If you ever have the luxury of traveling to Peru, and it is a luxury -- for it is one of the richest countries in South America, in terms of traditions, folklore and landscape, and also what resides in its waters -- you surely won't find what I knew.
We grew up in Talara, which is alongside the northwest Peruvian coastline, literally across the street from the Pacific Ocean. Talara now has a population of about 104,000, and has a fishing fleet, airport and army base, but when we lived there, in the early 60s, there could not have been more than a couple of hundred people for miles around. There were: the refinery where our fathers worked, the camp for the engineers of Standard Oil and all their families with its rows of similar ranch houses, the pink stucco Staff School at the top of a small hill, and the Staff Club. Sundays we attended a small church in a nearby village. Just beyond the camp, along the same poorly paved road, were one gasoline pump and one Bodega, where our mothers did all their shopping, and, of course, there was the sea, which was a treasure trove of catch.
The sea teemed with marlin. The largest marlin ever, weighing in at 1,560 pounds, was caught the year I was born by an oil magnate who used a rod and reel and five pounds of mackerel as bait. He struggled with it for close to two hours before seeing the size of the thing. My father and his friends were always out for marlin. Fortunately, since the heyday of marlin, the late 50s to the early 60s, the sports fishing industry has been kept in check and the Peruvian government has taken steps toward conservation, by, for example, banning the commercial harvest of billfish.
As a child, I developed a fascination with fish, the object so prized by our fathers and enjoyed so often at our dinner table. I used to watch our gardener Raul strip down a bass or bluefish, readying it for our consumption. The first thing he would do is pop the fish eyes into his mouth. It would gross me out to no end, but he claimed the eyes gave him strength. Our cook took the head for soup that she made for herself and our nanny. We ate the body of the fish, baked or in the form of seviche.
I loved to watch our cook slice up the white raw fish, chop up onions, peppers, tomatoes and soak the mix in a soup of fresh lemon juice in a bowl overnight. Just before she served it, she would toss in salt and pepper and turn the seviche with her hands. I couldn't believe I was eating raw fish, that there was no blood, and that it tasted so good!
Fish, rice and corn pudding was my favorite dinner meal. I liked to pour olive oil over my rice. When our fish was baked, we ate slowly, careful for all the splinter-like bones. I don't recall ever eating better simple meals or better fish than when we lived in Talara. Although I wasn't a vegetarian, being only a child, it was in those years, living in Talara, that I had my first inkling of how sacred that creature was. But it wasn't for the reason you may think.
One day, I was taking a walk alongside the beach and saw a group of naked fishermen spearing something they were dragging in with a net. I approached them, curious, and saw, what appeared to be a giant whale, which, in retrospect, was probably a black marlin or shark. One of the fishermen sliced open the fish belly with his spear and out came a fish-shaped creature about my size, wrapped in a gelatinous, milky substance. I ran up, "What are you doing? You just killed a mother and her baby!" I stood in the middle of them, looking up at the gold tooth of the one who had done the killing, trying to stare him down. They all just laughed at me. "La niña, la niña," he kept saying, as if that explained the whole thing, my being a little girl. After that, I couldn't bring myself to eat fish, remembering as I would, that image of what I imagined was a baby fish, lying dead and abandoned on the beach. I didn't want to be part of that mass uncaring.
That instance marked the first time I realized that fish, that prized possession of so many, was not just an object out there in the universe. It had its own family and was part of a larger family too.