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.