At quarter past six every morning I would make my way from our dorm room towards Elephant Nature Park’s main complex for a coffee. It was my favorite time of day here. Quiet and still dark, the hustle and bustle of the day’s activities had yet to begin. Coffee in hand, I’d take a seat on one of the viewing platforms and watch the darkness slowly lift. A few of ENP’s 400 or so rescued dogs would be meandering about and in the distance I would see the silhouettes of the elephants slowly moving towards the river for a morning drink with their mahouts. This calm before breakfast helped me collect my thoughts, pen a few words in my journal, reassess any lingering aches and pains from the previous day, and get ready for the one ahead.
At night, the broad brow of the colossus, its trunk, tusks, tower, huge hindquarters, and four pillar-like legs stood out, astonishing and awesome against the starry sky.
-Attributed to Les Misérables
All meals at ENP were served as a buffet, and the quality and diversity of what was presented us at each would be deserving of its own post. Our routine for breakfast generally found us slathering peanut butter over pancakes, maybe with an egg, generally with fruit, seated amongst the other three dozen volunteers along with any other multi-day guests, and waiting (at least, I was) for Medo to appear with her two female elephant companions, chit-chatting to each other on their way for a morning saunter.
Following breakfast vols would convene to go over the day’s duties with Mix, Jane, and Toby, three of ENP’s volunteer coordinators. We were split into three groups for the duration of our stay, and the overall tasks for the week rotated pretty fairly amongst each. For the morning, a group might be assigned food prep for the elephants; a seemingly easy enough task, but with over thirty elephants to feed, each of whom might eat up to 100 pounds of food each day, the enormity of it would soon become apparent. Several hundred pumpkins or other fruit would be hand washed in a trough to clean off any dirt and residual pesticides, then quartered by machete to make them elephant bite-sized. Both the trough and the (loosely termed) cutting plank were about a meter off the ground, which made repeatedly bending a six-foot body over to do either task unforgiving on the back. But, as long as you didn’t lop off any fingers while in the process it was one of the easier duties we did while at ENP.
At any given time a truck might show up with a food donation, which meant vols would need to scramble to unload it. During our morning on fruit prep one such truck arrived bearing watermelons and we spent an hour shuffling them by hand one-by-one to an enclosure that was five meters away from where the truck was parked against the receiving dock. Scratching my head during a break in the session I couldn’t help wondering, “Why didn’t they just park the truck there? You know, actually up against where we’re moving the watermelons to be stored?” It appeared our favorite term from Africa, “TIA,” was alive and well in other parts of the globe.
One of the two vol groups not on food prep would find themselves on elephant poo duty, which consisted of, well… you understand. That 100 pounds of daily intake for an elephant has to go somewhere, and with their notoriously pour digestive tracks (one of the reasons elephants are nicknamed the Johnny Appleseed of the animal world) it was cause for a lot of clean up. We’d roll up to each elephant enclosure and spend a few minutes filling up wheelbarrows with elephant dung and any leftover browse (grass, banana leaves, corn stalks) they didn’t eat during the night. Because of the high water content of their food their poo was heavy and dense, understandably more so than their African counterparts, and shoveling it and then carting the wheelbarrow between the barns and the large hill of elephant dung where they composted the manure for use elsewhere onsite at ENP was taxing. By 9am I was already sweating profusely. Always, I was sweating. The heat and humidity at that hour, even during the relatively cooler climes of November, was unforgiving, especially when you were directly under the sun. As one of our vol friends discovered, heat stroke, even at that early hour, was a very real possibility.
Elephant poo duty also had the benefit of giving you quality time with a few of the poo makers, like Mae Jan Peng, one of the oldest elephants at ENP and a very personable lady who was as fond of greeting people as she was of the flower she wore that adorned a hole in her right ear. If you were lucky, you might also get the chance to go up on the mountainside behind ENP and spend a little time with Trilly and Mae Kham Puen. The latter is blind due to abuses suffered at the hands of her previous owners, and every day she is led up and down the dense jungle mountainside by her best friend Trilly. Out in the bush in Africa I was always amazed to suddenly find myself in the middle of a herd of dozens of elephants; their stealth and ability at going unnoticed, even when they were mere yards away, unnerving. But to see these two gentle giants emerge unseen out of the suffocating jungle foliage and effortlessly make their way up and down steep inclines? Breathtaking.
Morning duties completed and back down off the mountain side, if you didn’t feel like spending time with some of the dogs at ENP’s dog sanctuary – which you should, you very much should, as they are all deserving of some love and affection (more on that in a later post) – and if you weren’t in the group unlucky enough to have drawn a different set of morning duties (more on that shortly), there just might be time to participate in the morning elephant feeding with the day visitors; a deliriously fun time feeding the literal fruits of your hard labor to ENP’s ellies. Hungry, hungry hippos those elephants are!
Lunch for the human types at ENP is another flavorful affair of traditional Thai dishes – lots of noodles, rice, chilies, spring rolls, a variety of other fruits and vegetables, washed down with about three gallons of water to help replenish what was lost during the morning chores. If you’re the one vol group missing for lunch at ENP proper, it’s because your task for the entire day consists of traveling an hour or more off-site to spend your time cutting either tall grass or corn for the elephants. For those volunteers, today is known as, “Oh, fuck. This as that day!” and you’ll be enjoying lunch under the shade of a tree somewhere while trying to restore circulation and mobility in your cramped hands and wondering how the H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks your group is ever going to complete the required 150 bundles of grass or corn before you’re allowed to leave. It’s a day every vol (well, most every vol) has to participate in, and with good reason.
Part of it is intended to show (as are the unspoken morals of most of the vol duties here) just how much effort it takes to look after the elephants, and part of it is to give you a glimmer of just how hard people here work. Armed with machetes of dubious sharpness and ability (probably for the best, all things considered) your group is trucked out to a distant locale along with several day laborers from ENP. Upon arrival those workers will disappear around the bend and you’ll busy yourself doing your best to hack down absurdly tall grass to gather in bundles, having been told that there needs to be enough bundles collected to completely fill the back of the truck, whose bed is approximately fifteen feet long by twelve feet wide by fifteen feet tall with the railing. So yeah, that’s a lot of bundles that need to be cut and tied.
Panaramic view of Elephant Nature Park. (Click on the icon to embiggen the panorama.)
After twenty minutes of enthusiastic effort you’re completely drenched through in sweat (unless you’re me, then you started the job already soaked through). After thirty minutes your energy levels begin to wane. On the hour mark you start to wearily daydream, “Only four or so more hours of this! Woo hoo!” Two hours in and you’re pretty sure this is what Hell is and there’s no need to die first as you’ve apparently already arrived (although dying does sound pretty good at this point). Work is halted for lunch, and you collapse in the shade under a nearby tree and give thanks that at least on this day the sky is overcast and threatening rain, and that you have absolutely no idea how anyone could possibly pull this off when the sun is beating down on them. Definitely not day in and day out. The picnic offered up is as close as it can get to the buffet back at ENP, and you’re truly grateful that your incompetence and inability as a field worker still gets a delicious if not deserved reward. After lunch, it’s back out to continue chopping and hacking, and you while away the time wondering just how the truck is ever going to get filled. The elephants must eat, but your faith in your ability to help them achieve that needs a serious morale boost. Toby, the vol coordinator with us that day, promises our team an ice cream stopover on the way back to ENP, and who can say no to ice cream? Go team, go!
Finally, so worn and tired that you’re incapable of even inadvertently wounding yourself no matter how hard you try, the work gets called to an end, leaving you wondering, “But all this certainly can’t fill the truck up?” Then, you’re led around the bend to where the day laborers have been working and discover that in the few hours you’ve been putt-putting about on the other side they’ve cut and bundled enough grass to completely fill the truck. Unbelievably, they did it with one-third fewer people than you had, and they didn’t even break a sweat. Further, they’re now back around to your side finishing up your team’s incompetent job before the truck gets loaded up and we’re off back to camp. Queue serious humility check.
Riding atop all the grass in the back of the truck I realize that it’s the most comfortable bed I’ve been on since arriving in Asia, and promptly fall asleep savoring its luxury. The truck pulls into a local 7/11 to get ice cream, but none of us can be bothered to climb down and go in. Weirdly, it’s just not worth it. Realistically, no one has the strength to haul themselves off the truck and then back up. Having heard the news, a certain soft-serve ice cream machine at the Hungry Lion in Livingstone, Zambia, quietly weeps to itself. “I thought everyone liked ice cream?”
Back at ENP by mid-afternoon, a cold shower is the first order of business followed by a handful of ibuprofen washed down with a cold Chang beer, which itself is quickly followed by another. I felt very lucky that the day we were assigned grass cutting the weather was as amenable as it would ever get for us, and I felt genuinely humbled by the amount of ridiculous hard labor the workers at ENP do each day. I owe you all a beer. Hell, I’ll even sharpen and oil your machetes for you!
For the two vol groups left on-site at ENP, the afternoon’s session can be one of many things: transplanting grass to various fields, helping construct barns, cutting banana leaves or raking debris in a nearby field alongside Lek – who, though diminutive even with her wellies on, has heart and strength ten times ten times her size. (That’s 100 times her size, in case you’re wondering.) “Punk rock, full-on!” I’d repeatedly tell Kim.
At 4pm the elephants are bathed in the river and, throwing as much water on wayward vols and coordinators as on the elephants, it’s a great way to cap off the day and cool down in the company of these majestic animals. On the way back to dry off before dinner chances are you’ll find Dok Mai and Navann playing with each other in the late afternoon light under the watchful gaze of their respective moms and various entourages of “Number One Best Aunties!”
Dinner, while a little quieter now that the day visitors have all left, is another feast for the senses and does not disappoint. Afterwards, Thai massages are offered by local village women and the five dollars spent is well worth the price to work out the kinks and creases of the day, even if the nice ladies giggle amongst themselves about your “elephant feet.” My advice: go for the foot massage every time!
On both our first and last nights at Elephant Nature Park we were treated to special events in our honor. The first involved a shaman from the local village blessing us for the week ahead in a sai sin ceremony that would see us splashed with holy water and leaving with white thread tied around our wrists to bring us good luck. I can only imagine how my luck would’ve been when I’d get my camera crushed two days later had I not been blessed. The ceremony on our last night involved us being served a number of traditional Thai dishes and a wonderful display of entertainment put on by area school children.
Our time at ENP seemed to last forever. It seemed to last not even a single day. Funny how that old trickster works. In the end, no matter what tasks we were put to I’m immensely grateful for the experience. The quiet mornings in contemplation, the backbreaking days spent sweating in labor. Being lucky enough to spend intimate time with the elephants and other animals here, seeing the heartbreaking scars and deformities of their previous lives and then witnessing the heartwarming friendships and bonds they’ve formed since being rescued from the cruelty of man and brought to sanctuary. They are memories I’ll forever cherish, and their struggles are something I’ll carry always with the hopes of righting.
Thank you, all. Kob kuhn krap