To say the roads were bumpy is an understatement. We bounced around like rag dolls as we passed a red sign that read, "Welcome to Karen State." We were now in the brown zone. We took precautions like throwing Brad and Rahul with the curtains drawn in the back seat of our clandestine church van, then throwing the "less visible foreigner"—me—in shot gun. We were riding with Pastor Mu, a colleague of Pastor Ha, who worked and lived in the area. We passed the checkpoint without stopping as a couple military personnel carriers drove away from the black zone—empty. Had they dropped off their load somewhere further in?

The "highway" was narrow and by western standards one-lane, but in Myanmar it was wide enough for two trucks and a scooter or two in between. As our church van wove between traffic up the narrow road further into the mountains, it became apparent that life in the Karen state was subsistence living. There were no cars, only scooters and pedestrians. Most houses were shacks made of bamboo built on six-foot wooden stilts to accommodate the sudden floods during rainy season. Even so, explained Pastor Mu, in the last flood the roads, which were built above the height of the shacks were inundated. The pastor explained that much of the church's work includes rebuilding after floods and administering community programs like the local orphanage.

The head of the orphanage was a 75 year old Karen man who spoke Japanese. He welcomed us into his home and took us across the street to his orphanage—a building of concrete and wood big enough to house the 26 children that ran around the dirt courtyard out front. The children looked so happy, so I asked one of the teachers, "Do your children like to sing?" Before I knew it, all 26 children lined up in perfect church choir formation. They sang. Their voices harmonized and seemed to fill the yard with a sense of innocence and sincerity.

The contrast between these children's living conditions and the happiness with which they sang left me standing speechless. I turned to Brad and Rahul. All three of us were smiling uncontrollably. I listened to the children and joy welled up inside of me. I was recharged.

We parted ways and were whisked away in the church van to meet the pastor's aunt. The air smelled of fire. "What's that smell?" Rahul asked. "The people are burning leaves and their garbage because there is no garbage pick up here," the Pastor replied.  We passed a girl chopping firewood, which meant Rahul had to try chopping too. He nearly poked out his eye when the chopped twig backfired toward his face. We're such cityslickers.

The house of Pastor Mu's aunt seemed to be built in the middle of the jungle and was big for that village. It had a couple of bedrooms, a washroom, kitchen, livingroom, and even electricity. The Aunt was a heavier woman who looked to be in her 70s, but the years seemed to have aged her even more. "You'll have to excuse my English. I haven't used it in a while," she said in proper British English. I was stunned. I did not expect to find English in the back roads of Karen state.

We talked for an hour in her dark kitchen as the mosquitoes picked away at our limbs. Luckily I was on Malaria meds. She explained that she was educated in Yangon's British system and eventually joined jury duty to judge government dissenters in the 80s and 90s, an awkward position that meant she judged ethnic minorities like herself. Her story was compelling and her message was passionate, "Remember and stay true to who you are," was her message to all the Karen living in countries around the world waiting for the day of repatriation.

As we said our farewells to the aunt and drove back to town in the dark, I thought about two things:

  1. I could never drive a vehicle in this country; especially in the dark, when one-eyed vehicles would come bouncing down the narrow road toward us. Was it a motorcycle, a tractor or truck with a burnt out light? And how does anyone navigate the random pedestrians who walk on the road?
  2. The Karen people have such a positive demeanor, more than me anyhow, and amid family separation, subsistence living conditions, and the lingering threat of government reprisal. And it wasn't just their determination. I saw this feeling in the eyes of those I met and heard it in the voices of the children singing—the feeling of hope. That one day, despite it all, this world can become a better place.

Author: Patrick Mah