Magnificent Beasts

Elephants are amazing. But you knew that. I travelled to Thailand blissfully unaware of what, exactly, I was in for. After a night in Bangkok we loaded up and flew to the wonderful city of Chiangmai. And after a night in Chiangmai we loaded into four by fours and headed into the hills.

Using their trained keyword "bun bun" to have them raise their trunks – those elephants love bananas. Click To Tweet

We lined up outside the fence around the enclosure and the elephants came to us, obviously anticipating what they knew came next. Huge bunches of small local bananas were placed on the ground and we were shown how to give them to the elephants. And we proceeded to do just that, using their trained key word “bun bun” to have them raise their trunks. Those elephants love bananas.

We arrived at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary #9 and loaded our stuff into a bunkhouse that would be our home for the next four days. Those were some hard bunks, just a mat and a throw. But that is of no matter. We were given a little orientation and went to meet the elephants.

For the next days we would come to know the elephant’s habits, their families, their names. We would bathe with them, in water and in mud, we would help to do vet checks on them and learn about their health, we would walk with them in the jungle as they walked free. We were told about the history of the elephants in Thailand, their uses and abuses, and of all the efforts the project was making to rescue them, to make their lives healthy, happy and safe.

For the next days we would come to know the elephants' habits, their families, their names. Click To Tweet

We also learned about the lives of the mahout, the “handlers” that literally live and work with the elephants on a daily basis, and the efforts being made to improve their wages and living conditions. We worked to build dams in a small river, creating larger pools for the elephants to cool in during the hot dry season when the water was low.

I loved being close to them but I also found them very intimidating. ! When we were in the jungle with them, the guides told us it was their time, not ours and to just let them do what they wanted, to walk or not and where to walk. It was wonderful that there was so much respect for the needs of the animals and that the people came second, put their needs second. There was a sense of glorious purpose, living and working with people so committed to these beautiful, intelligent animals and doing something to help. It is hard to articulate why this felt so good and so important, but it did; something to learn from.

There was a sense of glorious purpose, living and working with people so committed to these beautiful, intelligent animals… Click To Tweet

Some in our group were totally fearless and walked amid them as casually as can be imagined. As much as I loved being with them, watching them, learning about them, I’m sorry to say that wasn’t me.

HOPE

It is almost impossible, now, to describe what it felt to be incalculably hopeful. Our idealism, in the sixties and seventies, was boundless. We believed absolutely and completely that we would change the world. And in some ways the world was indeed changed. The civil rights act, the voting rights act, ultimately Title IX, the rise of feminism and a tectonic shift in our culture; music, art, attitudes.

And idealism dies hard. All my life I have held fast to some idealistic notions of good and right. Not to mention my steadfast belief in constitutional democracy and the protections it should afford us.

Having said that, the hardest thing for me about where we are now is the erosion of hope, the loss of idealism. I find it damn near impossible to watch the news without becoming angry, or depressed, or just plain sad. I find it almost impossible to believe that we are where we are. That racism, fascism, anti-semitism and all forms of bigotry are on the rise. That we cannot agree that saving the planet and all the creatures on it should be a first and urgent priority. That the short view is always the prevailing view. That civil discussion and disagreement are no longer possible. These are the big things, the small things confront us daily. My town now only pretends to recycle, my social security is taxed, there are hungry homeless children in our schools; and on and on.

I was watching a fictional television show in which a leading character made an impassioned speech about the values we should all be holding dear. About the pure and fantastical notion of a government by and for the people. And geek that I am, it made me cry. Good,grief. And it reminded me of that hope, that beautiful boundless hope.

And all I can do, as I witness the destruction of decades of progress on the environment, the recission of regulations that protect our air, our water, our parks, our children, the poor, the disenfranchised, is try to see the good. I watch for those moments when the best in us is evident, when my neighbors help me with things I can’t do, when people band together to help the victims of some senseless tragedy, when a restaurant feeds those with no money. Just examples, but sparks of hope. As I said, hope does hard, so we have to fan those tiny sparks and pray, every day, that the flames can rise again and carry us forward. Maybe hope is contagious.

Miracles & Wonder

I stood in the middle of the happy chaos that is Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok just looking around. And I thought: is this real? Did I really do this? By myself? Am I really in Southeast Asia? And yes I was. The wonder of it was just that. Although the place itself revealed many wonders throughout my trip (more on that another time), the miracle was that I had actually done it.

So I dragged my suitcase around until I found the area, thanks to some good instructions, where most tour operators waited for their charges. This, of course with a slightly travel addled brain – roughly 25 hours of travel. Fortunately at this point my suitcase was lighter than it would later be. After three walks up and back the outside sidewalk of the terminal I found an official looking person and said “Bamboo?” (The name of my tour company.) And I was directed to the correct corral where I met a driver and was bused off to the hotel.

The details of hotel and food and group are for another discussion. What matters here is courage. I find that if I think too much, I will not take a risk. I heard about this tour company, looked them up, saw this tour and immediately sent a deposit. Why? You might ask. Not sure, just that it sounded amazing and like something I had never done, would never do. So this trip became my post retirement gift/adventure.

After a ridiculously long time of taking care of other people both personally and professionally, I did not know if I would have the courage to follow through with this plan. But I made a commitment to myself and by God I was going to follow through and just not think too much.

The funny thing is, just after returning home I was offered an opportunity for another trip, life altering in a very different way. And because of this adventure, I said yes without thinking for even a moment. Something I never would have done in a previous phase of life.

The payoff, for not thinking too much, was a life altering trip. A journey of body and spirit that was entirely unexpected in many ways. I was the oldest in my group by a decade or so but mostly found myself “keeping up”. I roomed with a stranger and spent nights in a bunkhouse in the jungle with a group of strangers. I was blessed by Buddhist monks and prayed in their temples. I was of service in many ways and was served up gratitude and smiles all along the way.

In the mountains outside of Changmai they grow wildflowers for commercial purposes, acres and acres of them, and they grow strawberries. Because the strawberries are allowed to ripen fully in the sun on the vine they are almost unbelievably sweet. Something we rarely experience in this country where everything is picked early, stored in cold and shipped long distances. I purchased there a box of natural, pure, unsweetened dried strawberries. They are in my refrigerator still and every so often I take one, close my eyes, and savor the taste of courage.

CULTURE SHOCK

Fooled you, I will bet you thought it was when I arrived in Southeast Asia. Sure, that had its own newness factor, but that wasn’t the shock.

All through Thailand and Cambodia, in multiple airports large and small, we queued and queued and queued. And while you might see frustration on a random face, people stood quietly. And politely. And generally without complaint. If you smiled at someone they smiled back.

My favorite queue was for an airport ladies room where I was engaged in a spirited conversation by a lovely Thai woman. We were, it turned out, the same age, both freshly retired, both traveling to similar places for similar reasons. Yes, it was a pretty long wait. She apparently decided I needed to go more and graciously told me to go first!

All through Thailand and Cambodia, even in the poorest neighborhoods, I found the people to be almost unfailingly humble, smiling, polite. And it was an extraordinary pleasure. In Thailand there is a word that doesn’t really have its own meaning, it is just an”politeness” you add to everything you say. Even if you can’t remember the word for thank you, adding a “kah” to your English “thank you” brought a smile and a return “kah”. And in Cambodia it is the cultural norm to SMILE.

On my return to the states I entered the U.S. at Atlanta where I had to go through passport control/immigration. As might be expected in one of the busiest airports in the world, it was crowded. Airport staff were working hard to control the flow of people and the lines were long. The airport staff looked like dogs that had been beaten, for some good reason. People in line were swearing, yelling, complaining in an amazing show of discourtesy and arrogance.

There is the culture shock, returning to America. We are one of, if not the, youngest developed country in the world. In France people experience individual arrogance from, for example, shopkeepers who don’t like your French accent or non French. But people bring their babies to street protests. It has been many years since I was in Germany (I will be there soon and will update) but my experience was one of politeness notwithstanding that German tourists on holiday can be a bit much. Overall we seem to be the brashest, most arrogant and rudest people I have experienced. How sad is that? And it is only getting worse. I was shocked.

CAMBODIA

Cambodia took my heart in ways I can barely understand let alone properly articulate. And I will probably write much more about this entire life changing trip. But I wanted to write this before the rawness of these particular feelings begins to fade away.

Our tuk tuk rattled away from the New Hope Cambodia NGO free school with the children’s voices still ringing with I’ll Be Seeing You in my head. I could still feel the love in their hugs and hands as we said until we meet again. They have so little but have so much gratitude for the little we could do for them.

And I cried at the killing fields and at the Khmer/Kamai museum that gave the history of the genocide that was inflicted on the people by the Khmer Rouge. A country of eight million reduced by two million and a million more in the aftermath. A city, Phnom Penh, of over a million reduced to forty thousand in three days. And at the displays showing the twenty five or so million tons of U.S. Ordinance dropped on Cambodia during the Vietnam war.

Cambodia leads the world (and there are fifty nine other affected countries) in land mines and in the number of amputees. They are clearing them but it is slow and many people, including many children are still very much at risk. There are a huge number of minefields and additional unexploded ordinance littering the country.

Cambodia is an ancient country that is only twenty years old. It is reinventing itself in every way. There are virtually no natural resources and they are dependent on volunteers and NGO’s for practically everything. Nothing is wasted, everything can be used. If you walk and drink a water or a soda, hand the can to a mother sitting by the street, it is money for her. She won’t ask for it but will take it with thanks.

We had the privilege of seeing not only the beauty of places like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and ton le sap, but also the lives of the real people, their real lives. I never heard a single person complain. Children in dirty hand me down clothes gave me their precious candy to share. Everywhere people were gracious and friendly.

My words cannot describe the beauty of a people determined to rebuild a place they clearly love. Every project or destination has a greater purpose – to educate the children and sustain the community beyond the scope of the project or attraction. In a country whose recent history is soaked in a river of blood and death they say only: that is the past, we only look for solutions for the future.

As our plane rose from Siem Riep airport, I again inexplicably had tears in my eyes. On the outside it is in many ways not a beautiful place but it’s spirit is one of the most beautiful things I have ever had the privilege of experiencing. Until we meet again.