Fried Shrimp

We pull up just as the sun begins her habitual descent into the aquatic horizon, igniting highways from west to east of rippling, glowing fire. The gulf laps quietly against the bows of some fourteen fishing boats, resting sleepily after another long day of relentless toil. Gulls soar overhead, searching for one last treat before complete darkness. The wind begins to pick up, merciless in her endeavor to blast billows of sand onto every exposed inch of sweaty, sticky skin. Natural exfoliation at her finest. Delicious, enticing smells come wafting on the breeze, woodsmoke and frying shrimp. 

I remember the first time I was given shrimp in a home here in Campeche. They served us up enormous bowls of shrimp broth, heads and tails separated but still in the shell. Except I didn’t really know it was shrimp. I thought the heads were maybe some exotic brand of grasshoppers, six-inch long antennae, beady black eyes and oh the legs. So many legs! I whispered my doubts of horror to David. Shrimp, he assured me. I looked with mortification at my bowl. As far as I was concerned and according to small-town Michigan, shrimp came in vacuum-packed black bags in the freezer section of the grocery store with pictures of cute little curly pink things jumbled around a dish of dipping sauce. These enormous, whitish grey creatures floating in my bowl, of which I was expected to reach in and peel and suck and scramble through had to be of absolutely no relation! 

But that was 10 years ago. 

Our friends welcome us under a simple wooden structure, topped with dried palm branches. Their daughter is busy in the kitchen, frying shrimp and little fish, cutting limes, making up tortilla dough. They are old friends, dear people we have known for years. We peel our shrimp by the light of a lantern, it’s greenish glow casting just enough lambency to distinguish faces and whose coke is whose. 

The talk always turns to the sea. 

How do you know where the shrimp will be? Ah, the wind. The wind will tell you were to find them, in close or out far. 

Have you ever had a close call? One time. One time, yes. It was night and we were resting, but not sleeping. We saw a light coming closer and closer. Thankfully our engine was still running. It was a huge boat. It would have run us over but we were able to move just in time. 

Cazón that we eat, do they stay little or do they grow into big sharks? Oh, sister, those are just the babies. Out there are some seven kinds of sharks, there’s hammer head, black fins….all kinds. Because the oil rigs throw their wasted food overboard, the sharks all crowd around below. 

What are those two lights way out there? Those lights there you ask? That’s the Usumacinta oil rig. It exploded about 12 years ago. Those aren’t lights out there, actually. It’s really fire, still exploding from escaping gases. We were here when it happened; not long after a man in a life vest washed up to shore. He was almost gone. An engineer from the rig. We brought him up, washed him, gave him food and drink. We named our son after him. Another man was also found, his leg had been torn off by a shark. Most everyone else died. 

It’s totally black now, except for their couple lanterns. No electricity out at the beach. The kids are shrieking and laughing, spinning around and falling in the sand, loving having older kids to play with. We talk and laugh and share. Time doesn’t seem to matter. They hardly sleep anyhow, swinging in hammocks with half an eye open to watch the boats in their care. 

Good nights are finally said, they stay to their night long labor and to semi rest before another busy day tomorrow, ourselves gone to fly down the lonely beach, salty air whipping our hair into tangled messes. 

It is times like these that one feels so at home. So in love with the people God has chosen for us to live with. These occasions help smooth out the rough ones; they give new life and energy to flagging souls. God help us if we ever think we’re the only ones who can encourage and uplift. A plate of fried shrimp on the gulf shore did more for me tonight than any amount of literary genius scribbled across a thousand pages in Times New Roman ever could.

Emiliano Zapata, Campeche

La Reina

She is often little more than a despotic queen. Demanding and unpredictable yet maddeningly indispensible, she ascertains man’s heart of fear and his soul of dependence. She is a moody monarch: one day deceptively sweet, honeying man out to her depths, the next roaring with insatiable anger and destroying whatever be in her all-encompassing path. She knows he can do nothing against her and will merely wait for the squall to pass before re-entering her enslaving waves to search for a few fish to feed his family. For without her, they will starve. 

It is the story of all fishing villages, of all the world, of all ages. 

Life is found within her watery swells. She yields kilo after kilo of shrimp and fish, putting food on the table and cash in the pocket. It keeps the economy running: women stand huddled around large wooden tables, sorting, processing, dying shrimp for many hours and happily arrive home with a few extra pesos tucked into the top of their shirt. Trucks arrive to haul loads all the way to Mexico City. They can buy their kids’ shoes, finish stuccoing their house, take the Virgin for a spin in their boat to thank her for their success. 

Except it’s not always like that. 

Men go out in the early morning, a few to a boat, loaded up with gasoline, nets and high spirits. All morning, the hot tropical sun beating down on their leathered skin, they throw the nets this way, then that. Nothing. They head back. Again in the evening, another try. Nothing. 

What will their family eat? Never mind meat and vegetables. Just a few pesos for some tortillas, a few fish to fry and share. They have no choice but to try again. 

They go all night, all the long, dark night. Nothing. 

Desperation strikes. They head farther out to open sea, farther from the relative safety of the bay. Out to where there is possibly some hope. 

Far, far out on the eastern horizon the clouds are rising, cumulating into dark, frightening masses. They are out too far, there is so little hope. Some make it home, some do not, their little fishing boats tossed like little toys on the violent sea. Her rage hardly mitigated even for the desperate cries of desperate men. 

But the ones who make it home have no choice. It does not matter they have almost lost their lives. Their family has to eat. 

Out they go, again and again. Searching, hauling, mending. Ceaseless, driving force to provide at least something. 

They head out, just as the bright red sun sends its final rays flickering across the rippling sea.  It’s just two of them this time. The boat is fully loaded, ready for an all-nighter. They wave good-bye to the family on the beach who watches their boat when not in use, and off they go. Gone for a few kilos of fish. 

They go and night falls, the sea rocking to drowsiness her unsuspecting dependents as a mother lulls her baby to sleep. 

Days go by and they don’t return. Not on the first, nor second, nor the third. The families begin to get desperate, but who has money to pay for the gas to go look for your husband, your father, your brother? The fourth, the fifth. 

Some men finally go, out again to the depths of the sea. 

There! Finally one cries. There, oh, there they must be! Oh, the grief, the disillusion! The demolished fragments of what had once been a fishing boat, floating all alone on that azure field of waves. Struck, no doubt by a large ship, unseen in the blackness of midnight. Farther on, what had once been a man, now recognizable only by a chain he wore. The other, lost. Completely lost. 

I am at this moment at a loss for words, for these are true stories. The men lost in a sudden storm happened 3 years ago, the two men just last week. 

They lived here, they worked here. Their wives and children are up the street, grieving. 

There was no option. For all the danger, for all the uncertainty the life of a fisherman affords, there is little choice but to go again and again into those murky waters and hope for just a little catch. The sea, like an abusive relationship, can burn their skin, can steal their sleep, can take their very lives, but man will always go back to her again and again. Civilization demands it, the economy demands it, their children’s empty stomachs demand it most of all. 

And what can one do? I suppose my three year old said it best. 

Mommy, I hope God saves all the fishermen. 

So do I, little man. So do I.