A Valentine’s Story
I was sprawled out on the paper thin bed mattress. Not in luxury, but in an effort to avoid any flesh from touching any other flesh in the afternoon heat and humidity that is Thailand. My four limbs spread to the four corners of the earth to maximize the surface area in case a hint of a breeze might bring some relief. All while I was wrestling to secure mosquito netting to protect against the invading bloodsucking mini Dracula mosquitos. All night, they would dart around our exposed heads looking for a succulent point of entry. I needed some rest and some relief. During my quick pre-dinner nap, I swatted at the monsters, missing, missing, and missing the nasty pests. I was determined to secure the netting to protect John and me from the impending nighttime invasion.
I have tried to ignore the buggers thinking of the gentle, loving Tibetan monks’ peaceful existence with all creatures. The meditation works for a fleeting moment. Then my swatting resumes as I really don’t want a face and neck dotted with mosquito welts.
I was just about finished with my netting project and carefully crawled backwards exiting the net gap at the foot of the bed. Better to prevent the mosquitos now than fight them later while crawling into bed to sleep. It was then when I heard a most unfamiliar, yet oddly calming sound.
I heard a very soft “hout, hout, hout”. There was a rustling of hurried steps on the communal balcony and a low vibration of excitement. Suddenly not worried about the little pests anymore, I scurried out of the quarters and the hastily closed the mosquito net to head to the balcony to see what the hubbub was about. What’s happening? I leaned over the railing to wait and wonder.
A cloud of dust billowed down the pathway that runs through the village. Then a mammoth mass of gray and dust surrounded by small men (in comparison to the beasts) came into view. Volunteers and staff on the dirt pathway squeeze to the sides of the path and wait. Elephants have the right of way, after all.
“Hout, hout, hout” is clearly heard as the little men and the big creatures amble closer. From the cloud of dust emerged a herd of elephants with their swaying trunks, big and floppy ears, and steady stride came into focus. The elephants were heading home. Their ever present caretaker, called a “mahout”, one per elephant, were guiding them with an occasional “Hout, hout, hout,” and a gentle push and pat.
I felt my heart swell and a little catch in my breath as I took in the sight. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a thunderous noise as I would have expected from such a massive collection of animals. Instead, they were quite calm as they seemed to sway together in unison, each extending one massive foot after another with a dignified grace. I was transfixed trying to distinguish one gray creature from another. Slowly I began to notice that one elephant walked with an uneven gait, some others had raggedy ears, one was missing a foot, and a smaller one nearest to me was missing an eye.
Just as quickly as they appeared, they were gone. They were returning from their daily walk or swim, deliberately heading back to their home base ready for dinner. I strained to get just one more glimpse, but the pathway was once again filled with people going about their business.
The volunteers huddled together on the balcony sharing their excitement for the week ahead of us volunteering to care for the elephants. Of course, much of the caring involved shoveling poo (OMG elephants poo big), unloading trucks full of bananas and melons, and the making of banana leaf, rice, and banana bundles for the very senior pachyderms. It is a lot of work, but sometimes we got to hand feed the mighty grays which was pure joy.
Volunteering at Lek’s project the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is a monumental memory. There was nothing fancy about it. The beds were a bit hard, the facilities basic, the vegetarian meals were plentiful and of decent quality, and the work could be hard depending on what we chose to do.
By the end of the day when I finally calmed down from my elephant interaction, I realized how tired I was. I was grateful that a massage was part of the volunteer experience. I melted under the hands of a massage therapist from the village. There was a special open aired veranda with lovely local ladies ready to have you experience their massage magic. Lek, the ENP founder, created a scholarship program for massage therapy. Upon graduation, they are given a place to work and clientele to earn a living as a masseuse. A very inexpensive 90 minutes of massage and reflexology got me ready for my jobs the next day. The therapist was so happy and giggly that they got John and I belly laughing by the end of the session. Our uber relaxed bodies tried to move from our mats to sleep, but they seemed to be telling us that they had done enough for one day.
The a rhythm teamwork of the volunteers emerged as we unloaded hundreds of melons and hands of bananas which the elephants ate like grapes. The volunteers were from all over the world and of all ages. I think John and I were the oldest as we were just bumping our heads up against 70 years old, but we worked together flawlessly. Maybe when you know you are making a difference and have a common goal to feed these lovely battered animals who have stolen your hearts, working together just happens.
Every day we met in the morning, got our assignments, and headed out. I remember when the staff members introduced us to the vision of ENP and the kind of volunteer projects we had ahead of us. The local staff made a cute side comment about their amazement that we actually paid to work. Scratching their heads they let out a chuckle and a wink.
The week swiftly came to a close. We had learned about the cultural shift Lek is making in Thailand.
For generations, elephants were seen as just beasts of burden. Captured, trained, and tortured to break their spirits so they would do the bidding of their owners. Legs were crippled, feet mangled, eyes blinded, and spirits broken. It’s not natural for an elephant to carry a person on their back or perform tricks. So if it took starvation, beating, and/or isolation to make the elephant perform. It was just what their owners did. Lek’s plan is to show the elephant owners that they can make more money by having visitors experience a walk with the elephant rather than with tricks and rides. It’s slow going. She is trying to change a deeply embedded system and it is not easy or quick.
One evening John and I were just sitting on the deck of the main structure and when we noticed a baby elephant trying to escape his pen. The persistent little tike kept trying to get a foothold so he could shimmy over the wall. Down he would plop and he would then try again. Twenty minutes into the persistent antics of the curious calf, he had quite the audience. A staff member laughed and commented on how mischievous he was and every night he tried to get on the other side of the wall. And every night a crowd collected to cheer him on.
Feeding the gentle souls was hilarious. I would put a whole melon on the muscular trunk of the hungry, big, gray guy and he would grab it and raise it up to plop it into his mouth as though it were a jelly bean. He swiftly swallowed and was ready for more. So I gave him more and more and more. I would have been happy spending the week just feeding the big cutie-pies.
The sanctuary is set up like a nursing home with different housing arrangements for the animals depending on their need for assistance. The healthy guys lived a bit away from the main campus. They did some foraging and didn’t have manhout supervision. One of the most memorable events of our stay at ENP was when Lek invited some of us to follow her to where the healthy elephants lived.
When we arrived we placed a wide row of a rice and banana mixture wrapped in banana leaves several yards in front of us. Then Lek called to the elephants and they started to emerge from the greenery. There were a lot of elephants. Nothing could quite prepare me for the experience of a herd of elephants materializing out of a mass of green jungle. The herd started picking up their pace. Lek told us to stay still. She said that no matter what, keep our feet planted and don’t move a lick. She stepped out in front of us and continued to welcome the elephants. We were just a wee bit nervous as the dust storm came closer and the trumpets were calling back to Lek, their mama and rescuer.
Oh, so that’s why we put the stuffed banana leaves out there! Hard to pass up a tasty snack. So, the thunderous herd abruptly stopped and feasted. They then slowly continued their march toward their beloved Lek.
Even though we were both overwhelmed and nervous, we we did not move. We learned to trust Lek as the elephants had. Slowly, the big guys surrounded Lek and came close to us. I gently made eye contact with Jokia, an ancient one who was heading straight towards me. “Don’t move an inch” I kept repeating to myself, “not an inch.” She stopped in front of me, just looking. We were sharing a moment. I slowly, without moving my feet, turned askew to make sure John was capturing this moment on camera.
Then to my utter amazement, Jokia’s trunk slinked over my shoulder investigating me. Slowly she made her way to my face. My face was engulfed by her nose. I stood still on the outside but was jumping for joy inside. She liked me and she was giving me a Valentine’s elephant smooch. There is nothing like it. A big muscular giant, three times my size and thousands of pounds heavier was gently smooching me.
And then it was over. I moved my feet and looked at her and the herd slowly moving back up into the greenery.
Now that was a Valentine’s Day I will never forget!