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Sunday, July 18, 2010

A fish story

This is a true story. Maybe you know more about fish than I do and it won’t seem amazing to you. But I learned a lot! Erna and her husband had taken me to visit his aunt. She has a koi fish farm in her yard. When we were getting ready to leave she asked me if I liked fish grilled or fried. I said I like both, but I like grilled best. She then told us to come back later and she would give me some fish.

We went to the city to run some errands and on the way back, stopped by her house. She lives in a beautiful rural area where I often walk and in fact I had marked her house on my map before I even met her. It’s the house with the perfect lawn.

So we stopped by her house and she gets a big net and fishes out a giant gold fish that is black on top and is maybe a foot and a half long, plus 3 other fish, the smallest of which is about 10 inches. She scoops them up and puts them into a double plastic bag and ties the top shut (4 fish inside, no water, no air).

We thank her profusely, take the still wiggling fish and drive 10 minutes to my house. Erna and her husband insist that I take all the fish. This is a lot of meat! I’m wondering what my ibu mama is going to do with it.

We go inside, she takes out a pan of water, slides the fish in and this is the amazing part – the fish are alive! I’m shocked. I always thought fish could live maybe a minute or two outside of water, but certainly not TEN minutes. We get a baby bath tub and put the fish in there and they are swimming around! Okay, not really vigorously, but definitely swimming.

My ibu mama asks me which one I want to eat and tells me that the gold fish is expensive. I can believe it – there’s a lot of meat on it and I think if it was a gold color on top, instead of just on it’s belly, they could get a lot of money for an 18” huge decorative oriental fish. I tell her “Now, fish happy. I want fish happy.” She looks at me like I’m nuts and says “You want fish swim.” The word for swim is just one letter off from the word for happy. This is good; she actually understood what I said and is correcting me. In her mind there is no such thing as happiness for fish. Fish are food. I see what she means. So I agree. “I want fish swim.”

At my house we have 2 huge fish ponds. They have black water and all I’ve seen are a few mouths come out of the black and eat the pellets they sprinkle on top. Ibu mama and my host dad talk a lot and laugh about how I want the fish to swim. I explain. “I know fish is for food, but these fish are now my friends. They were dead and we gave them life.” They agree these are valuable fish and they need a better home than the black fish ponds.

My house is meticulously clean. I mean, we could eat off the floor. There is not a speck of dirt anywhere. But theses fish ponds are disgusting. My host dad sets up a drain system and we drain the water down in one of the tanks. All the little fish in there are now flopping around like crazy in the low water. I start scooping them out and putting them into a big bucket. Some of them jump onto the ground and the concrete and I have to catch them and put them back in the water. We keep this up for several hours until the 20’ by 3’ tank is totally empty of fish. And ibu mama gets out a scrub brush and scrubs down that fish tank. There are maybe 150 fish in there from 2 to 4 inches long. When the tank is clean we refill it and put the giant fish in and the finger fish. The giant fish are now swimming around with a lot of enthusiasm. We call it quits for the night.

In the morning when I get back from church, they have already started with tank number two. We drain that one down and it has 6 mamas and papas maybe 8 inches long and several hundred babies from under an inch to the size of your baby fingernail. We catch the big fish with a net and put them in the clean tank. The little guys are hard to catch. They will stay in the muddy goo and just flop around until my host dad scoops out the muck and then pours it into a strainer that I am holding and I manage to get every single little baby one and put them into a bucket. This is big success. I transfer the fish to the baby bath tub with cleaner water and my ibu mama and host dad get all the muck scrubbed out of the 2nd tank.

My host dad and mom talk a lot in Javanese. I can tell my host mom thinks that if we put the tiny babies in with the giants that the giants will eat them. My host dad prevails and we put the babies in the clean tank.

After tank two is scrubbed clean, we refill it and my host dad catches the biggest of the fish and puts them into the new clean tank. Now he’s exhausted. And rightly so. He had a stoke a few years ago and does only limited activities. I’m pooped too. Catching fish and scrubbing fish tanks is hard work. He goes inside and lies down. Ibu mama tries to catch the 8 inch fish and just as she tries to scoop one up it flies through the air and lands in the water 3 feet away. We laugh like crazy. I’ve never seen a fish jump that far. But my Ibu mama has a plan. She gets a sheet of rigid plastic about 3 foot by 3 foot and blocks off the tank so that the fish are concentrated in one area. I help hold the barrier and she gets two nets and manages to corner the fish and one by one she either gets them or sometimes they outsmart us and get past the barrier. They try flying through the air, but the barrier stops them. They seem to intuitively know the shape of the tank and want to get to the other side of the barrier.

We’ve chased them from one end to the other. The last 8 incher is a challenge, but Ibu mama scoops him up and put him in with his friends in the other tank. She scolds him before she puts him in and tells him that he’s naughty. I laugh. They thought I was nuts, now she’s talking to the fish!

The end result is that all the big fish are in one pond and all the little fish are in a different pond and both ponds are clean and I learned how to grab fish, how to clean fish ponds and how to save fish from dying. Of course, we are going to eat these fish. We eat fish almost every day, that’s what fish are for. But secretly I know that for right now these fish are “happy”(senang) and well as ‘swimming” (renang) and I sure had a lot of fun (bersenang senang.)

PS Hi Teguh (my language teacher, in Malang, I know he reads these) I remember the day you taught us the two words for swim (renang) and bathe (mandi). I needed a big mandi after playing with these swimming fish!


  1. Good morning Oma. What a wonderful fish story you had. It was so much fun to follow it with you. Sure seems like you get along very well with your host dad and Ibu. I have forgotten what you call him. Give them my best regards, tell them that Ama thanks them for giving my friend a nice and beautiful home.

    This is the 2nd letter to in U in 24 hours. When I tried to submit it they told me it was too long. I tried to cut it in half, but sure did not work and somewhere in the process I totally lost the letter. So here I go again. You know I just realized that I could write you with more ease in my email. I will do that...but for now I just want to let you know that you are now going to recieve the R Digest and Nat. Geo. It is gonna take forever for you to get the first one. I believe the nat geo will be in Sept., but hopefully the digest will be a little earlier. Be thinking please if there is any other magazine you would like. Since I have no idea what constitues a too long message, let me know if you know about how many lines in this little block would be alright. I just opened a Propel drink and in your honor I chose the peach mango. I believe that is the one you like best. So I raise it now and I say Aho all my relatives. Love U so much. Ama

  2. Hello, I'm Erika's father, and I truly appreciate being able to read your blog. It's wonderful hearing (reading) your descriptions of life in Indonesia and how you are integrating into that world. The goldfish story was excellent, and you are correct; koi are very expensive here too.

    As an aside, goldfish all have the ability to breathe air for quite a while as long as they don't dry out. They are amazingly hardy, as you discovered!