Monday, July 9, 2012
Thursday, September 22, 2011
The floor is crowded as my friends and I attempt to dance. We’re drunk and it’s too late or early, depending on how you view the time, but the pop remixes of our favorite DJ are irresistible. No matter how I move though, I feel out of step with who I used to be. It’s been three weeks since I returned from Thailand and reconnecting, with Missoula, friends, and this life, has become my goal. Somehow, being here again feels unfamiliar though. My internship passed quickly, even as my feelings about it swirl and change by the day. The life I left here in May is gone, the life I left there in August is fading, and, soon, whatever new existence I construct will irrevocably shift with graduation. I’m mainlining change, but crave consistency like a junkie.
I built something valuable in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I had a home, work, friends, favorite places, casual connections, nights out, days in, and all the trimmings of an existence. In my short time there, I became familiar to the smoothie lady at Chiang Mai Gate Market, the plump baker at Nice Sweet Place, the ditzy laundress down the street, and a cast of other zany characters. I’m curious if they remember me. If, in the next few weeks, any will wonder where the eccentric white boy with a predilection for passion fruit, croissants, and colorful shirts has gone. Will the memory of me register as more than a blip on the radar of their life? Will I conjure some sort of wistfulness, as their memories foster in me? Everything right now indicates that I’ll never be back, and that I’ll never know the answers.
Working for the Elephant Nature Foundation over the summer was the start to my hopefully long and illustrious career. It gave me an opportunity to explore and further develop my goals, while growing as an independent, confident adult. In the long term, the experience will no doubt prove itself crucial to anything I achieve. In its immediate wake however, I often lose myself in introspective wanderings. I’m an altered adult, with fresh, exotic memories and a budding multi - cultural perspective, but I’m also the same person who left three months ago. The one that grew up moving, and that harbors an insatiable restlessness inside. Being abroad highlighted this tendency, just as it illustrated that hard work and a humble, open - minded worldview can help you find success anywhere. My Thai memories, from a cloudy day at the Royal Gardens and beautiful ornaments on the street to afternoons lost on the beach, also remind me that happiness always comes in the everyday moments we experience through being.
More and more when I remember my time abroad, I think of the little things. On how inconsequential they seem, but how much more they mean in retrospect. It’s the simple instances and interactions, the ones occurring everywhere 24/7, which remind me life is a flow of the present, rather than an episodic chronicle of new beginnings. That I have one life with moments spread across an ocean, and everything moving, in step, towards an unknown future.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Nothing is perfect. The best way to breed disappointment is to enter anything with mile high expectations. As my first travel abroad and international career experience, my summer 2011 IE3 internship with the Elephant Nature Foundation (ENF) carried the weight of unrealistic expectations long before I set out. This internship was to make me a new man, one who could make a difference through hard – work, ingenuity, and pragmatic thinking. It was supposed to take my career to the next level and give me a set path into the future. I was also supposed to gain a deep understanding of a different culture and, in turn, know what it means to be a global citizen. With my final week ending, I cannot say I have achieved any of those goals. Instead, I know shades of the success I originally hoped to see. And, given everything I’ve experienced on this journey, I think they’re beautiful nonetheless. Society and our perception are never black or white, but the shades in between. To expect any experience to be an unmitigated success, or look back and see anything as a total failure, seems like folly. Even as I leave with expectations unmet, this internship was everything I needed it to be and more.
In terms of creating a new, difference making me, the ENF internship has been successful through altering my perception of who I was to begin with. Working as the media and outreach intern for an internationally renowned conservation group has been a challenging experience, but the work seldom pushed me into the development of radically new skills. I called upon my education in environmental issues, conservation, and nature / technical writing, gained through the University of Montana Environmental Studies program, as I created new editorial materials, and I was never surprised by my capabilities in these regards. Similarly, the photos I shot to promote the ENF and assistance I offered on Wildlife Filmmaking shoots were never far removed from my greatest successes in the Professional School of Journalism. To become a new me, I would have to be leaving with a significantly different repetoire of talents and feel profoundly transformed. Instead, I have honed and developed the skills I arrived with and am profoundly glad to be me. I imagined a new person would be required to find success, but success came as who I am. If and when I achieve my goals, it will be because I dedicated myself to a cause and overcame adversity, not because I metamorphosed into someone better. Midway through my internship, I became disappointed that no one new was emerging. At the end of my internship, I am thrilled to be leaving as who I am. It turns out, twenty-three years of life, with five on the Dean’s List of a university, can make you a hard – working, ingenious, and pragmatic person. And, though I haven’t done it yet, sometime in the future, I feel I’m equipped to make a difference.
To create positive change, I think more environmental activists and professionals will need to possess business acumen. If people are to understand sustainability and green thinking, the first step will be to sell them on it. ENF founder Lek has created new hope for the Asian elephant in Thailand through running a successful business and creating an ecotourism niche in a burgeoning industry. People all over the world now care about these elephants and their treatment, not because of a pamphlet, petition, or epiphany but because the Elephant Nature Park offers them a means to support their family, to gain status in the community, and to witness another exotic corner of the world. Seeing her projects and working within the foundation, I have seen the positive impact each has while also fuelling economic and community growth through revenue. Lek is a rising star in the world of conservation because she is passionate AND her operations are successful businesses. Before this internship, I was considering Graduate programs in Environmental Advocacy and Sustainability. Now, I want to get my MBA with a focus on Green Communication and Marketing. I had expected this internship to chart my future and ensure set opportunities, which was unrealistic and undesirable. Instead, it has given me a blessed new direction for my career, and the next step is mine to take. I wanted certainty and am leaving with more options than I ever knew existed. My horizon of possibilities has widened, with the sky more limitless than I imagined possible.
One of my overriding aspirations with this internship was to develop a true understanding of Thai culture, to leave knowing the nation and its people. I now realize how foolhardy a goal that was: to believe a foreigner in one city could understand a country with thousands of years of history is ridiculous. For my three months working in Chiang Mai, I’ve barely scratched the surface of northeastern Thai culture. I know their indirectness, their warm, genial nature, and bits of their faith and history, but I don’t really know what it means to truly live here. I could dedicate the rest of my life to understanding the Thai people and still die unsatisfied. The result of this realization, outside of my initial naïve disappointment, has been a better perspective on culture and becoming a global citizen. Every place and people possess unique strengths and faults. Thailand seems far from perfect, but so is the U.S.A. So is the rest of world for that matter. There is no one size fits all solution for the globe, only answers that work for specific situations at specific times. Globalization and new telecommunications have created a smaller world, but I think it is curiosity, humility, and grace that will allow us to create harmony. Everyone, everywhere will need to be less assuming and open to new perspectives if we are to save the planet. Being a global citizen means never accepting one answer, but instead accepting a multitude and blending their ideas for pragmatic, place - based prescriptions for change. Our lives have gone global, but remain as amazingly different as ever. One world will never mean one culture.
During one of my last days at the Elephant Nature Park, Lek asked if I wanted photos with the elephants. It was a gloriously bright day and we walked with overnight guests into the main sanctuary, encouraging the animals to approach with palm sugar and bananas. The elephants swarmed Lek, grappling for the food and her attention. Faa Mai, a young cow in the herd, almost knocked her over in a bid for affection. The scene and its joy were reminiscent of my first day at the Park, the shoot when I confessed this internship felt like the most important thing I’ve ever done. Eighty - one days and many educational, frustrating, and unique experiences later, I still mean it. I have grown immeasurably during this summer and cannot wait to see what's next. It feels like the adventure is only just beginning, and I am more prepared than ever to experience everything life has to offer.
I would like to thank the University of Montana Environmental Studies Department and Professional School of Journalism for making this experience possible and giving me the skills I needed to assist the Elephant Nature Foundation. I would also like to thank IE3 International Internships for opening up this opportunity and many more for students across the Northwest, as well as the Davidson Honors College for providing all U of M students with credit assistance for these incredible experiences. Family and friends also played a large part in giving me the moxie necessary to cross an ocean for the first time.
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
After a week of illness and work, I wandered the old city. The Scary Factory, a quirky place I knew in passing, beckoned, but most nooks and crannies were distracting. Too many local flavors and ancient artifacts hiding in the wings, too little time. And my mood, like the sky overhead, was overcast. The bittersweet tide of change was coming in, and I was bracing to be swept away: my days in Chiang Mai are coming to an end. Even as I photographed the sights, my mind wandered to what I may never see. The places and people and moments I might never get the chance to experience once I’m gone. I’ve done a fair amount here but there seemed to be so much more I could have accomplished. I meandered into Suan Buak Haad City Park and, as I pondered, the clouds let loose. A drizzle became the rain became the deluge. I wrapped my camera in my shirt and ran past palm trees and vendors to the park’s small coffee shop. It was small and chic in the post Starbucks, anonymous kind of way, not the kind of place to spend some of my final, precious time in Chiang Mai. I would wait out the rain and rush out to see more, to feel more, to experience more. I knew it couldn’t stay that intense very long.
The rain knew otherwise. Two hours in, and I’d reluctantly planted myself on a plush gray couch with a Thai ice tea in one hand, Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now in the other, and the muzak tinged sounds of their coffee shop mix CD blending with the rain. Young high school / University students sat at a nearby table and half studied, half socialized. Cell phones were frantically beat in text mode, secrets were whispered, smiles and gossip were shared; all in Thai, and all of it perfectly clear to me. I can’t speak their language, but thankfully cheaper than the Pimsleurs and Rosetta Stones of the world is the gift of experience. I had been them, living the same everyday occurrences, half a world away. I could see our cultures meeting in the middle, in that faux posh respite from the rain. I began to feel contented again, began to not mind an entire afternoon in the coffee shop. It was pouring outside, but the storm inside was starting to pass.
Thailand was supposed to be a new beginning. I was going to leave a better version of me, a Matt 2.0. This Matt would have his career track established and his head on straight: no more unrealistic daydreams, hours wasted dancing to terrible pop music, and over emotional flurries. He would be a true global citizen, calm and collected, one able to achieve realistic goals through a potent mix of ambition, hard – work, and pragmatism. I had waited, just as I waited for the rain to pass, for that Matt to arrive. Months in Thailand had gone by and I’d never seen him; somehow he’d forgotten to stop in Chiang Mai. I had waited through the scary, exhilarating, disappointing, and exciting experiences at the station to find my passenger M.I.A. Outside, I was lost in the question: if this internship couldn’t bring a much improved me, one who made real differences, then what could? Inside, on that couch with those things and people, I’d found my truth. Nothing could make me that man, the sophisticated one I sought, any more than they can change the weather outside. Becoming him could only happen on my own accord. I noticed my reflection in the rain - streaked window; I was 23 and looked like the person I wanted to be.
I got up, paid for my drink, and walked into the unrelenting rain.
Sunday, July 31, 2011
“Our other projects are about helping the elephants,” volunteer guide Aek Makkawan explained as we crossed a bumpy mountain road, “this one is more about helping people to help the elephants.” We were returning from a village school in the Mae Chaem district, a three - room operation where one instructor simultaneously teaches several classes. Each volunteer spent their time teaching basic English words, drawing pictures, and playing games with the children. Each child seemed to relish the interaction with their newfound foreign friends, as smiles and laughter abounded. Later, their faces lit up, showing the joy most American children reserve for Christmas, as the volunteers distributed school supplies and simple snacks. Aek, our wiry guide whose huge smile suits his friendly nature, seemed to glow as the villagers waved our truck goodbye. “Everyone is smiling, you can see that we have helped these people. They appreciate everything you have done today.”
Journey to Freedom is an Elephant Nature Foundation project that works to empower isolated communities in Thailand’s mountainous northeast and redefine thinking about the Asian elephant. Established in June 2010, it offers villagers economic assistance in exchange for returning their elephants to the jungle. Though the northeastern tribes have long maintained close relationships with the animals, poverty has driven many to lease their elephants to trekking and begging operations in the city. To become part of the project, they must bring their elephant back, care for it humanely, and allow it roam freely for much of the day. By reintroducing elephants into the daily culture and requiring positive reinforcement training techniques be used, the project aims to shift the region’s traditional human – elephant relationship into a more mutually beneficial, healthy partnership. When the elephants are returned to the village, ecotourism operations are established around the animals and villagers needs: paying volunteers are brought in to assist with everything from teaching in a local school to rice planting. The titular journey occurs when elephants need to be walked from one village to another in the mountains and are assisted by the mahouts and volunteers.
Rain and mud and rocks defined our journey up. Every short stretch of paved mountain road was an oasis to everyone on the trucks, before long we’d be shaken and stirred again. The scenery was beautiful through the bumps: lushly forested mountains rose around calm rice paddies and rivers in the valleys below. Clouds and mist moved across the mountains, consuming whole forests without damaging a thing. Moving higher and higher here often felt like chasing the clouds to wherever they chose to dissipate.
Arriving at the village of Mae Jung Sam, everyone was eager to eat and sleep. After our introduction to the rustic accommodations, three rooms with floor pallets for ten people, and restroom facilities, a separate structure with three Asian / Western mixed fixtures, we congregated in the main kitchen. This was to be a week in flux, with our friends, the rain and roads, determining the schedule. Though volunteer enjoyment was high on his mind, Aek made clear that our safety would always be his top priority. No one seemed to mind and, as we ate a delicious meal prepared by driver / chef / Renaissance man Suthet, night crept over the village. Though a generator brought guiding lights, the rich mountain darkness proved hard to shake along the muddy paths. Moving in their outlines, I imagined my bare feet tracing the steps of ancient villagers in the region. Perhaps, if analyzed in a pointless lab somewhere, the mud on my feet was the same caked on theirs ages ago.
The next day, we followed Aek to find the long awaited elephants. It was a winding and deliriously beautiful trek, the sun was almost blinding as we walked down a mountain and followed streams through rice paddies. Everyone moved briskly, driven forward by sheer excitement and moxie; one girl lost a flip flop in the stream and moved barefoot over the rocky path without any loss in speed. The residual high would also carry her through bandaging her feet later. We eventually rounded an overgrown corner of the path to find our elephants: standing in a swift current, the massive gray family somehow appeared out of nowhere. The group consisted of three cows, a teenage bull, and adorable baby twins, all of whom continued maneuvering between banks for tasty greens even as awe struck foreigners watched nearby. Even the calves failed to bat an eye at our close proximity, instead focusing on their mother to learn proper ele - etiquette. Cute is watching two baby elephants, covered in bristly hair and with trunks no bigger than your forearm, clamber over mid – size boulders, fail, and dejectedly scoot around.
With urging from their mahouts, the elephants began trudging through the river and we followed. Though they’re not ideal in certain, smelly circumstances, elephant buttocks can be exciting to watch as they sway and lurch forward. Walking with the elephants then, water rushing past my shins and sunlight bursting through the canopy, my mind was blank slate: I couldn’t think of anything beyond what I saw and shot through my camera. Nothing could alter or distract from that scene and the elation coursing through my veins. They moved and splashed, and we always echoed on a lesser scale. When the mahouts finally led their elephants up into the jungle, it was as if we’d walked with ancient Gods now departing for the sun itself. Words like incredible and amazing were later bandied about regarding the experience, but nothing we could say approached the majesty of our elephant walk.
Elephants usually give birth to a single calf after an eighteen to twenty – two month pregnancy. For a cow to have twins is a rare and incredible occurrence: the pair on the Journey to Freedom project is one of few currently known in the world. Though their parents have all known the phajaan, Thailand’s traditional torture system for breaking a wild elephant’s will, the ENF is working to ensure the same will never happen to the calves. To remain in the project, mahouts must never use cruel tactics such as hooks or sharp stones to discipline the elephants; if any fresh wounds appear on the animal and are determined the result of these practices, they are issued one warning before the project’s cancellation. Phajaan training the twins would mean exclusion from this profitable ecotourism opportunity and their owners have, thus far, agreed to use positive reinforcement training techniques. It’s a bright, better future for the elephants and the villagers alike, a respectful and humane evolution of tradition that benefits both
Rice: the innocuous grain eaten by billions all over the world every day. Rice paddies: the thick, muddy, spider – filled shallows where rice is grown by thousands every day. After working in the latter, I’d say rice farmers are far underpaid for their service to the world. Though we approached our days helping in the rice paddy with the same manic energy as every other activity, few kept that high spirit through the entire proceedings. Yes, the scenery around us looked like gorgeous wall scrolls painted to life. Yes, it was for the good of the village and our beloved elephants. But, the work was also arduous. Standing shin deep in muddy waters, we pulled three or four rice plants from pre – tied bundles, pinched them between our fingers, and plunged each into the squishy mud. To be fast, even like the older villagers around us, one needed to stay hunched and marathon mud slam four or five pinches to each step. It was, as evidenced by our crooked, wobbly rice rows, not something one masters in a day or two. That huge spiders skated across the surface and often dove around our feet did little to boost anyone’s enthusiasm. Still, as I saw the smiles on each villagers face, the ones from when we weren’t falling in the mud, the work became worthwhile. Even if we only made that day’s planting a little briefer, we showed that Westerners could get down and dirty. They may not understand our affection for the elephants or the money we pay to stay with them, but good, honest work seemed to translate well. That’s something no amount of diving spiders and dried mud in your toenails can change.
Our second elephant walk came, like much of the week, in the rain. Though the project originally included walking a pair of elephants to two other villages, slick road conditions forced us to take only the first leg of the journey. Driving over the mud – soaked, rocky terrain, everyone understood the rescheduling: the rural mountains of Thailand would make for a rugged stranding. When we finally crossed paths with our elephants, standing in the road and grazing like cows would at home, it seemed as though they’d been waiting on us for hours. After the initial, “OH MY GOSH AN ELEPHANT” where we crowded around them, they began to walk. Elephants have two paces: a slow saunter and a brisk trot. Given their size and leg span, the trot can be hard to keep pace with. This pair seemed content to keep us on our toes, alternating between the two so that, when we became adjusted, it was time to slow down or bust out again. Through the jungle and over the muddy road, all in the company of giants; by the time we reached the second village, Shuy Sai Lang, it felt strange to think of walking without them. The elephants seemed to have their human drill down pat, immediately parking themselves under a shelter like giant cars in a garage. After we sat, enjoying the animals and the local company outside a small dark shop, the elephants were taken to their sleeping quarters in the jungle. It was a perfect secluded area, densely forested and near a rushing river. They had found their freedom for the night and, driving back to Mae Jung Sam, it felt like ours had been in that walk.
As a final thank you for the home stay, we helped the village children tie sacred clothes in the nearby forest. Bright orange and blessed by the monks, these ribbons of faith protect the tree they encircle from logging; to cut down a tree with their protection, would invite more bad karma than any Thai person would risk. Clambering up and down a steepish hill, it felt more like the children were helping us: each would run, grab several ribbons, and have protected several trees by the time we got close. After slipping our way down, the volunteers began handing out the school supplies and snacks our group had brought. These, plus the noodle lunch we prepared, seemed to mean the world to each child. Rambunctious before, they settled into adorable creative and food comas with our gifts. It felt like a normal afternoon in a normal mountain village, as though we’d transcended being outsiders and had become fixtures in this new sphere. As each of us settled into our own writing, reading, and lounging, it was hard to believe we’d spent a week in the village and that we wouldn’t be spending more. When the villagers came to bid our group goodbye the next day, it seemed we’d always known them. Pulling away, it felt like we’d always come again, on another Journey to Freedom, sometime in the intangible future.
Friday, July 22, 2011
Journey to Freedom is an Elephant Nature Foundation project that empowers communities in the mountains of Thailand while working to restore their sacred bond with the Asian elephant. After years of logging and trekking operations, the region’s elephant population has been decimated: small villages are unable to afford such voracious animals without their working income. Poverty forces villagers to lease their elephants to large tourism or street begging operations in the cities, damaging the bond they shared and putting the animals in unhealthy, traumatic environments. The ENF is working to reverse this trend through providing sustainable ecotourism revenues and volunteer aid in exchange for villagers returning their elephants to the region. Mahouts must treat the animals humanely, no hooks or short chains, and allow them to roam the jungle during the day. By bringing volunteers and income to these isolated communities, the project gives an economic value to intact habitat and healthy, naturally behaving elephant populations.
From October to April, the Journey program takes paying volunteers to several mountain villages where they aid development projects, teach local children, and walk with the elephants. Because my project week occurred in the rainy season, we were unable to build or walk to the third village. Though our project was rescheduled and less time was spent with the elephants than expected, the volunteers enjoyed their one week home - stay in the village of Mae Jung Sam nonetheless. To see the experience, follow the link to my captioned photo story of the week’s program:
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Impermanence. Nothing is guaranteed a tomorrow, and no one has an infinite future. We all pass on; to the afterlife, to ash, to dust. Death is inescapable, no matter the miles you travel. It never factored into my internship planning, but then, neither did anyone as unforgettably quirky and wonderful as her.
With an energetic smile and zeal that belied her age, she arrived in the ENF office like a whirlwind. A small, gracefully aged Malaysian woman who spoke British English, she moved slowly and resembled an empress on holiday. She wore nice, simple clothing in an elegant manner and every outfit accentuated her tan skin and black hair. Though she strolled with an intricately carved cane at times, she brightened every room at the speed of light. She came to check on her goddaughter, her dear friends, and the cause that meant so much to her. Elephant Nature Foundation, and all that it represents, was in her heart, in her body, in her soul. That deep affection drove her to action if something was found in disarray, and she knew how to get things done.
Her recent mission became to fix the gift shop and merchandise system. Things with both had lapsed into an unproductive state, with a lackluster inventory system, dull displays, and an inattentive staff. Each morning she arrived, flashed her million - dollar smile for everyone, and set about arranging the merchandise for transport. Once loaded into the ENP van, she’d leave; the summer sun beckoning her grey chariots to the Mae Taeng. I never saw her working at the Park, but the results are tangible now. After a week of long days between our operations, things started to turn around: shops were rearranged, a better inventory was established, and the sales crew became more motivated. Each evening, she would return to the office, relax, and savor her time with Lek. When the occasional email or computer trouble popped up, she shuffled over to me and gently asked, “I know boys your age are brilliant with the computer, perhaps you could help me with this problem?” I always obliged and was given many thanks and her trademark smile, huge rewards for the simple assistance I traded.
One afternoon we joked about her youthful energy and vigor by the water cooler, how, at this rate, no one would ever correctly guess her age. I remember her laughing then, the rich, full sound and light in her eyes, and have difficulty juxtaposing that image with what came next. A stroke, swift and unforgivable, stole her over the weekend. A beautiful spirit set adrift in the great beyond. That memory, a simple exchange I would have otherwise forgotten, has become a monument to the great woman I knew far too briefly. I’ll always remember her as she was then: smiling, exuberant, warm.
Knowing impermanence is knowing death. It’s witnessing the end of a fairy tale beautiful relationship, of seeing a husband’s tears in the overcast afternoon light. That knowledge may also offer hope though. My moments with Nancy, and millions more she shared with others, were ephemeral. Every second everywhere, interactions between impermanent people, all adding up to immortality. I barely knew you, but these moments live on. And always will.