Monday, August 6, 2012

Journeys for Good

       It has been nearly a year since I had the urge to conduct an internet search for volunteer programs focusing on working with elephants. The idea seemed far-fetched and unlikely to ever amount to anything, yet it sparked a quiet but nagging thought that interrupted important tasks like lesson planning and sleeping. With this post, I plan to implant that nagging thought in your mind and give you the means to feed it. May it interrupt every aspect of your life until you pay attention to it. 
       Though I have not posted anything to this blog in some time, I dare you to assume that it means I have taken leave of making travel plans. My last post discussed my hopes to continue volunteering abroad and urged you to try unique travel, but now I want to give you the resources to try. I have several ideas in the works, helped along by websites that celebrate responsible travel. In my spare time, or in time that should be devoted to productivity, I scour them. One of these is Journeys for Good. 
       Journeys for Good was founded by a couple who travels the world, volunteering and documenting their experiences along the way. Their website features success stories of people who have volunteered, news of new volunteer opportunities, and links to programs that can help you make voluntourism a reality for you. If you still have doubts about what an experience like this can mean for you, this website will ease those doubts. 
       Check out the "Aid Organizations" category to read about which companies have started aid programs and what it means for the recipients. Click the "Volunteer Heroes" link to read about real-life experiences of people who may seem like unlikely volunteers at first glance. Please follow the "Resources" link to create a trip that is perfect for you.
       I cannot convince your boss to let you take time off for this. I cannot convince your spouse that flying to Ethiopia is a better use of your money than installing that new set of garage doors or replacing the brakes in your car. That's your responsibility. However, I would be willing to bet my next trip that if you do make this a reality, you will be hooked. You will start to peruse travel sites for new ideas and possibly lose sleep thinking about the endless travel possibilities. Just carpool, please, until you do eventually get those brakes fixed.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Now It's Your Turn

       I'm sitting at the airport, devastated to be leaving. Today, Boonma sang a gloomy Thai song about the sky crying. To fit the mood, the sky appropriately clouded over and dropped water on us.
       I always go through this period of mourning when I leave a place that has become dear to me. To fight it, I make travel plans, and you may not be surprised to know that I have already compiled a list of ten possible volunteer programs to do sometime in the future. Maybe I'll try another continent, or maybe I'll explore Asia again. It doesn't matter that I don't know where I'm going, because I know I'm going somewhere.
       I fear that people think that vacations like this are out of reach for them, and I'm going to try to convince them otherwise. Volunteer and adventure travel programs are the ideal travel situation. You are given an up close, brutally honest picture of another culture. You are incorporated into a daily life vastly different from your own. You are allowed to ride elephants, or teach English, or work with orphans. If you'd like, you could probably find a program that does all three.
       Parents, think about the last family trip you took. Add up the cost of hotels, food, and activities, and it can get frightening fairly quickly. Volunteer programs usually include all of those things in one price, and many welcome children. Other than the cost of getting there, there are very few additional expenses. That is unless you find a market like Chatuchak, and I highly recommend it anyway.
       By no means do I want you to believe that you have to jet off to Africa to do something out of the ordinary. You can save a lot of money on airfare by staying in the United States, and you can still travel in a way that you may not have ever thought of before. You could help build trails in the Appalachian Mountains or work at a nature preserve in New York. You could volunteer at a dude ranch in California. You could build houses for Habitat for Humanity or even ride in a covered wagon train in Wyoming.
       There are many ways to save money, but don't immediately write off the programs that may seem a tad pricy. The truth behind some of these volunteer participation costs is this: They keep these valuable programs running. Honestly, the mahouts can get along just fine without me, but my volunteer fee is what helps them pay for food, medicine, and necessary supplies for both themselves and their elephants. They could never keep the program running and the elephants off the busy city streets without this outside  source of income. They are incredibly grateful.
       Yesterday, as we talked about my imminent departure, Boonma asked me, "What do you get?"
       "What do you mean, 'What do I get?'"
       Because it seems that I am going home without much more than I came with (He did not see my purchases from the Chatuchak market.), he couldn't understand why I would pay what I did to do what I have done. He feels that he gains more from me participating than I do. Financially, I see his point, but I was floored, if it's possible to be floored while sitting twelve feet off the ground.
       What do I get? I get to have the adventure of a lifetime. I get to see my money put to good use instead of going to a large corporation or tourist trap. I get to see people trying to make a difference in big and small ways. If you doubt what I say, take a look at my previous blog posts and try to tell me that this is not a positive program.
       Don't ever assume that this is not possible for you. It takes a little research and a big leap of faith, but you will not regret it. I'm willing to bet all of my market purchases on it.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Denial Starts...Yesterday

       The disappointing thing about adventures is that they come to an end. I'm dreading tomorrow like you dread the trip to the dentist when you haven't been flossing properly. My flight whisks me away from Thailand at night, thankfully giving me one more day with my elephant. Still, I must go through the compulsory farewell process and face the fact that I will not be going back to the camp on Wednesday morning. If you are wondering how I am taking this, my answer is, "Not well."
       Today, I tried to ignore reality and spend my day like always, fetching grass for Boonme, hoisting myself up on her back, and eating fresh pineapple from my comfortable seat above the ground. Boonma took her for a swim in the pond, and it was like watching a log rolling contest where the log has a mind of its own. She plopped into the water, dove under the surface, and sprayed water from her trunk. It was like watching a child discover how exciting the water can be.
       Tonight, I had my last English tutoring session, and my usual student brought a friend from school to practice scripts with us. My American accent makes me very popular here, and people love to listen to me speak, even when I have nothing groundbreaking to say. My value as a teacher here stems from the fact that I was born in the United States, which hardly seems fair. When I consider the great effort it takes to learn English as an additional language, it makes me unbelievably thankful that it is my mother tongue.
       Allow me to make you grateful that it is your first language. (If it's not and you are reading this, bravo to you.) As an experiment, explain to me why the following words are pronounced the way they are: rough, through, dough, bough, and cough. When you come up with the reason, let me know so that I can re-explain it to Thai people. I don't believe the shrug I gave them was a satisfactory answer.
      Needless to say, learning to speak Thai is much more straightforward, and I will miss my daily lessons, among many other things. Now excuse me while I go floss. I have a dentist appointment later this week, and I am afraid they are going to yell at me.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Bangkok: Not For The Claustrophobic

       The pace of daily life in Bangkok could not be more different than the pace to which I have become accustomed. Chicago and New York City are busy, sure. However, they do not begin to compare with the body-to-body, no personal space experience that is certain areas of Bangkok. It is fairly simple to navigate, as long as you know how to push your way through masses of people without tripping over the goods being sold by vendors on the sidewalks. Do you need to get to the Skytrain quickly? Too bad. You should have allowed more time. These are the lessons that Bangkok is waiting to teach you.
       Once this is taken into account, there are striking sights to be seen, for instance, the Grand Palace. It is the pride and joy of the Thai people, and if the sun is shining, prepare to be blinded by the pure reflective nature of the buildings. There is so much gold, so much sparkle, so...much. It's hard to know where to look.
       I believe I went about visiting the Grand Palace in the wrong way. The goal is to walk in through the front gate and see the sights from the inside of the protective walls. Instead, I walked around the entire complex looking for the entrance, straining to see spires or roofs from the street. I finally discovered the entrance, which I would have found much sooner had I simply walked to the left to start out with instead of the right. I discovered through this little side adventure that the Grand Palace complex is very large.
       Once inside, I wandered aimlessly and in my heat daze, may not have used all of the tickets I paid for. They were written in Thai, and honestly, my main goal was to find water, not decorative masks. I assume this is how they make money.
       My next destination was the Chatuchak market. If there was ever a place to make you want what you never knew existed, this is it. No one seems to know exactly how many stalls there are. Some claim 5,000. Some claim 8,000. Some even claim over 15,000, but no one is going to argue or put forth the effort to check. The stalls create a maze, a covered labyrinth. Don't even try to keep track of where you are. Assume that you will eventually end up where you started, and if not, just try my trick and walk around the entire circumference.
       Would you like an alligator head purse? How about a puppy? If you are not a dog person, there are plenty of kittens to choose from. If your chandelier is broken, buy a new one here, and don't tell me you don't need that life-size Buddha for your living room. If you are in the market for smaller things, choose from cookie jars shaped like Disney characters or a shadow box of nautical pins. Stock up on your African tribal instruments, or if the mood strikes, you are more than welcome to invest in books on species of trees in northern Thailand. You will need a suitcase to carry most of this home, so don't forget to purchase one of those as well.
       Do you know that feeling of regret when you can't stop thinking about an item that you wanted but didn't buy? I do, but don't worry about me. That does not apply to my trip to the Chatuchak market, because I bought everything. It was a severe case of repetitive impulse buys. I do not regret it. All I can say is thank goodness my two-hour bus ride back to the elephants was only four dollars.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Life As They Know It

       Last night, I had the chance to spend the evening as the mahouts and their families do. I spend my days at the camp, but my evenings are spent at a lovely air-conditioned house a few minutes' drive from the camp where I have my own room and access to a pool. I will be the first to admit that I've been fairly spoiled. However, I gladly gave up my air conditioner for the chance to visit the local evening market, help a couple of the children practice their English, and see the elephants' nighttime routine.
       I experienced true Thai culture at the market, which was untouched by any tourism. I was the only farang, or Westerner, in sight. People were simply there to buy their groceries or pick up a treat for their children. There were insects for sale, and some stall owners were busy cutting fish or meat to display. I did not eat any of those insects, because I assume that grasshoppers crunch a lot more than ants. I especially love the tables of fruits native to this area, and I will miss them when I return to the United States.
       Another privilege was spending time with the children from the camp. I never have the opportunity to see them while I am there, because they are in school. Thai schools have breaks at different times than us, which unfortunately means that I am gone by the time they return home from school. Last night, intstead of hearing the daytime sounds of elephants continuously munching their food and tour buses driving past, I got to hear the crickets chirping and the children playing. They showed me baby chicks and the lizards they had found, and I quizzed them on the colors green, purple, blue, and yellow and the numbers 1-10. Thanks to me, they now know how to high five and say, "What's up?"
       I slept on a cot in the volunteer room, where they kindly set up a fan for me. Some of the adults stayed up with me, and we practiced the names of the seasons, the days of the weeks, and names of the months in both English and Thai. I now know the Thai names for each finger and the words for the sun, moon, and stars. I bravely declined a mosquito net, and lived to tell the tale.
       There are many differences between their evening routine and yours. Of course, I'm just assuming that you don't check to make sure that your elephant has one last round of pineapple leaves before tucking yourself in for the night. Despite these superficial differences, the parents ask if the children finished their homework, and the kids grab a snack and run around outside with their friends. Families cook dinner, do laundry, and get ready for bed. The setting is vastly changed, but the concept is the same. Daily life is daily life, and similar concerns and joys come for everyone, even those with an elephant in their front yard.

Amazing fruits at the market

One of Ja's baby chicks

The prickly outer coating is awful, but the inside has become one of my new favorite fruits. It tastes a little like SweetTarts, but you can pick these off the trees.

This is me relaxing after a tough day. By "tough" I mean that I cut grass for Boonme to eat at 6:00 am, but then sat on the beach and rode elephants.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ordinary Days

       As I sat down to write, I had a realization. As my day progressed, I thought that it was pleasantly routine and that nothing especially out of the ordinary was happening that I should write about. Then it occured to me that when "ordinary" has become riding elephants all day in Thailand, my perspective of real life may be a tad off.
       I have reached the point where being home right now would feel stranger than being here. This has happened to me before. It's usually the point where I run out of American shampoo or accept the fact that I won't find a Dunkin Donuts or a place that serves nachos until I get home. Well, maybe I never actually come to that place of acceptance. Let's face it, I do love donuts and coffee an absurd amount.
       The point is, I've established a comfortable routine. Certain things still surprise me, of course. If nothing ever did, why would I bother to leave home? The key is that I've learned how to act in new situations. I know how to get around. I've made friends. This makes traveling far from home far from stressful, and I highly recommend it. Just bring a donut.

Eating bananas

She's super greedy.

What's with all the babies everywhere?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

UPDATE: It's been a few days, and she still thinks my hand is food. She is so adorable that it doesn't matter in the least.

We took an exciting, impromptu field trip to visit temples in the afternoon.

The temples are incredible structures.

I was dressed to ride elephants. Needless to say, I did not "dress accknees ordingly" for the temple.

Students, the postcards you made are stamped, addressed, and on their way! Now we just cross our fingers that they make it!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Bug's Life, Invading Mine

June 26, 2012

Dear Students,

       In the reading corner and number corner, did I ever tell you that you were sitting like you had ants in your pants? It seems like I may have, but I don't remember my specific wording. In any case, I can now tell you, with certainty, exactly what it looks and feels like to literally have ants in your pants. It's not the best feeling in the world. I'd put it up there with having a cold or dropping your ice cream cone on the ground.
       Boonme loves to eat from the trees where the ants live and where it was that I was convinced against my better judgement to taste one. Elephants' skin is an inch thick in some places, so tree branches and ants don't bother them. Humans, on the other hand? It takes all my concentration to stay put while trying to bat away branches. Then add in the fact that Boonme has basically paraded me into the ants' home without their permission and given them full access to me.
       Having ants in your pants is a desperate situation, especially when you are wearing long pants and can start to feel pinpricks of ant bites on your knees. Lucky for me, I was wearing those super cool, stylish hiking pants that unzip at the knee to become shorts. I was able to make the transformation, balanced atop an elephant, all while being eaten alive. For that, I am pretty sure that I should be in the pant company's next advertising campaign. Also, I hereby give you permission from this point on, in any reading corner, to be fidgety and restless if you do in fact have ants in your pants.

Miss Ross

P.S. You may be disappointed to know that I have no intention of eating any more insects.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Baby Elephants Have Learning Curves Too

       Some of you may have noticed that I did not write yesterday. If you were looking for pictures or tales of exciting adventures, I apologize and offer here a detailed account of the day's events:

1. I read a couple of historical novels.
2. I found a tiny lizard in my bedroom.

       That about wraps it up, so we'll just move onto today. Today, I met a different baby elephant, this one a month old. She was a little more in control of her limbs than the first baby elephant, and she eagerly explored her surroundings with her trunk. Elephants have very poor visibility. They can barely see, and my elephant is even blind in her right eye. However, as this baby is learning, sight means very little when you have the sense of smell and hearing that elephants have. They can communicate with sounds that humans cannot detect. They can feel vibrations in their feet from miles away, receiving messages from other elephants. With their trunks, they can find food from incredible distances and sense if an enemy is near. This baby is learning this from mom and from personal experience.
       She also has a little ways to go with the sensing food skill. See, she attempted to eat my hand. As she chomped away at it, I was thankful that baby elephants have only four small molars and that my fingers seemed to stay away from them. I can only assume that she was highly disappointed in her find. She tried several times to find some sort of food there, but each time wandered back to get milk from mom. I hope that as time progresses, she learns the difference between the nutritional value of grass versus human hand.

Tell me this is not one of the most precious things you've ever seen. See? You can't say it.

Making friends

Tryng to eat my hand

Going back to mom

Saturday, June 23, 2012

In the Heat

       Yesterday, I experienced a Thai night market in Pattaya. The sun set, and people came out of the woodwork to browse and buy among the maze of stalls selling inexpensive goods. I can show you the pictures, but I can't possibly convey to you the smells. It was a mixture of cooking meat, fruit, flowers, heat, and people packed together in tight spaces. It felt exotic and exciting. As I wandered, in awe of my surroundings, I was mistaken as one of the many Russian tourists several times. I think it was the blonde braid.
       Today, I was ferried to an island off the coast of Pattaya. The blue-green water and white sand beaches reminded me that I was in a tropical paradise. Parasailing was offered, and as much fun as it looked, I observed safely from land (You're welcome Mom.). I paid 40 baht, a little more than a dollar, for a beach chair and umbrella, and the shade was well worth it. The clear water was like a hot tub in places, making the air feel actually cold when we walked back up on the sand. Feeling cold is so rare here that it has become a feeling I cherish when I can. During this coming winter, I am sure I will remember the sweltering heat with longing. I will look back on these pictures and imagine myself back in the midst of crowds of people, still debating which stall looks less appealing, the squid or the oysters.


Friday, June 22, 2012

Picture This

Fresh coconut, straight from the tree.

"Two roads diverged in a green wood. And I, I took the one on the left, and I don't think it really made all that much of a difference." -Robert Frost
Or something like that. Look it up.

Climbing Mt. Everest

The less glamorous side to working with elephants.

The glamorous side to working with elephants.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Queen of Cute

       Today, I crowned the new champion of "Awwwww!" when I met a baby elephant, not yet seven hours old. At 3:00 in the morning, the mother elephant ended her - moms out there, brace yourselves - 22 month pregnancy by bringing a stumbling, tottering mass of gray wrinkles into the world. This baby stays close to her mom, awkwardly raising her legs, trying to figure out what on earth she's supposed to do with them. Her tiny trunk explores her surroundings and searches for milk. We threw bananas to mom, our way of congratulating her on creating this masterpiece of cuteness. If we wished to walk away in one piece, we dared not approach while her mahout was away. Tomorrow, with him present, we hope to touch her, hug her, and take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime photo-op.
       A little overshadowed by the arrival of this baby, but still worth noting, was the trek to the beach in Bang Saray. I walked through the village, passing stalls of fruit and cooking meat, trying to avoid being run over by a speeding motorbike. The heat was oppressive, but the promise of a shaded spot in the sand kept me going. The harbor sat on the left, Pattaya's skyline loomed on the right, and rain obscured the islands ahead. A mat was brought, and a Coke paid for in halting Thainglish, my new word for basic usage of Thai numbers and greetings mixed with English phrases. The walk back was thankfully cloudy, and the billowing gray clouds reminded me of this one baby elephant that I know.

"Hey mom!" 

Life is Good.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Hectic Daily Schedule

       Crawling up an elephant is just as difficult as it sounds. When I grab Boonme's ear, she lifts her leg for me. I step on her foot, then her knee, then her shoulder. Then I grab her neck and shimmy up the rest of the way. Getting her to go forward involves gutteral grunting, which I will let you assume is very attractive. She sometimes listens, but not when there is delicious food to be eaten in that particular spot. Getting down is much simpler. I swing my leg over, search blindly for a leg I hope is raised, and drop.
        Elephants take down everything in their paths, so when riding, it is sometimes necessary to tuck my legs up or duck down to avoid being swiped off the top by a tree. They don't realize that their dimensions change when someone sits on top.
       Today, Boonma and I practiced color names and fruit names. I can now say "red banana," because at the moment, I cannot for the life of me remember the Thai word for "yellow." If you'd like, I can also offer you a blue mango. Hopefully I am a better teacher than I am a student.
       Our routine is quite simple, really. I ride, he walks or rides, and we let Boonme wander, looking for the tree or bush whose leaves interest her most. Sometimes we direct her to the shade or to a tree whose fruit we can pick for ourselves. I balance sitting up, or I lay down on her head. She's now heard the greatest hits of Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. I think it's important for her to hear the real classics, and she still sways as if she's dancing.
       After lunch, I sit in the shade with the women from the village. The baby girl smiles and waves at me now, and sometimes, I eat ice cream from the shop across the street. It's slow-paced and peaceful, and I forget that life goes on in the busy world outside of my bubble. I'll rejoin it eventually, but for right now, I'll just sit next to this fan and drink my twice-daily cup of coffee.

She's just like me, always searching for food.

Elephants everywhere!

Hello there.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

I Never Lie

June 19, 2012 (Date)
My dear students, (This is the greeting, remember?)

(Now, here's where you start the body.)
       You may not believe what I am about to tell you. However, you know that I never lie, so this must be true. Today, I ate a red ant. It's true. My elephant, Boonme, was ripping the leaves from a tree as I sat on top of her neck. The tree was covered in the ants, and they were crawling up her skin. My mahout, Boonma, told me to eat one and showed me how. He said, "No die, no die," so I was fairly certain that I would survive the ordeal. I hesitated as it squirmed in between my fingers, and then I went for it. It popped in my mouth, and, I kid you not, it tasted like lemon. Do not try this at home unsupervised.
       Other things happened today, but after hearing that I ate an ant, who really cares, right? In that case, I will write more tomorrow. Just remember, if you ever decide to eat an ant, its family will get back at you. I have the bites to prove it.

Sincerely, (This is the closing.)
Miss Ross
(I'm going to make you remember what this last one is called all on your own.)

Sleeping. No, just kidding. We were talking.

Shower time!

She's reaching for food that we pulled from the trees.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Elephant Experience

       Words cannot describe this experience. However, I promised I'd write, so I will attempt to explain. My arms are covered in scratches from carrying pineapple leaves. The mosquitos have made it look as if I've contracted smallpox. I appear as though I have been sitting in the rain, even when the sun is out. Those things could not possibly matter less when you spend the day with your elephant and mahout.
       The camp is rustic, but the people? They are kinder than any others. The elephants tower over me, but they nudge me gently with their trunks. My mahout and I speak half English, half Thai. He wants to learn, I want to learn. We point, we exchange words, we laugh. Thailand is truly "The Land of Smiles."
       Lunch was a stressful experience. I ate my sticky rice, worried about the impromptu surgery at the camp. My elephant stepped on a bottle, and I learned that big things that seem indestructable can be brought down by small things, in this case, a piece of glass smaller than a penny. However, a mahout is an owner, a trainer, and a vet, and many together can repair an injury.
       Then, we sit on a wooden platform, not talking, not working, just watching. My elephant is a picky eater, abandoning half of the plant, only to eat it later in the day. I can hear a rumbling in her trunk, and she sways back and forth, almost as if she is dancing.
       To ride is, at first, a precarious experience. You must balance, tucking your legs behind the giant, flapping ears. Soon, it is second nature. I sing some Etta James to her, and she grazes. I lay down on top of her head and mutter things to her. She may not respond to my commands yet, but it's important that she hear my voice. Soon, she will know me, and that is unreal.

She could eat all day.

Big Scratch!
It's love.

The view from above.