Flying Fish, Flying Tourists
SePtember 1994
Fishermen from Biak, a small island off the coast of New Guinea, lure flying
fish into traps with magic songs. “Facing to Java in the west, then Fiji in the
east, then Australia in the south, and Japan in the north, the fishermen call
out to their scaly relatives,” reports Danilyn Rutherford, a cultural anthro-
pologist. Rutherford’s book about national belonging on Biak, Raiding the
Land of the Foreigners, reveals surprising tricks used to catch the fish. Bor-
rowing foreign phrases and inventing new words, the fishermen startle and
amuse their airborne prey. A coy American catcall remembered from the
Allied occupation of the island in 1944—Hey woman! Come on!—captivates
the fish with strange language. The fishermen extend invitations to a wild
party. Buzzing along the surface of the water like miniature bomber planes,
the shiny fish veer off their flight paths and into the fishermen’s canoes.
Ashore the fishermen reveal their bait and switch: the flying fish, honored
guests at a lively feast, are roasted whole and eaten.
Flying tourists, like flying fish, are also courted by Biak performers. In the
mid- 1990s, Indonesia’s national airline, Garuda, flew a regular route from
Los Angeles to Jakarta via Honolulu, Biak, and Bali. At midnight local time,
the jet made an hour- long fueling stop on Biak’s runway. By predictable
routine, groups of bewildered transnational travelers were deposited in a
tiny airport transit lounge. The tourists functioned as bait, drawing crowds
of Biak villagers to the glass airport windows. “Briefly detained on their
weekly migration,” writes Rutherford, the tourists “were also the fish.”1
In June 1994 I unexpectedly found myself in this waiting room as I was en
route to be a high- school exchange student in Indonesia. Biak was dark be-
yond the glow of the airport lights. Sweet fumes from clove cigarettes hung
in the air. Posters depicting indigenous people wearing penis gourds and
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