La Mar, El Mar

5 Aug

He always thought of the sea as La Mar, which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen … spoke of her as El Mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that have or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them.

I have spent the last week in South Sulawesi, where the sea is everything. I’ve also been reading The Old Man and the Sea, which was perhaps overkill but also had a kind of neatness to it. While I have done some serious beach-love, hugging sand and floating in blue water, I’ve been thinking about what it means to both love and use the sea – fickle, embracing, practical source of life.

I’ve always loved the sea: I grew up a water baby. The ocean cleanses and calms and no matter what’s going on in my life, playful waves can always make me feel like I’m an eight-year-old mermaid again. More than that, the sea is a point of perspective: endless, powerful, it doesn’t bother with sympathy for trivial problems – and reminds me that neither should I.

So The Old Man’s respect and love for La Mar feels familiar and right, even if I’m no 60-year-old Cuban fisherman. Down here in isolated, coastal Sulawesi, the local people (the ethnic Bugis) have a love and a dependence on her that I can’t begin to imagine. Their food and livelihoods come from the sea: the fish, the boats they build, the salt that they dry from the sea water and sell, the tourism brought by the beautiful reef.

Yesterday we caught a boat out to a small island – picture-perfect, all white sand and little gem fish in the coral around the beach. Our ‘captain’ was a local of the island and proudly took us around the village and reef. Using that inter-lingual sign language that always seems to work better than you think it will, he told us that we should stay on his island and blow off our accommodation on the main beach, which was clearly crap in comparison. His pride was matched by his skill: on the boat his feet found the right balance for every wave. It seemed like all the fishermen and village women and kids we met were part of the sea that cut them off from the main land.

But snorkelling, I couldn’t help feeling dismayed that the anchor of our boat was tugging a hole in a plate of coral. With a couple of boats a day, there would be holes like that one all up and down the reef. Over lunch, Mr T reminded me that there is a problem with damage done all over Indonesian reefs, with fishermen responding to increased demand by blowing up fish with dynamite, or pouring buckets of cyanide into the water. The picturesque image of people and sea in a dance of effort, skill and love might be misleading – perhaps here the ocean is competitor, enemy.

I wonder if the Bugis people would call her La Mar or El Mar. I wish I could ask.

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