More Elephant Time

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The Little Ones

The park has two new darlings that everyone is fawning over. Naavan is about 6 months old and is a cheeky little fellow. His birth was a complete surprise as Sri Prae, one of the landmine victim elephants, never showed any signs of being pregnant. This 300 kg little toddler is curious about everyone and everything.

On the first day the volunteers experienced Naavan’s curiosity first hand. The group of volunteers had just got out of the river after bathing the elephants and the ensuing water fight. Around the corner came Naavan, rushing ahead of his auntie and mom to the river for bath time. He decided to check out our group, which collectively sent us scurrying up volunteer hill (no longer called that, but that’s what I know it as.) One of the volunteers just couldn’t seem to get out of Naavan’s way whichever way he went and ended up getting chased almost to the river. Watching the chase gave us all a good laugh.

After bath time, Pom let us have a photo opportunity with the new family. Pom asked me to help her with the bananas by putting them out for the adult elephants. Naavan hasn’t quite figured out how to eat bananas, making them more of an object of curiosity to be played with than eat. What was even more curious to him was the bag of bananas I was holding. Instead of playing Tug-of-War with Naavan, I opted for Keep Away. Not that I had a chance of winning either, my odds were better with Keep Away. A few nudges from him and a bit of scrambling on my part I successfully got all the bananas out of the bag. That little guy is really strong!

The other new darling of the park is Dok Mai. She was just 16 days old when I got to the park. The cute furry little elephant is so sweet to watch as she figures out her trunk and feet, like a new baby figuring out their hands. Dok Mai is the second baby Dok Ngern has given birth to at the park.

Dok Mai and her mother are currently secluded in a shelter until Dok Mai is a little older. At around 4 to 5 weeks Dok Mai will be old enough to be around other elephants and the two will be able to rejoin the family group. In the meantime Chiang Yim, Dok Mai’s older brother, is not handling the arrival of his baby sister very well. His behavior is erratic like a child trying to get the attention he was used to. Unfortunately, when a 4 year old elephant decides to have a tantrum things can get a little crazy.

Spending Time with the Elephants

Having been to the park so many times, I definitely have my favorite elephants that I like to spend some time with. Volunteer elephant bathing time was at the end of the day. Generally this was when I got to see two of my favorites, Mae Do and Mae Lanna. Mae Do has a broken pelvis from a forced breeding program and is one of the most immediately recognizable elephants at the park. She and Mae Lanna are never far apart.

My time with Mae Do was considerably less this trip. She and Mae Lanna have a new shelter that we didn’t visit on our elephant walk, which is typically when I would spend the most time massaging her hips. (Yes, you can massage an elephant, it’s all about providing healing touch.) Additionally, with 49 volunteers it his hard to find that time where she isn’t surrounded. On the last day I had a little alone time with Mae Do and her mahout. Mae Do’s mahout always recognizes me. His english continues to improve, at least at a faster rate than my thai.

Another favorite elephant pair is Jokia and Mae Perm, the superstars of the park. Mae Perm is the first elephant rescued by the park and holds the status of reigning matriarch. She is amazingly compassionate and serves as guide for Jokia who is blind in both eyes from abuse. During our elephant walk we spent the most time with this pair. Because Jokia is blind, you have to touch her trunk first when feeding her. If you touch the underside of her trunk, she will put her trunk up and allow you to put the food directly in her mouth. The important part is to not throw the food into her mouth. Technically, feeding the elephants directly in their mouth is against the safety rules, but then all rules have an exception.

Not All Fun and Games

The volunteers at the park help offset the operating costs. Which means doing some of the work. Each day we had a morning chore and typically had an afternoon project. The typical morning chores include elephant poo to clean up the shelters, elephant kitchen to clean and help prepare the food for the day, cutting corn for the elephants’ overnight eating and mud put to make sure the elephants have sufficient mud to apply as sunscreen. My favorite morning chore is still cutting corn, followed closely by cleaning up elephant poo.

Corn cutting typically takes up the whole morning and into the afternoon. The fields are about an hour from the park and 300 bundles are needed to feed the growing herd. Cutting corn involves the opportunity to use a machete. Which is probably why I like this task so much. (Yes, I still have all my toes and fingers. Only injury to report is a blister.) Using a machete to cut corn in the middle of the Thai countryside surrounded by bright green rice fields is actually quite cathartic. It’s also a point of pride for me if I can keep pace with the Thai workers that are there to help us. I am getting faster bit still not quite as fast as they are. Maybe next time.

Elephant poo is fun because it often provides unexpected encounters with the elephants. One of the shelters we clean is the area around where Dok Ngern and Dok Mai are currently staying. Straying from his typical mantra of “more work, less talk”, at this shelter it was “more pictures, less work”. At least for a little while.

Blessings for Long Life

Lek, the founder of the park, has been rescuing and caring for elephants since the late 90’s. In 2003, through a very generous donation she was able to buy the property that currently comprises the majority of the park. Last week marked 10 years of the park operating as an ecotourism organization in this location.

On Tuesday, a ceremony was held to commemorate the 10 years. As we came up the stairs to the upstairs platform room we were greeted by a common room transformed into a sacred space. At just about head level, blessed white string made a grid. Above each cushion on the floor was a piece of string tied in a loose knot. At the front of the room a large tripod of sticks had been erected, a different offering at the base of each stick. The string from the grid wrapped around the tripod and to a Buddha image on a little shrine. The string connects us all and the tripod represents the way we support each other.

Sitting at the front of the room were six monks, one in deep red robe providing contrast to the traditional saffron robes associated with monks in Thailand. The ceremony was performed by the monks and the shaman from the village. Very little was explained about the actual content of the ceremony, so I can only interpret based on what I have seen at other ceremonies. Candles were lit, offerings were made and blessings were said. During a long bit of chanting, that even the monks seemed to tire of, a large tray of small candles were lit. At another point in the ceremony, following the lead of the shaman wrapping the string from above Lek and Derrik’s head around their head, we pulled the strings down so that they were either touching our heads or holding it in our hands while they were in a wai (hands together like a payer position.)

At the end of the ceremony we were told to keep the string as it represents long life. Some people tied the string around their wrist in several bands. Alternatively, the monk in the deep red colored robe was willing to say a blessing and tie it on your wrist. In total breach of Thai culture, I performed my wai with my hands at my heart instead at my forehead. Then in an effort to not make contact with the monk since I am a female, I managed to drop the string on the floor. While he was wrapping the string around my wrist 3 times and saying the blessing, the first loop around my wrist slipped out of his fingers so he had to very carefully, without actually touching my skin, pick it up. Hopefully the blessing is still valid despite the several gaffs that occurred. I’m sure it is.

OK, Some Fun

Doing the mud pit requires some people getting in the muddy water and breaking up the dirt around the edge with a hoe to make mud while other people bring more water up from the river. Often this chore is touted as a free spa trip, since some people pay good money to be slathered in mud. Eve and I decided to go all out and rub mud on our cheeks, nose and chin. In reality it was putting on war paint.

Rule #1: wear your oldest possible clothes. People with water and mud make for a enticing combination. Every person in the mud pit was waiting for who would be the first to start the mud flying. It begins innocently, using your hoe to splash the backs of the people on the opposite side. From there it escalates to grabbing a bucket to pour or splash mud on each other. Another tactic is to just tackle the person into the mud.

Rule #2: not even bystanders are safe. Once the people in the pit are sufficiently mud covered, the mud fight expands outward. The first casualties are the ones bringing water up from the river. The next casualties are the onlookers that have decided to actually come down to ground level.

Rule #3: do not wear your contacts. I only discovered this rule after the fact. After several buckets of mud to the face, I actually had someone with river water help rinse out my eyes. Not sure how sanitary that was, but it was better than the mud.

Once everyone was sufficiently coated in mud and exhausted from laughing and playing, we headed to the river to get the first couple of layers of mud off. As we paraded by a group of day visitors, I’m sure they thought we were crazy. But what better way to show how much fun being a volunteer can be. Three days later I think I finally have all the mud out of my eyes and ears.

Special Moments

My most favorite elephant at the park is an old trekking elephant named Jarunee. Jarunee’s back is rippled from years of carrying a saddle and tourists and she is blind from old age. For all my previous visits, Jarunee was part of an elephant pair. Last year her best friend passed away. With the arrival of Naavan, she has become one of his aunts. This lovely old lady has a new chance to get the social support and love she needs from being part of a family group.

Because Naavan’s family group doesn’t yet come to the platform for feeding, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend some very special time observing Jarunee and her new family. Naavan was initially interested in us. He checked us out and then his attention quickly turned to a log that was there.

Watching him puzzle out moving the log was sweet. While using his trunk to check it out, it moved much to his surprise. Again a little nudging with his trunk and again it moved. So he gave it a try using his leg, this time suspecting it might move. After that he rolled it a few more times using either his trunk or his foot. And then he was distracted by some other new thought.

One Night in Hong Kong

The first stretch of my long journey took me to Hong Kong for an overnight stay. Since I was only in the city for a little over 12 hours, I opted to stay in the Kowloon area where lodging is typically cheaper. Leaving my luggage at the Left Luggage in the airport and armed with my Octopus card and 380 HKD, I headed into the city.

Conveniently located about 3 steps away from the B1 exit of the Jordan MTR station, the New Lucky House is a rather dodgy looking building. Readying myself for an adventure, in I went. The Hoi Shing Hotel occupies two flats on the first floor in the New Lucky House building. The rickety elevator took me to the first floor where I was faced with a barrage of signs pointing to the variety of “hotels” on this floor and eventually located my hotel. $52 does not provide for especially luxurious accommodations in Hong Kong. My 8′ x 10′ room offered two beds that comply with the Asian standard of firm, and a bathroom that is smaller than a standard size bathtub. But it was clean and had air conditioning and an adapter power strip for people travelling with US plugs.

Kowloon by night is a crazy mix of neon lights and traffic. For a few minutes I stood there with my mouth agape taking it all in. Running low on cash and the ATM’s unwilling to give me more, I wandered over to the Temple Street night market to see if I could find something cheap to eat. Fortunately, the food on my two flights was good and I decided that I didn’t really need to eat.

Hong Kong at 6 am is much different than Hong Kong during the day. The streets are virtually empty, the neon lights are sleeping and the MTR stations deserted. The whole city felt as if it was pressing the collective snooze button to delay waking up.

Until Next Time

Leaving Thailand is always a little emotional, even though I know I will return. My journey back involved 5 airports and 4 airlines. Sadly, with each progressive flight taking me further away from Thailand, the standards of food quality and amenities decreased. At least I had interesting people to talk to and an empty middle seat on the long flight from Tokyo to Seattle.

A New Adventure…

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East Meets West

In my mind I somehow pictured Hong Kong as this large flat city separated from the mainland of China by a body of water. So I was surprised to realize that the landscape of Hong Kong island is fairly hilly to mountainous with steep slopes. The part of Hong Kong city that is on the island is squished between a slope and area that they have claimed from the sea. Across Victoria Harbor (one of the deepest maritime ports in the world) lies Kowloon, a continuation of Hong Kong where the Chinese influence is much more prevalent. English influence is apparent with shopping areas dominated by British and American stores and MTR (subway) stops with names such as Forest Hill, Admiralty, and Causeway Bay.

Travel around Hong Kong is as simple as everyone I talked to before going purported it to be, even when weary from over 24 hours of travel. The tricky part is knowing which way you are headed when exiting the subway otherwise you may get trampled by a flood of Hong Kongers that are briskly going to their next destination. Signage (when you can find it) is in Chinese and English, and signposts on corners often direct you to nearly attractions.

Fitting Hong Kong’s almost 8.7 million inhabitants into a relatively small area requires that the city be dominated by extremely tall buildings, giving the city a 3D perspective. The variety of architecture demonstrates a competition of creating the most fantastic and tallest buildings possible. At night, the cityscape is one of the most fantastic, a vibrant symphony of colors in neon lights.

Venturing Out

My two days in Hong Kong were filled with an attempt to see as many of the sights as possible. Only two things prevented me from achieving seeing all the sights that I wanted to. One was the weather and the other was my ability to find the longest queues possible.

Several of the attractions promise spectacular views of the city or island. I’m sure on a clear day this is true; however, I did not have such luck. The weather oscillated between foggy and rainy, another adoption of British influence. Often the tops of the tallest buildings were lost in the fog. Even my 23rd story window in my hotel was obscured with fog on several occasions.

My first stop was Kowloon and the Avenue of Stars. On the way I found myself wandering through Kowloon park, an oasis of green in a concrete jungle. The park was filled with interesting sculptures and people exercising. One lovely old lady on one of the pieces of equipment smiled at me broadly and waved. Ambling through the park in no rush to be anywhere specific, I took in the peacefulness among a bustling city.

The Avenue of the Stars is everything it promised to be. A variety of sculptures, polished by thousands of visitors posing for pictures. If you are up on your Chinese movie stars, the impressions of handprints in the concrete might have been more interesting. As I am not, I headed for the ever popular statue of Bruce Lee, the only sculpture with a barricade. Surrounded by tourists posing with the sculpture, often mimicking the famous Bruce Lee pose, it was difficult to actually get a solo picture.

The second destination was the Big Buddha located high on Lantau island. Tourists have two options to get there. One is a cable car that takes you up and over the steep hills, the other is a bus ride that my guidebook purported took an hour. Despite my general dislike of cable cars, I choose this option. So I queued up with all the other tourists assuming the queue wasn’t too bad, just a few switchbacks, across a bridge and I would be there. Unfortunately, this was not the case. After 45 minutes I was almost up the bridge. Once there, I found a mass of people slowly moving through more switchbacks. 2 hours later I bought my ticket.

Some things to do while stuck in a very long queue:
* Read your entire guide book.
* Empathize with bored children confined to their strollers.
* Watch the fog roll in.
* Take random photos of signs.
* Contemplate when to cut your losses and take the bus.
* Wish you had actually ate before getting in line.

Almost 3 hours later I was finally heading through the fog on a cable car. No spectacular views, just the cable disappearing ahead of us and cars returning to the bottom eerily appearing from the fog. At the top was the Big Buddha, stoically sitting peacefully in the mist. Seeing the Buddha this way was actually nice because the focus was on the Buddha and not the spectacular views. As I climbed the stairs I listened to the faint chanting of the monks in the monastery below.

I took the bus back down. It took a half hour.

Rain, Rain Go Away

The next day it was all out rain. Heading for Thailand in hot season, I failed to pack anything to keep me dry and warm. So wearing my warmest possible outfit, I headed out for a second day of sightseeing.

Taking a tram so I could see the city above ground, I went to meet my friend Lisa and her newly adopted son, Georgie. Heading for Man Mo temple, one of the oldest Chinese temples in Hong Kong, we pushed the stroller up the steep hills. Getting around with wheels is not an easy task in many Asian cities, especially ones built on hillsides. The sidewalks often have sets of steps and the curbs have a significant rise to them.

Man Mo temple was a beehive of Taoist worshipers offering incense and prayers to the variety of statutes dedicated to the god of literature (Man) and the god of war (Mo). The dimly lit, small room was overflowing with the aroma of incense. Hanging from the ceiling were objects that I originally assumed were baskets until I realized they were incense coils offered as payer requests.

After a brief visit to the Midlevel Escalators, a system of people movers and escalators designed to aid the commute of midlevels inhabitants to the city below, and lunch we headed across the harbor on the Star Ferry. Riding the Star Ferry is another “must have” experience to get another perspective of Hong Kong’s skyline. Even with the rainy weather and choppy water it was a fun ride with a few good picture opportunities.

Using an Octopus

A card, not the animal.

Octopus cards allow you to move quickly through the transportation system. Accepted on the MTR, trams, buses and ferries, the cards hold monetary value and each transaction is subtracted from the balance. Several convenience stores allow you to use the cards for purchases. Using the Octopus card made my travels through Hong Kong easy, allowing me to just focus on where I was going and not having to buy tickets or have exact change.

I quickly learned that a key to using the Octopus cards is to keep moving once you sweep your card over the reader. If you don’t, you end up getting trapped on the wrong side of the turnstiles. Yes, I learned this by experience. Unable to figure out how to correct this situation, I decided to sweep my card over the incoming reader, take the MTR one stop and back, so that I could get out where I wanted to be.

City Below the City

The MTR system is a city below the city. An intricate system of tunnels connecting the subway stations with multiple exists to get travelers where they need to be efficiently. Along the way are a variety of shops ranging from convenience stores and newsstands to high end stores offering designer goods. Such an efficient mass transit system helps to reduce the traffic and congestion so prevalent in many large cities.

While an efficient way to move around the city, it’s easy to miss seeing the city as a whole.