GOODBYE THAILAND

perfect portrait

This post is the LAST installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants, until I write the book. I do reserve the right to add a thing or two later. Thanks for reading.

A few days ago I had my first dream about Thailand. I think it was only the first because in the six or so months since I’ve returned it’s all been so close to the surface, the elephants have been in my blood.

Now there is distance. And the elephants have sunk in deeper, into the briny depths of my unconscious. Thus the dream.

In the dream I was going back, doing the Thailand elephant trip all again. But even in the dream there was the awareness that it would be completely different. Most of the people in the dream return trip were different. The elephants were different.

I was different.

iphone_June25 064The dream was bittersweet. Magical, transformative life experiences—first kisses, first loves, first career triumphs, wedding days, births of children—you can’t do any of these a second time.

And you don’t need to. Each one of these experiences opens you up to have the next magical experience. A bigger one, perhaps. The next one your soul yearns for—definitely.

Babies walk 3My farewell week in the village of Huay Pakoot was difficult. The way I am wired is that I have an acute awareness of the impact a soul separation will have on me—I can feel the loss down to the silty sea floor of my soul, where all the scuttled ships, sunken treasure, and creepy-crawly finned things flutter about. But in the moment I am incapable of expressing this feeling, of even coming close to expressing it.

iphone_June 28 098So there’s a lot of awkward hugging and the human thing of trying to “force a moment”—to stand around snapping pictures and yapping “goodbye” to the people and the elephants and my brain already forming phrases that it can’t wait to whip out on people later like “life-changing trip” and “soooo amazing” with my eyes bulging and what feels like clown make-up on—nothing can “sell” the joy of my experiences better than some painted on eyebrows, I guess.

San Jep.Needless to say, these efforts fell short. And added to my gloom when doing my farewells.

This is why I’ve had to write about it. Why I needed to. And though writing has had the advantage of more precision, analysis, and reflection—it too falls short. I don’t like writing this post. It was hard for me to get around to writing it—I put it off because I hate saying goodbye and I’m afraid of not “getting it right”—of not honoring the elephants, the people, and the experiences in the way they deserve.

I woke up from the Thailand dream feeling sad more than anything. I wish I could do the magic a second time. I wish I didn’t have to say goodbye.

Lulu.

Lulu.

The last hike with the baby elephants in Huay Pakoot occurred in the middle of the week. After it was over I wanted a do-over—I just wasn’t prepared to detach yet. I stared at Lulu hoping that sparks would fly between us, I guess. I couldn’t believe I might not ever see the babies again, that I might not know how Lulu turned out.

Goodbye Lulu.

Goodbye Lulu.

The goodbyes to the fellow volunteers was drawn out because most of us had a few days to spend in Chiang Mai before we went our respective ways. Chiang Mai was a lovely, friendly city but there was something off about the few days I spent here with the other volunteers. The connection was different away from the village, away from the everyday activities that we shared in Huay Pakoot.

Have you ever gone to a particularly amazing party—a really brains-blowing bash where everyone gets properly drunk and happy and everyone hooks up and it’s all laughter and camaraderie and all your quarters shots are swishes and you feel like every single person there has just become a best friend?

(photo from Siobhan)

(photo from Siobhan)

Then you wake up in the sun-blasted, brimstone-and-hangover morning—the time when you are good and ready to drag your ass home, and there’s that guy—that guy—who reaches for a warm beer, maybe wedged in one of the couch cushions, and you hear the pop top opening…

Psshhh.

And you think, That’s the sound of someone who doesn’t know when it’s time to go home. The sound of someone trying to do the magic a second time. (With parties, that guy used to be me.)

Hanging out with the other volunteers in Chiang Mai was fun, but it felt like the party was over. And it was.

Before Chiang Mai there was an actual goodbye party at Base Camp. For the most part the party was as great as the party I described above. The best part for me was hanging out with Singto, the lead mahout, for a little while, and saying goodbye to him.

With Singto at the going-away party.

With Singto at the going-away party.

You good friend,” Singto said to me. His huge smile could flip over tractor-trailer trucks. “Here, keep this.”

He handed me his scarf. To keep.

In his world, I just think it was a simple gesture and a gift of friendship. I don’t think he gets the Western definition of the transfer of an article clothing from star to fan. But I sure did.

I worked in Hollywood for 20-plus years and I could care less about Tom Cruise’s autograph or a Sandra Bullock sighting or Robert Downey, Jr.’s gloves that he wore in Ironman 4—Let’s Do the Same Crap Again.

I admire these people as actors and it’s nice that they’re beautiful, but Singto takes care of elephants and has a pipeline to their souls.

To me, he’s a star.

He handed me the scarf and he said this to me (I’m keeping the broken English for accuracy): “Mike… I see you hike with elephant every day. You love elephant. You make good mahout.”

I felt a lump in my throat. I couldn’t talk—I had no words.

Thong Dee on the last day I saw her.

Thong Dee on the last day I saw her.

Saying goodbye to the elephant Thong Dee was difficult, but I guess I was in a better place when it occurred. I didn’t try to force a moment or try to do anything but be present and be with her.

Thong Dee is in her mid-50’s and most likely in the waning years of her life. I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again—even if I try to do the magic a second time.

There was one glorious moment during this last visit with her. She was on top of a ridge foraging and I was standing below her on the steep incline when she shifted and banked over me like the mammoth mother ship she is. She stepped gingerly down the incline, close enough that I could feel her musky breath and I could get one last impression of how huge and yet how quiet an elephant really is.

For once the staff person didn’t chase me away. Generally we are not allowed within a couple of feet of an elephant. Maybe because the staff person knew that this was my last time, and knew that I loved Thong Dee in particular, she didn’t interfere.

Thong Dee halted her descent for a moment, pausing, still. Elephants are slow and deliberate and do everything at their own pace, but even beyond that, there is no creature that I know of that can milk a pause like an elephant—and the last creature you would expect to be at home in a pause. It would be like if you encountered a giant out of some childhood fairytale—a giant holding a big club in a jungle on a hot, still day and you locked eyes with it… Would you expect it to just stand there, throwing a shadow over you like an overcoat? Or would you instead expect it to clomp after you, swinging the club and trying to squish you under its foot?

Thong Dee, all four wrinkly tons of her, just stood there. We locked eyes. She seemed to be mulling me over. There was a pause and then a pause after the pause.

I like to believe there was some language of the soul being transmitted in that moment. The pause was certainly long enough to speak volumes.

And then she trundled off into some heavier brush, and I saw her backside swallowed up by the jungle.

My last glimpse of Thong Dee.

My last glimpse of Thong Dee.

The last amazing thing I saw on the last hike in Thailand was this:

baby birds in bamboo 2

a nest of baby birds.

They were hidden a few feet off the path, huddled in the dark in a hollowed-out bamboo tree.

I know I can’t “do the magic” in Thailand a second time. But now I do get to work with a soul (mine) that has had an elephant-sized expansion—so whatever is next for me will likely be on the big side.

For what this journey has meant to me… I have no words left, except this one:

Goodbye.

iphone_June25 042

LIKE TEARS IN RAIN

This post is the next installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants.

iphone_June 28 086

One of my favorite movies is the 1982 Ridley Scott film Blade Runner, with Harrison Ford as a world-weary detective in what is probably the first futuristic noir film ever made.

Blade Runner has one of the best death scene soliloquys in cinema history, delivered by Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, an inhuman “replicant” who is being hunted by Harrison Ford’s character. What’s beautiful about the soliloquy is that Batty has lived a very short life and is not even human, and yet in recounting some of the tiny but glorious moments he has experienced in his brief time, he understands what it is to be truly human. Here’s his last words:

I’ve… seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those… moments… will be lost in time, like… tears… in rain. Time… to die…”

When it’s my “time… to die…”   here’s a partial list of some of those tiny but glorious moments in Thailand—the ones that will never get their own blog posts—but that have made me grateful I have lived them. These are some of the moments that remind me of what it is to be human, in no particular order:

I learned to cook some Thai dishes from a 14-year-old village girl wearing a Yankees hat while a black kitten the size of my fist nuzzled my belly. The kitten felt as delicate as a little glass ball, so instead of holding her normally I cradled her with the tips of my fingers.

I drank 28 cups of teeth-melting instant coffee—one for each morning I was there. My plan was to relax and enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee before each hike. I never finished one cup—you can’t keep an elephant waiting.

I hit 20 walls on 20 strenuous hikes and I kept going. This means that 20 times I thought I could go not one step further… and I went on hiking for hours after that. On hike number 21, there were no more walls.

I drank tea in the forest out of mahout-crafted bamboo cups that were warm on the inside from the tea and hot on the outside… from the heat generated by the machete steel that had been chewing into the wood only moments before.

drinking tea

I learned a few dozen words in Packinyah, the language spoken by the Karen people here. There is no other part of the world that speaks the language, so the utility of this knowledge is limited. But it’s kind of cool that this is the one place in the world where the word for dog is chewie”—and because of that I will never look at a dog again without thinking of a Wookie.

I walked by water buffaloes (think cows) staring at me with expressions that seemed straight out of Munch’s The Scream painting, cow version… I felt powerless because I couldn’t “save” every one of them.

I awoke in the middle of the night to gunshots reverberating through the jungle. I was told that some of the men of the village hunted deer at this time. I hope they missed. Sometimes they drank rice whiskey before hunting. I thought of a booze-charged errant shot thudding into an elephant.

I sat in the clouds on the edge of a mountain while listening to a gibbon (a type of ape) call, at the same time that I watched a mahout blush as he was asked (and teased) about whether he liked or didn’t like a particular girl. While he stammered to answer the ape whooped from the trees.

I saw trees in the jungle with bark that seemed to have grown outward-jutting spikes. To defend themselves against what?

Canon pix June 15_2013 044

I watched Schindler’s List on a screen fastened to a bamboo wall at Base Hut. One of the trips I took right before this one was to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. On the next day’s hike I couldn’t get the image of the room at Auschwitz filled with human hair out of my head, the thousands of tangled and moldering scalps. I left the hike early—the only time I did that.

I bought thin cheap Thai chocolate bars at a “store” that was really someone’s house in the village. Under the circumstances, in that world, it tasted like expensive French pastry.

I got lost in the village multiple times. One of the times I was set right by the lead mahout Singto, tooling by in his scooter. 20 minutes after that I was lost again and set right by Ian, a volunteer. After another 20 minutes, I had to be set right yet again, by Singto again… tooling by in his scooter the opposite way.

I saw elephants climb and descend mountains, and each time it would take my breath away: the way the elephants step, tentative, testing each foothold, the slow shifting of their weight, the look of concentration on their faces, the startled look when they slip, the flailing if they stumbled… all of these movements and all of these feelings—concentration, determination, fear, surprise, helplessness—were utterly human-like.

I participated in four volunteer “quiz” trivia competitions. My first partner was the Base Leader Gemma. She said to me, “I hope you’re not competitive.” I said, “No, not really.” Meaning: “If we don’t win, I will ask the elephants to bury us, because I will have to kill both of us.” On the fourth quiz I was sure that our team had won. When the final tally came in… I could hear the elephants out back, digging graves.

I used this phrase when conversing with people from the United Kingdom: “Fucking Brits.” It’s a term of endearment cloaked in a hoodie of irritation. The genesis of this phrase was the above-mentioned quiz and getting this random and impossible question from Ian, moderator of the quiz and a Brit: “What is the southernmost active volcano in the world?” He followed that gem with five questions about European football.

Fucking Brits.

I whispered to the baby elephant Lulu at two o’clock in the morning—everyone asleep except for me and her.

Lulu.

Lulu.

I saw songbirds once, just traces of them at a campsite. All that was left of them was wispy piles of blue and red and yellow, like the remains of an assassinated rainbow. The mahouts had shot the birds out of the trees and plucked them to fry them on the campfire. I knew if I told them why I was upset they would look at me like I was a space alien. In that moment I felt like a space alien.

I played poker while clouds of bugs thudded into me so often it was as if it was raining bugs. The “rain droplets” were not your typical droplets, though: sometimes I’d get thwapped with a little flying ant, sometimes I’d get fwumped by a big black beetle that wanted to eat my face. We dealt the face-eating beetles into the poker game. One of the beetles got an inside straight and he swept up the winning pot with ten spindly black legs.

I read one note card written by my girlfriend on each night I was in Thailand. There were 32 personal notes telling me in different ways what I meant to her and how much she missed me. Each day I read one I felt like she was standing right beside me and I could feel myself smiling so big that it hurt my face.

I saw up close what an elephant looks and sounds like when it’s frightened. His ears were out and stiff, his tail up and ramrod-straight, he was snorting and trumpeting as he took a few steps backward uphill. The elephant was scared by a stray dog that was a little bigger than a chihuahua, and the dog was not aggressive in any way. This made me realize that fear can strike down anything.

I fell asleep each night huddled in my little mosquito net with my laptop actually on my lap, watching an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It was my Western civilization comfort food.

And I’ve now seen many elephants up close and I’ve touched them, but even better than that: I have stood still while elephants looked me up and down… and they touched me.

Those are some of my “tears in rain.” Maybe not quite as dramatic as “attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion,” but then that’s just a line in a movie… and I can die knowing an elephant hugged me.

Canon_June 17 053

THE ELEPHANT INSIDE ME

While I was struggling to write my next blog post about my Thailand elephant adventure—a struggle which has been particularly embarrassing since I put the words “part one” in the subheading of last week’s post, and so not having part two ready to go already feels like I have a loaded gun at my head—my girlfriend sent me the photo below:

elephant womb 2

Image of an elephant fetus in a womb. A series of different representations, using ultrasound scans and 4-dimensional scanning technology, have been created for a documentary called Animals in the Womb that will be screened in the UK on Channel 4 over Christmas. (Channel 4/PA)

So imagine this assassin standing behind me, call him “Mr. Part One,” who was mild-mannered and loving humanity a week ago when he was on the page, but now he’s pissy and homicidal because he just wants to hold me to my word and see this “Mr. Part Two” I was promising. His dead fish-finger is on the trigger, the gun barrel is tapping my skull, and he doesn’t care about anything else, like me eating or sleeping or feeding the cats, and he certainly isn’t interested in me getting all googly-eyed over a picture of an elephant floating in a womb.

Like anyone would do with a gun to their head—I tell him to hold on for a second.

Besides the fact that this image is just flat-out cool, there is something that it is illuminating deep inside me, a firecracker spinning and popping down into a warren of green and blue glowing caves that leads to who-knows-where. So I’m going to duck a few hundred shrieking bats and try to see what’s down here inside me.

In a literal sense the photo above is, of course, “just” an elephant. But since in the few pockets of the world where they still roam they’re either vulnerable or endangered—what with poaching, exploitation, habitat destruction, and their own super-long gestation period (two years from conception to birth)—there’s no “just” about even one elephant. Most people reading this will likely never see one except in a photograph. So looking at this image reminds me of how unique and fragile the entire species is. Even a powerful giant like an elephant is vulnerable in the womb—and at this point the entire species is hanging by a thread “in the womb.” Imagine losing such a remarkable creature.

Another facet of the image is that I see a resemblance to a human: look at the head, blot out the trunk and ears and focus on the eye and the mouth: those two features in particular, at this stage in the womb, make me think of a human baby.

Most mammals are born with 90% of their brain weight—they are who they are and know what they know at birth. Humans are born with 28% of their adult brain weight, which reflects what will be a long and complex learning process from birth to adulthood. Elephants are born with 35% of theirs—pretty close to humans—and they learn as they grow just like us.

Also like humans elephants grieve, play, mimic behaviors, learn to use tools, show compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, and even communicate with each other.

We already know about their long memories. They also live about as long as humans: 50-70 years. And, if you happen to die first, and are particularly nice to elephants, like famed conservationist Lawrence Anthony, they might even make the trip to attend your funeral. (The Facebook page describing this incident is here and it has a striking photo of the “funeral procession.”)

When I look at the womb photo I also think of elephant astronauts floating in space. I can’t help it. I imagine them in baggy silver space suits and dark-visored helmets that make them look like they’re all wearing giant-sized Ray Bans. They are treading zero gravity up there, pumping their tree trunk legs, and clenching death ray pistols in their trunks so they can repel space aliens. I could go on with this one.

Looking at the photo again and digging deeper… in the last year or two I’ve spoken to some close friends about how I feel like I’ve been “reborn” just in the past couple of years. So when I look at this image I think of all the garbage dumps, sucking swamps, and blasted-out moonscapes that I’ve walked through to get here. All the alcoholism, workaholism, fear, low self-esteem, people pleasing, all the crap-sandwich years of mostly self-imposed suffering—they’re all fading away like old shitty 70’s polaroids in a cheap flip book that I threw into the trash can.

Now I feel like I am this baby elephant right after birth—wobbly and falling on his ass a lot… and yet with this new gentleness, compassion, and capacity for great strength and power.

My tusks are coming in quite nicely.

I also see in this image the thing I am doing right now, in this moment, with “Mr. Part One” standing behind me with the loaded gun, rolling his yellowy snake eyes at me.

I am writing.

As a boy I was writing almost since the moment I could read. I never learned how to hold a pencil properly—I squeezed the pencil in a caveman grip like I was trying to strangle it—so I would write and write and get big ugly blisters.

I stopped writing in my 20’s when alcoholism and “careerism” got me in their grips. I didn’t write too much more than emails for over twenty years. My career in that time was as a trailer editor, and I wrote some copy for the trailers I cut here and there—mostly out of necessity, to fit what I was cutting.

If I saw a trailer I cut on the big screen I was less impressed with my edits than if the copy I wrote made it to the final version: I’d smile and say to whoever I was with, “I wrote that”—exactly like a six year-old boy would say it.

But copy writing to a writer is like being a champion long distance runner who is shut in a tiny room with a creaky treadmill.

I thought I would die without really writing anything ever again. I was terrified of this—because deep down I knew, I knew that I needed to strangle a pencil again.

You know that expression “the elephant in the room”? Well, the elephant in my womb was the writing… it was always there, and it turns out that I didn’t need to worry about never writing again.

Because you know, that’s a freaking elephant in there, and it has to come out.

So as I perform a judo move on “Mr. Part One”, disarming him, whapping him on the bridge of his nose with the butt of the gun, and telling him “Mr. Part Two” will come out when he’s good and ready…

What I want to know is, do you have an elephant inside of you?

I’d like to hear about it.

THE ISLAND OF MISFIT ELEPHANTS

babies forage

This post is the next installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants.

A lot of people have asked me why I chose to go to Thailand to volunteer with elephants.

The journey to Huay Pakoot began when my black cat Bandit got sick in the summer of 2010. Bandit needed to be monitored closely because of his sickness, and my boss was kind enough to let me take all the time off I needed to nurse him back to health.

My job as a trailer editor was demanding and stressful. I worked an average of 50 pressure-packed hours a week, many times much more. Studio executives hounded me, deadlines barked at me, lunch had to be gulped down, and I felt like a scarecrow propped up and roped down into my chair in front of the computer.

About a week into my “sabbatical,” Bandit was improving daily and it was clear that he would make it. Because he needed less direct care, I found I had some extra time on my hands. So I did something I had considered for a few years but had never done anything about: I volunteered to help some animals—at a cat “sanctuary” that was close enough to my house that I didn’t have to leave Bandit alone for very long.

This was a non-profit rescue organization called “Kitten Rescue” that owned a house where they brought rescued cats in to take care of. Many of the cats were from the streets or from kill shelters. A lot of them had medical conditions or temperaments that made them tough candidates for adoption, so I sometimes called the place, “The Island of Misfit Cats,” after “The Island of Misfit Toys” from the Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

My ego wasn’t crazy about this volunteering idea.

Don’t be hasty here. First of all, this volunteering shit will inconvenience you. You’ve got shit to do, my friend. You’ve been working hard. You’ve got some serious chilling to do in front of the TV. Me time—don’t forget. You need your ME time!

Also, dude, you’re only one person—not like it’s gonna matter if you volunteer or not… you can do it tomorrow if you want. Tomorrow you can think about doing it next week. Next week you can think “okay, tomorrow I’m going to make a phone call for sure”—then you can just forget about it for another two months…

I volunteered for a couple of hours a few days a week. I would sweep, mop, fill food and water dishes, change bedding, clean up vomit. Some of the staff would sheepishly ask me if I would mind cleaning out litter boxes and I never had a problem with it —thinking I got this!— I was coming from a multiple cat household anyway. But at the cat sanctuary I was dealing with a tad more than my four cats at home—about 100 of them, actually, so the litter boxes were like toxic waste dumps.

I would stumble around in a green fog huffing through a gas mask, eyes watering, skin peeling, scraping up pee and poo with a dozen cats hanging off me by their claws, yowling at me…

Not really. I actually didn’t mind cleaning the litter boxes. And the best thing was that I got to hang out with the cats.

Ten minutes into my “shift” on any given day I would have an entourage. The cats would follow me around as I swept or mopped, rubbing up against my legs as I scooped out litter boxes.

If I stopped and sat on the ground to pet one I would be mobbed by the rest of them. They’d crawl into my lap, lie on my legs, form a campfire circle around me. More cats would climb down into the low “branches” of the cat trees that were everywhere and meow at me. They crowded around me like I was the cat Socrates, traveling to see cats around the city, dispensing wisdom, liver treats, and scooping watery poo.

That’s because I had something they desperately wanted. They were starving for it.

Love.

What kind of man helps out cats, anyway? You better check down there, see if you still got two of those dangly things, cause I have my doubts now… What—are you gonna keep doing this? What about me… ME!

Turns out the cats weren’t the only ones needing love.

The work, the stress, the eyes glued to my bank account—my ego me making big problems for me me everywhere—had shut me down—and these cats showed me how shriveled my spirit had become.

With a couple of dozen cat groupies showering me with love–and the love that came from my sick cat who was dependent on me for his very life—together these things caused all this tension I’d been holding in my body to drain away, while my own heart opened up like a half-starved flower.

Volunteering is service and a good definition of service is love directed outward, with no expectation of getting anything in return. But what I discovered is that when you volunteer, you get a return of 100%—and then some—every single time.

But the ego will never get this.

What is this shit? Cat affection, are you freaking kidding me? I didn’t ask for this. I can’t eat it or spend it. Seriously… where’s mine?

In early 2013, I decided to get a little more ambitious. Instead of a twenty-minute drive to the cat sanctuary I decided I could go a little further afield. Somewhere that would frighten me—my ego gets really worked up when I get beyond my little bubble of safety. I had come to a point where I listened very carefully to what my ego had to say about my ideas… and then I did the opposite.

Bandit recovering in 2010. Somehow taking care of him...

Bandit recovering in 2010. Taking care of him…

... led to this.

… led to this.

I Googled “volunteer with tigers” and “volunteer with elephants.” To me these are two of the top ten species of animals on the earth, and because both are disappearing rapidly, it seemed like it was now or never to meet a tiger or an elephant.

I decided I would go with the elephants. The reason is because I already had all this cat energy in my life. Time to change it up, bring in something new.

I checked out different organizations that offered elephant volunteering projects. The filtering process was easy for me because my primary criterion was this: What program was really serving the elephants the best?

There was one that had you take care of your own elephant every day. Sounded great. This included shoveling elephant dung—well I had survived the poisonous green cloud of kitten poo, so I was cool with this—but when I looked closer, I saw that these elephants would spend half the day in tourist camps, performing tricks, doing very un-elephant things. Then half the day they’d be in a small sanctuary where people like me would be helping them.

To me that was like letting a child get beaten every day and then at night you bandage him up, pat him on the back—and send him out the door the next day for another beating. I didn’t want to be part of that.

Other programs had photos of volunteers riding elephants. Even though I hadn’t met any elephants yet, I was pretty sure they weren’t amusement park rides. So those programs were out.

In the end, it came down to two different volunteer organizations with two different elephant programs: one in Cambodia, one in Thailand. They both seemed like good programs, both seemed to put the elephants first.

The one in Cambodia offered a hotel-type accommodation with Western toilet, shower facilities, and bed. You had your own private room in a lodge with other volunteers. There was a village close by that had Internet, stores, and bars.

The one in Thailand offered a squat toilet, pail of water, and a gum wrapper-thin mattress. You had your own room in a local family’s house (“Shit! We gotta learn a foreign language?!” cried my ego). No real stores, no city within miles, the Internet was spotty, and getting to it required a hike up a mountain.

The one in Thailand also required me to do my own FBI background check—on myself. Thankfully no one ever found out about that time in the Arizona desert at three in the morning…

Just kidding. There were deep wounds, but we all made it out alive.

I read reviews of people who had done the Thailand project, and I kept reading quotes like: “exhausting days”… “the hikes are really hard”… and I kept seeing this one: “I wish I had stayed longer.”

The prices were about the same. (And by the way: these were really cheap trips compared to every other foreign trip I’ve ever been on.)

My ego drooled over the one in Cambodia.

But I think you know which one I ended up going with. The organization is Global Vision International.

I have gone on many trips to feed the ego, and they’re usually pretty good. I go out, I eat a lot, I see shows… I get plenty of “me” time. I’m not knocking them.

But this one—the first volunteer service trip that I have taken—is the one that cracked my heart open, the only one that transformed me.

Cracked your whaaa? I’d like to crack your freaking head open. Seriously, where’s my check?

And I can tell you this now: I wish I had stayed longer.

024

THE ELEPHANT POLICE ARE HERE

This post is the next installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants.

Being the human that I am, I live in my brain a lot. I approach most everything as if it needs to be mastered, figured out.

In Huay Pakoot when I tried basket weaving, I got frustrated when I couldn’t figure it out.

"If I can just slide this... under here... damn it!"

“If I can just slide this… under here… damn it!”

I tried to teach English to the school children, which was difficult because as a teacher I was starting out with a huge disadvantage—I didn’t know their language. How could I teach them the word “dog” when I didn’t know what the word is in Packinyah?

Not only could I not figure out how to teach them—but what if I said something that made them feel insecure or hurt? What if I broke them, like they were little glass ornaments that had slipped out of my hand?

I felt like a giant crocodile wandering around in that classroom, clumsy and dangerous.

At least I had the elephants figured out. By the third week I knew them by name, sight, and personality.

Mana is a ham. She poses for pictures like Marilyn Monroe.

Mana pole dancing pose.

Mana pole dancing pose.

Mario is easily frustrated and he demonstrates the biggest elephant stereotype that I had going into this trip: he actually trumpets—just like an elephant in a Hollywood movie—and he sounds about the same as a movie elephant. Well, except that when the trumpeting sound is 20 feet away from you, and you can see the elephant’s pissed off expression at the same time that your eardrums are being blasted—you know he could beat out a Hollywood elephant for an Oscar.

Baby Bpee Mai is confident, “his own elephant.” If elephants attended kindergarten, he’d be the one the others followed around because he seemed to have all the answers.

The baby Lulu is the opposite–she seems lost in this new world outside of a tourist camp. Her PTSD-like swaying continues even when she’s foraging in the jungle. But she has the most to gain here, and people volunteering after I am gone will surely see the results of her progress.

Thong Dee has gotten into my blood. Hiking into the jungle to see her is like climbing a mountain in Tibet to see the Dalai Lama.

But in week three something happened that made me realize that I had to get out of my brain. This whole trip had become like a puzzle slowly resolving itself—only maybe it wasn’t the kind of puzzle where I had to figure everything out.

On a hike following the elephants Kam Suk and Kam Moon up a steep, brush-boxed mountain, we found a small meadow on flat ground that gave us a respite from the shoulders-denting hike. We relaxed, guzzled water, and watched the elephants have a mud bath.

Kam Suk and Kam Moon.

Kam Suk and Kam Moon.

Kam Suk and Kam Moon are a mother-daughter duo that usually forage by themselves. They generally could care less about us volunteers, so we were all caught off-guard when they drifted closer to us.

There was only one way out of this meadow… we found this out when Kam Suk and Kam Moon blocked it.

The mahouts tried, and failed, to stop them.

The elephants padded toward us in slow motion. With the gray-white mud glazing their skin they looked like elephant statues that had come alive just as they were drying.

We backed up to the edge of the meadow… where we had to stop. I felt the knives of a thorny bush digging into my back.

We’re only allowed to make contact with the elephants when they are chained, locked down.

Kam Suk and Kam Moon were chained, but we couldn’t get far enough away from them, from the radius of the chain. The elephants could still reach us. And there was nowhere for us to go, we were cut off in the meadow. The walls of trees and brush surrounding the clearing were too thick to penetrate.

We got quiet.

These are not tourist camp elephants any more. They aren’t wild exactly, either, but they’re living their lives here way more on their own terms—not on ours, those of humans.

Trapped in this clearing, we were on their terms.

The elephants plodded a few more steps toward us and stopped. They were close enough to touch. I could see a leech attached to Kam Suk’s giant half-moon toenail. It was groping in the air like it was trying to gauge a jump from a cliff.

The elephants’ heavy-lidded stares fell on us as they brandished their trunks like billy clubs.

Kam Moon’s breath was earthy and hot on my face. Her trunk snaked toward me, patted me from my boots to my shoulders, sniffing all the way. Kam Suk worked over another volunteer.

The two of them were frisking us like elephant cops.

We were helpless, pinned down.

I could hear a low, rolling rumbling that sounded like a slumbering dragon.

It was coming from the elephants, but it was impossible to tell which one. Maybe it was both. When elephants make rumbling noises, you feel them more than hear them.

"This thing is loaded."

“This thing is loaded.”

Kam Moon swung her trunk from me to her mother. She nuzzled inside her mother’s mouth, then probed in her ear. With my trailer editor brain, the sight of an elephant trunk glomming onto an ear felt like it needed a cartoon sound effect, so in my head I heard the phhhh-ut sound of an object slamming into a pneumatic tube.

This almost made me laugh.

Then the way Kam Moon was digging in her mother’s ear—it looked like a daughter cleaning out her Mom’s earwax—I half expected her to start pulling some treasures out of there. A ball of elephant earwax would make a good bowling ball—or exercise ball for a giant hamster. With Halloween coming up, you could probably carve a really nice jack-o-lantern out of elephant earwax.

It was a comical moment… and whatever tension there was in us volunteers seemed to dissolve away in the rumbling. People began chattering, laughing, pulling out their cameras. Some of the volunteers touched the elephants back.

I fought the urge to “pet” them myself. I was kind of weird about that—for me, touching an elephant was okay, but petting an elephant like a dog didn’t seem right.

The rolling rumbling sound continued. Were Kam Suk and Kam Moon having a conversation together?

Maybe they were forming their own opinions of us, like I had of them. Maybe they were thinking I was a pain in the ass. Or—most likely—they were just expressing their love for each other.

Maybe I wasn’t here to figure out what they were doing, or figure out anything.

Life in Huay Pakoot was turning out to be a different kind of puzzle, one that didn’t need to be worked.

And anyway, I wasn’t working the elephants, the elephants were clearly working me.

In that moment, I could feel the low-end rumble of the elephants registering inside me.

Deep within.

 

A CAT IN ELEPHANT TOWN

At the end of a long day of hiking and other activities in Thailand I would walk home alone. Sometimes it would be prairie wolf late and the other volunteers and the people of the village would be asleep. The air would be like thick glass and the cicadas would be in low throttle, probably fatigued from all the head crashing of the daytime. Sometimes I would walk by Lulu the baby elephant and she would be still. Elephants sleep only four hours a day and I would freeze when I walked by her because I knew this was one of the moments—that she was sleeping only a few feet away even though I couldn’t see her because the night crept out of a dark closet and around us both.

I’ve walked alone many times in life. I had a paper route when I was a boy and I would get up at five in the morning when the dark was still splayed out all over the neighborhood. I’d walk past the graveyard, the crosses spreading their arms in the shadows, past the corner store with the loud hum of the neon sign. I walked that paper route in the winters with the snow robing the trees and I could hear the snowfall. I could hear it sighing in the air and sometimes I would pause, maybe on someone’s porch. I’d sit there in the dark and watch and listen to the little hoof falls of the million snowflakes landing.

In college I wandered the USC campus, on my way home in the middle of the night in an L.A. ghetto, and I was lucky I guess because even the muggers, rapists, and killers would be asleep. I would be buzzed on a few beers so the edges of me would be soft but I still had a back pocket-type of awareness, and there would be a strange city-quiet accompanying me. The sirens, cars, crazy gibbering homeless people all muffled, all the crazy filtered through a wind sock. The city had a rat-eye clarity at three in the morning.

Later, walking in the Thailand jungle, fatigue drooping down the corners of me, a day full of elephants and a night with stars fender bendering in the sky, and in all these times and in all these places there was a danger in that silence. Anything could happen, a snake could swerve into me, a maniac could pogo stick out of my bad dreams and drive a blade into my spine, and the quiet was just like that—coiled violence and heavy breaths, a pirate waiting for you below decks.

In all these moments, of course, I was not alone. In these moments I was walking with divinity. I was holding the ace of spades in my hand.

This guy was my companion for many of my walks:

ace of spades 1

He was a stray from the village. He would dart ahead of me and cut me off at the ankles so I had to stop to pet him.

His coat was such that I didn’t know where the dirt ended and the black spots started. By the end of the trip he would look for me and I for him, even in the daytime. He would walk with me past the elephants, but stop laughing-dead before we reached stray dog territory.

He looks like the ace of spades, don’t you think?

INTERVIEW WITH AN ELEPHANT

This post is the next installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants.

Speaking out for the first time.

Speaking out for the first time.

In her mid-50’s now, Tong Dee is the matriarch of the man-made elephant herd here in Huay Pakoot. This is despite the fact that, with the recent arrival of Kam Suk, Tong Dee is not even the oldest elephant any more. I have been enamored with Tong Dee since I met her at a banana feeding during my first week in Thailand. I knew right then and there I needed to meet with her and try to conduct my first-ever elephant interview.

I didn’t think the interview was going to happen. When I first approached Tong Dee and asked her who her publicist was, she said, “What’s a publicist?” When I tried to negotiate the terms of the interview, including wardrobe suggestions, she balked. I felt like an elephant of her size would probably look best in a slimming black turtleneck. It worked really well for Sharon Stone. I thought some dangling silver hoop earrings might set off her eyes and jingle pleasantly when she flapped her ears. And I felt the best venue for our interview, and for an elephant of her stature, would be The Chedi Hotel Chiang Mai.

But I knew that being the matriarch, Tong Dee would be calling the shots.

I arrived early for our interview at a mud hole down from a dirt road in the village of Huay Pakoot. Tong Dee showed up only minutes later, naked and without any piercings in her flapping ears. Her size can only really be appreciated up close: she is about 7 feet tall at the shoulders and about 19 feet long, counting her tail. Her weight is a little over 6000 pounds. She carries it well. She has distinctive bowl-shaped cysts on her right flank and right foreleg—but they are benign.

It was late afternoon, the sun at its blazing worst, and Tong Dee sighed as she trundled into the shallow mud hole at the edge of a meadow in the jungle.

Her bearing was dignified but a little tentative, and her trunk wandered all over me, sniffing me a bit warily. Her past as a beast of burden in the logging camps has taken its toll, and her skin hung loosely and was wrinkled and leathery. A wooden bell was clasped around her neck. I guess she was going for an austere look. A look that seemed to say, “Sure, I’m a down-to-earth gal, approachable… but don’t mess with me”—and—“Get that makeup guy away from me before I step on his little head.”

Thong Dee at the mud hole.

Thong Dee at the mud hole.

We exchanged some pleasantries. I blew down her trunk and she snorted back at me. Then without so much as a word she settled into her mud bath, her feet clopping in the dank earth and her trunk spraying thick, cool mud all over her body. As she fielded my questions she constantly slung pies of the stuff onto her flanks and up over her lumpy spine.

ANIMAL GUY: I am honored to have you here, Tong Dee. From the first time I saw you… well, I just knew I had to meet you.

THONG DEE: It’s “Thong Dee”. There’s an “h” in there, though it is silent. You’ve been spelling it wrong for a long while. All these things you’ve been writing about me. Since I am here with you now I will correct you.

I flush red. My first interview with my elephant heroine, and it’s already going off the rails. I am pleased, however, that she’s reading my blog. This despite the fact that elephants, as a general rule, can’t read—though I understand that they do handle the internet well—which is the opposite of my grandmother.

THONG DEE: I can see you’re nervous. It’s okay. Humans make lots of mistakes. So many I could never count and never remember. And I have a very good memory. Well.

ANIMAL GUY: Yes. Yes, okay… thank you… I think. So how long have you been here in this herd at Huay Pakoot?

TD: I don’t know. I don’t count mistakes and I don’t count time. That’s another human thing. I stand with you here. Now. That is “time” for me. When the sun rises, I know it’s time to look for food. When it sets, I know I can rest for a while. That is time. For me, there is no time like you think. There is being. Anyway, I suspect you had the answer even before you asked me.

AG: Three years, I think. You’ve been here three years.

TD: You know the answer then. And yet you still ask it. Curious. I find you creatures endlessly fascinating. Always you are two opposites at once. Well.

Tong Dee's face

AG: Okay, let’s talk about that—your relationship with humans. Maybe talk about you and Patty Sai-ee, your mahout. Mahouts are the trainers and often the owners of elephants, so your perspective would be valuable.

TD: That… that is complicated. Well.

Thong Dee’s eyes stare at me for a moment, then look away. The late afternoon sun is relaxing it’s grip a bit, and some of the mud is drying, turning her skin the color of a gravestone. With the gray-white mud encasing her, she looks like the ghost of an elephant. A brilliant blue butterfly, the color of lapus lazuli, alights briefly on her flank, before fluttering away.

TD: Patty Sai-ee, ah… We are like… how you say… twins. Separate but the same. Our paths—we go together, otherwise we lose our way. There is some love, but it is not even the point. And… ah… there are things between us that are not balanced, it is like… we are on a scale and I am big, I could crush him. But he is human. And because he is human he tips the scale his way always. In nature if there is no balance… ah… I say it like this: he will never be my brother. Well.

Thong Dee sluffs around in the mud, scooping up another trunkful of the stuff. She stops in mid-air, the clump of mud squeezed in her proboscis.

TD: He sees me sometimes in the worst way—the way humans see many things in the world. He needs things: food, shelter… money. I believe he thinks he will not survive unless I am bent to his will. I think it would be easier for him if I was a thing, an object. I would have no feelings and no will and then I would do exactly as he wished. But of course I am not a thing. It’s okay. I am old and he is old and we have grown old together. There is a bond I share with him that cannot break. Well. A storm, you see—it destroys everything. Trees fall, shelters collapse, crops drown. Animals run in terror. But the biggest storm does nothing to our bond. Nothing.

Thong Dee and Patty Sai-ee.

Thong Dee and Patty Sai-ee.

AG: I think I understand…

TD: I would laugh if I knew how. Humans and the intellect. You believe the world is in the brain. Better to take in then to understand. Yes? Understand is all this work, this wheel spinning nowhere. Take in is better. It becomes part of you. Well.

AG: Okay… I am trying. So tell me a little about your past. You came from a logging camp? That must have been hard. Can you tell me a little about it?

TD: That is difficult. I will try. I was different. I was young. Men “trained” me—hah!–for a long time… for many years, to use your meaning. Always with the whip, the club, hovering over me. I was a baby and I was frightened. We were all frightened. They taught us to obey. To drag trees to the river or to the trucks.

As Thong Dee says this, she shifts on her feet. The chain around her right front leg jingles. We both look down at it, startled. It’s a reminder that even now she will be chained down for various reasons. I flush red, feeling shame, like I was the one who put it on her.

TD: As a female, I was forced to push the small trees… ah… logs… I pushed them with my head because I had no tusks. The males could not do this because of the tusks. They were forced to pick up logs, scoop them up. Their tusks sometimes would crack, break under the weight. And all the time my brothers and sisters would fall. Carrying a tree, a fall could be the end. Legs breaking and getting kicked to get up, to carry more. And the screaming. You make me think of it, the sounds of my family screaming. The humans don’t hear it with their ears, but the ground carries it far, the screams. All of us hear and know what is happening.

I sit for the first time, planting myself in the mud. Thong Dee towers over me. Her ears stick straight out from her massive head like flags in a gust of wind. Her tail is up and quivering. I know these are signs of an elephant in distress.

TD: All was black around my heart but I would see the sunrise and feel like all creatures feel upon seeing the sunrise—it would be a new beginning—it would be good this time, this day. But it was never good. The sun never got in through the blackness. I always expected it to, and it never did.

Her sunken eyes glitter at me. She becomes completely still, and I marvel at this. Three tons of nothing happening. A giant holding its breath. I can’t hold her look, shifting my gaze to the chain around her foot. Gray mud drips off a link in the chain. I look back up at her as she lowers her tail. Her ears resume their flapping.

iphone 6_10_13 125

AG: Let’s focus on perhaps a better story. What it’s like for you now in Huay Pakoot. How do you like it here?

TD: It is good. Better. I have peace here. I feel my time in this old body coming to the end. This is good, to be here at the end. The birds sing to me, the insects whisper to me as I fall asleep. The food is plentiful and good, and a lot of the time I can be slow. That is most important, do you know? To be slow. Do you take that in?

AG: I think so. To be more relaxed.

TD: Yes, I suppose. But it’s more than the absence of work or activity. Everything is in the stillness. Everything. All the senses. All that is inside you, and all that is outside you—all that makes your skin look like a big dead leaf, like mine. Well.

AG: The humans treat you okay here?

TD: Yes. They are impertinent sometimes. They get in the way. The young mahouts especially… I have no patience with them.

AG: Yes, I have heard that. I was told that you have swatted one or two of them with your trunk.

Thong Dee snorts. Her head moves up and down, a slow nod.

TD: They think they can tell me what to do. Babies. Let them live a little. Then perhaps I will listen. If I choose to!

Canon pix June 15_2013 005

AG: And what about the other elephants? Do you like them?

TD: It is not… I don’t know. It is not the right question. I am old. I prefer to be alone. Solitude is a treasure and I guard it always. I have taken many steps, had a few litters. My skin is heavy and dry from so many days in the sun, being beaten and driven. It is now my time. I have no anger with others. Kam Suk—maybe a little. She is my age and she has her ways and sometimes they cross with mine. It is okay. For the others I have neither like nor dislike. There is duty with the young ones. Sometimes I will seek them out in the jungle. Follow them. I want them to be safe, to have peace. It is what we want for each other.

AG: Lulu is one of the new babies. She has spent her whole life in a tourist camp, but now she is here. What do you think of her?

TD: She learns. There is sunlight, how you say… ah… hope for her. I followed the babies not long ago. I see her then. She does not hide behind the others like before. I see the play in her. She is a baby and she is… ah… allowed to be a baby for the first time. It makes me glad.

AG: It makes me glad, too.

Thong Dee slowly turns away from me. Sunlight bleeds through the forest in the approaching dusk. The mud is drying up… and with it, perhaps Thong Dee’s patience. I try to get in a last question or two:

AG: So is there anything else you would like to say? Perhaps anything about what it’s like to be an elephant?

TD: Sometime you must teach me laughter. I would use it a lot with you. Well. I do not concern myself with “what it is like.” I have had many sorrows. Some joy and peace—and a hair on my tail’s worth of those things is enough in this world—this world that is dominated by humans. I have survived, and if all goes well I will die in my dreams. Not in a yoke or under a whip. Or from the hot wind of a bullet hitting me. The blackness that was around my heart—as a baby—it is less. Sunlight can come in sometimes. That is enough. That is. Well.

AG: One more thing. I don’t know if you are aware of this, but most of the volunteers who come here think very fondly of you. Me included. You are their favorite elephant. Many of them get tattoos of you…

TD: Tattoos. Yes. I know them, those paintings on the skin. Well. That is a good thing, I suppose. Perhaps one day I will get a tattoo of one of my favorite humans. Perhaps even you.

My eyes widen. One of the most amazing creatures in the world has just paid me the grandest of compliments. Bamboo trees shift and rustle as Thong Dee begins to shuffle back into the jungle, indicating the end of the interview. I call after her:

AG: Wait! Did you really mean that?

She stops. Her mammoth head swings toward me. She raises her trunk so it is level with my head. She sniffs, snorts, and lowers her trunk again. Her eyes blink slowly once. Twice.

TD: Don’t be ridiculous. Seriously, you must teach me how to laugh.

Last day Tong Dee 1