I felt that deep, invigorating burn in my thighs as I heaved myself up the third mountain that day. It was a familiar burn, but the place was new. I wasn’t trudging upward next to my Ranger buddies in Georgia, nor was I heading to a target up some desolate mountain in Afghanistan. I was about two days deep into the jungles of East Burma, with a camera instead of a gun.
My body was soaked in sweat and grime; my labored breathing disappeared into the ageless trees. My pack, built with heavier material than I would have liked, drank up the sweat to make it even heavier. On top of the usual field necessities, I had about twenty pounds of film equipment digging into my shoulders, with those awkward edges and that disproportional weight I hadn’t felt in my bag since the Army.
It occurred to me that seventy years earlier, Rangers in World War II had hiked these mountains. They called themselves Merrill’s Marauders, and during my career in 3rd Ranger Battalion I had met a couple of them. I wondered if I was slogging through the same mud they had once slogged through. If I sat under the same ancient trees they rested against in their youth. Undoubtedly they were in far more danger than I–they were in the middle of a world war, I was on the fringes of a civil one. My guides generally knew the movements of the Burmese Army, so my only real concerns were landmines off the path and the immense, unforgiving power of the jungle that had long since swallowed me up. There were easy solutions though: stay on the path, listen to the locals. No problem, this was their home court and I knew it.
The Burmese man ahead of me almost danced up the mountain as if gravity didn’t apply to him. He was no exception either; in the coming weeks I would meet men, women and children–of varying degrees of fitness and health–with calves that would make a boulder look soft. They were born in these mountains. If there was a soccer tournament in a nearby village at noon, they would wake up at 4AM and casually head over with their children skipping ahead, over the mountains and through the dense vegetation. If they wanted to gift a six pack of beer to the foreigners in their village, they were happy to head out for a quick two hour hike in their flip flops, stuffing the beer and a couple sodas in a rice sack, strapped to their foreheads.
Yet somehow I kept up, and eventually we would make it into the small Karen village where I would spend the month shooting my three short documentaries. The village was built around a field hospital, and it was there that I would really learn the fascinating way of life embraced by the Karen people.
In the military I was blessed to be forced to learn the meaning of endurance. Personally, I had never been pushed so hard in my life. I grew up with kind parents and food on my table three times a day. To me, endurance was a word I used when I placed well in some cross country race at my middle school. My parents set me up for success in the military, but it wasn’t until I actually went that I really discovered what it meant to endure.
The Karen are learning these things from day one. I met a kid in an orphanage who, after hiding with his uncle under a hut, listened as his parents were murdered just above him. He and his uncle hid there in the mud for a couple days, until it was safe enough to slip out into the jungle. They began to walk to the border and his uncle fell very sick. Before he died, the uncle pointed one way down a path and told his nephew not to stop until he found someone that could help him. The kid walked for another several days, he couldn’t remember how many, until he made it to a town that would later hand him off to the orphanage.
He was ten years old. He knows the meaning of endurance.
Later, I would accompany two local nurses on a maternity survey trip through the surrounding villages. Every morning we would wake up, hike to a new village, and spend the day surveying the local women in order to better treat them in the future. Medical programs were expanding, and this information was crucial. The concept of birth control was often met with wide, longing eyes as every pregnancy was a serious threat to their lives. Everyone knew several women who had died in childbirth.
I met one older woman who had lost one eye and two husbands. The eye to a shard of bamboo, the first husband to the war and the second to malaria. She had withstood twelve pregnancies, nine of which survived. She knows the meaning of endurance.
I saw two kids under the age of ten, one suffering from a large cyst on his neck and the other with a broken femur, both take IVs and undergo painful medical procedures with little more than a tiny whimper and a couple quiet tears. My parents told me how embarrassing I was, when I was taken to the doctor’s office as a kid. I tried to make a dramatic, tearful escape from the clutches of the doctor. These kids know the meaning of endurance.
Like many of you, I have lived in a community where the ability to endure hard times with a smile on your face is a necessity. But I had never seen a place that embraced pain in a joyful way from childhood. It’s a way of life for them, and since my trip out there I have been trying to make it a way of life for myself as well.