Arriving at ENP is a bit like going to summer camp. There are lots of new faces, BIG elephants, and everyone is a bit unsure of how it will all pan out. The first activity is participating in feeding time. Big buckets of food come out & all the elephants rush in, eager to get their fair share, and then some.
After feeding time we are taken to the conference room where we meet Lek. She is a contradiction: diminutive in stature & large in presence. Listening to her story I gain an understanding into her passion for the elephants & I can’t help but be swept up in the moment. She is dedicating her life to this one thing in which she believes so strongly. She has never given up, despite the many barriers placed in her path. Paulo Coelho said in the Alchemist “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”. I believe that to be true & It felt good to be part of the universe that day.
A typical day at “camp elephant” goes something like this: wake at 6:30. (Thank goodness my bunkmate, Ellen had a loud alarm.) Breakfast at 7. morning chores begin at 8. We were divided into 4 work groups, where we stayed for the week. Some chores seemed more useful than others, but hey, it’s Thailand & some things defy western logic. We scooped elephant poop from the paddocks and piled it in the fields where it will later become compost. We watered the garden, cut grass & corn and shoveled sand from the river bed to fill the paddocks. Working in the elephant kitchen was the most fun, which should come as no surprise to any of you who know me. Though Lek purchases produce directly from the farmer, and specifically requests that no pesticides be used, it is a crap shoot. One elephant died sometime back from pesticide residue on a watermelon, so now all produce is washed. Once the produce is washed ( in a large concrete bathtub) it is hacked up into chunks & placed into individual baskets. Things elephants like: bananas, kabocha squash, pineapple, papaya, watermelon. Wintermelon, not so much. The old ladies of the herd require some special food. Many have lost their teeth which results in an inability to chew the grass & corn stalks that provides essential dietary fiber. Enter Banana Balls. Over ripe bananas are peeled & mashed by hand (mine) into a pulpy goo. Then rice & corn meal is added in equal parts to form a stiff “dough”. The dough is then formed into large softball sized balls. Each Old Lady gets 8 balls a day. And boy howdy do they love ’em. They just pop them in one right after another.
Another “fun” chore was emptying the mud pit. With buckets. yep, buckets. one. by. one. The pit needs to be emptied every other day because it contains elephant urine, stool & mosquito larvae. So take off your shoes boys & girls, roll up your pants, grab a bucket & start bailing. The younger volunteers inevitably started flinging mud, which is when I made my hasty retreat. The pit is then refilled with the aid of a pump and river water.
Afternoons are spent doing a few more chores, including elephant feeding & bathing followed by the “show” in the mud pit. Not unlike the humans, it was the younger generation that had the most fun in the mud.
Most evenings there were more camp-like activities. There was a welcome ceremony that ended with a blessing & a gift of a string bracelet from the village shaman & elders. There was the inevitable getting to know one another session, language & thai culture lessons, more videos & even a power point where we sang and danced to silly thai songs. kumbaya, everyone.
The most rewarding activities were the afternoons that we got to be “elephant eyes” or go on “elephant walks”. Elephant eyes is an afternoon spent sitting with a mahout & watching his elephant. I spent 2 hours or so with Jokia & Mae Perm. Mae Perm is 94 & the oldest elephant at the park. She is a most gentle & sweet, old girl. Jokia was blinded by a slingshot. She went into a depression after her baby died and refused to work. Shooting her in the eye with a slingshot seemed a just punishment by her mahout. When she came to the park it was unclear how she would adjust to the park and her new surroundings. As soon as she arrived, she was befriended by Mae Perm & now the two are inseparable.
During elephant walks we walked out into the park,with bananas, & met some elephants, heard their stories & hung out in a mahout shelter watching them just hang out & do what elephants do. eating, shitting & wandering around. It was great.
Next stop Luang Prabang, Laos.