On hot days after strong rains, almost every able bodied man and boy from my village takes to the winding cow paths that meander carelessly through the surrounding marshy lowlands. As they romp through the water and rushes and a labyrinth of massive termite mounds, like lonely atolls in chaotic archipelagos stretching onto the horizon, their recreation often seems more self-sacrificing than good fun. But undaunted, they continue on their way, on this pilgrimage induced by passing storms and a brutal sun. Often the only thing visible as they disappear into depths of the steamy marsh are their 3 meter long bamboo fishing polls, bobbing curiously above a sea of slender grasses.
They are seeking any one of a number of calm, muddy pools, about knee-deep or so, and they are willing to brave hoards of mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, intense heat and life-sapping humidity to reach them. Their prize at the end of this typically Paraguayan ordeal are heaps of miniscule fish, in the end all bloodied and tethered by the gills to a strong reed which is then slung over their shoulders to carry home. If they are lucky, they might catch a few as big, maybe a bit bigger than their hands. If they are really lucky, they'll score some marsh eel (mbu'su in Guarani)--the holy grail of campo Paraguayan pond fishing.
Lucky for me, not all of these otherwise isolated marsh ponds are so far-flung. Along the main dirt road that leads to my community, the one I bike or walk or run at least once every day, there are at least three (sometimes more if the skies have been particularly generous). Usually, these are the first to be picked over, fished out by the early-bird locals eager to grab some diner without the self-flagellation of the deep wetlands. This also tends to be where the youngest kids hone their skills—sitting for hours and hours crouched around dangling poles, watching their bobber-less lines with fervent devotion, waiting for the childhood rush caused by the slightest nibble from a fish that, more than likely, won't be much longer than a finger.
In a world with homemade poles and recycled fishing line, the absence of reels means that these fish are only hooked by violently yanking upwards on the poles. No controlled capture, no epic battles between man and beast-- just an anxious kid, a deceptive fishing line, and a wild, occasional attempt at hooking a bite. If they miss the bite, of course, their over-zealousness simply sends a scraggly, rusty hook on the end of a line flying through the air, liable to snag any one in the remote vicinity. If they have in fact hooked the fish, however, it is likewise sent soaring. There is skill involved in this method, for sure, its just hard to appreciate when you are dodging hooks and fish ever few minutes. Still, it is incredibly endearing and immensely entertaining to see the little boys scramble once they realize that so-and-so has actually caught something, each one trying to be the first one to grab the line and unhook the unlucky specimen. Endearing, of course, until you realize that a bunch of these pathetic little fish might be the only serving of protein any one of these young kids receive for the day (or possibly a few days). Regardless its hard not to smile; their excitement is contagious.
Several days ago, on a dusty walk home under a peak noon-day sun, I passed a motley group of neighborhood youngsters intently engaged with one of more popular watering holes that line the edge of the wetlands. From the looks of things, they wouldn't have been eating much for diner that night—a small cat-fish type thing (about as long as a hand), a few half-palm sized sun fish, and various other assorted pond treasures, each one seemingly smaller than the one before. I sat with the kids for some time, bullshitting in Guarani and trash-talking about local soccer clubs, as they persisted in their marginal efforts. Perhaps my arrival brought some good luck, or maybe it was just the heat of midday that had drawn some better prospects for the boys-- in the psuedo-matra of my more fish-minded neighbors “Sí sale el sol bien, por eso sale la pesca también.” (When the sun comes out, so do the fish.). Pretty soon we were no longer dodging empty hooks as they orbited our heads, but instead foot-long marsh eels that wriggled-madly at the sudden shock of being mercilessly ejected from their aquatic home.
One boy, the unusually small and high-pitched Willy, was the resident expert eel-smasher as well as defacto comic relief. The moment an eel would spectacularly exit the muddy shallows, he went into action-- grabbing the line and de-hooking the poor devil in a matter of seconds. In their final efforts, the eels would cling desperately to his arm, each long serpent-like creature easily consuming almost the entirety of Willy's tiny forearms with its coils. Calmly and while uttering a constant string of Gurarní profanity (even I, with my limited grasp on the language, knew that this kid had a very dirty mouth), he would slowly unravel the tail in a way that did as much to exhaust the struggling animal as to audibly break its bones and ligaments. Soon, it hung like a limp rag from his small hand, still alive but barely.
Taking each one by the tail he would then proceed swing it through the air in a wide arc, bringing its head down onto a large stone, the combination of the two issuing a loud, wet “Whack” every time. The whole spectacle--complete with more indigenous cursing, Willy's exaggerated efforts and wide grin, and occasionally punctuated by a traditional 'campo call' (a very Paraguayan practice of offering a brief holler or yelp at opportune moments)--might seem somewhat barbaric to those accustomed to more “humane” ways of treating their future meals. Rest assured, Willy is a burgeoning eel-smashing professional and the whole process, from catching the eel to its skull-smashing death, took less than a minute. Maybe this is still not the greatest consolation to the animal-lovers out there, but what can I say: this is life in the Paraguayan campo and these boys are as proud as they are hungry.
After snagging a few more mbu'su from this surprisingly productive pond, the young boys in all their victorious pomp, invited me to their home for diner that evening. Among the wide array of strange Paraguayan dishes that I have had the pleasure of sampling over the past year and a half, including not only (seemingly) every wild animal that these Plata Basin forests have to offer, but also their various organs and other assorted “innards”, marsh eel was still not on the list. So of course, I had to accept.
Willy's house is one of a number of houses in my community that seem the quintessential example of abject poverty: its a small, wooden-plank structure with dirt floors and thatch-grass roofing (more than likely also playing host to a number of South American “kissing bugs” which carry the potentially lethal parasitic disease, Chagas). The house consists of one-room, maybe the size of a single typical American suburban bedroom, and an accompanying yet separated kitchen structure where the mother Elisa cooks over an open fire.
The house is stuffed-full with four small beds, each topped with a moth-eaten foam mattress (enough to accommodate the entire family of 12), and a small television balanced precariously on a dresser in the corner. A single incandescent bulb hangs from the ceiling on its thin, black chord; another flickers quietly in the kitchen to help momma prepare diner after the sun has gone down. Ducks, pigs, the family dog and chickens all make their way through these sleeping quarters on a fairly regular basis, the later sometimes laying eggs in the warm nooks otherwise occupied by spiders or trash.
The smaller children themselves (Willy, his younger brother Richard, as well as their two sisters, Maria and Luz) seem to reflect this austerity in their anatomy, displaying all the feature typical of malnourishment and underdevelopment. Their small bodies are disproportionate—thin in certain areas with bulbous joints and large heads. They seem like poorly-drawn caricatures, complete with awkwardly gaped teeth, eyes that bulge from their sockets, and protruding foreheads on top of delicately small bodies. It was surprising (or perhaps sobering) when I learned that Richard and Willy were 5 and 6 years old, respectively. I wouldn't have guessed anything more than 3, maybe 4.
But goddammit, if these kids are the happiest little runts in the world and the easiest people to make smile. As we prepared the day's meager bounty for diner (which would eventually be a sort of salty eel stew with onion and oregano), I pretended to eat bugs which sent the children into peels of laughter. It seemed like this may have been the funniest thing they had ever seen, up until I unleashed the power of the “claw” (for anyone who has seen LiarLiar with Jim Carey, you should know what this is). At a certain point, I realized that I needed to calm them down again; such laughter and commotion so close to bedtime was certainly not appreciated by the neighbors. Once I stopped, the children seemed instantly caught-up in the descending curtain of tired eyes. With little more than a few spoonfuls of soup and mandioca in their bellies, the four little ones feel asleep within minutes, huddled up like small rabbits in a mosquito-net draped clutch. Willy, that day's fearless hunter, lay squashed in the middle of them all, his small mouth still holding on to the subtle grin from an afternoon of childhood triumph.
The rest of the family and I all hunched over two bowls of eel-stew and made quick work of it all. For those who have never eaten eel, its quite ideal. With all the flavor and texture of fish (maybe slightly tougher) yet without the infinite little spines of cartilage and bone that typically irritate efforts at eating other aquatic animals. Once one has cut the flaps of ligaments around the head and face, the rest of the eels slimy skin slides off easily like a coat. Sometimes, to loosen up the outer-layer so that it can be more easily stripped from the body, the whole eel is placed on the ground and rolled like a rolling pin. This not only helps to release the skin from the flesh but also acts to tenderize the meat at the same time.
Once the skin is peeled and the organs removed and tossed aside (unless of course, the eel is full of eggs, which can be eaten as well—Paraguayan caviar), the whole eel can simply be sliced into segments and cooked as is. The final product, a thin and salty fish-soup (with eel taking the place of fish, of course), is a prized favorite of campo Paraguayans who live far from the riparian borders of the country. The soft eel-flesh can be effortlessly slurped off of the bone--a single continuous spinal column that runs the length of the creature but without the additional eating-hazards of tiny ribs. In my humble opinion, and speaking with the authority of my extensive experience with other Paraguayan rarities, I must say that eel-stew is quite delicious. He'iterei (delicious in Guaraní).
Here's to unexpected afternoons and unexpected perspective.
Del Tierra de Estero (from land of marshes),