Sunday, May 29, 2011

Bigger than the Moment

Saying elephants are large animals is like saying the sun is bright: even though you’re explicitly stating the obvious, sometimes it just slips out. Though I mixed it up with synonyms, I must’ve said, “Elephants are so [insert word for big]!” several times during my first stay at the Elephant Nature Park. Being near these animals in person, rather than at a zoo managed distance, makes one forget things like diction. Elephants are simply too interesting and strange to focus on anything else.

As tall as a one story house and as wide as a car, elephants are awesome in the truest, awe - involved sense of the word. They move like lumbering, stiff legged horses much of the time, sauntering around their environment and foraging for the tastiest grasses. When they’re upset or a baby feels threatened, they can kick into overdrive and achieve an unlikely gait approaching 25 kilometers per hour. These instances are rare here though, the elephants at the Park are remarkably well adjusted considering their pasts: outside of the calves, all were rescued from terrible lives. From being forced to work terrible hours in urban environments and illegal logging operations to enduring extreme physical abuse in breeding operations, their back story’s read like soap opera tragedies. Though the park can’t offer them a return to the wild, it guarantees a much better life than anything they’ve known before. As a result, one could easily spend days watching the elephants eat, amble, and interact; there’s a tranquility to this place that begs long, meditative viewing sessions.

The park sits in an open part of the lush Mae Taeng valley, with a river and the forested mountains of Northern Thailand surrounding it. Sunlight beamed through the trees and cloudless blue sky during my stay, revealing a gorgeous panorama begging to be a trademarked e - wallpaper. Though elephants would naturally choose more forested areas like the mountains themselves, the park’s herd doesn’t seem to mind the change of scenery. Through the Elephant Nature Foundation, they receive 24/7 care from a full-time staff and thousands of volunteers annually. Most volunteers, people from around the world who pay to work at the park, don’t seem to mind the change of scenery either.

Despite the differences between them in age and lifestyle, it seemed the volunteers were friendly and warm with everyone around them. It was as if the elephant’s social spirit was imbued in each person through being here. Two women were in their extended fourth week at the park; neither could bear to leave each time their end approached. Another had been taking voluntourism vacations for years, including a Gibbon rescue before her arrival, but had never seen anything like the Park. Everyone mentioned learning about the Elephant Nature Foundation and it’s founder Lek, then feeling a pull towards the cause. I knew their feelings exactly: a photo – less text page describing both was enough to commit me to this experience. The Park is spectacular and, when coupled with Lek, it becomes near transcendental.

Short in stature but with a smile, energy, and dedication as big as one of Park's pachyderms, Lek has dedicated her life to rescuing Thailand’s Asian elephant. She grew up in a small mountain village and developed a close bond with her family’s elephant, a devotion she followed into tourism work. As she learned more about the rampant abuse and mistreatment of the industry’s animals though, Lek became determined to create a better life the animals of her homeland. Today, she runs the foundation and park with a near boundless reserve of energy. That she’s still beaming and down for a chat, even after a ten-hour plus day, shows the passion that drives her work. To see her out and interacting with the elephants is to witness magic, pure and simple.

We’d done several photo shoots with distant elephants to promote a new program, but Lek thought we could do better. She wanted the elephants close, within 20 feet of her subjects, and was sure it was doable. That I was one of her subjects made me nervous. That elephants she chose were a family group, with two young babies, made me terrified. Anything construed as threatening to the calves could result in us getting trampled by unstoppable adults; my mental pictures didn’t develop well. Once we were in place and fresh fruit lured the elephants close however, she quickly allayed my fears. The animals were calm and unbothered by our close presence with her. The babies, skittish by nature, lit up as she came around, one even romping with Lek in the tall grasses. I watched the pair playing in front of me and was captivated by their bond. That moment and this work feel so much bigger than who I am and anything I’d ever expected. In the midst of their frolic, Lek asked me why I’d come and what I wanted to do. I told her that I’d come after being inspired by her story and reading about the Park. And, with a full heart and mile wide grin, I said, “This work is exactly what I want to do.” I meant those words more than anything I’ve ever said.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Incheon Towards a New Beginning

I sit and breathe, able to meditate and take in my surroundings for the first time. Built as a branching series of steel tunnels, with high ceilings and huge glass windows, Seoul’s Incheon International Airport looks as much like a futuristic spaceport as it does something for modern air travel. Every inch is spotless and anything capable of reflecting is shined to do so. The grey shops along the airport’s thoroughfares have a pale brown wooden trim, which adds an Asian accent to the steely environment and brings it back to Earth. Also warming up these cold confines are the Korean Cultural Galleries sprinkled amongst the shops; filled with artifacts and hosting traditional performances, these nooks give you a glimpse of the breathtaking land beyond the numerous blue security checkpoints.

No matter how many people surround me at any point here, things never feel too crowded or clustered. For an airport that’s one of the busiest and, according to Airport’s Council International, best in the world, that’s a testament to its design. Perhaps part of my ease in this environment stems from my frequent daydreaming though, for whenever I’m near one of the massive windows, my mind wanders over the horizon.
This airport is a stop on my journey to Thailand. What began as a novel pursuit last November, something to dream about until reality forced me into a local internship, has actually come to fruition: I’m spending this summer as an IE3 International intern with the Elephant Nature Foundation (ENF) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. They’re one of the region’s leading elephant conservation groups and their efforts to save the endangered Asian Elephant have attracted global attention. With as few as 500 remaining in the wild, and the 2,000 captive animals facing widespread mistreatment, the current situation for elephants in Thailand is dire. To combat these trends, the ENF takes a multifaceted approach to conservation: they work to preserve elephant habitat, educate people about the importance of elephants in Thai ecosystems, and rescue abused captive elephants to give them better lives. My job will be to assist their program manager in various capacities, from promotional event planning to community outreach, based on their needs at any given time. In a few short months, this opportunity has gone from being a pipe dream to what feels like the culmination of my undergraduate experience.

An old Thai proverb states, “White elephants are born in the forest.” It means that the best things in life are difficult to find. I’ve no doubt my experience beyond this flight will be trying in many ways. As I sit in Incheon though, looking beyond the planes and nearby mountains, I can barely contain myself. This summer feels like an adventure and the chance make a real difference in important and tangible ways. To put my studies to practical use and better understand my place in the world. I am ready to tackle whatever difficulties the forest presents, as I know that, in it, there’s a white elephant waiting to be found.