Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Journey

“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 Photo Story: July 11th – July 17th, 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.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Motorbike Night

Time speeds by like a motorbike in the night. Light cycles passing through the dark, streaking the city and racing on. No rearview, no problem. There’s nothing there you haven’t seen before.

My internship with Elephant Nature Foundation is passing quickly. From the first moments after arrival, driven to my new apartment home, to today, typing in the Old City office, every experience is folded into the ongoing mélange of me. I can’t yet fathom who I will be in the end, but I also can’t wait to see.

My first days at the Elephant Nature Park were best punctuated in exclamation: Elephants! Activists! Forest Valley! Everything there amazed me and each day greeted my wider eyes with new surprises. I photographed incredible animals with the patron saint of Asian elephant protection. I worked for a wonderful cause with passionate volunteers from all over the world. I gained a better understanding of ecotourism operations, both the visitor expectations and the organization’s responsibility. From these experiences, working and learning with the near ubiquitous elephants, came the jolt to supercharge my passion and energy for the cause. Even in difficult times since, my resolve has yet to waiver.

Elephant Nature Foundations’s Chiang Mai office is equal parts menagerie and all in one organizational headquarters. It’s an air - conditioned sanctuary, with sleek white floors, newish desks of light brown wood, and clean glass windows surrounding its perimeter. A cat, dogs, and a Brazilian chicken roam the main area, surprising and delighting most who step through the glass doors. For the amount of strangers walking into their home, the animals are usually well - behaved. All come from the streets or abusive pasts and, watching them frolic around the office, one gets the sense they were always meant to be here. And, like gears in a clock, they fit with the staff to keep the office ticking along.

Every one working in the ENF headquarters has a unique rhythm and energy. Forms and emails fly around, desk top projections of the work supporting the passion. There are no elephant rescues, international volunteer groups, or conservation efforts without the people here; glamour and mass appeal come from paperwork, accounting, outreach, and fundraising. Being where the cameras stop and volunteers depart, behind the scenes and set pieces, is more difficult than working at the Park. Staring at a computer screen and typing documents for hours can be utterly mind - numbing; the crash after an unbelievable high. But yet, one can’t look away from this work. With ENF, the projects and elephants are actors and the staff is cast and crew. We give life to the foundation's workings, stand behind the curtains, and watch as something bigger than any individual emerges to move hearts and call its audience to action.

Lek is our auteur: planning and performing every movement. Viewers need to see her romping with the elephants as much as we need her artistic acumen to ensure the show goes on. Whether desk bound and typing to grow her foundation or park based and playing to raise spirits, she’s inspiring. Her mission isn’t easy, but she’s chosen to accept it. Chosen to give every ounce of her being to a species lumbering towards extinction. An average elephant family needs over ten thousand acres of intact habitat to survive; the population numbers and available wild habitat can’t currently sustain the species. Even as an umbrella species, they might not weather this deluge.

In this work, such downer thoughts must enter only momentarily. When it comes to Asian elephants and their endangered ilk, it’s easier to lose your determination than to keep going. Everything worth doing is worth a fight though, and any amount of typing that fight entails is well worth sitting through. I always leave the office with much to contemplate, and the feeling there’s more to be done.

When the night comes, I explore the city. I’ve been on the motorbikes, cutting through the streetlight and darkness. It’s astride a speeding bike I gain clarity: hopelessness is letting go. It’s getting crushed by time or, worse, watching it pass. The most difficult situations ask you to have hope, hold on, and drive forward; to race towards an uncertain destination. To give the journey everything you’ve got, and appreciate wherever it takes you.