Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore

by Sophia Lee

Posted on Saturday, November 21, 2015, at 5:44 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 on her way to 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.

As we winded up and around blue-green mountains on a monster truck packed with loads of medical supplies, I swallowed back some bile and thought to myself, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

I’m currently on a mission trip to the remote Burmese mountains with Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a mainly Christian humanitarian group that provides front-line relief to the ethnic minorities of Burma (also known as Myanmar). To get to the undisclosed FBR training camp, we will trek up unpaved jungle mountain roads for two whole days while carrying everything we need—sleeping bag, gadgets, underwear, full canteens of water—on our shoulders.

When I first heard of this expedition, my instinctive act-first-think-later reaction was: “Ooh! Can I come?” Now that we were actually on our way to said journey, our gear all bundled up and my stomach still retching from a virus I caught two days before the trip, I wanted to bang my silly head against the truck window and wail, “What was I thinking?”

One of the medical team members, a lovely, regular volunteer from London named Jo, took me under her wing by coaching me on the grueling details of the trip:

“So you climb up, up, up, up a horrendous mountain until 10 p.m. And then you set up camp at this barnlike place with horses and farm animals—all stinky with nasty flies. The next morning, you go up, up, up again for about one, oh, probably two hours, and then you go down, down down, down for six more hours. … People will then tell you, oh, there’s just one more little hill—but no! Don’t listen to them! It’s several more hours of three horrible long hills, plus a lake you swim across.”

She then graciously patted me on my shoulder and said, “This is good for you, dear. Knowing this’ll prepare you well. Nobody did this for me on my first trip.” She’s been on at least nine over the last three years.

I choked back on another wave of nausea—whether from the virus or raw fear, I do not know. You see, I’m a hard-core urban girl. Drop me in the traffic tangles of Jakarta’s concrete jungle, or the senseless, twisting alleys of Seoul, or even Los Angeles’ Skid Row at nighttime, and I’ll be fine. But here in the wilderness, with just mud and dirt under my feet and a pollution-free, star-dimpled sky over my head, I knew I was way out of my element.

My FBR traveling buddies, however, seem completely at ease. Sure, one woman just recovered from a herniated disc, several others had blown-out knees, and another Ranger, a member of the Karenni people groups who told me the hike is “a lot of fun,” had to have two back surgeries. But lace up their hiking shoes, saddle them up with a 40-pound waterproof backpack, and zoom! Off they go into the bushes. These are not masochistic people but Rangers with defined goal and purpose, and having that sort of clear mind and spirit seems to give them an unflagging will to finish the race.

Of course, in my mind picture, I’ll be several miles behind, hacking and puffing, losing precious body salt from all my weeping and sweating. But I too am determined to finish this race—OK, partly motivated by the refusal to completely embarrass myself or WORLD, but also to return with good stories to tell. And Burma is rich and ripe with compelling human stories.

Even as I write this the morning of our planned hike, I’m sitting on the open-air balcony of a self-built house of a formerly internally displaced Karenni family, with a spider spinning above my head and smog-free mountain air replenishing my lungs. Outside, I hear birds chirping, chickens clucking, and pigs grunting.

My group and I arrived last evening, and almost immediately, Jo and I sidled up next to the woman of the house, helping her chop long beans and peel garlic in the kitchen. Dinner was scrumptious: steamed rice, green beans and egg stir-fry, green beans and pork, and roasted yellow beans with tomatoes in fermented tea dressing—made more delicious by the knowledge that it was a meal prepared by a family who had little but gave much.

That night, hours before my usual bedtime, I curled up to sleep on the wooden floor listening to chirping insects and woke up before dawn to the song of a rooster. A snail crawling up the seat of a newly installed toilet, a novelty in this household, interrupted my morning routine. Downstairs, I could hear the four kids scampering about in their school uniforms, helping with household chores and playing a little game with their father.

These are the kind of people and stories I’ll be finding in the belly of one of the world’s most isolated and oppressive states. This is a story I’ll be working for with every ache of my hamstrings and every groan of my joints, and I have a feeling it’ll all be worth it.

Sophia Lee

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

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