Saturday, June 28, 2008

Saturday School

[this photo is unrelated to the text]

Remember when you were a little kid and you complained to your parents about school and they replied (in a ‘you haven’t got it so bad’ tone) that kids in Japan had to go to school on Saturdays? Well, that's not really true. But today it is.

The Sabani race is tomorrow and a party follows in Naha. So our Board of Education just switched school up. We work today and get Monday off. Can you imagine that ever happening in America?

Tonight’s my eisa debut! どきどき! (doki doki = nervous)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Sabani Weekend

This is a really big week on Zamami due to this weekend’s Sabani race. There's a yacht race on Saturday from Naha to Zamami, then a big party Saturday night. On Sunday, the Sabani race starts on Furuzamami Beach (the famous one) on the east side of Zamami and goes all the way to Naha, some 20+ miles away.

Sabanis are big canoes that are also rigged to sail. I don’t know much about them but assume they were the form of ocean transport back in the day. The real ones are made of wood; some of the newer, cheaper boats are formed from fiberglass. The trick is to have powerful paddlers but also people who know how to sail.

[team Que Sera Sera, the favored Zamami women's team]

I have been completely absent from the Sabani scene, which is a bit unfortunate. I wasn’t real aggressive about joining a Sabani team because I knew I’d probably be recruited to paddle the whole way. I would be okay with that except I am looking forward to photographing the start. But I also have another big event this weekend that I've been spending many weeknights practicing for: my eisa drumming debut Saturday night.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Okay, Turtles are Novel Again

Yesterday was an Okinawan holiday, making this a three-day weekend that I didn’t know about until last week. I wanted to make the best of it before this week’s expected typhoon, so I took Saturday to kayak to Kuba-jima, one of the last remaining islands awaiting my presence. It was primarily a fishing trip, as all kayak trips are, so when I arrived I ditched my camping gear and took off again for a westerly rocky point with Giant Trevally promise. Unfortunately the winds were almost too strong to fish so it wasn’t very productive. I returned to my beach in the waning moments of daylight so I could set up my tent.

Since the full moon was only a few days prior the tides were still high at dawn and dusk, so I had little kayak dragging to do. But as I exited the kayak I glanced down the beach and noticed a funny object floating in the surf. It looked like one of the many fishing buoys stranded on the beach, except that it wasn’t floating on top of the water but rather floating just below the surface. A few seconds later I realized what it was: a turtle.

Photographing a nesting turtle was one of my last big goals here on Zamami (I need some new goals). I did happen upon a huge female laying her eggs last August at 4am when I was going fishing, but that was a week after my camera had been destroyed by saltwater.

So I timed my kayak extraction with her being pummeled by waves and got myself safely above the surf level before pulling out my camera and sneaking closer. From what I’ve been told by people I consider experts on the subject, once a turtle exits the water she almost always continues with her mission, but I didn’t want to take any chances so I let her get almost to her nesting site before showing myself.

It was pretty cool watching a creature made for the ocean crawl up the beach. It was obviously a lot of effort and she would pause every 4-5 shuffles. It took about 15 minutes to go 20 meters where she started digging her big hole. For this she would bring her front flippers up and sweep them back, throwing sand 2-5m behind. I wanted to help her out with a shovel, but then realized she might actually be faster than me. And I didn’t have a shovel.

[throwing sand with surprising force]

When things got boring I’d run back to my tent and grab a little food, or take some long exposure photos (I didn’t bring my tripod so I used a laundry basket). Then I noticed a large object on the beach I hadn’t seen before. I went over to investigate and it was another turtle! This was really surprising because, while it’s okay to take pictures of a nesting turtle, the lights and beach activity are usually enough to deter other turtles from coming ashore.

[look above the styrofoam and green bush in the upper right to see the second turtle]

The first turtle was nearing her egg-laying stage. She’d finished digging the big hole and now she was working on the small hole with her rear flippers. She would actually dig a hole straight down by reaching each flipper in and scooping the sand out. It was one of the more amazing things I’ve seen in my life.

[her right rear flipper is full of sand, excavating the hole]

About the time the second turtle arrived 6-7m away, the first turtle gave up completely on her hole and moved a couple meters to start anew (I found out later this happens often). Both turtles were now on the same pace and, surprisingly, they both dropped their eggs (about 100 of them) and completed everything within four minutes of each other. The first turtle took three hours, including her false nest, and the second took two hours. One other piece of excitement was a big snake I discovered hovering over the second turtle’s nest while she was laying. I don’t know if the snake was curious or was really hoping to score some eggs before they were covered over. Alas, my camera flash scared it off.

[the first egg]

[a long exposure of the turtle making her way back to the ocean]

When I awoke Sunday morning I found the tracks of a third turtle that had nested after I'd gone to sleep. On my way back to Zamami I caught a bonito while trolling, which was a pleasant, three-dinner surprise.

Making sure to maximize the three-day weekend I went diving on Monday. This was partially because I wanted to go diving and mostly because I wanted to patronize the shop where a dive guide girl works whom I have a crush on. Naturally she was not working on the boat that day but instead taking two paralyzed people diving off a beach [(a) who knew paralyzed people could go diving? (b) am I an insensitive jerk if I was jealous they got her for the day?]. So I went with the one other customer, who happened to be the chief of the economics department of the U.S. embassy in China, and the dive guide who speaks less than one word of English. The highlight was getting narcosis for the first time, which is a really trippy experience. I went through a lot of air and struggled to keep my thoughts concentrated. A bit like the last kilometers of a marathon, except with the added reminder of equipment failure resulting in death. Scary, but I recovered well on the second dive.

Friday, June 20, 2008

A Personality Test

A pretty smart guy I met on the Pacific Crest Trail (Gruevy of Donna & Gruevy) simplified the definition of personality by describing it as ‘the way in which we react to every situation’. Therefore our personalities are always evolving and subject to improvement. We only limit ourselves from being who we want to be by making decisions that align with previous experience.

I’ve had three opportunities in my adult life to begin with a fresh slate: college, Peace Corps, and here. College was experimentation without goals. In Peace Corps I was more successful at changing things I didn’t like about myself because I had a better idea of who I wanted to become.

But here, ten months in, my personality still hasn’t shone through. Of course people know I am loud, and they know my likes and dislikes, and they have a sense of my humor, but language is such a barrier that my thoughts on religion, education, and politics are still a mystery. Everything is being exposed in slow motion.

I sometimes wish I had a better idea of who I want to be because I’ve got all the time in the world to develop that personality. Maybe I should work on building alternate personalities?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

New Apartment Tour

[kitchen, looking north]

[kitchen, looking south]

[shower/laundry room]

[a three-tatami room probably meant for sleeping, but I use it for storage]

[the hall, looking east - the front door is just to the left]

[the big nine-tatami room, which could be split in half if I put the sliding doors in]

[looking west]

[balcony, looking east]

[balcony, looking west]

Monday, June 16, 2008

Swimming Excavator

Yesterday I only got 15 seconds into my run before being held up a half-hour watching the attempted extraction of this excavator. I didn't get the details, but I surmised the ground it was on collapsed and sunk it into this mud pit.

I arrived very soon after it happened and the sunken excavator was still running. The two excavators above hurriedly built an escape route then all three worked together to pull up and out. But it was too late, the water had flooded the engine and it died. I think they made a wise choice at that point in deciding to quit. They did install a pump which reduced the water level over a foot. I am quite curious what the next step is. The only option I can see is a crane, but even that will be hard since the chassis is feet deep in sloppy mud. Dad, any ideas?

A fellow gawker turned and asked me what the English word for 'excavator' was. After telling him, he said back to me, ''swimming excavator!'' When the engine quit I said to him, ''dead excavator'' with the 'knife to the throat' motion. He gestured that they should just bury it.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Spoils

Here is our full team with all the winnings:

A close-up of the good prizes:

And the custom-made marlin lures, which are about 14'' long:

Just as in Palau when I caught a huge marlin to win a tournament for a boat I was on through lucky circumstances, I was not much interested in the prizes (it was $1500 in Palau, which is why that captain was happy to invite me back). I was kinda hoping for the tin of peanuts and maybe a couple of the $20 steak house gift certificates, but I was more interested in getting some of the fish to cache for the winter. The fishing season here is best between April and July, so I'm keenly aware that I should be fishing hard if I want 'free' fish the rest of the year.
Last night I went to pick up some marlin and discovered a little mutinous feeling in the team because the prizes were apparently doled out thriftily. So since the team members are the cooks and staff at the restaurant and in charge of the freezer, they were happy to give me more fish than I could actually carry home.
I didn't have space for the fish anywhere, but there is a big freezer on Aka that is used for their fishing co-op. The girl who works there commutes from Zamami every day and she's my friend. So I went to our fishing office at 11pm and stashed the frozen fish in an empty cooler on their steps, then retrieved it this morning and sent it across on the boat today. And tonight, it's back to the kayak.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Biggest Marlin of All

My life is awesome.

Friday night after the English speech contest (both my students made me proud) I had to find my way to the upper part of the Okinawan mainland for the opening party of the fishing tournament. My plan to take a bus and then a taxi was altered when I called a girl on the team and she rerouted me to the end of the monorail line to meet up with another teammate who had just deboarded a flight from Tokyo. We reached the party just in time for it to end, but fortunately our teammates saved us some plates. While we were eating our boat captain made a bold decision regarding Saturday’s terrible weather forecast (30+mph winds): we would travel back to Zamami that night.

A half-hour later, at 10pm, we took off away from the lights of Naha and into the darkness toward the Keramas. We arrived at midnight and went to sleep, waking up Saturday morning to huge winds pounding our southerly windows. I went back to sleep. At 2pm, after checking in multiple times, I got word we were going to give it a try. We fished all afternoon in pretty big waves and discovered later after checking the lures and lines that we’d had a hit (the lure’s skirting was damaged and the line was roughed up by the marlin’s bill).

Sunday morning I woke up at 3:30am to be ready for our 4:30am departure. We reached our fishing point at 5:15am and dropped the lines well before sunrise.

The lures we use are huge and expensive ($50+ each). They are 12-14” long and have two big hooks secured by cable that is attached to 200lb. test monofilament leader. The leader is about 10m long and is then attached to the main line, which is 110lb. test monofilament. The reels take 800-1200m of line and cost $600-1200/apiece. The rods are a few hundred dollars each. We ran six rods. Three of them went straight off the back. One went off each side and those lines ran out poles that extended 30’ off each side. The last line went straight up off a vertical pole that hung it behind the rest while trolling. Every lure was led by an orange ‘bird’ that bounced frantically on the surface to attract attention from below.

[The lure that caught the marlin isn't shown. Just for the record.]

[The boat. Those long poles swivel out to extend an additional line off each side.]

[Fishing for marlin at sunrise.]

At 6am we spotted some sperm whales surfacing in the distance. Not much later we came into some dolphins that stayed around awhile. Just before 8am, chaos struck. The outside port reel struck and started screaming out line. The marlin surfaced not far behind us, throwing his head and jumping. The boat went into gear and we all jumped to our assigned reels to bring in the empty lures and make room for the fight. I put on the harness and attached myself to the reel that was quickly emptying its line. I moved everything to the fighting chair and held on.

The fish took a lot of line – enough that the captain got worried and started backing down on the fish so I could catch up. For the first twenty minutes I tried to gain line but it was a futile give-and-take fight. At the half-hour mark I started gaining. The captain and I also got into a good rhythm of backing down on the fish at a rate that I could keep up with but still avoiding slack. At forty-five minutes I reached the leader. The captain came down and I brought the leader up slowly until he reached out and began handlining the fish in. My job was to keep the line clear in case the fish ran and I needed to take to the reel again. This didn’t happen, but rather they brought the fish up the boat slowly and then speared him (actually they missed twice, making us all pretty nervous). And speared him again. And then stuck him with two flying gaffes (giant hooks that release from their poles but are still attached by a rope). After a few minutes of bleeding we hauled him into the boat through the doors that open off the stern. It took all of the guys pulling on all of the ropes to get the marlin in.

[The fish is wrapped in a specially designed 'blanket' that is filled with ice to prevent moisture evaporation and subsequent loss of weight. The exposed fish seen in the picture was covered with wet blankets.]

Congratulations were in order but we got back to fishing quickly because we still had a day ahead of us. A boring day, it turned out. We only caught two 10kg wahoo before heading back to Zamami mid-afternoon and repacking the marlin with ice. We took off for Naha at 3:30 and made it by 5:30, just before the scales closed. The marlin weighed in at 188kg, which was more than our captain’s estimate of 170kg. 188kg is 414 pounds, 73 pounds heavier than the winning fish I caught during my first marlin tournament in Palau. This one was also a winner. Twenty-seven boats and I caught the winning fish.

I had to attend a conference Monday morning in Naha so I actually stayed behind while our boat went back to Zamami. They cleaned and cut the fish on the boat while traveling back! I spent the night and made the call to my Board of Education Monday morning to get permission to return Tuesday morning so I could attend Monday night’s awards party.

I met up with the captain and two girls from the team that evening and we went to the party, which was really posh (meaning cloth napkins). I ate as much as I could manage and reveled in the fame of being the top angler, but deferred congratulations to the captain as much as I could.

So we won first place overall for everything. That means heaviest fish and most overall weight. Our single fish was so big that it beat out each of the other 27 boats’ entire catches. We won a trophy, a marlin statuette, a plaque, two $300-500 live flower arrangements, two roundtrip plane tickets to Ishigaki (the southernmost major island in Okinawa), $300 of gift certificates to a fancy steakhouse, two custom-made marlin lures, two cases of beer, two cases of tea, expensive glassware, lots of American junk food, and a whole bunch of miscellaneous. Pretty much everything went to us. We had to call another car to help bring the load to Naha.

Three weeks ago I gained a lot of fame by catching a big fish on a kayak. This week I am famous again. I love it. I love my life.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Culture of Fear

[''No, no, I didn't mean it. Look, I even put the knife away.'']

Priorities: Fishing or Fishing?

I am going into Naha this Friday for a junior high English story contest, which I’ve been training two students to compete in. I make trips to Naha infrequently and try to revolve them around events requiring my presence.

I’ve decided that when I have to go to Naha I am also going to try and schedule a chartered fishing trip, since those boats leave from the mainland. So that’s what I did – write to my list of potential JETs about putting together a trip for Saturday. And I had about 4-5 confirmed with some probable non-JETs to fill out the boat.

Then I was walking past a closed dive shop in Zamami and I looked in the window and saw the corner of a piece of paper buried in a stack. It had a picture of a marlin and appeared to be an advertisement for a fishing tournament this weekend. I confirmed this a few hours later and a few hours after that had a surprise invitation in my email inbox.

So the dilemma became: chartered fishing trip I’d organized or marlin tournament? Fortunately marlin fishing trumps pretty much everything so the answer was pretty clear. I wrote a 'I know I'm not a good person, but..' email to the JETs and asked to reschedule in July.

A bonus of the marlin tournament is that it leaves from just north of Naha, which is where I will already be on Friday. We will fish all day Saturday, spend the night on Zamami (and heavily ice any fish we may have caught), then fish Sunday and return to the mainland, where I have to be Monday morning for a half-day education conference. I love it when things fall into place!

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Social Premium

I don't drink alcohol very often and never excessively. I almost never drink at restaurants because it's really expensive (and I'm eating, which negates the alcohol). So I'm not a fan of group dinners that include alcohol and splitting the tab evenly. Though I will usually eat my share, I never get my money's worth of alcohol.

Last night we had a teachers' party. I wasn't very hungry and not in the mood for alcohol, so I only had a small bowl of ramon (my first since Tokyo, and it was terrible). My Japanese isn't good enough to participate in casual conversation unless it's about fishing, so I was lucky to have a three-year-old girl in attendance whom I entertained for hours. At the end the bill was split to the tune of $30/person, which was $24 more than what my meal cost. I don't mind paying extra, but that's a lot.

Is it only non-drinkers who notice when they have to subsidize drinkers?