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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Hook, Line and Sinker

There comes a time in every relationship when the rose-colored glasses begin to fog up or get salty and gritty from constant wear. It only takes something small, some imperceptible shift and we begin to clearly see forgivable faults in that person (or place), tiny fissures in the pristine facade that we ourselves constructed. After all, no one is perfect, no place without it's secrets. And when we focus back in again, after digesting the imperfections, we may even find the new vision charming, particularly if we are in love.
My experience with Ousmann, the fisherman, was like a huge windshield wiper on my heretofore untainted view of Senegal. He came sauntering down the beach one day and introduced himself as the brother of Ballah, the cook at our neighborhood French restaurant. Ousmann provided all their fish and since I had eaten said fish on many occasions, I knew it was fresh and very tasty. He told us he made his living this way, fishing tirelessly at night and selling his catch to "a select few clients" the following morning. Wow! I felt privileged and proud, like my local connections had yielded a back-stage pass to "people in the know in Senegal." We began buying fish from him on a bi-weekly basis, and each time he came, he would linger a little longer, telling us his story. As he casually puffed on a cigarette, we learned how he came to be a fisherman (his Dad had been one and taken him out on long hauls at the tender age of four), his favorite fish to catch (Bar, because it was the most challenging) and how his life was hard  (exhausting hours alone on his Pirogue boat, a single unreliable light to guide his way and his line through the perilous night waters). I wasn't sure if I appreciated his fish or his stories more, but Richard and I came to anticipate his visits. A novice fisherman, Richard relished the details of Ousmann's technique and wanted to know if he could go out on the boat with him sometime. "Inshallah" was Ousmann's only response. "God willing." So the weeks passed and we congratulated ourselves on our Mediterranean diet and our resourcefulness. I began to notice that Ousmann was a remarkably precise fisherman, catching exactly what we wanted at exactly the moment we wanted it. "Next time you catch some sole", I'd say," we'd love a few small ones." Or, "Gee we haven't had red carp in a while." "Wouldn't some monk fish be tasty." The next morning, he'd bound up the steps, catching his flip-flop on the last stair and voila . . . sole, red carp, monk fish! A talent this rare is hard to come by and so we praised him for it.  He promptly raised his prices citing inflation, lack of tourists, the need to buy a new rudder for his boat. Oh, well, that's the price you pay for a personal fisherman, we rationalized. 
Shortly after one of Ousmann's morning deliveries, I ran into his brother, Ballah, on the beach and thanked him for introducing us to our fisherman extraordinaire. We were so pleased with him and were awed by what an amazing talent he had. He must be so proud of his brother given the long nights Ousmann spent on his boat, sacrificing so much to follow in their father's footsteps. Judging by the smile on Ballah's face, I was touching on family honor. But that smile crept slowly into laughter and by the time I had finished touting his brother's accomplishments, he was doubled over on the ground, unable to speak. He raised his hand to indicate that he would be with me in a moment, when his fit had subsided. I wondered if Ballah was epileptic. I started to laugh along nervously, because, of course, that kid of belly-aching joy is contagious. "What?" I asked finally. "What! My face grew serious as Ballah explained between renewed bouts of laughter that their father had been a welder and that Ousmann had never been on a boat in his life. The only thing he had ever tried to catch was a woman and that had not been successful. He didn't know how to swim and the only reason he knew the difference between a monkfish and a carp was because that was what the purveyor handed him when he bought it at the fish market. And resold it to us. For twice as much.
Ousmann the fisherman promptly became Ousmann the lying, stinking bastard! I huffed and puffed my way back to our house, seething. I had been had, cheated, lied to, taken for a lousy tourist. But as I began recounting the story to Richard, I started laughing because the story was funny. And as I laughed, I forgave. Still smarting the next day, Richard confronted Ousmann and asked him why he had done it? "I thought it was what you wanted to hear," he said, and continued down the beach with his cooler full of bought, not caught, fish. I thought about the real fisherman who had provided all of our dinners and wondered if he was any where near as colorful as Ousmann. Hadn't he entertained us? Wasn't that worth something? Perhaps the romance was over, but I had believed because I had wanted to be wooed. I had no one to blame but myself and the rose-colored glasses I had willingly placed before my callow eyes. And what I had seen was a fisherman, what I had heard was his tale. Ousmann's lure had been his lore and I had fallen for it . . . hook, line and sinker.

End note: I mentioned Ousmann in an earlier post, back when I believed he was a fisherman. This picture was taken yesterday. We came to an arrangement where he still brings us fish from the market from time to time. But there are no more stories.

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