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!
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!
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. www.elephantnaturepark.org 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.”
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.
In 6 months and 4 days (not that I’m counting, or anything) I will embark on my first big journey to the Elephant Nature Park in Chaing Mai, Thailand. I thought starting a blog would be a good way to document not only this journey but others that will follow, and share with my friends and family. So, if you’ve received the link, pat yourself on the back – you are part of the circle of trust. Over the coming months, I’ll post about things I do to prepare for this trek… so stay tuned! The Journey Begins!
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton