PART I | 1903
Out of the crystal-clear waters of the Andaman Sea, more than eight hundred islands emerged. They broke the endless turquoise of the ocean with all the shades of green that tropical rainforests offered.
Some of these islands were tiny and so steep that only birds visited them. Others stretched for miles beyond sight and provided quiet bays and snow-white beaches.
“So many islands to choose from, and I have to stay here,” complained Lorac as he tried not to think about the rocking of the boat.
Any other tribe would have settled on their favorite island centuries ago. Lorac’s family, however, didn’t belong to a common tribe. The Moken were sea nomads. For most of the year it was impossible to find a Moken on land: each family lived in a wooden boat that, for them, represented a magical union between the forest, the sky, the sea, and the land.
This humble ship was called a kabang and was hand-carved by any Moken man who intended to form a family. No woman would accept a husband who didn’t offer one. Luckily for the suitors, kabangs weren’t especially large; carved from a single tree, they were very resilient, as they had no joints in the hull. So the most difficult thing wasn’t to build the kabang itself, but to find a tree big enough to become the home of an entire family. The ideal Moken family comprised a marriage with five children, as tradition associated each child with one of five particular animals bestowed in age order. This was the first of Lorac’s misfortunes: he was the sixth son of Saw and Ma Ma―the eighth member of a family that should have been seven.
The first son, San Win in the case of Saw and Ma Ma, was associated with the largest turtle on Earth: the leatherback, unmistakable for the resemblance of its shell to blackish leather. The giant turtle that San Win had tattooed on his wide back clearly showed he was proud of his animal.
Thu Zar, the second child, wasn’t so proud of her hawksbill turtle. The beautiful girl had such a strong character that everyone said she was as sharp as the pointed beak of her turtle.
The next daughter, Aye, was linked with the loggerhead turtle, even though she was the smartest person Lorac knew.
Next came Tun Tun, the fourth child, who had the green turtle, the only herbivorous turtle on the planet. Tun Tun, however, ate everything and in large quantities. On one occasion, Khin―the fifth of the siblings―served him a plate full of raw seaweed, and he ate the viscous delicacy―making everyone laugh―and still finished his ration of fish. If Khin had served that dish to Thu Zar, she would have taken the seaweed for a hat!
Khin was a tender little girl who loved nature more than any other Moken, which was really saying something! Her animal was the dugong, the smallest sea cow that exists, and she jumped for joy every time she saw one of these fat marine mammals that look like a manatee with a dolphin’s tail.
Finally, there was Lorac, the youngest of the siblings, with no animal to relate to as the sixth child. Even before he was born, Lorac was already excluded from his community, but believe me, this was the least of his problems.
Mokens spent most of their lives aboard their kabangs, sailing the waters between islands, so it was no wonder many Mokens were born on board. Of Saw and Ma Ma’s six children, San Win, Aye, Tun Tun, and Lorac had been born in the kabang, while Thu Zar and Khin had been born on land.
Although the hull of the boat only had one floor―the deck―it was wide enough to house seven people, plus Lorac, in our story.
A triangular roof supported by two walls that leaned to port side and starboard, respectively, sheltered one part of the deck. This was all they had to protect themselves from the sun and the rain. In that small space, Lorac’s family organized themselves for their daily routine. Within minutes, they converted those few square yards into a kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom―though, judging from the different types of makeup Thu Zar had, one might call it a beauty salon―a dining room, or a tool repair workshop. Although it should be noted that the Moken were simple people. They didn’t want more than they needed, and they didn’t need more than they wanted. They were peaceful people who lived in harmony with nature.
The kabang was propelled by a single-square sail, woven with the long leaves of the pandan tree. It had four oars for when no wind blew, but they were barely used. The Moken were in no hurry, because wherever they were with their kabang, they were already home.
For Lorac, however, the kabang was torture―a curse―or maybe he was the one who was cursed.
Excerpted from Lorac by Neus Figueras. Copyright © 2019 Neus Figueras.