We awoke at dawn to the songs of jungle birds, with a cool breeze blowing in through the open windows and rippling our mosquito net. Cool season at last. Each time we’re in Lay Tong Ku, we experience another dimension of this tribe and their world.
Today was the Full Moon of November, an auspicious day. In the early morning we walked through the village to the gathering at the Elephant Gate, their “holy place.” Only men are allowed to enter, barefoot, through this gate to the spirit world. Two huge, intricately-carved ivory elephant tusks dominated the open room, surrounded by small spirit houses and several black stone sitting Buddha rupas. A mixture of animism and early Buddhism.
The head priest, Pu Ta Ko, was sitting on a raised wooden platform, wearing a long white woven robe. The village men would bow to him three times, and offer him an assortment of food. He looked at us impassively, chewing his betel nut. We introduce ourselves as medics come to help in the village Clinic. He nodded his approval.
Soon a procession of younger men, their long hair rolled up in top knots, all in white robes, carried trays with candles, and rice and fruit offerings out to the huge gnarled trees at the edge of the jungle, to appease the spirits dwelling in them. Upon their return, as a finale, they struck the Burmese brass gongs, each ringing and echoing deep into the forest.
The village women gathered on the floor of a separate pavilion, dressed in their best brightly-colored handwoven sarongs and Karen shirts. The grannies were either smoking their cheroots, or chewing betel nut and spitting out the blood-red juice. The young girls wore long white woven dresses with colored tassels. The children were wide-eyed and beautiful.
We wore our Karen clothes, but we did not blend in. Eh Pho, our young Karen Partners’ co-worker, translated our questions into Karen. We smiled at their answers and asked to take their portraits, to remember their dignity.
The Talakone Karen believe and fear the spirit world of ghost tigers, white elephants, and tree spirits, to name a few. Listening to them chanting ancient prayers, this seems a timeless place……nothing of the 21st century is visible.
One of the pleasures of village life is the late afternoon splash bath. Dipping from the large clay urn of cold water, we pour a stream over our hot sweaty bodies…..a shock that takes your breath away! Feels so good that you don’t want to stop. Cool and refreshed, we sit together on the wooden balcony and savor the sunset that paints the hills of Burma crimson, looking forward to another quiet cool night under our mosquito net.
However, life in this border village is unpredictable and raw. As we were watching the huge yellow moon rise over the jungle, suddenly Eliya, our senior medic, and his wife, Kat, burst onto the verandah. They had trekked with their motor bike up the deeply rutted road from their home village at the base of the three mountains. Eliya, an ex-Karen army medic, pumped up on adrenaline and betel nut, exclaimed that we had to leave the village tonight! Why?
Apparently, a red-eyed Talakone Karen man from inside Burma had appeared at the “holy place,” wielding several long knives. He was threatening to decapitate any Thai Border patrol he could find. The local villagers were frightened, and had sent word through Eliya to get the “galawa” (white people) out of the village for our safety.
Startled, we began to rapidly pack up our things for evacuation, realizing that our anticipated ten days of village serenity was unraveling.
Just then, a distraught mother arrived, carrying her unconscious 4-year-old daughter, Paw Ku Say, “Silver Flower.” She had run for over an hour from her Karen village on the border. Paul and the two medics rushed over to assess her. Low and irregular heart beat, and not moving air well. Mother said she had complained of a bad headache. Abnormal fixed pupils, and she was posturing (stiff arms and legs). Could be cerebral malaria, meningitis, or possible ruptured brain aneurysm?
Our only real option, after starting an IV and giving steroids, was to transport mother and daughter down the mountain ASAP for advanced life support. We radioed an ambulance to meet us down below.
Time was scarce. After quickly loading the truck, we bounced and barreled down the deeply rutted track at high speed, with Eliya driving like a bat out of hell. We were crammed in the backseat, next to mother, cradling her daughter’s head in my hand, with her IV hanging out the window. As the truck lurched and crunched over large boulders and through rivers, in the inky dark, we prayed desperately that we would get there in time, without breaking an axle.
Once down the three mountains, we sped through the night, through Beung Kleung, and through the hills towards the No Po Clinic, where we met the ambulance, lights flashing, in the road. Stopping the truck alongside, we lifted her limp body onto the gurney. The two Thai paramedics started a “full core”……oxygen with ambu-bag and chest compressions. We stood looking in the ambulance door, feeling helpless. They worked on her for over an hour, to no avail. She was gone. Standing with her mother, who thought her daughter would still “wake up”, I put my arms around her. She was cold and weary, wrapped in an old sarong for warmth, and stunned as she was told that her daughter had died. She expressed her surprise that so many people had tried to save her daughter. Eh Pho was by our side, witnessing her first death.
The paramedics wrapped her naked little body in a white sheet, knotting each end. Silver Flower’s mother told us she could not bring her body home, as her village would not accept the malevolent spirits accompanying the corpse.
On the long, silent, midnight drive back to Eliya’s house in Beung Kleung, we were all grieving in our own way. A child’s death is so unfair and broke our hearts.
Paw Ku Say’s mother
The next morning, before mother left to return to her village, Paul prayed for hope…..that she would know how much God loved her, and that she would be filled with the Holy Spirit. She teared up, for the first time during this ordeal, and we felt the Presence of God, crossing all language barriers, comforting her spirit.
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Romans 8: 38-39