Tag Archives: Sob Moei

Kawthoolei Christmas

December 14, 2022

Dawn slips over the river, sending silver light over the glassy surface of the River Salawin*. We walk down to the shore in the half-light, while another row of unrecognizable shapes moves down the bank a few hundred meters ahead. The boats are waiting. A few people wave their hands in a good morning, but for the most part we move silently. We climb carefully onto the boats. The three of us with long noses and white skin and lighter hair deck ourselves with long sleeves and hats and facial coverings.

The gray silence is broken by the roar of a boat starting. A man nimbly climbs from the front of the boat to the back, walking alongside the edge of the boat. The prow of the boat cuts through the water to middle of the river, going against the current of the water that used to be a frozen glacier in Tibet.

A ten-minute ride and we are there on the other side, the side that I have heard so much about, but never visited. Kawthoolei**, which in Karen means “the land without darkness.” The place where villages are looted and plundered day after day even now after decades of fighting and unrest.

There, on the other side, we are told to not take any pictures of immediate checkpoint. We climb the steep bluff. A Karen soldier is sweeping the ground around the checkpoint. He nods to us.

“Ghaw luh a ghay,” he greets us with the traditional Karen greeting.

We walk on, past a small hospital which currently has no patients. The patients are in a house closer to caves for when evacuations are needed when the Burma army flies overhead with planes, bombing the area. Recently, we are told, there were drones scouting in the area, which means that the residents of the area need to be extra careful.

The area is a medical training center where trainees come for 6 months and then leave. It is small, carved from the growth of the jungle, with a few spaces wide enough for a game of Takraw (a game similar to volleyball, using only feet and heads, and a smaller ball).  Passersby on the river would scarcely know that it exists. Surrounded by mountains on either side, we walk down to the makeshift church for the Christmas service.

The simplicity, not of the service or the church or even the hospital area, stuns me. What stuns me is how simple the line is that the River Salawin draws between two countries. Karen people inhabit both sides of the river. On the one side, they live in constant tension, not knowing when the airplanes might choose to sweep overhead, dropping their lethal cargo, or when a troupe of Burmese soldiers might come looting and raping and burning. Perhaps the worst of it is the not knowing. On the other side of the river, in the village Thatafang, they live in peace, under the protection of the Thai government. They travel freely without travel passes. When planes pass overhead, they may watch, but they do not run. They have identification and citizenship and rights.

None of the people on either side chose what side they wanted to be born on. None of them even chose to be born.

The River Salawin flows on serenely through the middle, unchanging in the conflict over the past seventy-three years, ten months and three days.***

Then in that slice of clearing, shaped uncannily like a slice of pie, we celebrate the coming of a Savior who left his life in heaven to be born in a stable, to become flesh among a tribe of people who were caught under the tyranny of foreign rule. Our worship rises in the early morning air, up from the campfires and forests of the Burmese jungle, calling out to the God who became man and lived among us. The God who was light who came to give light to us who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.

The God who is Immanuel. The God who is with us.

*There are two common spellings for the Salawin River, Salawin and Salween. I prefer Salawin, to match with the Thai pronunciation.

**Kawthoolei is the name that Karen people call their own country, hopefully named “land without darkness.” However, it is more commonly known as Karen State, Myanmar.

***According to Wikipedia (take it with a grain of salt) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_conflict

God’s World

Sometimes life is like an unnamed, strange, delicious fruit that you are trying to eat but there are funny little corners to the fruit and try as you may, you find yourself unable to squeeze each precious drop of juice from it.

Other times, I feel like life is something on the other side of that glass, the glass that’s always there in front of the vibrancy of unfolding scenes, and I am always on this side of the glass, with my hand always smudging the glass, but always unable to reach the other side.

Then there are other times when the pulse of the earth’s heartbeat is loud enough that I can hear it and faintly feel like I understand a little of the rhythm that God sent in motion when He called the stars out by their names and set the sun and the moon on high in the heavens.

I think I felt all three of these today. Words find it hard to explain.

I have seldom experienced a month like the past month. It has rained nearly every day, and not just every day, but almost all day long. Some days the sun comes out for about 15 minutes in the morning and the evening, but for the most part the skies maintain their sodden gray. I love rain, but the body and mind need sunshine as well. In addition to this, mold has started to creep into our house. I find myself wiping it off of my dresser and wardrobe almost every other day. (We finally have a dehumidifier, which will hopefully help some. ) The more the mold came into my room, the more it crept into my heart.

Covid19 restrictions continue to limit our abilities to live life normally and naturally and do things that would otherwise bring relief to the humdrum of the rain. The restrictions lead to a more sedentary lifestyle, which I find difficult. It also makes our job very unpredictable and leaves us with a need to stay flexible, even more flexible than what Thai culture usually requires of us.

But today the sun came out. Both literally and figuratively.

This morning we went to a nearby church for the first time since a student had invited us to join the service there. We usually attend another church. Both Amy, (Amy Smucker, my friend who moved to Mae Sariang from the states in June and teaches at Boripat as well) and I were charmed by the atmosphere that we experienced. It is a very small, simple church in a village about a kilometer from here, and mostly (from what we could see) consists of students from Boripat school where we teach, and some older people from the village. The pastor preached in Thai, while a translator translated into Karen language. The service was simple and unpretentious and felt refreshing and life-giving.

A Karen song sung in the service today.

In the afternoon, we went on a motorbike drive down through Sob Moei, which is south of Mae Sariang. The road runs along the edge of the mountains above the Mae Yuam River Valley.

We drove through areas where the trees hung over the road and shadows cooled the air as we passed, and then suddenly we would hit shafts of sunlight flashing out through the trees and see the silver of the river winding like a ribbon far down in the valley below. We found several places to stop and rest and get something to eat. By the time we were heading home, the sun was falling in the west.

It felt like we drove and drove and drove and time stood still, like we were in some faded dream of glory, first moving through wide open fields of rice, then climbing up a knoll, now twisting and turning, now plunging down into a shadowed tunnel of trees, now bursting out again to catch glimpses of the mountains toward the north robed in the fading light of the setting sun. And all the while the wind brushed against our faces as we drove.

We were home about 15 minutes when the rain began to strum the roof with its fingers again. But the sunlight from the day still remained.

And in each part of today, I found myself straining to drink the juice from the fruit, and failing.

When I fail to fully taste the juice, and in those times when words fail me to describe what I feel, it makes me achingly sad.

It makes me think of Edna St. Vincent Milay’s poem, “God’s World.” She says what I would want to say.

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
   Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
   Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour!   That gaunt crag
To crush!   To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
         But never knew I this;
         Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51862/gods-world