Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Voice of the Tiger

Welcome to the Jungle - Thursday afternoon. August 16, 2012. 
There were about six foreigners and twelve Karen(kuh-REN) teachers and students that came. We took a motorized longboat up the flooded raging Moei river for a couple hours, to a small Karen Village just inside Karen State, Burma. We had lunch at a pastor's house in the village, while all the villagers gathered 'round to watch us eat. They had never seen white people before. An ancient Karen prophecy says that once white people step onto the land, there will be peace. That's not how it's worked in the rest of the world unfortunately, but I pray and believe that it will be true in Karen State, and specifically this village. After a delicious lunch and a few difficult conversations, employing the few Karen words I know, we headed out into the jungle, Pastor Peacefully and a few WWII-gun-toting Karen guerrillas leading the way.

We walked for at least two hours through mud and mud rivers, across skinny single-log bridges, along the side of a few steep hills, and over a lashed bamboo bridge above some crashing rapids. Finally we came to a spot where we stopped and set up camp. While we struggled to set up a tent, our traveling companions got busy building temporary house-like bamboo structures to sleep in. They seriously built houses in the time it took us to set up a single (massive) tent. It was pretty dark and late at this point, so we whipped out our Thai whiskey, talked and laughed around the fire for a little while, then headed off to bed.

Learning from the Hilltribe - Friday morning. August 17, 2012
We woke up after a fitful night's sleep. I grabbed my Kindle and went on a short barefoot walk (I was barefoot 80% of the trip) back to that lashed bamboo bridge. I sat above the turbulent waters below and read some equally turbulent words from JESUS in Luke eight. After spending a bit of time with my Creator in His beautiful creation, I headed back to camp. I watched the Karen teachers and students producing a variety of things from only bamboo, machetes, and their hands. Inspired by their craftiness, I grabbed my machete and joined in. I made a bamboo cup, shot glass, chopsticks, and woven basket. I also took a couple naps and ate some incredible fresh venison. As night fell, I gathered my flashlights, first aid kit, boots, and machete. I tried to gather my courage. And we went out. Into the thick black jungle.

The Hunt. - Friday night. August 17, 2012
Leading the hunt were two Karen guerrilla soldiers. In their hands they held rifles given to them (illegally) by British soldiers after being politically raped by the British government after WWII. The rifles had little wicks of dried grass, which were to be lit with a lighter in order to fire the guns. The Karen soldiers, despite their small stature, are widely recognized as the most effective guerrilla fighters in the world. And we had to keep up with them. We ran, slid in the mud, tripped, cut ourselves on plants and rocks. We froze when we saw four pairs of eyes staring back at us from behind some trees, twenty feet away.

In the midst of the dialog between the soldiers and the teachers with us, one teacher was kind enough to share some information with us English-speakers: "Oh. Too many. Keep moving!"

Too many?! Too many what? Are we going to die?!

"Elephant. Go!"

Elephants? Awesome! Why does he sound so scared though? They just told us that elephants are friendly and present no threat to us.

It wasn't until later that we learned it was just a few water buffalo. Not T-Rexes or tigers. Not elephants. But we did keep encountering elephant footprints along our path. And a couple times we could hear the elephant close by. Once, we heard loud crashing a couple hundred feet away. We all started to shine our lights to look, but a Karen teacher urgently instructed us to turn our lights off and keep quiet. Elephant. Again, I thought elephants were friendly. We sat quietly for a few minutes, then got up and began to run through the jungle again. A little while later they explained: This elephant had recently gone rogue and killed his owner. He was romping through the jungle in an angry frenzy killing everything in his path. And he was tracking us.

So, with a giant grey killer beast on our tail, we kept on running through the jungle. Up steep mountains, coated with slippery mud. Through the fog and clouds. We were shining our lights in the trees in search of monkeys, but we never saw any. After about three hours of running through dense jungle, up and down mountains with only a few brief breaks, I was about ready to pass out. Finally we reached the top of a hill and saw a small barrack with a fire going. The soldiers led us inside, and began to cook up some rice, noodles and tea for us.

The Voice of the Tiger - Wee hours of the morning. Saturday, August 18, 2012
We ate quickly, voraciously hungry, but were also completely exhausted. As soon as we finished eating, a few other soldiers came in with a small bear they'd just shot. They graciously gave it to us to take back to our camp the next morning. Just as we were about to set up to sleep, the soldiers told us,
"Many time we hear the voice of the tiger."
with the Karen teachers translating,  "There many animal here in jungle, come close. Elephant, bear, monkey, snake, boar. Many time we hear the voice of the tiger."

I looked at the entrance to the barrack. No door. Not even a wall. The tiger (or tigress) could just hop in, lick his lips, and then eat me. The soldiers pointed to their meager arsenal of weaponry and assured me we'd be okay. So we found a spot to sleep for a couple hours. They gave us a bamboo mat, a couple blankets, and a burlap sack full of something heavy for a pillow. I looked inside the pillow. Mortars, grenades and AK-47 clips. I was about to sleep on a pillow made of explosives and bullets. Awesome. I attained a bit of a Rambo complex in that moment. The five American, Australian and Karen teachers piled literally on top of each other, on a small space on the floor, and went to sleep.

And Repeat - Saturday morning. August 18, 2012
After a few short, uncomfortable, but restful hours of sleep, we woke up early to head back. We thanked the soldiers profusely, and headed back. Fortunately, we were going mostly downhill this time, so it wasn't quite as exhausting. Unfortunately, running downhill in slippery mud is difficult. I fell several times, and was still pretty exhausted, but we made the four or five miles back in only one hour instead of the three hours it had taken the night before. When we got back to camp, we took down the tents and bamboo houses, packed all our wet belongings (did I mention it was raining all weekend?) and headed out. We walked another ten miles or so back to the village in the now torrential rain, smiled our white smiles at the cute brown children back in the village, and then caught the boat back down the river.

Upon arriving home, I was able to take a shower and put on dry clothes. I'd been wearing the same set of wet clothes for the last forty-eight hours. I checked out all my cuts, bruises, splinters, and gashes. There were a lot of them. I thanked JESUS for giving me the time in the jungle that I'd repeatedly asked Him for. And I took a nap.

Also check out this great article with pictures written by one of my companions, Evan, about the trip.