A high-maintenance urban girl in the jungle

by Sophia Lee

Posted on Wednesday, November 25, 2015, at 1:56 pm

WORLD reporter Sophia Lee is traveling through Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, and other Southeast Asian countries. She’s sending us regular reports of what she sees, feels, and does—Nellie Bly–style. Currently, she’s in the remote mountains of Burma (also known as Myanmar) visiting the main training camp of Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian group that trains and sends relief teams to the ethnic people of the country.

KAREN STATE, Burma—I’ll be honest, I don’t much like living in the jungle.

This morning, I woke up at 5 a.m. to go huffing through the jungle to visit a local village high school for Karen students. My guides were Dave Eubank, founder of Free Burma Rangers (FBR), and Doh Say, FBR’s chaplain and the Karenni State team coordinator. After my interview with the headmaster’s wife (whose story is both tragic and incredible), I had to dash off to the loo—basically a tiny hut with a hole and a bucket of water to “flush” your bowel contents away.

This hut had no toilet paper, so I scuttled back and asked for some. The headmaster’s wife raised her plump hands and said, “No, no have.” Dave dug into his military rucksack for what to me felt like a necessity when you’re relieving yourself. As he handed me a wad of toilet paper, he chuckled and told the Karen woman, “In English, this is called ‘high maintenance.’”

That’s just one of my many “high maintenance” traits as an urbanite. I no longer drink before I go to sleep, because it’s just such a chore to climb out of my mosquito net, fumble for my flashlight, and shuffle through dirt and horse poop to a semi-see-through little hut with cobwebs curtaining the wooden door. I go for a run up and down muddy hills so that I won’t feel so cold when I plunge into the icy lake for my bath, shivering on a sand dune while trying to keep decent in a longyi (a traditional long skirt). I just finished a two-hour interview in which I was hopping from foot to foot because flesh-eating ants were crawling as a legion over my bare feet.

Gone are the days when I wake up and immediately check emails and Twitter on my iPhone. Gone are the days when I freely post on Instagram whatever photo amuses me. Here, very few huts have electricity, and those that do are all powered by the sun, of which Burma has plenty. The satellite internet here is so slow that it sometimes takes 20 minutes to send one email.

Yet, I feel so blessed to be here. Not only am I gaining some much-needed discipline and humility, I’m learning to love and understand the people here—not that it’s at all hard to feel affection for these people. Everyone I’ve interacted with so far has been gracious, generous, and fun. If I’m carrying something heavy, someone will always offer to carry it for me, even if they’re already lugging a heavy load.

I love watching the Rangers interact among themselves, chewing betel nuts on the stairs or playing soccer or swinging on their hammocks, because that’s when their shy exterior dissipates and their playful nature pops out. It takes a while, but eventually, these people start to joke back—usually self-deprecatingly—and act goofy.

My second night at Tau Wah Camp, one of the instructors asked me to give a speech at their evening class. It was hard for me to think of what to say, because what could a high-maintenance urban girl who’s never tasted true poverty say to 137 tough-nuts who’ve seen, done, and sacrificed more than I probably ever will? But I knew that many of them are not Christians, and even those who say they’re believers are mostly cultural Christians who don’t have a relationship with God.

That evening, I began my speech by introducing my name in English and Korean—both of which mean “wisdom”—and then continued, “But honestly speaking, I am a fool.” The interpreter gave a start when I said that, and then reluctantly translated it into Burmese, laughing a little as he did. I then explained why I was a fool by opening up about my greatest weakness and struggles to this group of taut-muscled, confident young men and women who’re training for freedom and relief for their Burmese people. And then I shared how God used them to teach me about His love, power, and grace.

At the end of the 30-minute speech, I opened up for questions and spent 30 minutes more answering them. None of the students asked about God—they seemed more interested in Korea and kept asking me to sing a Korean pop song for them—but I hope and pray that these precious students will one day discover true freedom and relief in Christ as well. 

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Los Angeles. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

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