On this morning I came to realize that I was already starting to think it normal to watch elephants wander past the dining room over my coffee. Sitting on a chunky wooden chair, taking in the morning sounds and smells through the open air structure, I forced myself to remember that this was a very abnormal time in my life – in all of our lives – and to suck every precious moment of it dry. Slowly I scanned mountains and jungle, grazing elephants and water buffalo, shelters and tree platforms, strolling mahouts and emerald-green grass. The odd wisp of smoke rose in the distance where tree and scrub burn offs were happening – evidence that progress was thought more of than nature, as happens and has been happening for far too long on Mother Earth. And I was sitting in a wee sheltered paradise where caring people practiced harmony within their little realm, walking their talk of respect and gentleness towards all living things. I took a photo of the scene – one that still affects me when I look at it to this day.
Duties called and we were rounded up and offered gloves and long-sleeved shirts and advised to put sunscreen and hats on. We were off to cut corn for the elephants. We climbed into the high-sided work truck and I put on my shades and swirled my scarf over my head and practiced looking windswept and interesting. As you do.
Sitting in the back of the truck was pretty cool, although it seemed to take an alarming amount of time to get to our destination. I almost wondered if we were off for a casual trip across the border of Burma after a while. But my maturity reared its head yet again and I passed the time watching the scenery go by and played with a popball – a bit like half of a small tennis ball that you turn inside out and place on a flat surface, and after a while the tension changes and it pops way up in the air and you have to catch it. I had a stash of these in my pockets and luggage, as they’re good for a giggle and one of those toys that crosses cultural and language barriers. The mahouts enjoyed it too and ended up with one each if I remember rightly.
When we got to the cornfield, we were given a small scythe each and watched a demonstration on how to use one without defooting ourselves. (Is there such a word?) We were told to harvest the corn by cutting the entire stalk near the bottom and add it to one of many piles building up around the place, then tie and haul the bundles to the beginning of the field. Not overly complicated but damned hot work in ninety-something percent humidity, and surprisingly hard yakker when trying to balance one’s heavy bundle upon head or shoulder while hopping over the many shallow drains on the way and avoiding having sharp cornstalk stumps skewer your ankles while you’re at it. My biggest fear was coming across snakes. Somebody did spy a wee one not far from me, but like heck was I going to have a look at it. I did go and look at a tiny frog in a hole and one of the ‘leaders’ Kan yelled out ‘crocodile!’ somewhere along the line, and we rushed over to find he was looking at a little tiny fish in one of the ditches. Clown!
So I found out through this corn-cutting business that my fitness level rates right up there with your average Peruvian sloth, and I think I speak for all of our group in that the relief in being called back to the truck to go home was of titan proportions. We got put into vans, as the truck was full of corn, and took a different route home, through a village somewhere that gave us a look at local style houses and temples.
Back at the camp, we indulged in another delicious vegetarian lunch and watched the rain pour down. In the afternoon we shucked corn. Sack after sack after sack. We sat around in the elephant kitchen, surrounded by shelves of corn and sacks of corn silk and leaves, working while playing word games (have you ever heard the words defenestrate, abacinate or mallemaroking?). It’s great to have a linguist or two around to pass the time with when you’re doing mundane work for an hour or two.
Later we gathered at the conference hut at the end of the Skywalk, where Jodi told us about the Elephant Ambassador program, and other things about elephants. Jodi is a petite American woman who has been at Elephant Nature Park since almost the beginning. She has more tattoos than I’ve ever seen on a female – even her eyebrows are tattooed – and she can talk about elephants for hours while barely drawing a breath. She has an enormous amount of knowledge about the eles at ENP and is a great asset to them in that she can pass on a lot of information and advice to people and her passion for the subject is engaging and enthusiastic.
Some of the things I learned from listening to Jodi:
- The Phajaan (crush discipline) process of torturing elephants to break their spirit and domesticate them is a six thousand-year old tradition. And I repeat, not just a Thai tradition.
- The howdahs (wooden seats) used to give tourists rides are bad for the elephants. Their spines are rather weak and the seat can cause excess pressure on the spinal ridge, especially if the elephant is under weight and the spinal ridge is extremely exposed. Not to mention the chafing and sores that can result from the belts and ropes.
- The usual case with the elephants that give people rides and do shows for them, is that they are taken back to their shelter later and chained up on their own, often on concrete floors, which give them foot problems as they’re built to walk around on bare earth. They are not allowed to socialize with other elephants and therefore suffer great loneliness and psychological harm, as they are herd animals and are always close to their family members and physically touching each other in the wild.
- Only one percent of elephant babies are twins.
- Most of the elephants in Surin end up begging on the streets in Bangkok, due to unemployment. This leads to them being injured or killed by vehicles, bad diets, underfeeding, being away from their mothers too young, and often an early, painful and/or lonely death. Surin needs more tourists. See the Surin Project here for more information.
- If it wasn’t for Bert Von Roemer and his Serengeti Foundation, the Elephant Nature Park might not exist. The Foundation donated the funds needed to purchase the land for the park and have assisted and given it support in many ways since. They also do a lot of good in other places. See the Serengeti Foundation website here.
- Ging Mai, one of Lek’s first elephant orphans, died a horrible death. It is strongly suspected that he was injected with cyanide by people who didn’t want knowledge of the Phajaan process passed on to the general public. This of course shattered Lek’s heart, and that she has carried on realizing her dream of giving sanctuary to mistreated elephants speaks volumes about the strength, tenacity and determination within her. You can read more about Lek here and the story of her trials and struggles here. Get your tissues ready…
I went back to our hut for a lie down after that and had a cuddle with one of the park cats that seems to have adopted our little abode for the duration. She’s a sweet wee thing and not averse to a little conversation and a lot of massage.
After dinner we went to the Thai Culture and Language evening in the conference room. One of the characters here, Chet, was the main entertainer and I swear he could make millions doing an act in Las Vegas as a comedian. He dressed in super bright colours, frequently changed his outfit, and had an enormous bling ring on his finger for every one of them. With the aid of the leaders Jen and Kan, and employing large sheets of words, tomfoolery and coyness with a dash of sauciness, he taught us about the different kinds of the ‘Wai’ greeting (hands pressed together and a head nod) and what situations they should be used in, plus a few Thai words and expressions. We also learned a couple of songs in Thai, one about Chang (elephant) complete with Changy movements and another cheeky little number called the Shake Banana dance. We were in hysterics most of the time and our evening ended with a drink or two and a few happy songs and conversations in the Skywalk Conference Hut. Then off down the dark and scary driveway we did go and flopped into bed to listen to the elephant snuffle lullaby out the bathroom window.