September 2013 and I was at it again. I traveled back to Thailand and instead of wallowing at beach resorts and quaffing drinks with little umbrellas in them, returned to Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary North of Chiang Mai, and volunteered my sweat and gave myself some blisters to remember. This time I went for two weeks instead of one, and also hauled my partner along so he could see what I had been rabbiting on about for the last year or so. Here’s a photo essay on being an ENP volunteer.
Firstly, this is where we slept. We were surrounded by Australians, so we dug in, marked our territory and guarded it fiercely. It was a great spot – it had a huge veranda outside, complete with guard dogs and several cats, and our room had a bed with mosquito nets, an open-walled ensuite, a tiny frog and a gecko. Unfortunately, it was situated up some stairs. Fourteen steep stairs to be exact. I know this. I counted them at the end of each long, hot day. Fooouuurrrteeennn of them…
Breakfast started at 7 am, where we would sit at the ‘platform’ and watch the elephants begin their social rounds over our coffee and toast.
Work started at 8 am. Jobwise, they often start you off on the easier chores here to lull you into a false sense of security. Usually it’s elephant kitchen duty, where one or two bits of fruit need to be unloaded off the trucks that come in regularly.
Watermelons and pumpkins had to be washed to make sure there are no pesticides or other icky stuff remain on them.
When the banana trucks came in, each hand of bananas had to be counted during the unloading. Sort of like an on-the-spot banana audit.
The fruit got cut and sorted into baskets, then carted around to the platform where the visitors would feed it to the awaiting banana-hoovers. Different banana-hoovers have different needs. Banana balls are made for elephants who are older and can’t chew so well any more.
The next day, you might be put onto ‘pooh duty’. This is where you grab forks and spades and harvest what potentially becomes organic compost. Sometimes you get distracted…
This chore is a pleasure compared to getting out into the hot sun and making elephant-proof pillars around the place. It’s about now that you get a sniff of the fact that all is not going to be as easy-going as you thought…
Your suspicions are confirmed when you are sent down dirt tracks with oddly shaped digging implements and working gloves. Here, you will become familiar with the never-ending challenge of putting the poles back in the ground that the elephants have bowled over for fun. (Hence the reinforced stone pillars you helped create yesterday). And you will learn how to do battle with barbed wire…
The volunteer coordinators will accompany each volunteer group and
mock supervise the goings-on.
And just when you thought that was over, you will be sent out the next day, and you will dig more holes. Bigger ones. And you will put trees in them.
We went out again the next day and planted more trees, in case we’d forgotten how to do it.
It started out as a stinking hot, sunny afternoon, then just as we were finishing planting the trees, a thunderstorm came over, and we had to take shelter under a nearby house, with dogs, chickens, motorbikes and lines of washing. I’m fairly sure I will never forget the sight of Chet, coordinator extraordinaire and resident flamboyant clown, leaping about in the rain, like a character out of The Sound of Music, screaming ‘Yessssss!!! Yesssss!!’
Then, as a return volunteer, the day I had been dreading came. The Corn Cutting. The first-timers, blissfully unaware of what was about to descend upon them, climbed like innocent lambs onto the back of the truck, ready for a fun ride into the countryside.
Corn cutting itself isn’t so bad. You get to play with machetes, and heck, there can only be so many cobras hanging around, right? You cut the corn, stalk and all, tripping over the weeds and trying not to break your ankles in the ditches that are everywhere, and meanwhile the sun rises above you and you start to sweat. Within a very short amount of time you look up and see you are getting further and further away from the truck. And the shade. And the water supply. Then you have a lunch break and you think ‘Well, that’s not so bad. We survived it.’ But it ain’t over yet…
Now the bundles of corn and stalks have to be shifted from way out in the field to the truck, and loaded on. And all the cutting you have done has left nasty, sharpened stakes sticking up all over the ground, and you have to lug the bundles (long, unwieldy and weighty) between them and over the multitude of ditches. The sun has gotten much hotter and you wish you were back at the park shovelling pooh. Or digging holes. Or playing with barbed wire. ANYTHING, but this!!
At last it was done and we could go back to the Park. Oh the relief! But, there wasn’t room in the truck for the crew, so they had to ride on top of the harvest. Somehow I managed to get a lift in the comfortable, cool cab. Heh heh. Well, truth be told, the coordinators looked at me and decided that I was too aged (and short) to climb way up there, and insisted I sit in the cab. But I was okay with that. Really, really okay.
These are not all the chores that are done here. They change with the seasons and with the needs of the Park at the time.
Thankfully, this is about as bad as it gets. You are only actually expected to work for around four hours per day, and it really gives me empathy for the locals that put in a much longer day, but we are just a pack of wussy Westerners after all…
Thursday was a good day – we got to go to the local school and
play with visit the kids.
So, it’s not all hard work. There are many moments where you can hang out with the other volunteers and get to know each other better, or let your loved ones know you are actually surviving life in the jungle, on the internet. Provided the WiFi is working. You are quite a way out of civilization in this place, so you can’t expect it to be like city life.
You can also go for a wander out the gate and up the road to the local shop and get an ice cream, or, erm, something to drink…
Or you can hang out and watch the banana-hoovers do their thing.
We had a party on the Friday night for Peter, who was fortuitous enough to turn 40-something at the Park. Chet flounced in with a lovely cake and candles, several people sang ‘Happy Birthday’ in different languages, and a whole lot of waffling, limbo dancing and whistle-wetting went on.
Then there were those of us who got ourselves branded while we were there.
We also attended talks given by Lek Chailert, founder of the Park, and Jodi, who gave us lots of past and present elephant gossip.
Finally, our week was up. The Park put on a farewell dinner and cultural evening, where we ate food prepared by the local hill tribe people and watched their beautiful dancing.
On the Sunday, we all gathered to take photos, and the coordinators posed for, and took photos of, us.
I just have to add a few more pics of Chet. He’s…. priceless.
We grabbed each other’s email addresses and said our farewells to each other and the Park. This is always a poignant day and an interesting one. The volunteers here come from all over the world, and have fascinating tales of how they got to be here and where they are going next.
I have many banana-hoover pics, of course, but I’ll save them for another post. Although, there are a few here at the Faa Mai Ditch Appreciation Project…
So that’s it. My report on our first week at Elephant Nature Park in 2013. For the next week we volunteered at their dog sanctuary. You can see photos of that here and here, and you can read a story about Steel, a very special dog, here.