Elephant Time

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Family Time

My first stop upon returning to Thailand, was Taphan Hin in central Thailand to spend a little time with my Thai family. Family is such an important facet of Thai culture. Over the years I have become the oldest sister in the Tabjeen family, being only 3 years younger than mom. As often as possible when I visit Thailand, I try to make it a point to visit the family.

This visit, they set up my own “home stay” room. The room used to belong to Pa (aunt) Lee before she finished building her house. Now Nat uses it on the weekends to teach a special English class to a few of the kids that live in the neighborhood. The room was adorned with a bed with a silk coverlet and a blue mosquito net, pink curtains and my own bathroom. Dad even made sure I had my own source of bottled water. Such a sweet gesture to ensure my comfort while I am visiting.

Having my own room was also necessary now that Nat, Gao and their baby Nong Name and Gao’s sister are all living in the main house with Nat’s parents. Nong Name, my 6-month old nephew, is a 10 kilo (22 pound) bundle of joy and sweetness. This child is surrounded by love and caring. Lung (uncle) Buhm takes care of him every day. Just seeing the love and happiness radiating from Lung Buhm’s face when he is holding or playing with Nong Name warms the heart.

One of the days Nat took me to his school to help teach English. Nat truly enjoys teaching and wants to set his students up for success in being able to read and speak English. Having worked in the tourist industry, Nat has a true appreciation of how important this skill is. Arriving at the school, I was greeted with the obligatory stares and giggles from both the boys and girls. The interest continued as we were teaching with the grade 6 girls that gathered outside the classroom door about half way through the morning.

The morning was spent working on basic conversation skills with the grade 3 and 4 students. Keeping it simple with things like: “How are you?”; “I am fine, thank you. And you?”; “I am fine.” We also played some games to keep it interesting. In the afternoon, the entire school (about 35-40 students) joined together in the classroom. My task… teach them how to sing Jingle Bells. A slow yet successful process, culminating in a rousing singing of Jingle Bells that was a little sketchy on the verse but solid on the chorus. Two of the kids dressed in Santa costumes and came in dancing during our singing.

The students and I after learning Jingle Bells.

The students and I after learning Jingle Bells.

This trip I also did my best to try to avoid the hospital. Last visit, around 1 AM I found myself on the way to the urgent care due to a small bout of food poisoning. This trip, on the way home from the school, I found myself at the side of the road thanks to a small bout of something (probably food related). I made Nat promise not to tell his mom.  Usually I have no problem eating Thai (or Indian or Nepali) food, so having this happen twice is really unusual for me. Mom was a bit worried that evening when I couldn’t eat very much, sticking to rice and grilled chicken.

Instead, ant bites almost resulted in a trip to the doctor. Thailand has 7 different varieties of ants. I am allergic to at least one variety. The bites swell up, becoming puffy and red puffy and itching incessantly. Quickly I learned the words for ant (moot), mosquito (yoong) and itching (kraan). Insisting that I knew what was wrong, everyone in the hospital housing area produced every manner of pill and lotion that they thought would help me. The bites scoffed at the pills and calamine lotion. Eventually, the best solution was the topical steroid that Nat had. Before I left, Dad made a trip to the pharmacy resulting in two full bottles of the Kanalon Lotion for me.

This trip the request was made of me to make a western dinner. A request I couldn’t refuse since it came primarily from Dad, a wonderful man who does everything he can to make sure that I am comfortable when I am there. We settled on spaghetti, since that was the only thing anyone could come up with that represented western food and that I thought I would even have a remote possibility of successfully making. Somehow the combination of fresh tomatoes, basil, onions, garlic, tomato sauce (actually more of what we would call ketchup), ground pork and red pepper flakes transformed themselves into a sauce that reasonably resembled spaghetti sauce. Everyone said it tasted delicious, even better than the pizza restaurant in town. My heart was just happy seeing the joy that it brought to everyone.

Hanging with the Elephants

Volunteering at the Surin Project is less about doing work than it is about showing mahouts and other tourists that there is an alternative to the ways elephants are currently used in tourism. The balance of using elephants for tourism and protecting the elephants from harm is a particularly delicate balance. Elephants need to eat and mahouts (the people who care for the elephants) need to support their families. An elephant eats about 10% of its weight in food each day. To support that type of appetite, mahouts must find a way to earn money.

Mahouts and their elephants living at the Elephant Study Center in Ban Tha Klang (where the Surin Project is based) are given a stipend of 8000 baht a month. Almost half of that money goes to feeding their elephant, driving the mahouts to find supplemental income. Some of the options that mahouts have are: using their elephants in the twice daily circus show at the center where they do tricks for the entertainment of the tourists; offering elephant rides around the center piling 3-4 humans plus the weight of the saddle (150 pounds/75 kilos) on the back of the elephant; leaving their family at the center and taking their elephant to work at trekking camps elsewhere in Thailand; or leaving their elephants on chain all day while the mahouts work in the fields or other employment outside of the center.

The Surin Project offers another alternative. The Elephant Nature Foundation offers an additional 8000 baht per month to mahouts that agree to have their elephants be part of the Surin Project. The mahouts must agree to a set of rules to be part of the project. Mahouts are not allowed to use a bull hook, a foot long stick with an 1.5″ heavy metal hook on the end, used for controlling the elephant and sometimes as a means for punishment. Elephants are not allowed to be in the circus, to give rides or to participate in festivals. And the elephants must be off chain for 4 hours each day.

Off chain time is spent on forest walks, bathing in the river or roaming, swimming and eating in the enclosure. These activities are where volunteers can make the most impact in demonstrating that another form of tourism exists. Showing the mahouts that tourists are perfectly content in walking with elephants instead of riding them or bathing the elephants instead of watching them perform tricks, is the first step in helping to change the culture.

Forest walks allow volunteers to watch and be near the elephants. The elephants glide gracefully through the forest, the cushion on the pads of their massive round feet absorbing the weight of each step. The anatomy of an elephant’s foot still amazes me. Elephants essentially walk on tiptoe with tough spongy connective tissue for the sole. The spongy shock absorber and ridged and pitted sole are what allow an elephant to move so silently and sure-footedly through any terrain. The main sounds are the swishing of their bodies while they pass through the trees, the occasional snap of a breaking branch as one decides it needs a snack, and the chatter of the volunteers and mahouts.

Nong Lek enjoying her walk in the forest.

Nong Lek enjoying her walk in the forest.

Another activity where volunteers have the opportunity to interact with the elephants is walking to the river and bathing the elephants. Each of our trips to the river took different paths. The first walk was through the village to the road that would take us to the river. I’m pretty sure that a group of farang (foreigners) walking through the village drew more looks than the 11 elephants walking in front of us. The second walk was through the rice fields that have been burned off and are waiting for the next crop of rice to be planted.

Bathing elephants is an activity that has always been a very rewarding activity for me. Ever since the first time in 2008 when I splashed and scrubbed Jokia at Elephant Nature Park during a day visit, bathing elephants has been one of my favorite ways of interacting with elephants. In the river, we are given a bag of food to first feed the elephant. After eating, we begin scrubbing and splashing the elephants to get the dirt off (so that they can apply a new layer of insect repellent and sunscreen when they get out of the water.)

Bath time for Jaeb and Warrin.

Bath time for Jaeb and Warrin.

Bathing Nong Lek was wonderful. She’s one of the smaller elephants on the project, so much easier to get around with in the water. Su Chad, her mahout, is also very adept at getting her to follow commands such as putting her head down in the water or getting down on her side. With her it was like two children playing and splashing in the water. Of course, she is a bit bigger of a kid and I had to be careful to watch where her feet were going (as that is the most dangerous part in the water.) I got to scrub her body, behind her ears and her forehead and trunk and the top of her head. Looking into her beautiful sweet eyes felt like there was a soul-to-soul connection.

And then her friend Nam Fon came to play. This pair can often be seen playing in the water. Like children, they will sit on each other, hold each other down and just toss about playfully. Watching them do this in the enclosure or during the bath on the forest walks is amusing. Experiencing it close up and almost getting sat on is a whole different experience. Thankfully I managed to escape in one non-flattened piece, laughing the entire way out of the water.

Life at the Center

This week being my second visit to the project, the changes are what were most apparent to me. The biggest change is in the elephants and mahouts that are now part of the project. Only 5 of the elephants and 3 of the mahouts that I met last April are still part of the project. The elephants and mahouts that have left had their reasons. The most common reason that the mahouts leave the project is that the mahouts feel they cannot abide by the project rules consistently. Other times, they decide that they can make even more money taking their elephant somewhere else. Both reasons underlie the depth to which the change needs to occur in the elephant tourism culture.

A new minimart has opened within the study center. Now we no longer have to walk into the village for treats such as ice cream, chips (crisps) or the occasional beer. Poi with her loud cheerful voice and laugh greeted us every time we walked past the shop, which was several times a day. Mornings it was often a remark on the weather: now mai ka? (are you cold?) or now mak mak (very cold). During the day it would be waving her small child’s arm and saying “hello”, or “bye bye” in the evening. Over the course of the week, I am pretty sure our group was responsible for making her profit for the month. Especially when we cleared her out of beer, buying one for each mahout on the project at the final dinner.

A more pleasing change for me was getting to see the enclosure and forest when it is green and lush. All the green leaves on the trees provides a beautiful compliment to the reddish brown dirt, clear crisp blue sky and grey and pink elephants. On walks, the sunlight filtering through the leaves just added to the beauty. A far contrast to the dry brown landscape I had experienced before.

Every climate in the world has its own standard of hot and cold. For Thailand, right now is the cold season, which typically means lows of 60 F (16 C) and highs of 85 F (30 C). This year is unusually cold. In fact, even the farang (foreigners) on the project were cold. Every evening around 10 pm, a cold wind would start blowing. The wood houses do very little to stop the cold wind from blowing through, making for a cold night bundled in whatever blankets I had available. In the morning, after a breakfast involving cuddling with a warm glass of coffee, cocoa, tea or hot water, we would join the mahouts around their fire waiting to get started on the daily chores. At night, the field outside my house where the non-project elephants are chained was dotted with fires to help keep the elephants a bit warmer.

The field outside my house is home to 5 non-project elephants. Most of these elephants stay on chain nearly 24 hours a day. The little guy closest to my door was really not happy about his predicament of being on chain. Many times it looked as though he was plotting and trying every possible tactic to get the chain loose. Even when he would be moved to his alternate spot just around the corner he would continue his struggle. His constant straining at the chain made me sad and at the same time secretly root for him to be successful.

At night, the 3 younger elephants in the field would sleep laying down. The light of the full moon would transform their color to a ghostly pale grey. Seeing the sleeping elephants by that light was almost eerie, as if it was a specter of a future for these young elephants.

The sight of the non-project elephants being on chain, giving rides or walking down the street carrying their own heavy chains, is a sight that never gets easier to see. To me, seeing the elephants carry their own chain almost seems like putting salt in a wound. Not only does the elephant have the chain around their ankle all day, even when not attached to the post, they have to carry the weight of the chain. Nothing can be done other than to send the elephant caring thoughts, continue to volunteer and educate other tourists, and hope that the elephant tourism culture can change before it is too late.

A Little Work

Projects are another way volunteers contribute to the success of the Surin Project. Often the project teams are a combination of mahouts and volunteers, providing an additional interaction opportunity. The projects this week included planting corn, making a perimeter around the field to hopefully protect it from cattle that use that area to graze, and transferring elephant poo from a poo box to a box where it will continue to decompose and be turned into fertilizer. Cool weather and a volunteer group that was anxious to do work made quick work of the projects.

Recently, the Surin Project purchased a small amount of land where they can raise sweet corn for feeding the elephants. The mostly grey-brown clay soil had been tilled by tractor, leaving large clumps in long furrows. Our job was to go along, dig a hole every foot or so, place 5 seeds in each one and cover the hole. Having done work like this in Thailand, I made sure to pick the right tool for the job. The best tool for digging holes is a long metal pole with a curved piece of metal at the end that looks like one of the straws you get in a thick drink that acts like a spoon. I started digging and Nana (the driver for the project) dropped in the seeds and covered the seeds using his bare feet on the wet clay. He patiently allowed me to do the first 5 or so holes. Then he made me switch places with him. Taking the hole digger, he quickly went to work digging holes just deep enough for the seeds in almost straight rows. I took off one of my shoes, following behind dropping seeds and covering them using my bare foot in the mud. The corn seeds had a strangely unnatural pink color.  I’m not sure if the pink is a fertilizer to help it grow faster or something to keep the seeds from rotting while they germinate. By the end of our work, my hands were covered in bright pink dust and my foot was covered in mud.

The next day, we went back to the field to hang a sign indicating that it is property of the Surin Project and to create a perimeter around the field to protect the seed and seedlings. Farmers will take their herds of cattle through the rice fields that are between planting so that they can graze. The perimeter involves posts sunk deep into the mud every 8 or 10 feet or so, strung with the plastic string that is the primary binding mechanism used in Thailand with plastic bags tied along the string to make it visible and provide a deterrent to the birds that are another threat to the seeds and seedlings.

Nana was in charge of gathering the small trees or branches, each a couple of inches in diameter, for the posts. At our stop on the way to the field, Nana only found 4 poles that met his liking. Using 2 or 3 strikes of the machete, the small tree was taken down and just as deftly using the machete the small branches were removed leaving a pole. Once at the field, Nana set off on a quest for more branches. Watching Nana gather tree branches to use for poles is watching a masterpiece in action. Once he found all the acceptable poles he could that were at ground level, he moved to getting branches out of the tall slender trees. He would shimmy up the trees, and with a few hacks of the machete, down came branches.

While Nana collected branches, Ocha and Chris began digging holes and Siobhan and I  made our best attempt at hanging the sign. The sign, made out of plaster board painted a pale green with darker green letters, was not as easy to attach to the tree as it seemed it should be. The first obstacle was getting the nail into the plaster board. Eventually we managed that task without cracking the plaster board. The second obstacle was attaching it to the tree using the single slightly rusty 3 inch nail that Ocha had brought with him from the center.

The fields are surrounded with berms. Some berms are only a foot high, others are several feet high. This particular berm was about 3 feet high with the trees growing out of the slope about a foot and a half from the flat path along the top of the berm. At this point I should probably mention that Siobhan and I are the two shortest volunteers. Leaning across the gap, I held the sign while she worked on hammering the nail into the tree. Some progress was made, but not enough to successfully attach the sign to the tree. In the process, strikes of the hammer that missed its target were creating a crack in the plaster board and raising concerns in our minds of the likelihood of the plaster board staying on the nail should we even manage to get the nail into the tree. After discussing the situation with Chris who noticed us struggling, we decided to use the nail to balance the sign and to just use some of the string to tie it in place on the tree. At least it was still up that afternoon when Vincent and I went back to finish the string around the perimeter.

Elephant poo at the project is recycled in two ways. The first is using to make poo paper, which is turned into goods that can be sold. The second is to compost the poo in to fertilizer. To support these efforts, all the poo is gathered into poo boxes near the elephant shelters. For the fertilizer, the poo is then transferred to a composting box where the necessary ingredients are added to help it decompose completely. The last project that I helped with was moving the poo from the shelter by Nong Lek and Kahm Koon (two of the smallest elephants on the project) to the composting box. The tricky part was not working with Chris to carry the basket of poo but rather trying to figure out where to dump the bucket and having enough momentum to make it easy. Only once did I actually fall in the compost box. Definitely a moment of comic relief!

Making Friends

A real emphasis at the Surin Project is getting to know the mahouts as well as their elephants. On the first day, we do an ice breaker game to learn everyone’s name. We call it the “ay ya” game. A ball is thrown around the circle and the people on either side of the person catching it have to say “ay ya”. If they mess up, they have to stand up and name one of the people in the group, farang naming mahouts and mahouts naming farang. Failure to name a person correctly results in the performance of a dance in the middle of the circle.

Through out the week, friendships form. Even if they aren’t based on much conversation. One of my favorite mahouts was Su Chad, the mahout for Nong Lek. Su Chad is a quiet, older mahout. Surprisingly, this quiet looking man has quite the mischievous streak. On our way back from cutting sugar cane, Su Chad first cut my team pieces of sugar cane to eat. Then he proceeded to take a dry sugar cane leaf and sneakily tie it to another mahout’s bag that was strapped across his back. Then he tied a piece of sugar cane to make a tail. It was really hard not to laugh out loud at what was transpiring. I’m not sure if the other mahout noticed or if it fell off. The next day, when we were bathing Nong Lek, he splashed me with water, so I splashed him back. Later that day when planting corn, he pretended to get my foot with his hoe.

Su Chad giving Nong Lek her morning shower.

Su Chad giving Nong Lek her morning shower.

Another favorite pair of mahouts was Pan and Em, mahouts for Warrin and Jaeb. In my mind I think of them as the masked bandits, always just a bit mischievous. For the duration of the week they wore hats that covered everything but their eyes. In fact, I didn’t even recognize Em at the Mahout Dinner on Friday evening. Pan is round and jovial, always greeting me with a robust “MJ”. Em on the other hand looks like a stick figure acting as a clothes hanger. The last walk through the forest, I ended up walking with Em and Pan and their elephants. They kept trying to convince me that I should be a mahout. Talking in Thai (or trying to talk in Thai), having closer contact with Warrin and Jaeb and laughing made for a wonderful end to my week.

The interaction with the mahouts culminates in the Mahout Olympics. Mahouts and volunteers are separated into four teams comprised of a combination of mahouts and volunteers. The activities vary by season. This week the first event was a slingshot contest. The mahouts practice almost daily with slingshots, so I feel pretty proud of the one time I actually hit the bottle since I had only shot a slingshot once during the week. Next up was Mahout Basketball. Here the 2″ diameter round seeds are tossed into a plastic bottle that has been hung on a post. Between events, Vincent and I practiced with Krow (one of the mahouts on our team) for the third event. This event involved taking 5 seeds in the palm of your hand, tossing them and catching as many as possible on the back of your hand and then tossing those up and closing your hand around them. Practicing with stones was one thing, using the slippery seeds was another. At least I managed to catch 2. The last event was the 3-legged race. Despite a tricky transition where both Aed (a quiet mahout that I don’t think I had met until the Olympics) and I opted to take off our shoes, we did really well with our “nueng (1), song (2), nueng (1), song (2)” managing to take third place.

Friendships are also formed between the volunteers on the project. The group of volunteers that came together this week was one of the best groups that I have had the pleasure of volunteering with since I started volunteering in 2010. Many of the nights were spent talking late into the night about a variety of topics. Sometimes it was just one-on-one chats, other times it was 2 or 3 of us gathered around the table at the meeting point by the light of the makeshift Christmas tree (a dead tree branch that had been planted and strung with lights and ornaments, reminiscent of the tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas) until the wind and cold drove us to say goodnight. One of the best nights was listening to Christmas songs and talking about what Christmas means to each of us and our favorite Christmas songs and movies. Hopefully our paths will cross again.

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