I wove up the snaky, narrow mountain road in the dark, trailing behind 13 year old Esther on her scooter, my host for the week. I left my expectations for this immersion experience at the bottom of the mountain, since most of them, including where and with whom I would be staying, had already been stripped from my imagination. I didn’t know what I would find on this mountain, but as the city lights and sounds began to fade away, I was excited to be in a place where I would have no responsibilities and no control.
The village life was beautifully simple. I had access to all I needed and didn’t miss the things that might be considered necessities in the city. The people were warm and friendly, greeting me in Akha and Thai and asking me tons of questions that I couldn’t understand. I made a new friend almost every day. Everyone bustled around in the morning and retreated to their homes to nap in the hot afternoons. Api, my Akha grandmother, fed me spicy food until my mouth caught flame. I began to find the rhythm of Akha village life and it seemed to move to the beat: “Sabai sabai… Sabai sabai…Sabai sabai”.
The Thai phrase Sabai Sabai, which in my translation means “real chill”, first rang through my head as I lay under the Tha Kobe tree one afternoon. The Tha Kobe tree is planted right at the edge of the village, standing guard over the entrance and absorbing the whir of cars and motorcycles climbing the winding road up the mountain. It contributes luscious shade and sweet red berries to those who find rest beneath it, which many do. It provides the perfect place for Api to sell her Akha creations: intricately woven bags, precious silver jewelry, and metal-clad Akha headpieces. It is also the gathering place for teenagers lounging during their school holiday and friends having picnics. While under it you can feel a slight breeze, and one can lie and dream that they are somewhere cooler.
Each day while I was staying in the village Esther would lead me to a new beautiful sight and allow me to drink in its beauty. She learned very quickly that I love the mountains and made sure I got to experience them fully. There was a stroke of adventure painted throughout the week as I was able to explore the land. Yet, whether we had driven to the highest part of the mountain, to the bottom of the valley, to a body of water, or to the border of Myanmar, we never strayed too far from the comfort of our village and the Tha Kobe tree.
One afternoon I sat with Api under the Tha Kobe and watched her stitch together pieces of an Akha garment as she sang a melancholic tune. She would rattle of words I couldn’t understand before looking at me, laughing with her toothless grin, and continuing to sew and sing. As I watched her skillful but crippled hands I thought of my own grandma who passed away two years ago. She would rock in her chair, squinting as she maneuvered her knitting needles around and around and, much like Api, would inspire joy with her laugh. Tears stung my eyes as I suddenly realized how much I missed her. Under that tree Api had touched a tender place in my heart, and still she remained oblivious.
Beneath the Tha Kobe I ate with new friends, girls my own age who were much like me, besides having grown up on the other side of the world. I learned to stitch vibrant colored patterns on black fabric like the Akha do. I napped and allowed my heart to synch with the rhythm of “sabai sabai… sabai sabai… sabai sabai”. Any responsibilities and desire to control my circumstances that might have tried to sneak back up the mountain and into my being was repelled as I rested beneath the boughs. In the shade of the Tha Kobe I became Akha, if only for moments at a time.
Strangely, I found the village life of sabai sabai much harder then my life in the city. It became the climax of a lesson that God has been teaching me for weeks, although I didn’t realize it until the eve of my return home. It was hard for me to let go of my abilities and responsibilities and simply “be” because doing had become my identity. Once outside of my own abilities where I couldn’t feed myself, couldn’t communicate effectively, and was dependent on others for pretty much everything, I was forced to simply be. To love without words and without service. Yet now, just as I had found rest under the Tha Kobe tree and allowed the rhythm of the village life to take over, I desire that even in the chaos of the city I will be encompassed by the rest of the Lord. That I will allow my heart to synch with the rhythm of His, consciously choosing to dwell in the place where my ability to control is cast aside and all that consumes me is His whisper “Rest my child… rest my child… rest my child”.