In the 5th grade (I think?), my Gifted teacher encouraged me to submit one of my mother’s folk stories to a children’s magazine. She is a children’s author herself and always assigned interesting class projects. For example, the reason I’m really into Little House on the Prairie is because she instructed us to create our own illustrated episode of the series. I learned a lot about President Dwight D. Eisenhower, having also made an illustrated booklet about him.
Up until recently, I had forgotten that I was a published author at age 10 and thereafter retired. I received no royalties, so maybe I can’t technically call myself an author. In any case, “The Story of Roma” was accepted into a magazine called Boodle (formerly Caboodle). I looked for my copy during a recent visit to my parents’ house but was unable to find it. I do not think it’s totally lost, just misplaced, as are so many items in my life.
“The Story of Roma” is a tale of unrequited love. At the time it was told to me, locals in southern Laos had reported sightings of a fresh water dolphin they call “roma,” which was thought to be extinct. I have since learned that it is the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. As the story goes, the roma is the incarnation of a fisherman named Anon, whose beloved fell into the Mekong River and drowned. He dove in after her but the current was too powerful; she disappeared. Being an exceptional swimmer, he didn’t die but transformed into a dolphin. He swims the waters of the Greater Mekong for all eternity, tormented by the death of his beautiful love. She became a bird in the next life, and when this particular bird is spotted in the sky, you will find the roma swimming just beneath her.
Tuesday 5 December 2006
During our last month in Laos, we ventured south, to my father’s ancestral home. This time, we took a bus and traveled through the night. Our company was smaller than the group we took to Luang Prabang: Mom, me, my cousin Lan, Loung Thone, and Mae Boun. The road was less treacherous than the one leading to the North but didn’t offer much in the way of scenery either. We watched improvisational stage comedy on the TV monitors until I drifted to sleep. In the limbo just before true sleep, I felt the bus stop. There were hushed voices, some exclamations of horror, and somewhere far away on a dream cloud, Lan was telling me not to look out the window. Later, I learned that another tourist bus had been hit, head on, by a truck hauling granite. There were two fatalities and several people were injured. It would be hours before help arrived, but our bus kept going…
When I woke, we were stopped at a rest station, halfway to Champassak. There were plenty of clean(ish) bathroom stalls and a fresh market. I was still thinking about the people back at the wrecked bus, wondering what we could have done.
My father no longer has relatives in Pakse, the capital of Champassak Province. He was raised by his older sister (Pa Boun) and spent his formative years in a Buddhist monastery, having lost his parents at a very young age. The monastery provided him with an education his family was otherwise unable to afford. He left Champassak to attend college in Vientiane, where he met Mom.
I could see my father’s ancestry reflected in the dark faces of the river people. My complexion is a few shades lighter as a result of Mom’s Chinese influence; but in the summer, I can easily pass for a different ethnicity.
Whereas lush green mountains were the primary natural attractions of the North, the South is known for dangerously beautiful rapids. In Pakse, you will see a mixture of dark and light sediment where the Mekong and Se Rivers merge. To get from one attraction to the next, we crossed the Mekong often by ferry or taxi boat. On the first day in Champassak, we managed to see two of the most famous rapids in Laos before sundown.
Li Phi were the first rapids we reached. We passed interesting vegetation and the remnants of an old railroad along the way. Although kayaking and other water sports are banned here, each year some adventurous foreigners have attempted such things. Many of them have perished.
Your ears are deafened by the thundering water. The force of nature is nothing short of awesome. At this point, we were nearing the Cambodian border and the area of the Mekong where it is said that Anon’s beloved lost her life.
After Khone Phapheng is a place on the river’s bank that offers dolphin tours. It requires that you cross into the Cambodian side of the Mekong, and something about it felt slightly unsafe. But I had waited over half my life for just a glimpse of the roma. The light was quickly fading, and we still had a long way to travel to reach that night’s lodging. Mom decided we had better not attempt to cross the water at night. What a pity.