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An L.A. Sansei's Misadventures in South America

Ahh. Piranha

I am sitting in a dugout canoe with three rather large Nikkei Brazilian guys. We're fishing in the Parana River just outside the town of Panorama on the borders of the states of São Paulo and Mato Grosso do Sul in central Brazil.

One hour earlier, the invitation to go fishing seemed like a good one. It meant skipping a three-hour lecture and discussion on Nikkei community issues and as this was my first trip to Brazil, I wouldn't have been able to understand the Portuguese language (or Japanese interpretation) anyway. Now as the edge of the dugout sits about 2 inches above the water line I'm having second thoughts about this fishing excursion.

The first thought was: don't rock the boat! A person didn't dare make any sudden moves in something as unstable as a hand-hewn dugout canoe. The other thought was: don't stand up.

As you get older you discover that there are circumstances in life that are so incredibly unsafe that your limbs and appendages just freeze up. The internal caution to not stand up in a wobbly dugout canoe was unnecessary as I couldn't have prodded my legs to work anyway. As the fast moving current flowed by, the other thought was, why am I not wearing a life preserver?

The timing of these thoughts was not sequential. They all impacted my brain at the same time. But it's too late. I'm out about 20 yards from shore with my bamboo fishing pole and a treble hook the size of a walnut. The guys are cutting bait for me. Hunks of meat about two inches square. Just the right size to slide on a skewer for shish-ka-bob and put on the Weber grill.

It runs through your mind, with bait that size, what are we fishing for? With a blend of pidgin English, Japanese and Portuguese combined with gestures, I determined that we were fishing for something called dorado. How big is the dorado? One of the men stretched his arms out as wide as he could. Hmmm. No wonder we need such massive pieces of bait. I looked at my length of fishing line and my bamboo pole - there was no reel - and thought, if something that big grabs my bait, it will pull me out of this dugout that was already just 2 inches away from swamping (I have since seen examples on America's Funniest Home videos to confirm that being yanked out of a boat is a possibility). I determined that the best course would be to let go of the pole once I got a bite.

The bait is in the water. I must have been really nervous because the guys have to tell me to be quiet. Hey, I know “be quiet” in Japanese. I heard it enough as a kid growing up.

"Your talking is scaring the fish," they explained. My talking is scaring the fish? You've got to be kidding! When we were first casting off and about ten yards from shore, one of the guys pointed to the water and said "Piranha aqui." I didn't know a lick of Portuguese back in those days, but I understood that "piranha" sounded like "pirana," and in a low-riding dugout canoe, that wasn't good news. I wasn't talking, I was chattering mindlessly!

Tug! Tug tug tug. Something has taken the bait. It didn't feel like the monster dorado fish. The fish leaps out of the water, I pull my line to set the hook. About two minutes later I learn that I didn't need to set the hook. The fish had swallowed the two-inch square piece of meat whole. Pretty impressive since the fish was only a bit bigger than a golf ball. The guys smiled, "Ah, piranha." My first catch was a two inch piranha!!

Let's recap. The bait was two inches square. The fish was two inches square. Give that some thought when you think of those National Geographic movies that show piranha making mincemeat out of some poor shmuck cattle. A two-inch piranha swallowed a two-inch hunk of meat attached to a treble hook the size of a walnut! No wonder people have a lot of respect for those little carnivores.

With a piranha on the end of my fishing line and the likelihood that there were probably more just below the surface, the thought that came to mind was that it was time to turn the canoe and head in. We were, as we rocked in that dugout, either one or two inches away from swamping or capsizing. I didn't have a lifejacket. The water had piranha in it. I could visualize a small headline in one of the back pages of the LA Times: "American drowns after canoe capsizes!" The article would go on to say that the foolhardy North American had inexplicably ditched an important meeting to go fishing in piranha-infested waters. Without the common sense to wear a life vest . . . blah blah blah.

I signaled to my guides that I was done. I gestured "Let's go in." A light rain had begun to fall thus giving me a reasonable excuse to suggest that we stop. My sense of adventure was overtaken by common sense that needed to have my two feet firmly on the shore. As far as I knew, piranha couldn't walk.

I made it for the last fifteen minutes of that meeting.

© 2008 John Katagi

Brazil fish fishing language Parana River

Sobre esta serie

John Katagi is a former staff member of the Japanese American National Museum. He shares memories from almost two decades of travel to South America. His experiences result from study and observation as part of the directorial staff of JEMS, a cross-cultural agency based in Los Angeles.