Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Elephants: The Sequel...Rated PG-13 for graphic content

When we last left audiences, Andy and I were madly typing text and posting photos on our blog at an internet cafe in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Moments later, we grabbed our backpacks, newly-exchanged stacks of crisp, perfect US dollars, our passports with the coveted but pain-in-the-ass Myanmar visas, hailed a tuk-tuk and burned tri-wheeled rubber to the airport. After check-in on Air Mandalay, we indulged in a last bit of the West, Capitalism and all that is embargoed and familiar by sharing a Dairy Queen Blizzard, and started off on our adventure to Myanmar. Burma. Whatever.

Needless to say, a lot has happened between now and then. And while a part of me is dying to share more recent events, especially in the photo realm as Myanmar/Burma offered a landscape of inspiration, I must return to our beloved elephants for a few last words as they touched us...and we literally touched them!

Alas, I was last describing bath time at the Elephant Park. Very little else in life as we know it is like this. For me, bath time entails hot water, spicy-fruity bubble elixirs, candles and warm, post-soak pajamas. Needless to say, bathing elephants involves none of the above. Instead, one walks down a rocky path, carefully dodging grassy-green poop bombs, to a muddy-brown, winding river in a jungle-green lanscape surrounded by 20 elephants of varying size (and tons) and 20 mahouts (young men who are elephant trainers). Bath supplies include large, bristly scrub brushes (like you'd use to scour a floor), plastic tubs and water-friendly clothing. The elephants adore bath time and charge right into the river; the mahouts and us untrained civilians head right into the river after them with brushes and tubs.~> read more

  Soon, a surreal scene unfolds: the world's largest land mammals and the world's silliest mammals (humans) cavorting in the river, splashing and scrubbing in tandem glee.

To get specific, Andy and I were leg deep in the river, standing on our tippy toes trying to scrub the leathery, hairy backs of elephants laid over on their side in the river, and then rapidly tossing water from a bucket onto an animal that outweighed us by thousands of kilos to rinse them off. It was completely insane! But they loved it, and we loved it. Getting up close and personal with elephants allows you look deep into their gentle, alert, brown-pink eyes and feel connected with perhaps nature's most magical animal. At bath time, you rub their deep gray and mottled pink skin and feel what seems like crinkles and wrinkles of pliable cement. It's dry, but with coarse bristles of black hair poking out all over their back, head and sides like someone's really bad hair day. Yet the skin is moveable, really quite supple despite the wear and tear of age and the outdoors. At a breath's length, you see their giant column legs bending with ease to reveal crazy round feet and half-moon toe nails that looked to me like a pair of old gray Moon Boots from the 1970's because they're so oversized and squishy. While vigorously scrubbing their backs and upper thighs and making their skin glow like wet granite, you see their thin tails with a toilet brush scruff of hair on the ends, which are completely disproportionate to their giant stature and just have to laugh at the disparity. Bath time also put us right in front of the elephants' fluffy, scalloped ears which constantly swing in delicate synchronized motion keeping flies away--and smiles near--because the motion looks more like they're mischieviously waving at you.

Andy and I had eight bath times with the elephants, and each ended the same way: with the elephants lumbering happily out of the water onto the sandy river banks and immediately covering themselves with dirt, grit and sand! Seriously. The picture at the top of this post is just after the bath. Despite all of our hard work and their avid enjoyment of getting scrubbed clean, the elephants immediately cover their rough-bristle skin with dirt and sand because it serves as a protective sunscreen. During this routine, the magic of their trunks and family groups truly comes to light as each little family of mommas, babies and aunties gathers in a specific area and starts curling dirt into their trunk and tossing the dirt over their heads, them selves, and spraying each other down with their organic form of sunscreen! The babies cavort about, watching their elders and trying to learn the trunk snort and spray routine, but end up playing and chasing each other like human toddlers instead. The adults remain mostly on task with the skincare routine, though sometimes an elephant accidentally grab a small plant and end up wearing the leafy greens as headdress and the others have fun playing with it--even taking turns adorning themselves with the salad hat! Like humans, the mothers and aunts are vigilant with their young, making sure their skin is protected, they've got plenty of bamboo to eat and that the babies are in sight at all times. Otherwise, a rioutous trumpeting that sounds like a saxophone gone wrong begins and the thump-clump of running feet is heard until it's back near Momma or Auntie safe and sound.

The other highlight of a our time at the Elephant Park was an overnight trip up to the "Elephant Haven" where the lucky beasts roam free as nature intended, completely off chains and outside fences eating lychees and bamboo to their hearts' content, for 24 hours. Andy and I slogged through mud, climbed dense jungle-covered hills, traversed a river and crossed one extremely rickety, clusterfuck of a bamboo bridge that I thought for sure would put us in the muddy drink before arriving at the Haven. And while the Haven is heaven for elephants, it's definitely less than heavenly for humans. We thought the Elephant Park was a little rustic with its bamboo bungalows, generators, spiders the size of your palms, cold water and questionably hygienic kitchen. And then we got up to the Haven and found we'd be sleeping under a lean-to and mosquito netting with five other volunteers on a rattan mat and peeing amongst the banana palms. Sigh...sometimes you've go to pay to play with the elepahnts. I'm pleased to say it was all fine, though I willed myself not to need to relieve myself in the middle of the night because it's damn dark in the Thai jungle and bizarre to hear the trumpets of elephants close by! Rustic life aside, being there was a treat because we got close with three elephant families and saw more of their intelligence, community, ingenuity and grace. One of these 10,000 pound animals sneak up on you with more stealth than imagniable, and more than once I turned around and was head to trunk with one of them and found myself jumping off into the bamboo to let them pass!

Above: climbing up to the haven; they had a bath earlier, then covered themselves with dirt as described above.

At Elephant Haven, we also heard painful, unbelievable stories about the dark side of an elephant's life in Thailand. It brought tears to both of our eyes, as well as the other visitors, and we want to share this information in case anyone ever gets the chance to be near the Asian elephants. I mentioned in the "Elephants Part One" post that being close to the creatures gave us big, awesome, natural and unrestrained smiles. However, their affect on us is purely ironic. Throughout Thailand, save for the Elephant Nature Park, elephants are treated anything but awesomely or even naturally, are consistenly restrained and used to the point of abuse. Despite being the natinoal symbol of Thailand (a 95% Buddhist nation, no less) and ubiquitous on everything from Thai baht bills to handicrafts and temple gates, the Asian elephant is mandated by government as "livestock". Elephants are not protected and though wild elephants have diminished by nearly 90% in the last few decades, the government and Thai culture make no allowances for the magnificent, human-like creatures. They're legally used for work...including logging, hoisting tourists about on treks, begging and eating bananas as tourist attraction in Bangkok and performing in Phuket cabaret acts...and there are no rules governing they be nourished properly or treated with care and respect.

Even worse, to train and manage the animals, owners put each baby elephant(like the ones in our photos) through a painful, cruel training period called the "pajan". Each baby is taken away from its mother (for the first time ever), caged for days in a tiny cell, starved, beaten into taking directions such as raising its front legs and sitting, poked by spears, abused by trainers with a sharp hook until blood breaks through the impossibly leather-like skin and they learn how to follow a mahout's signals. Essentially, the baby elephants'...the very animal you can go nowhere in Thailand without seeing displayed or replicated in reverence...spirit is broken and they start a life in shackles, work, begging and tourism with nary a touch of a natural envirnonment for the rest of their life. And elephants live to be upwards of 80 years old!!! For these reasons, on your travels in thailand or elsewhere, please don't patronize elephant street begging, elephant rides, or shows, no matter how beautiful they animals truly are. It only perpetuates this kind of abuse to support it.

Unfortunately, the pajan is only the beginning of an elephant's complicated life in Thailand. Post-pajan, elephants start their life as under the watchful eye and cutting hook of mahouts as "livestock", of which the only mandate is that if an elephant destroys crops it can be shot at or killed in retribution. Can you imagine how that would fly in America if the Bald Eagle was treated that way? Lek Chalert, the teeny-tiny in stature but large in vision and thought founder of Elephant Nature Park, is the grand-daughter of a Northern Thai tribal shaman and gives off a palpable healing energy that connects easily with nature and animals. We had the good fortune to meet and see her at work, and her heart is as big as the elephants she adores. Lek's goal is to have all of Thailand's elephants awarded "protected" status, making hard labor and abuse illegal and enabling them to live freely on preserves like Elephant Nature Park (which is a non-profit and fees go to supporting the elephants) where tourists and Thais alike can learn about and enjoy the magical mammals. It's a beautiful, noble dream and she has some supporters, but also powerful enemies who've already poisoned one baby elephant and threatened her life!!! Why??? Because Thai culture also embraces the mysterious, maddening, omnipotent concept of "face" and challenging the status quo is offensive and threatening to many, especially those who benefit from the current mistreatment.

Once again, the sweet with the extremely bitter. A recurring theme in our travels, but one that is increasingly harder rather than easier, despite our complete exposure to this in country after country, to take. From the Subcontinent to Southeast Asia, we've found cultural contradictions that boggle our Western minds, but learning about the plight of the elephants in Thailand enraged Andy and I. Not that we've sat back and enjoyed the poverty of India and the prostitution of Cambodia, but at least in those countries I'm not seeing the image of starving children on slip covers and massage-boom-boom girls on the "Welcome" signs in the airport. Elephants are absolutely everywhere in Thailand and the fact that they're classified as livestock and unprotected, even though their numbers are dwindling yearly, is so obviously wrong. The fact that elephant owners vying for tourist dollars don't understand if they kill all of the elephants, there will be no more profit left seems so grossly myopic! At least to us, and to other foreign visitors. To Lek Chalert and her team of volunteers running Elephant Nature Park and rescuing elephants, but not to the Thai people of power and or those less powerful making today's dollars from elephants and tourism.

For Andy and I, the elephants' situation can be extrapolated to something we've witnessed on this trip that disrupts our stomach even more than the food. It's a recurrning theme of abusing one's assets, not having a vision, of contradictions that cut deep to the core and leave you a loss for understanding. Whether elephants, teak forests, ancient temples or simple pricing structures, many people--especially those close to tourism--are out for quick, individual profit and don't realize the potential of long-term growth...or destruction. While countries of Western nations like America and Europe aren't always in their finest hour on things such as the environment or preserving national treasures, there is at least awareness and laws get passed, and are not moot due to corruption. Here in Asia, it often seems like people are fighting for their own self-interests on the most individual level possible. That the big picture is impossible to see...that no one even has the notion of vision. And we just don't get it!!! If you abuse what makes your nation great, whether animal, mineral, culture or tourist, it will decay and disintegrate until there's nothing attractive, novel or profitable left. If things don't change, it seems very possible that the memory of an elephant will be necessary in order to remember what was once natural, beautiful and unique in Asia.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Tiffany.I was so touched by your writing.


6:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tiffany - I've just returned from Thailand and was at the Elephant Camp for 2 days. I met Lek, the 32 elephants and the 64 rescued dogs and they were all amazing. Like you I was shocked and very upset at learning about the pajan and am telling everyone I know not to ride elephants and to look for tell-tale scars on trained elephants bodies. This place is truly awesome and we must all try to spread the word.


1:04 AM  

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