The sound of a koveli. A freshness in the air, crisp with the smell of Palm leaves basking in the light of dawn. A hurried breakfast, the clinking of bicycle gears and the rattling of bottles and tin cans in a bucket. We were off! I look back and smile at my sister. She grins back, beaming that she was riding her bike without her training wheels. She had thrown them into the ocean a few days ago after they had given her a cut. She didn't need them anyways.
We rode along a path dappled in the shaded light of an avenue of palms. The sand made gentle crunches beneath our tires as we swerved around the many slight dips and curves which pockmarked the unpaved earth. We got to the canteens and immediately ran to the back with our bucket to find the chef. The chef was a cheery fellow and he always greeted us with a laugh. Do you have any bait? Of Course! He'd say. He had a bit of guts and off cuts left from the garudhiya they were making for lunch. We collect some in the bucket, say our thanks and set off again, this time heading towards the harbour.
The crunching was gone, replaced with a much more uniform whirring now that we were on paved ground. They are such odd things. We need them for our tires yet they feel harsh and unweilding beneath our feet.
We reach the harbour and park our bikes near the inner edge. Here first and the outer edge later. Will the korakali be here today? Do you think we'll catch a big filolhu? My sister asks grinning. I hope so, I reply.
I remove some of the offcuts from the bucket and place them on the ground so I could slice them into little slivers. We put some on our hooks and hold our plastic bottles towards the ocean, before throwing them out into the murky depths of the bay. Almost immediately ripples appear on the dark green surface, all heading towards the sinking hooks. We grin at each other knowingly and slowly begin to pull the line in, carefully wrapping it around the bottle as we did. Tangled lines could be a nightmare!
Sure enough, the ripples began chasing the hook, and as it got shallower we could see a small school of korakali excitedly chasing the bait. The trick was to slow it down, and sharply tug it right after they'd had a bit of a nibble. My sister hooked one and then I had one too. Soon we had dozens and were running low on bait. But not to worry. A dhoni was pulling up. After they docked, I asked one of the fishermen if we could please have some bandaidhoo; which is the cut of meat right outside the stomach of a fish and below the gills. It was firm and the fact that it still had skin meant that it'd stay much more securely attached to the hook. To top it off, most fish went bonkers for the stuff. He laughed and asked if we had caught anything yet. I was 11 and my sister was 6, both of us were wearing kiddy hats like typical city kids, and must have looked quite out of place on that smelly and industrial looking harbour. I pointed to the bucket full of croaking korakali. He laughed heartily and told someone on the ship to fetch us a tuna. He then cut out the bandidhoo himself and gave it to us with his luck and blessing.
Using it,we caught a few more korakali and even a few big fani handhi. It was always a rush seeing the much larger fish zoom amongst the korakali, lunging towards the bait, their magnificent blue fins slicing through the water like neon streamers. They gave a much stronger fight too, and required a bit more patience to reel in; making the reward all the more sweeter.
We were once again almost out of bait, and we hadn't even yet gone to the outer rim of the harbour. There, standing on the jagged rocks, you could throw into a part of the shallow inner lagoon that was home to schools of ori; which dwelled between the sea grass meadows and the rocks.
Are we going back? My sister asked. Nah we'll just use the korakali! And if we ran out of that, we could always find some golhaa hiding among the rocks.
So we cut some of the little fish up and try our luck at the ori. The water on this side of the harbour was much clearer and, we could see the fish excitedly huddle around the bait, almost as if having some secret conversation. My sister hooks one almost immediately. She had a gift for catching ori. She knew exactly when to execute that all important final tug, just as the fish was turning to leave, not too quick, not too late. Grinning like a mad child she'd expertly let the fish swim off a bit to the left and then right before pulling it in again, slowly tiring the fish.
A violent tug at the line around my fingers and I almost slip off the rocks. I regain my balance, only to hear the sharp wet twang of the hook snapping off. Annoyed, I begin to wrap it back onto the bottle so I could tie another hook. The previous year, or perhaps it was earlier, my father had taught me the knot, and it is ingrained into my memory to this day to the point where recalling it comes as easy as it was riding that oversized bicycle.
Meanwhile, my sister had pulled up her fish and was holding it out triumphantly. Can you get the hook out for me? She asked. And I hop over the rocks to grab the line and take the fish to where we'd kept the bucket. The ori thrashed around madly and before I could take the hook out, one of its dorsal spines punctures my hand. A strangely deep feeling pain emanates from the wound like a slow burn. Ori apparently have mild toxins in the spines, but it wasn't the first time I'd been stung so I wasn't really worried. I shake my hand a bit and put some fresh bait on my sisters line. We manage to catch a couple more, including a few filolhu that had ventured out from among the seagrass.
The most exciting thing about that little area was the giant muda handhi that would occasionally storm through, smashing through the water at incredible speed and scaring all manner of fish back into hiding, jumping over the surface as they fled in terror. It was so large that if the tide was low, sometimes it's dark blue dorsal fin would slice the top of the water like a shark. Whenever we saw it coming we'd frantically throw our lines in its path. We knew our lines were too weak. And the fish was bigger than us so even if we did catch it, and even if the line did hold, it'd probably just result in the fish catching us. Didn't stop us from trying though.
Buckets full of fish, we pedal back to the canteen to hand our bounty over to the chef. Ahh I could fry these up for lunch he'd say. Triumphant, we returned back to the bungalow to get cleaned up and see what our parents were up to.
I loved that house. It was the complete opposite of our house in Male'. Instead of sleeping on a bunk, we slept on separate beds. Instead of cold water in a tiny bathroom, there was a hot water cylinder in a space that felt like a palace. Instead of smelly tharafaalu that moved when you stepped on it, there was a soft carpet beneath our feet. Instead of just having to deal with the propaganda filled and censored to death TVM being the only channel to watch on TV, there were several international ones to choose from, courtesy of some satellite magic; our favourite being Nickelodeon. It was a joy to watch shows like Kenan & Kel, All That and seeing happy young people smiling and making genuinely funny jokes. The animated shows like Aargh! Real Monsters were such a breath of fresh air from the endless Disney re-runs on TVM. The place was even air conditioned. And it was surrounded by lush vegetation instead of being swallowed in by the looming city around it; with a beautiful beach less than a minute away. This beach encircled the island; much better than a seawall and perimeter road full of traffic. On some mornings when the tide was low, you could walk across the glowing expanse of the lagoon right to the edge of the reef. We had never known such luxury as those few weeks of school holidays. The people were much friendlier and the air was fresher. And it was where my father lived and it was where my Mum smiled the most. She was a school teacher and a mother raising two kids mostly by her self; undoubtedly two of the hardest jobs in the world. After we'd gone back to Male', sometimes by boat, sometimes by plane, I'd cry in secret because I missed him and that happy home.
Did you have a good time? You reek of fish! Did you catch lots? Oh you got stung by an ori? Here, put some dettol and vokadine on it.
Soon we were off again on our bicycles, back to the canteen. The fish was deep fried with delicious spices, and you could even crunch down on the bones of the little korakali and eat the entire fish whole. We laughed and grinned triumphantly. Those were some of the best days of my life and I am incredibly thankful that I was lucky enough to have such experiences.