A special farewell

Travel
by Sophia Lee

Posted on Tuesday, December 1, 2015, at 3:23 pm

WORLD reporter Sophia Lee recently traveled through Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, and other Southeast Asian countries. She has been sending us regular reports of what she saw, felt, and did—Nellie Bly–style. She has just returned from the remote mountains of Burma (also known as Myanmar), where she visited 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—It’s strange how much you can gain within eight days and seven nights. That’s how long I spent hiking and living with Free Burma Rangers (FBR) in the Burmese mountains, where I gathered so many precious memories and impressions that my heart feels like a woven basket packed with petals of every shade of colors—it feels full, yet light and sweet.

Had I been a better journalist, I might have found out that FBR has a “special farewell” for every new visitor. Instead, I expected and suspected nothing on my last day at Tau Wah Camp. That morning, I was up early enjoying my final observation of the FBR students’ physical training, when all of a sudden, the students charged toward me with battle cries, sooty-black palms reaching out to smear my face and neck and arms with charcoal they gathered from the kitchen— “a symbol of their love,” FBR founder Dave Eubank later told me.

I was so surprised that I fell back upon a rock, but before I could muster up my dignity, hands grabbed my limbs and hoisted me up and away, across the field, and then down, down, down a rocky path. By then I recognized the route to the lake where we bathe and swim, and just before I braced myself for the icy plunge, one of the students swung me into the water. I sank, felt my toes gripping the sandy bottom, and emerged gasping and laughing. Then all the students leapt into the lake with a delighted “Yaaaaaaaah!” The female students grabbed soap and shampoo to lather up my hair and clean my black face, and then we washed the suds away by dunking and splashing each other with screams and whoops.

It was the best farewell I’ve ever received: theatrical, fun, and certainly unforgettable. Later, when I gave an impromptu farewell speech on top of a giant rock, I looked most wretched with my chattering teeth, blue lips, and drenched, dripping clothes—but my heart was swollen tight with thanksgiving and joy.

The fun was not yet over. Because one of the departing volunteers had sprained her ankle, her pain became my gain. Instead of hiking out of the mountains by foot, we rode horses for the first hour of the journey. It was the second time in my life I had ever ridden a horse—and certainly the first time riding on steep, foot-wide trails through a tropical jungle. Thankfully, the horse I rode on, Pamela, was steady and patient with an inexperienced rider like me.

Not so much the motorcycle. After the horse transportation, our heavy backpacks were strapped to motorcycles, and one of the Rangers, a sturdy-built Kachin, indicated that I should ride behind him. At first, I refused—I had never ridden a motorcycle before, much less through primitive, mountainous paths 4,000 feet above ground level. But it was ride it or hike for six hours, so I hopped on, hung on tight, and off we zoomed with a blustering roar, trampling over mud and branches, splattering across streams, and crashing through thorny brambles.

My driver was obviously experienced by the way he blithely kicked away bulky rocks, shoved away jagged branches with one hand, and scratched his head with the other. As for me, I clung onto the back handle with a grip that would have crushed a hardback dictionary. My legs fluttered into the air, my ears popped, and my backside pummeled against the seat. Several times I thought I might fly off and fall thousands of feet into a mangled death, but about 20 minutes into the two-hour ride, I decided that since I’m stuck on this noisy, throttling machine anyway, I might as well enjoy it and have fun.

So I relaxed my muscles, unclenched my jaw, and thanked God for this novel experience. After we ended the journey by banging into the wooden post of a village hut, I thanked God again for my skillful Kachin driver—the motorcycle’s brakes had suddenly stopped working halfway through our trip, but he somehow managed to keep it under control. I exclaimed to him, “How did you manage that?” and he shrugged as though it was no big deal and replied with a smile, “Thank God?”

Indeed, God had been present and active in this entire journey. I choked up a little during my farewell speech to FBR as I remembered the details of God’s guidance and providence not just in my life but in theirs, too. Even though my interaction with the Burmese people was brief, at that moment I felt such a surge of love for them that I knew it was not from me but from the Spirit of God.

Along with the mosquito welts on my arms, cuts on my feet, and blister on my backside from the motorcycle ride, I also collected a basketful of prayer burdens for individuals who once had no face or name in my mind. My prayers for Burma are no longer in black-and-white newsprint but have sprung alive with vibrant colors, sounds, and smells. 

Sophia Lee

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

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