I have returned from my trip to Thailand with the elephants. A lot has happened and there was a lot to absorb. I’ll be blogging about my week to week experiences in Thailand in the days to come.
THAILAND ELEPHANTS WEEK ONE, PART ONE
I realize that I am part of something special the Wednesday of my first week in Thailand. A heavy tropical storm has just struck, shooting bullets out of the sky, and I am kneeling on the floor, helping to chop lettuce for a girl cooking dinner for me and three other ‘gollas’, or foreigners. I look out the window to see a baby elephant munching on sugar cane leaves and scratching himself. He lifts one hind leg to scratch the other, almost human-like, snorting in the cool air, his muddy gray skin darkening to a dark chocolate brown in the downpour.
It hits me. I’m eating dinner with an elephant in the backyard.
Five days earlier:
I arrive in Chiang Mai, Thailand, after 22 hours on a plane. I check into the hotel and I walk around in a daze. Part of it is jet lag, part of it is culture shock, part of it is I see no one who looks like me in the first hours at the hotel. The white people are all twenty-plus years younger. High school and college kids mostly, an endless gabbing, hard-bodied, partying parade of them. At breakfast I see a guy in his mid-thirties. We share the look of the damned. The old and the damned.
I conquer my fear of eating at a restaurant where no English is spoken nor found on the menu. The owner and I grunt, smile, and gesture at each other until somehow there’s some pad thai in front of me, and it’s delicious.
I meet other people in the volunteer program, run by GVI, Global Vision International. We’re all here to help elephants. I have signed on for a month with these strangers. I’ll be sharing meals, hiking with them, hanging out with them. They are from New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Australia, Switzerland, and there’s a person from California, like me. The British contingent outnumbers all other nationalities, probably because GVI is based in the United Kingdom.
I arrive at Huay Pakoot, a tiny village in the mountains of northwest Thailand. It’s 3300 feet up, and there’s no flat land anywhere. This would be a good retirement community for mountain climbers. On my casual walks around, casually gasping for breath and casually waiting to hear the snap of a leg tendon, I get lost four times. I get lost looking for my family’s house, finding Base Hut (where the volunteers hang out), looking for the road that climbs up to the school. I get lost after a hike, which means I have another hike after the hike.
There is a dinner welcoming ceremony, where a few members of the village come to base hut to welcome new people and give blessings. The ceremony involves blessing a bowl of rice and going around a circle of us volunteers, tying strings around our wrists as a symbol of blessing and protection. I stare admiringly at the little twine ball around my wrist like it’s a Rolex. I do feel blessed and honored to be here. And I’m excited by string. My cats would be so pleased.
I meet my host family and they show me to my room. It has a thin not-quite-a-mattress on a floor, and a sleeping bag for a blanket. The key feature is the mosquito net surrounding the mattress and blanket. There are no such things as screens on the windows, so the mosquito net is my only sanctuary from the myriad of insects that swarm my room every night. Geckos prowl the walls and ceiling, announcing themselves with one of two strange calls. They sound either like an overstimulated squirrel or a frog that has taken voice lessons. They snap up some of the bugs but there are just too many of them.
By the end of the first week, with all the Brits around, I am helpless against the tendency to start spouting British expressions. I say things I would be shot for in America, like ‘sort out’, ‘have a go’, and ‘Hey gov, your googlies are well tarrowed in the henpot’. That last one I made up, but hearing the Brits speak I feel like they just make up words and expressions anyway.
After a few hikes, which I handle okay, and better than many of the younger people, the age gap fear fades. Does this mean that I’m okay to hang with younger people only if I can hike mountains?
Still, I am uneasy around the new volunteers and terrified of the veterans, some of whom are here for six month marathons. I am eager to score even minor social points with my fellows, so I accept an offering of some sticky toffee and chocolate candy that I have never heard of. Most likely it’s British. Here’s how that goes, roughly: “Hey Mike, want a barmy whompun-pat*?”
(*Not the name, but it could be. I’m telling you, they make this shit up.)
“Does an elephant shit in the woods?” I quip smartly, and with a self-satisfied flourish, pop the unknown candy into my mouth. In my eagerness to impress, somehow I’ve forgotten that my teeth, through a combination of genetics and bad living in my twenties, have had to be systematically repaired and replaced over the last two decades, so that now they are like rows of pearly white condominium facades. They look pretty good, but one touch and everything collapses in a dusty cloud of porcelain veneer. The candy feels like a small rock liberally coated with Krazy Glue, and on chew number two I spit out the candy, and one of my dental crowns with it.
So I have to go to the dentist. The procedure should be simple. The crown is still intact, it just needs to be cemented back into place. Simple maybe, but this is the point I realize just where we are and how hard it is to accomplish certain things. There is a dentist in a little town about an hour’s drive away. The villagers are asked their opinion of this dentist.
Some of these villagers, incidentally, chew betel nut. Chewing betel nut looks roughly like chewing tobacco while wearing lipstick as your gums bleed. The locals also smoke thin, foul-smelling cigars, and have more than a few early check-outs from the Hotel Pearly White. They give this guy a thumbs-down. He must be a medieval torturer.
Next plan is another town where there is a small hospital. There is also a dental clinic there. Apparently for this dentist the whole dental gig is just for fun though, since the clinic is open only one day a week. Maybe.
So eventually I am shipped back to Chiang Mai. The clinic there caters to western ex-pats, in fact all the people I see in the waiting room are white. After a short wait I am called in and the procedure is simple, it takes about ten minutes. Total bill: $13.20. My dentist in L.A. would charge me thirteen bucks just for reading a magazine in his waiting room.
The ride back to the village is my first ride in a Sung Tao, probably the most common mode of transport in Thailand. A Sung Tao is a truck enclosed on the top and sides, with the back open. Benches line the two side walls, and there are railings attached to the ceiling. The railings are extremely effective in pretending that I have a sense of safety and control as I am spun, yanked, and thrashed around in the back of this truck on winding mountain roads. Lovely greenery shoots by in an acid-strobing blur, the tailpipe pumps in exhaust fumes unfettered by oxygen, and driving over gaping potholes allows my face to eat generous helpings of my knees.
I never thought I would rate a trip to the dentist higher than a scenic ride through the country, but I’m learning a lot about myself here.