?" The laughs and the beer continued to flow.

As I stood at the gate, Nicholas just muttered something about rising early the next day before disappearing into the darkness. "No, you can't leave yet, come on back," Bob said, walking over to me. "Island tradition calls for three beers for guests, each with a name; te mauri, te raoi, and ao te tabomoa."

With tradition at hand, I turned rather quick, though pausing first, to acknowledge St. Nick.

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