The Derek Walk

All week on the chore board, I saw that on Saturday we were scheduled for a “Derek Walk”. No one could really explain what that was aside from an “ele walk with Derek”, whatever that means. So, today at 1:45 our group met out on the main lawn and took a group photo and then were told to meet on the platform at the meeting place (the hub of the start and end of every day) to meet with Derek.

Turns out, Derek is Lek’s husband. He’s a white guy who is tanned and leathered by years of work in the sun and was walking around in board shorts, a very worn Woodstock 1994 concert T-shirt and a pair of old flip flops. Really, he looks like an old surfer dude from Santa Monica. He and Lek have been married for many years and he is the brawn to her brain. He’s a contractor by trade and is responsible for the infrastructure for ENP in addition to having an amazing commitment and love for each of the animals here. He is there for every rescue and doesn’t sleep until the elephant is home and stable. If that means he’s up for 32 hours, then he’s up and with the elephant for 32 hours.

One of his relationships came from a special herd that was rescued and to this day, all they need to do is hear his voice and they will come running and surround him as a member of the herd. I was able to witness this today. They swarmed him, encircled him – all rubbing him with their trunks and uttering noises of love and affection. At one point, he was seated on the ground, between the front legs of one of the elephants and was perfectly safe. One of the elephants holds his hand with his trunk and walks with him, side by side. It was truly a beautiful site and brought tears to my eyes. All week I’ve been saying that all I want is an elephant hug, but today I got to witness one. Simply amazing!

We walked nearly the entire 8 acres of the main part of the sanctuary today listening to Derek and his vast knowledge of every elephant and their histories prior to coming here. I know that with great reward, there is sometimes great heartache. There were a couple of times today that I could see someone had touched a nerve with their question and he had to fight back his emotions. I honestly don’t know how he and Lek do this every day. I would get so attached, that my heart would break every time one of the elephants die. My soul would be crushed if I got to one “too late” and they never had a chance to know a life of freedom, love and peace. I am thankful for people like Lek and Derek for doing the hard work to save these majestic animals.

It’s hard to believe that this is my last day here. I could sit and watch elephants all day. But tomorrow begins the 2nd leg of my journey!

“My Religion is Love”

When I arrived, I had no idea what I was in for. Sure, I knew I would see elephants and do some work. But what I have experienced goes so much deeper. Upon first glance, ENP looks like a small city. And, in reality, it is. It’s one of the largest single employers in the region. Families all work here, the kids all go to school in a nearby village and everyone just makes this work. Trust me, there’s a lot of work. It’s like a well-oiled machine, day in and day out. It’s clean and peaceful and there are tourists who come for the day or for the week to feel like they are part of something bigger (including me).

What you don’t know is that even though many of the elephants are near death upon arrival, Lek and her team are able to provide peace and solace for elephants for years and years to come. Last night, she told us about an elephant near death (he had been given about a week to live) she was trying to rescue. The owner was insisting that Lek pay $10,000 US, and after some stern negotiations, she was able to acquire him (and a female and her baby) for $3,500 US. She brought the bull to ENP where he proceeded to live an additional 7 years in peace before he passed away at the age of about 90. Lek says that she doesn’t care if she has them for 1 day, 7 days, one month or 10 years. Every moment that she can give them peace is worth her fight.

When an elephant is nearing the end of their life here, they will choose where they want to be laid to rest. She is with each one when they pass and then she plants a tree to remember them. Each tree is then fenced in as a memorial for the elephant.

ENP is like elephant heaven and the religion is love.

Whistle While We Work..

I’ve been at the sanctuary for 4 days. Monday was a bit of a whirlwind just getting checked in and acclimated. Chores started at 8 am on Tuesday morning. Each person was divided into 4 groups and each group was assigned different tasks for completion twice per day. Tuesday morning, my group started off cleaning up elephant poo. I promise you this, I will never complain about picking up my dogs’ poo ever again. If you consider how much elephants eat (200-600 pounds of food a day), that gives you an idea of how much they poo. But, as the old saying goes, “many hands make light work” and before we knew it, our group had walked the entire property and cleaned up everything. Tuesday afternoon, we did an elephant walk. This involved us being guided through the property to observe elephants at a close proximity and learn about them. All but 3 elephants were acquired and rescued from private owners. Depending on the elephant’s age, the cost can vary between 300,000 Thai Baht (about $9,000 US) to 5M Thai Baht (about $153,000 US). The reason ENP decides to purchase the elephants is because it gives them ownership rights and no one can ever come and try to take them away. Three of the elephants have been born here and have only known humans to be loving and caring. Each elephant chooses its own mahout. A mahout is someone who cares for and tends to the elephant. These mahout are trained by generations who came before them and the elephant picks their own mahout. ENP never forces an elephant to be paired with someone they dislike or distrust.

The baby, currently 2 1/2 years old, plays with his mahout, follows him everywhere and truly loves him. I was able to get a photo of the two playing on an elephant size jungle gym.

ENP is the first to say that they are not perfect. Unfortunately, due to the abuse these elephants suffered before their arrival, they cannot be left in the wild. So, there are enclosures to keep them safe at night, but during the day, they are free to roam as they like. Ideally, the elephants would be freed and live out their days without any human contact. But many of the elephants need constant medical care and supplemental dietary additions. But, the elephants here are treated with love and respect and seem peaceful.

On Wednesday my group assisted in the “elephant kitchen” to prepare some of the supplementary food that the older elephants, without teeth, get to aid in their daily health. Some of this food consists of bananas, melon, squash, and sticky rice prepared in coconut milk.

Afterwards, we were escorted to one of the oldest, more gentle ladies and able to feed her by hand. She graciously and gently accepted bananas from each of us. I could have visited with her all day. I could feel her breath through her trunk, and the power she possessed, but at the same time she had such a gentle spirit. Her skin was tough but fragile. She is blind in her left eye, but trusts her mahout to keep her safe.

Today it’s raining, and I chose to stay under covered shelter and have some alone time to reflect on my experience so far. It’s truly been an experience of a lifetime. I sit here with the rain pouring down beside me, and elephants trumpeting in the foreground. It’s so surreal. I have dogs curled at my feet and wish this was my everyday life. Sadly, this time is passing all too quickly and I’ll be home before I know it. Until then, I’ll relish every moment.

There’s 2 Seasons in Thailand…

I was picked up this morning and 90 minutes after leaving the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai City, saw my first elephant. Not a circus elephant. Not a trekking elephant. Not a logging elephant. Just a sweet old lady who is living out her days with as much freedom as she can after years of horrendous abuse and being unable to return to the wild.

There she was, just giving herself a dusting and hanging out in the sun. So miraculous!

After getting checked in, assigned to a room and a fantastic lunch, we had our orientation. I knew it would be hard for me because I knew this is where we learned about the atrocities that elephants endured before being rescued and brought to ENP. Within 20 minutes, I was in tears and had to listen to 40 more minutes of story after story of what happened to these beautiful creatures. The last 30 seconds was video of Lek (founder of ENP) singing to an elephant as the elephant died. It was truly heartbreaking. I just don’t understand how humans can do some of the things that they do.

Afterward, we had some free time, which I needed to sort through some of my feelings about what I had just watched. Luckily, our Volunteer Coordinator, Art, started things off on a lighter note informing us that we need to be careful as we work because Thailand has 2 season: hot and fucking hot. Lucky for me, I think I arrived in the hot season since I haven’t completely melted yet. Tomorrow work begins!

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Today is day 1 of my journey to Chiang Mai. One of the biggest reasons I decided to go by myself is to force myself to step out of my comfort zone and meet people along the way. So, instead of keeping my headphones on, eyes averted and quiet, I started conversations.

My original travel plans to the airport changed, so I decided to take Amtrak from Sacramento into San Francisco. On the train I was by myself for about 20 minutes. Then in Davis, I was joined by a commuter student at UCD. She was crocheting a really pretty blanket and I used that as my opener. Turns out, she’s from NYC and is a senior vet student at UCD with hopes of getting her veterinary training in the UK this coming year. She was super cool and really friendly. We only talked for about 30 minutes before she disembarked, but I’m glad she sat next to me.

My Uber driver to the airport was Benny. Man! Did he have a story. Originally born in Guatemala, he ran away from home at 16 in 1989. He travelled by foot into TX and within a month was living on the streets in San Francisco. No papers, no ability to communicate in English, no money, no food. After living on the streets for about 6 months, 2 missionaries invited them home one night where they fed him and gave him a place to live and helped him get a job as a janitor. 29 years later, he makes good money, lives on his own and is now a citizen of the US able to help those in need and “pay it forward”, as he says. He believes that he had some guardian angels along the way to help him become the man he is today. His story was nothing short of amazing.

Both of these people, I would normally have ignored. But hearing their stories warmed my heart and reaffirmed what amazing people there are in the world. Next stop, Chiang Mai, Thailand!

Running Away

The first thing that people say when I tell them that I’m going on this upcoming trip is “That’s so cool! Who are you going with?” and that’s when I tell them that I’m going solo. Then I get some varied response of “wow! I wish I had the courage to do that!”. The truth is, I don’t think it’s courageous to travel by myself. If I am being totally honest, I feel a bit guilty. After the year I’ve had in my personal life, I actually feel a bit like I’m running away from things. It’s an escape of daily life. It’s an opportunity to not feel like I’m giving everything of myself to other people. Now, granted, I will be giving myself in service to the sanctuary. But, I feel that’s a bit different. Maybe it’s not. But, I feel like these majestic beasts have such horrendous pasts that I have the opportunity to help ensure their future lives in peace.

Why elephants? I have always thought they were phenomenal creatures. I remember when I was younger (before I knew how bad circuses were) being in amazement and awe at the majestic elephants with their jewels and costumes. They stepped in the ring and all eyes were on them. Then, as the atrocities of circuses, carnivals and zoos came to light and how all animals (not just elephants) were treated, I never thought I would have an opportunity to see one in person ever again. A few years ago, I read a book called Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult and learned so much about how truly incredible elephants really are. I learned that they are a highly matriarchal society that place an enormous emphasis on taking care of one another and protecting the future of the herd. They mourn the loss of their herd members and have been known to revisit burial sites of their lost family. They have a hard exterior, but tender loving eyes and gentle souls. I guess in some way I began to identify myself in much the same way. So, I began reading as much as I could about elephants. I learned about the incredible work of some pretty fantastic humans across the globe who have dedicated their lives to the protection of these beasts. That’s when I learned about the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I discovered that this is “one of the good” sanctuaries that promotes responsible animal tourism. So, I jumped at the chance to make my mark and do some good work.

In just about 7 days, I’ll board a plane and settle in for a 23-hour plane ride to the other side of the world. I’ll meet people I never would have an opportunity to meet in any other circumstances. I’ll eat strange food and hear many speaking a foreign language and won’t understand a word they say. I’m pretty sure that I’ll get really good at miming my thoughts in effort to communicate. I’m ok with that. More than ok, really. I’m looking forward to making sure my every word counts. As Ursula K. LeGuin says “Words are events; they do things, they change things. They transform both the speaker and the hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.”

Stay tuned…

Preparation Begins!

At the beginning of the year, when I first planned my trip, December seemed so far away. I knew I had a ton of time to get stuff done, so even though I’m one of those crazy A-type planner people I knew I didn’t need to rush or stress over anything. It was always in the back of my mind that I knew I needed to do two main things: renew my passport that expired last year and see what recommended vaccinations I needed to get.

At the beginning of August, I realized that months had gone by and I had done absolutely NOTHING to get my passport submitted. (So much for being A-type!) I went to my local mailbox store that does way more than just giving and receiving mail, and had my photo taken. Usually, I do my best to smile and be photogenic and look halfway decent. Not this time! Guy says to me, “you can’t smile”. EXCUSE ME? He obviously didn’t realize I have a charming smile. He took the picture and I sneaked in a smile at the last minute. “Ma’am, I said you can’t smile”. Alright. You win. I stood there straight faced against the white curtain, and he snapped the picture. He said “would you like to see it?” What girl doesn’t want approval rights of their passport photo? I looked at it and didn’t hate it. So, I told him it was alright and asked to pay for it. He took me to the register and told me, “You know? This is actually a really good passport photo! Trust me.. I’ve seen some bad ones.” I took that as a compliment and left feeling pretty good about the next 10 years that I would be looking at it. I sent it in to the State Department a few days later and Voila! It arrived on Monday. So many blank pages staring at me, begging me to fill them with stamps from around the world.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided it was time to look into vaccines. I had an appointment with a travel nurse from Kaiser (I had no idea there was such a thing) and she walked me through what I should get as a health precaution. 5 shots, and one prescription of an oral vaccine later, I left the clinic with 2 arms that felt like I just benched 200 lbs, and a sincere hope I don’t get sick from the shots that are supposed to keep me from getting sick.

I’ve started making little purchases here and there, and sticking things in my suitcase. Two friends have been kind enough to gift me with travel goodies and I can’t wait to put them to good use!

Eight weeks and counting…. Are you ready??? I am.