As you will learn later in this story, “One man’s fish is another man’s poison” is not only an adage, it may be the most remarkably accurate headline I’ve ever written.
I was once hired to create an ad campaign for a very small, very exclusive luxury resort in Fiji. It sounded like the best gig ever.
The client thought it was important for me to experience the resort for myself before I attempted to create their ads — to spend a full week in one of their beachfront villas, to snorkel on their reef, to relax on the silver sands of their private beaches, to drink from their selection of fine wines, and key to this story, to dine on meals prepared by the finest chefs in the Pacific.
And just when you think it can’t get any better, he felt it was important for me to bring my girlfriend in order to fully understand the romance of his tropical island paradise.
Who was I to disagree? Sometimes one is just called upon to make sacrifices and I was prepared to do my duty.
They flew us first class to Fiji. The tropical resort was just as beautiful as advertised. Spectacular, in fact. We had our own private beachfront villa. On our own private beach. Gourmet meals were catered for just the two of us.
On night number four all the guests were invited to a special beachside barbecue. The main course was fresh barracuda, caught that afternoon on the reef that surrounded the island. It seemed a wonderful meal at the time.
Key words: “…at the time.”
One of the other guests on the island that night was Fiji’s Minister of Tourism. We got into a conversation at dinner, enjoyed each other’s company, made each other laugh, and agreed to go deep sea fishing with the owner of the resort early the next morning.
Unfortunately, I fell ill immediately after dinner. Deathly ill. It was god awful. I was up and down the rest of the night and got no sleep. None. Yet when the clock ticked over to seven o’clock in the morning, I crawled out of bed and began getting dressed.
My girlfriend looked at me through one barely open eye. She asked a reasonable question. ”What are you doing?”
“I gotta go fishing.”
“You’re too sick to go fishing. You’ve been throwing up all night and you haven’t had any sleep.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I insisted. ”This is my chance to spend time with the Minister of Tourism. Maybe I can land Fiji Tourism’s advertising account.”
”You’re a moron,” she said and then rolled over and went back to sleep.
I staggered down the beach to the dock where I was greeted by the owner of the resort. ”We’ll be leaving in about fifteen minutes,” he said. “Breakfast and coffee are ready below deck. Go down and make yourself comfortable.”
Food was the last thing I wanted, but when I went below deck I spied a cot. Well, I thought, he told me to make myself comfortable and that cot looks pretty damn comfy. So I curled up and immediately fell asleep. I was only vaguely aware a few minutes later when the boat’s dual engines roared to life and we headed out to sea.
I woke up groggy and blurry-eyed and slowly climbed the stairs back up to the deck. It felt like I was scaling Kilimanjaro. My stomach was churning and every muscle in my body ached and sweat was gushing out of every pore. I had never been this sick in my life.
The owner of the resort was standing at the aft of the boat. I did my best to pull myself together.
”Good morning, Jim,” he chirped. ”Looks like a perfect day for fishing.”
“Great,” I said, faking it. Then I looked around the empty boat and said, ”Where’s the Minister of Tourism?”
”Oh, he wasn’t feeling well this morning, so he decided to sleep in.”
Are you freakin’ kidding me? I don’t even like deep sea fishing. I was sick as the proverbial dog and I had come out here strictly to spend time with the Minister of Tourism, and now I learn the sissified son of a bitch had decided to sleep in because he wasn’t feeling well. I don’t care how sick he was, I was sicker. My girlfriend was right: I was a moron.
Well, I thought, I don’t really have much choice here. We’re out here in the middle of the ocean and I’m supposed to be experiencing the resort, and I’m with its owner, so I need to make the best of this. I can fake it for a couple hours.
The boat eventually slowed to a stop and we baited our hooks and tossed them into the water. Almost immediately, a huge albacore struck my hook. This, I thought when it made its first leap out of the water, is the biggest freakin’ fish I will ever see in my life. Sick as I was, I had to begin reeling in the monster.
If you’ve never been deep sea fishing, please believe me that catching the tuna is the easy part. Bringing it in, the duel between man and beast, is the hard part. First you need to pull the rod upward and back and then reel frantically to bring the fish closer. Then you let the fish tire itself out a bit more (and get yourself a little well-deserved rest) before you repeat the process. Over and over and over again. It’s exhausting under the best of circumstances. Every muscle in your shoulders and arms and legs eventually begins screaming in unison.
I didn’t want to show any weakness, but I thought I was going to pass out every time I had to exert myself.
The battle seemed to go on forever. In reality, it probably lasted no more than thirty minutes or so. Maybe not even that long.
With each cycle of the battle, the tuna weakened a bit more but so did I. Which one of us would outlast the other in this mano a pescado contest was definitely in question. I was slowly able to gain the upper hand, working the giant fish closer to the boat. It drew nearer and nearer, and then, just as the battle appeared won and a member of the crew was standing at the ready, about to gaffe the giant fish and hoist it aboard the boat, a huge shark came out of nowhere and, BANG!, it hit my tuna.
The line suddenly went slack and I staggered backward, almost falling to the deck.
I continued frantically reeling but there was no resistance left on the other end of the line. When my monster fish finally popped up out of the water, the crew began laughing. In the battle between me and the tuna, the only winner was the shark. There was nothing left on my hook but the head of the tuna. The shark had taken the rest in one giant gulp. As big as the tuna was, the shark must have been immense to take it all in one bite.
I held myself together long enough for a crew member to take the photo at the top of this post, then I turned to the owner of the resort and said, ”Screw this. I’m sick. I’m going below deck to get some sleep.”
He laughed. The crew laughed. They all thought it was hilarious.
I slept until we got back to the resort and tied up to the dock. ”You don’t look so good,” the owner of the resort said as he awakened me. “Maybe you should go back to your villa and get some sleep.”
I slept for twenty-four hours. When I finally woke up and joined my girlfriend and the other guests for lunch, I learned that the Minister of Tourism and I were not the only ones who had fallen ill. Half the guests had been incapacitated to one degree or another.
For the next few days I was so sick that I literally thought I might be dying. And as if this illness wasn’t bad enough, I was simultaneously experiencing another problem — all my teeth had suddenly come loose. When I ran my tongue around inside my mouth, I could feel them fluttering around like sheets on a clothesline.
“If I survive this,” I told my girlfriend, “I’ll need to see an orthodontist.”
I spent most of the next three days in bed, but there was no island romance involved. I was too sick to do more than sleep and occasionally stagger out for a bit of food.
A group of Australians arrived at the resort just in time for dinner on our last night on the island. When told about the symptoms running rampant through the guests, one of them said, ”Sounds like ciguatera poisoning. Did you eat any reef fish?” He seemed to know what he was talking about. ”You get ciguatera from eating certain kinds of fish, especially barracuda, in the wrong season. You have to make sure you don’t eat any meat from near the head of the fish because that’s where the poison builds up.”
I thought back to the beachside barbecue from our fourth night on the island and remembered that my girlfriend had been in front of me as we moved down the dinner buffet line. She had been served the last piece of meat from one barracuda so I had to wait briefly until they rushed out another one fresh off the grill. They sliced a thick slab of meat from right behind the head and put it on my plate.
It was delicious and I thought nothing of it at the time, but it all made sense now that the Aussies had explained the source of ciguatera. Guests who were served meat from near the tail were fine, those who were served from the middle had mild symptoms, and those unlucky few who were served from near the head — like me, for example — became very ill.
I was still so sick the next day that I slept all the way across the Pacific on the flight home. As soon as we landed I went directly from the airport to my doctor’s office. I described my symptoms — itching, tingling, numbness of my lips and tongue, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, chills, muscle weakness, muscle pain, dizziness, blurred vision, and achy joints — and mentioned the word ”ciguatera.”
He had never heard of it so he left me in the examination room while he went off to look it up. He returned a few minutes later with a medical dictionary in hand.
”I think the Aussies were right,” he said. ”Sounds like you have ciguatera poisoning.”
Here’s what he found:
Ciguatera fish poisoning is a rare disorder that occurs because of the ingestion of certain contaminated tropical and subtropical fish. When ingested, the toxin (ciguatoxin), which is present at high levels in these contaminated fish, may affect the digestive, muscular, and/or neurological systems.
“It also calls out two more very strange symptoms you didn’t mention,” he noted. ”Hot and cold temperature reversal.”
“Exactly,” I said. ”Hot water seems cold, cold water seems hot. I thought I was going crazy.”
”There’s one more very odd symptom,” he said. ”The illusion that all your teeth are loose.”
What a great doctor.
He confirmed what was wrong with me, and saved me a trip to the orthodontist at the same time.
However, I lost nineteen pounds and didn’t fully completely recuperate for several months.
Here’s the kicker: I had agreed to create the resort’s advertising in exchange for three future weeks at the resort. The resort got its ad campaign and I received certificates for future stays, but I’ve never used them. Somehow getting poisoned because the chef served out of season fish had soured me on the island paradise.
I still have those certificates tucked away in a drawer.
What are the odds they’ll still honor them thirty years later?
COMING NEXT WEEK: PART TWO