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.

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NIGHT HIKE PART TWO

storm

(photo from Ian)

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

In part one of Night Hike: Your intrepid hero (me) waded through the jungle in a heavy storm with his trusty umbrella and four comrades: Gemma, The Base Leader, Doc Mexico and Doc Ohio, two pre-med guys, Connie in her inadequate low-top sneakers, and Root, the guide and village renaissance man. When we last left our heroes, the guys were idling by a river. The women were way behind and Root had charged into the dark to look for them.

As Root ran by us and was swallowed up in the soggy murk, I looked at Doc Mexico and Doc Ohio. Normally, I would have felt self-conscious and un-manly holding my REI .38 Nerd Special umbrella in the thick of the jungle. But right now we were out in the open by the river, and these two guys were wearing little red riding hoodies that were useless against the skull-thumping rain. At a moment like this I looked like the genius and my umbrella was beautiful, sexy, a close-hugging lover shielding me from the rain.

Doc Mexico played it off but I caught Doc Ohio staring up at my umbrella.

I’m down here, buddy, I wanted to say.

Even so, we were all miserable and the rain did all the talking.

Connie finally limped into sight with Root at her side. He was holding her like he was escorting her down the wedding aisle. Connie had twisted her ankle. It wasn’t serious, but it would slow her way down and make things even more difficult for her.

Gemma and Root huddled, then Gemma broke it to announce that because we were now deep into the hike it would probably just be best if we continued. But she left it up to Connie.

Turn back! I screamed silently for Connie. This was all moving beyond discomfort for me. Fear was cutting me down into little boy-sized chunks. Pre-hike information bubbled to the surface of my memory: It was likely, we were told, that we would encounter snakes.

Jungle snakes. Twisty, squeezy snakes. Poisonous snakes.

I saw myself on my back in the mud, rain stinging my eyes, Gemma telling me to hang on, Root sloshing for help. I felt the two angry needle holes in my leg, venom shooting through me like a heat-seeking missile. There was no help to get. The village was miles away from any hospital.

I’m going to die in the jungle.

snake

(photo from Ian)

Back in reality, Connie vowed to press on. I snapped out of it. Good one, brain, I thought.

Thanks, buddy! Don’t worry, there’s more to come!

With Connie giving in to bravery we faced our first river crossing. Root led the way, sloshing to the middle of the river and pointing out a jagged path of rocks that poked their heads out of the water. Jumping from rock to rock would have been completely unnecessary if we had all just worn fishing boots like Root did, making this the first and probably the last time I would curse the fact that I didn’t own a pair of cheap baby blue rubber boots.

But our hopping and stumbling antics were going to be the number one source of Root’s entertainment for the evening—so it was all for a good reason.

Root flashed big teeth and laughed every time someone slipped or fell into the water. A slight spill would get a chuckle, an ankle-deep fall a guffaw, an ass-over-teacups half-drowning was a belly laugh winner. If you just lost your balance and managed to right yourself, Root practically booed you.

Doc Mexico was the first to fall in. The water was only deep enough to soak his boots and thus make the rest of the hike miserable for him, but Root have him an appreciative chuckle.

Root of course did all he could to offer his hand and assist us in crossing, but it was a little unnerving when you knew that if you fell into the water this would amuse him to no end.

I made it past the first river crossing without incident and was savoring my small victory when we were confronted with the river again, and another crossing.

Soon after that there was another one. And another. I was pretty sure we were just going back and forth over the same river. What was going on here?

Each river crossing was increasingly more difficult, the water higher, the path across less sure. And the drenching rain was making the river an angrier beast.

Through the myriad of crossings, everyone succumbed and stumbled into the water—Root chuckling, guffawing, cackling—except for me. So far I had cheated Root out of his laugh.

At the sixth river crossing Connie was too hobbled to make a real effort at avoiding getting wet. She just sploosh-splooshed across, the water soaking her up to her knees. Thankfully, Root never laughed at Connie.

The terrain away from the river banked steeply upward. Connie had to toddle like a baby trying to balance on the ledge of a skyscraper. Each of us guys would take a turn helping her. I put out my hand to her when it was my turn, but her snail pace was red-lining my frustration.

Doc Ohio stopped suddenly. I looked to where he was focusing his flashlight beam: there was a leech hanging off his shoe. It seemed to bend forward and back like an index finger beckoning me.

My mouth went dry and my old leechmares returned: it was like I could suddenly feel them nuzzling my foot inside my shoe. It felt like there were dozens of them, all entwined together like the tentacles of some giant octospider squatting in the deepest, blackest part of the river.

I checked my boots again—nothing—and my brain muttered to me, Really? Nothing there? I could have sworn there was something sucking the life out of you. Well, better check back in three seconds, because there will be a monster in your boot then for sure.

Remember me?

Remember me? (photo used with permission)

I had to do something. I couldn’t sit with my leech thoughts and I couldn’t help Connie any more and I couldn’t see the end of this cursed hike.

I charged up the mountain, not waiting for anyone. This mountain was steep and treacherous and would have been a trial in dry conditions. Within a few steps I was fighting my way up an escalator headed down.

I got halfway up. Far enough that going back would be a problem. Because by that point my boots were caked with mud so thick it was like I was wearing cow pies. Gravity was going to finger flick me off the mountain.

I slipped and skidded backward. The incline was so steep that I could see no way to stop. I clutched at scrub grass and baby saplings—it was like trying to hold onto cooked spaghetti. My umbrella bounced down the mountain with me, and now I felt useless and ashamed holding it again, like it was some blow-up doll handcuffed to me. It looked like me and the blow-up doll were going to get pitched into the river.

I was finally able to dig in and stop—almost all the way back down at the bottom. The rest of the group smiled weakly at me. They had no idea what happened to me—they were still slowly inching their own way up.

Gemma smiled at me. “This is fun, isn’t it?” she said, without a trace of irony.

I stared at her, mouth open. My hair was painted to my head, my sweatshirt hung off my neck like a comatose beaver, my thin cotton trousers stuck to my legs like wet newspaper. Mud spattered me like a Jackson Pollock painting—one that he pissed on and threw into his closet.

It was finally time. Time to give Gemma and everyone a piece of my mind.

That’s right, buddy, my brain said. Let them have it! A man can only take so much! Hold on a minute, I’m working on a really good string of expletives here, I’ll have them for you in a sec…

I kept my mouth shut.

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Doc Mexico shouted out something. He stood next to a tree with bark so thick it appeared to be made of cast iron. His flashlight beam lit up something on the tree.

Someone had finally found a creature on the creature-finding hike.

It was a fat green caterpillar, inching up the tree. Everyone huddled around it, spotlighting it with their flashlights as if it was the lead actor on a Broadway stage. Like many of the bugs in Thailand the caterpillar was a splashy version of its species— it was a plutonium green color and thick as a finger. It had fine rigid hairs that were like baby pine needles and its head bobbed from side to side—as if acknowledging the lights, the star walking the carpet—walking upward, up the tree.

I had no desire to join in the caterpillar adulation. I threw myself at the mountain again. After only a few feet, I stopped. I knew I couldn’t do this alone.

Just above me on the ridge, my flashlight beam caught a rat running by. There was a long list of animals we could potentially encounter on this hike: barking deer, gliding squirrel, giant frog, snake—but “rat” was not on the list. The rat’s coat was like a dirty sponge that couldn’t hold any more water and there was something surreal about the way he scampered from right to left above me: he looked like he was dashing through the rain to catch a bus.

I laughed.

I gave in.

This was fun.

Above me, Root suddenly appeared, his hand out. He had gone ahead and scouted out a way up. He was smiling. He was always smiling. I took his hand.

Root helped me up.

The rain finally stopped right as we reached a shelter that was built for the farmers. A half hour earlier we would have crawled into it like the dying. Now, with the moon grinning down and the stars forming parade columns, we had punched through world-killing fatigue all the way through to exhilaration. Using the shelter at this point would have felt as inappropriate as falling into bed at the finish line of a marathon.

SHELTER SHOT 1

Gemma and Doc Ohio at the shelter. (photo from Doc Mexico)

On the road back Gemma called to me. She had something cupped in her hands. I went to her and she smiled as she opened her hands. A giant frog bounded into my arms. He was the biggest frog I’ve ever seen—almost as big as my hand—and I had him for a fat moment, he was content to sit in the palm of my hand and I could feel the life in him, his warmth and his heartbeat and I felt a flicker of something like ease with me, like trust—before he wriggled away and hopped down the road. He was an escaped Frog Prince for sure.

After a time we were on the bumpy two-lane road that led from civilization into Huay Pakoot. The road that took me into the village for the first time almost a month ago.

Connie limped on the side of the road like a war veteran, Root steadying her. Doc Ohio and Doc Mexico trudged along oblivious to the mosquito bites that would lay them low with Dengue fever in a couple of days.

Night Hike casualty: A volunteer tries Reiki on Doc Mexico, stricken with Dengue fever.

Night Hike casualty: A volunteer tries Reiki on Doc Mexico, stricken with Dengue fever.

The jungle was still, slow to creep back after the bludgeoning of the storm. Little houses leaned out here and there as if testing the air, the porch lights biting gently into the dark and reminding me of my old neighborhood growing up.

There was a game I would play when I was on a street like this, walking alone in the dark in my hometown. The game was about fear and danger and the thrill of being a little boy. When car headlights appeared down the road, I would run off the road and hide… because who or what driving the car—they were looking for me.

They were trying to get me.

I’d hide and hope the car didn’t slow down. I’d hope it went past without spotting me.

Here on a pothole-bombed road in Thailand forty-six years later, car headlights twinkled in the distance. I had trudged ahead of my Night Hike friends, so I was alone on the road.

The headlights became eyeballs, then saucers, then searchlights…

shelter shot 3

(photo from Doc Mexico)

NIGHT HIKE PART ONE

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

The South Pole was bitter cold and I endured snow blindness, frostbite, and scurvy. That was all positively dreamy compared to the torments of Night Hike.”

–Sir Ernest Shackleton, famous British explorer

Night Hike? You must be barmy and shite-blighted to even utter those grotty words. Bollocks and meat pies to you and all your kin.”

–Sir Edmund Hillary, famous and more-British explorer

Night Hike is the bane of all explorers everywhere. It will never be conquered. Now if you’ll excuse me, senor, I would like to get back to killing Incas.”

–Francisco Pizarro, famous Spanish explorer, Inca-killer

 

Pizarro: Liked killing Incas. Hated Night Hike.

Pizarro: Liked killing Incas. Hated Night Hike.

I have seen the true face of horror and it’s not, as I once believed, a bulging Marlon Brando rubbing his bald head and muttering “The horror, the horror” in some god-forsaken jungle grotto in Apocalypse Now. Neither is the true face of horror a bleached-white (and even more bulging) Marlon Brando wearing a muumuu and somehow getting out-acted by Val Kilmer on a god-forsaken jungle island in The Island of Dr. Moreau—though that’s getting closer.

The true face of horror is the Brando-less and Kilmer-bare jungle of Night Hike.

Night Hike is a weekly hike for the volunteers of Huay Pakoot, scheduled every Wednesday at eight p.m. after all other daily activities are finished. The reason for a “Night Hike” is that a lot of the denizens of the jungle in Thailand are nocturnal, and so it’s an opportunity to literally bump into some creature you would never normally see during the day: barking deer, gliding squirrels, different types of frogs (many of them giant), civets (a type of small native wild cat), tarantulas (Thai people will fry these up and eat them—I’ll give you a moment to take that in, it took me a moment), river otters, and snakes by the bushel.

I didn’t particularly want to run into a bushel of snakes, but one of the volunteer leaders once saw a male frog trying to mate with another male—and that I did want to see, if only to witness the look of ribbiting embarrassment on the face of a giant buggered frog.

Night Hike had been canceled three times before. Twice because of rain and the third time because our guide had just forgot about it and flaked. I only had one more shot at Night Hike before I left the village.

Don’t worry, the Base Leader Gemma assured me. Next time for sure, rain or shine.

A storm cometh. Who will survive and what will be left of them?

A storm cometh. Who will survive Night Hike and what will be left of them?

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013 started out un-innocently enough when the clouds jumped in and bound and gagged the sun, signaling that today they meant business. Ostensibly rainy season had begun on June 1st, but all that had meant so far was pissing rain contests and most of the time we volunteers had won them—the rain didn’t ever ruin an elephant hike.

I looked up at the sky, dread creeping in, and as the sky darkened so did Gemma’s personality, as she hobbled around on her peg leg and cackled like Captain Bligh about how this time we were going on the hike and nothing was going to stop us. After the Night Hike she insisted that we round the horn of Africa.

By dusk the wind was roughing us up and the thunder was full-throated and barking. I had brought with me to Thailand a rain “poncho”—a heavy blue plastic-vinyl abomination that made me look like a smurf wearing a hoodie—and it worked fine repelling rain, but it also had zero ventilation. The only time I had worn it I had stewed in my own juices, so it was out.

I went with my “normal” hiking garb instead: long pants, sweatshirt over a T-shirt, a bottle of water, a flashlight, and my secret weapon, which might just save the day for me later…

The hike would be led by Root, the village renaissance man. This guy has done everything: he is a farmer, sometime-mahout, Muay Thai martial arts teacher, hunter, soccer player, builder, and tattoo artist. He drinks like a sailor, smokes like a tire fire, and he can take a beating like a crash test dummy—all the pounding from Muay Thai practice has deadened the nerve endings in his skin. He also has time to raise a family, party with the volunteers, and I’m pretty sure he writes a column for Salon.

Besides Gemma and me, the Night Hike party consisted of two guys who were pre-med students, one from Ohio, the other from Mexico, and Connie, who like me was leery of the impending storm. She stalled about whether she would go or not until the very last minute. Gemma worked on Connie, figuring her for the weak link… but I wasn’t so sure. If Connie had backed out, I might have jumped on the scaredy-cat bandwagon.

She didn’t.

On our first step away from the safety of Base Hut a lightning strike lit up the jungle and I looked around at everyone like, “Helloooo? Did anyone notice that old classic harbinger of doom, ‘the lightning strike just as we are setting out’?”

Maybe if I had boomed out as we were leaving, “Well, at least we’ll all make it back alive and absolutely not die in a hideous fashion!”—and then the lightning struck—maybe then they would have gasped and stopped in their tracks and called the whole thing off, like I wanted them to.

But I didn’t say that as we left. I said, “Wait up, I have to take a whiz first.”

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Dusk in Thailand often fans itself out like peacock feathers, a regal and rich blue, but tonight it was plucked and smothered by the heavy black of the coming storm. Halfway down the road to Root’s house it began drizzling. I risked tipping my hand early and pulled out the secret weapon from my pack.

It was an umbrella. Sleek and blue and loaded, about six deadly inches of compact canvas and steel from REI. I flicked the button and it parachuted open into its glorious protective canopy.

Everyone stopped. Gemma opened her mouth to say something but I guess thought better of it.

As we approached Root’s house it looked dark and deserted. I was hoping he was out composing a symphony and we could all go home. But after a few minutes he emerged wearing what else but a poncho—it was much thinner than my asbestos suit version—and some old rubber fisherman’s boots. I compared his boots to mine—sturdy and expensive hiking boots—and it looked for sure that I had the edge, and then I remembered that you never ever think you have an “edge” on someone who lives in the village, particularly Root, who also brought along a pad of paper to work on his Broadway play while we were on the hike.

Root is on the right. (photo from Ian)

Root is on the right. (photo from Ian)

This was Connie’s last chance to back out. When I say the last chance for her I mean her and me, since I was the undercover chicken here—if she bowed out I was going to bow much lower and out-er.

By this time the rain had picked up and it was sledgehammering down on us. I peered out from underneath my carpet-bombed umbrella and it was clear that the storm was moving in for an extended stay. This was not dampening Gemma’s enthusiasm and “Doc Mexico” also seemed raring to go. “Doc Ohio” seemed to have some reticence but not enough to say anything.

There was no turning back once Connie stepped out, ready to go. She was wearing a pair of low top sneakers, stylish but I wondered if they would cut it. Root—who spoke only a little broken English—cackled at all of us and I noted that this was yet another harbinger of doom—the cackling guide.

Once again, no one else picked up on this. The fools.

For the first part of the hike we skirted the village, shining our flashlights in the trees and the bushes. Besides walking, shining flashlights in the trees was the main activity of Night Hike—in order to catch the reflected “eye shine” of any animals that might be sitting in the trees, laughing down at the idiots tramping around in the rain.

Ten minutes in and the dirt roads of the village were already drowning. The rain had moved in for good, kicked grandma out and stolen her bed. As we moved out of the village, I looked over my shoulder at the lights now winking out in the distance, and wondered if this would be my last forlorn glimpse of hope and of a dry pair of pants. We clomped off the road and into a clearing dotted with red and orange tents.

A few bald heads poked out of the tent flaps. Apparently we had stumbled upon an encampment of Buddhist monks, all huddling in their little four-man tents, trying to stay dry. Gemma exchanged some words of greeting with them, and as we were edging by the camp I tripped on a tent pole. My heart stopped as I saw the tent shake and shudder and I heard a chorus of monks gasping “Ohhhhhh” as their canvas roof started to cave in on them.

Great, I thought. What kind of kharma is kicking over a tent on four old monks going to get me? My next life I would probably be reincarnated as a coal miner of the Northeast, and some clumsy Pennsylvanian monk would come wandering by and trip over some load-bearing timber, and as the cave roof came down on me I’d think, Well yeah, this kind of sucks—but at least I’m not dying because some idiot American kicked over my tent—that would be really embarrassing.

Thankfully, the tent buckled but didn’t cave in on the monks. I spluttered my apologies and did a lot of bowing, and after the monks all cursed me and my family for the next ten generations, we moved on.

Last stop before the jungle swallowed us up we had to scale a gate made of thin tree trunks, and at this point we should’ve all gotten a whiff of doom approaching—with or without Root’s cackle. The ground around the gate was a swamp and it was increasingly difficult to keep our footing and just stay upright—and this was on level ground with most of us wearing hiking boots that had some teeth.

Connie was wearing sneakers. In this weather it was like wearing roller skates.

Clambering over the shoulder-high gate was slippery and the guys managed to get over with bruised legs and knees. Somehow Connie skated over the blockade. It was slow and treacherous and her sneakers were no help at all.

raindrops-on-water_w725_h544

As we plunged into the jungle Root cackled again. I asked Gemma what was with the cackling and she said, “I don’t think he’s ever seen anybody use an umbrella in the jungle before.”

Oh yeah—that. Well, I knew it was silly, but so far it was actually pretty effective. At first I had folded up the umbrella, with the thought that the “jungle canopy” would protect me, but after ten umbrella-less minutes with the rain pummeling me and my soaked through-and-through sweatshirt begging for mercy, I once again relied on my umbrella friend to get me through this nightmare.

I considered doubling down on my ridiculousness and pulling out a pipe and puffing on it with my free hand, but I thought better of it. Only because I needed that hand to twirl my mustache.

The rain was relentless as Doc Mexico and Doc Ohio and I skidded down to the edge of the river—our first river crossing. Normally this muddy little stripe of water would be nothing but a dreaming-big creek, but the storm had swollen its size to a river and it looked eager to pull us in.

Across the river Root lit up a cigarette and he looked down and from side to side, his head flashlight beam scouting out a route for us lesser beings to ford across the river. At this point because of her worthless sneakers, Connie had to pick her way carefully. She was trailing us significantly and Gemma had slowed to her pace to help her.

Both of them had fallen behind. They were nowhere in sight.

The river chattered and the jungle’s breath was mossy and heavy. So far we had picked up nothing in our flashlight beams. No animals, anyway. We did pick up several different species of rain, though. Fat rain, thin rain, medium rain… rivulets and sheets and rivers of rain. Deepening, depressing, demoralizing rain. Wet rain.

Minutes ticked away, all of us men staring ahead grimly and not speaking, and still there was no sign of the women.

The skies felt like they had been slashed open and gutted. The downpour was furious, and I felt ashamed that I had not stayed back with the women.

As if reading my thoughts, Root snuffed the cigarette, sloshed through the water, and disappeared into the dark.

SEPARATION ANXIETY

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

Kam Suk and Kam Moon

I started dating my girlfriend in January. Even before our first date I had already been making plans for a couple of grand trips, including the one to Thailand.

On our dates I talked often about the upcoming trips and I was open about my feelings: anticipation, anxiety, fear, excitement. I spilled over like a volcano about to burst and I saw how this girl who I was breathlessly attracted to reacted: supportive and excited for me… then, as we began to fall in love, I felt the trepidation creep in for her.

But the trips were far in the future. That’s how I looked at it. So let’s got on with this romance, kay?

I credit my girlfriend with a lot of strength because she fell in love with me even though that is not how she looked at it. She was thinking more along the lines of “should I actually commit and be vulnerable to this man who will soon disappear for long stretches?”

She brought this up a few times and I spouted some stuff about “living in the moment”—and I believed this at the time. I wasn’t trying to sweep her feelings away, but I knew that these trips—particularly the one to Thailand—would scoop me up, spin, wash and dry me, and burp me out a changed man. A better man. And the relationship would benefit from this.

This intuitive foreknowledge came from such a deep place that I should have grabbed it by the lapels and shook it down for some winning lottery numbers.

Besides, my girlfriend and I had both gone through long stretches of our lives when we had been alone—not in a relationship with anyone—so of course we could both do “alone” standing on our heads, right?

So yeah, during these trips we’d talk on the phone or Skype if we could, no big deal. So what if we didn’t speak to each other a day or two here and there?

That was my thinking.

My girlfriend didn’t see it that way. She made sure we both had Skype, Tango, and Viber installed on our smart phones and laptops. We tested them all out before I left. Then she talked about phone cards and SIM cards, and at that point I pictured myself jamming a screwdriver into my iPhone to install whatever a SIM card was, and I couldn’t see this going any other way than the phone shattering on the ground or blowing up in my face or me accidentally stabbing myself in the eye with the screwdriver.

I emailed the organization I was volunteering with to provide details about what the Internet and phone connection would be like in the village. The evasive response was only that it was “unreliable.” My girlfriend’s opinion was that this was 2013, and you could communicate from anywhere. After talking with a cousin of hers who had lived in Thailand she informed me that these days people climb trees and hang out with monkeys and still talk on their smart phones.

I agreed, while wondering if her cousin was Dian Fossey or Jane Goodall.

Once I finally got to the village, it turned out that I wouldn’t  be climbing a tree to call her, but a mountain.

The village of Huay Pakoot. The middle of nowhere.

The village of Huay Pakoot. The middle of nowhere.

On top of this mountain was the elementary school for the village. This is where the Holy Internet slept, a little Mickey Mouse wireless black box tucked into a dusty corner of a classroom for six to eight-year-old students. The school was the only place where you even had a shot of reaching the outside world—the village was just too remote.

On this fragile little box were pinned the Skyping hopes and Tangoing dreams of the dozens of loved ones of the volunteers, and each day—usually after the morning hikes—almost all of us would make the pilgrimage up the mountain to suck at the teat of the Holy Internet.

Let me draw emphasis to this: I would climb a mountain each day to use the phone.

It was an interesting hike, too—because the climb is more or less gradual until the last quarter mile or so—and then It. Gets. Really. Freaking. Steep.

But at least after the difficult hike I was welcomed to a glorious technological paradise of gold-plated phones, data-humming global connections, and little armies of school children fanning me while I relaxed in a lounge chair chatting lazily with my girlfriend. Dogs licked my phone-free hand.

Or actually, what it was really like: The school kids hopped around me like kangaroos driven mad, screaming at the tops of their lungs as stray dogs barked like hell hounds. I circled around the school yelling “Hello?!”, trying to hold a connection, feeling like I was guarding a match flame fizzling in the middle of a wind tunnel.

The connection was not “unreliable.” It was actually quite reliable. You could rely on it to suck. Getting a good connection was a shock.

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The school where the internet lived… and (more frequently) died.

If the spotty service wasn’t interrupted by the wind blowing, me leaning the wrong way, or a gecko sneezing, my girlfriend and I would “talk” on the phone for a half hour or so. If the call didn’t drop—and it would, fifty times in a row, so I would have to redial over and over while handing out tissues to the geckos—I would say something and my girlfriend would hear my words only after a delay of about six seconds (the delay went both ways—I heard her words well after she spoke them as well).

This is the sort of built-in delay radio stations use to bleep out swearing, which I was certainly doing a lot of, but I can’t say that we were conversing all that much. And with the weird delays we were constantly interrupting each other, misunderstanding one another, or reacting to the other person at weird times. It was frustrating.

Worse than frustrating.

I needed to connect with my girlfriend to share what was happening in Thailand. Jungles, elephants, bugs, squat toilets that laughed at me while I tried to figure out a kneel-sit-squat combination that would get the job done without me falling into the toilet—all of these things somehow didn’t seem real, didn’t seem like they were actually happening, until I shared them with her. It’s like having a great story locked in your head. It doesn’t have any impact or meaning until someone reads it—especially if that someone has become your closest friend and partner.

My girlfriend’s need to connect was about something different. And I didn’t grasp it at first. She was upset about missing me from almost the beginning, and at first I took her reactions personally, as my crackerjack deductive reasoning jumped in to help me decipher her feelings: I got it! She’s miserable that I’m having a good time!

 

Volunteer Thom trying to get a connection in a storm. Yeah--that's going to happen.

Volunteer Thom trying to get a connection in a storm. Yeah–that’s going to happen.

A lot of the calls were sad and difficult for both of us—when they were not dropping—until I took a step back and realized that I had no idea what it was like for her 6000 miles away on the other end of crappy wireless connection, and I couldn’t pretend that I did. The next time my deductive reasoning opened his mouth I shot him and fed him to the dogs.

In my best moments on the phone, I gave her the room to express her feelings about me being gone for so long without judgment, without taking them personally, and without trying to fix her.

I hit that mark about 19% of the time. But it was a good 19%.

I later realized it took a lot of courage for my girlfriend to show me her feelings and risk me judging them, or getting defensive.

I missed my girlfriend too, but the separation was more tolerable for me because I was being bombarded with sights and sounds and experiences that were coming so fast that I couldn’t even process them. I would wake up at five in the morning and collapse at nine at night, and everything in between was a blur of snorting elephants, screeching cicadas, groping leeches, strange people and foreign words bouncing around everywhere… and hikes, soccer games, basket weaving, teaching, lectures, and eating rice. Lots of eating rice.

The weekly schedule. There was a lot to do every day.

The weekly schedule. There was a lot to do every day.

After 32 days in Thailand I headed home. I had a ridiculously long 10-hour layover in Seoul, South Korea, and even though we were soon going to see each other in person, we spent much of that time Skyping, Vibering, and Tangoing. I moved into the airport lounge with my laptop so we could text, talk, emoticon, and pixel-grin at each other.

The wireless connection was five out of five bars, a communication nirvana. Dogs licked my hand.

It turns out that my intuition about my trip was rock-solid: this trip did change me, and for the better—not just for myself—but also for the relationship with my girlfriend.

But what I also learned is that by going off to Thailand for 32 long days I had ripped a gaping hole in the relationship—I of course didn’t intend to do this—but that’s what absence can sometimes do to intimacy. The person who stays behind is left scrambling to plug up the breach.

When you’re the one —like my girlfriend—immersed in the “normal” routine of living, those feelings of separation buzz on the surface, and they sting you over and over.

The hard work is done by the person who’s not taking the trip. They’re the ones who have to wrestle with the feelings of abandonment, insignificance, loss, of Holy crap, what if this person goes away and comes back all different? They’re the ones who have to tend the relationship during the separation, to keep their faith and keep things together.

And I know this because I am a spiritual giant and an empathetic superhero.

No.

I know this because just recently my girlfriend went away on a spiritual retreat of her own to Hawaii. It was only for 10 days, not 32, and of course I knew I could do 10 days alone standing on my head.

I was a basket case by the third day.

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LIKE TEARS IN RAIN

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

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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?

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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.

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EAT THE LEECH TO GAIN ITS COURAGE

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

(photo from Siobhan)

(photo from Siobhan)

THE VOLUNTEERS, PART TWO

As a kid, summer camp is one of your early experiences forming friendships that go deep but don’t stay (geographically) close. You eat, sleep, play sports, tell ghost stories, compare fart blasts (boys camp I am talking about)—a million little things until you wake up one morning, the trees browner, summer’s teeth falling out, the zombie-wraith of school flashing you googly eyes from outside the window—and it’s time for everyone to go home.

And you know even at that innocent age that you will never see the people you went to camp with ever again.

But the good thing is—and you don’t realize this until you’re older—you still carry these friendships inside you. You can take them out and look at them like an old stamp collection that mostly just sleeps under a mountain of dust—but you know you’ll never get rid of those stamps. The colors are faded but still beautiful, and you can feel the edges of your feelings—they’re still there.

I didn’t quite receive the summer camp experience. I was bullied at summer camp from the time I set foot in the tiny bunkhouse. When I think of that time I can hear Dr. McCoy from the old Star Trek series muttering, “He didn’t make it, Jim”—I don’t think I lasted a week.

Watching my mother and grandmother pack up my stuff in front of all these boys that I had desperately tried to fit in with but would never to get to know—I felt like such a loser.

In many ways, the trip to Thailand is just an adult version of summer camp. The volunteers eat, hike, weave baskets, teach English, play games and watch movies—all together. No comparing fart blasts though—except when the elephants do it. Thong Dee wins the farting contests just like she dominates everything else.

This trip is a second chance for me to develop some summer camp-type friendships—but as an adult.

front row l to r: Lisa, Kerri, Tammy. Middle row: Izzy, Phoebe, Jess, Mallory. Back row: Neil, Siobhan, Thom

front row l to r: Lisa, Kerri, Tammy. Middle row: Izzy, Phoebe, Jess, Mallory. Back row: Neil, Siobhan, Thom. (photo from Siobhan)

People like Mallory make it easy. Washing dishes with her with the sun like a comforting hand on my shoulder, I could talk easily with her.

Izzy is from Massachusetts—where I’m from originally—so we have a connection there. She says she aspires to be a “starving artist”—I hope she can just skip the “starving” part. She is constantly writing in a journal and that makes an impression on me—every time I see her I hear this voice say to me, “See what she’s doing? That writing thing… maybe take a whack at that yourself, big boy.”

Lisa. (photo from Mallory)

Lisa. (photo from Mallory)

Lisa has an Irish brogue so substantial that it’s like its own person. Her lips move but I swear the voice is coming from a guy mumbling in her backpack. Her brash personality is abruptly muted at one point when she is sweating the results from college exams. While playing soccer I catch a glimpse of her off by herself, clutching her phone, waiting to get the call about her future.

On hikes Stacey makes me feel like I have the dexterity of the Frankenstein monster, as I clomp behind her dislodging huge boulders that near-miss plowing into her. Some of the volunteers feel big brother-protective of her when she wanders into Chiang Mai and has a dozen guys eying her.

Stacey is on the left, Phoebe on the right.

Stacey is on the left, Phoebe on the right. (photo from Stacey)

l to r: Siobhan, Kerri, Izzy. (photo from Siobhan)

l to r: Siobhan, Kerri, Izzy. (photo from Siobhan)

Siobhan is always exhorting me to “give it a go” no matter what the activity is, like when I wade in among the locals to buy some of their handmade goods. During the woven goods “bazaar,” the villagers present all their handmade goods to the volunteers at Base Hut for an hour or two of frenetic buying and selling.

Siobhan’s voice flutters in my ear like a butterfly about how “your girlfriend would love that” and “that would be great for your Mom” and I nod agreeably as the arm-twisting butterfly has me emptying my wallet. Thanks to Siobhan I am wrestling my suitcase to the death to pack in all the purses, skirts, beads, bags, and necklaces I bought from the villagers.

Phoebe is the only volunteer who unabashedly wants to move in to Huay Pakoot and build her whole life there. She began with an antipathy to teaching and over a few short months has become the teaching expert—she teaches the other teachers. On teaching days when she gathers her stuff to climb up the hill to the school I can see how her eyes come alive and the way she bounces in anticipation—she lives for this. Her bonds with the people in Huay Pakoot are deep and she and Siobhan are even invited to the wedding of a local couple—the only outsiders who are given this honor.

Phoebe in the classroom. (photo from Mallory)

Phoebe in the classroom. (photo from Mallory)

Neil and Jess are like the volunteer royalty. They squat on huge ornate thrones at Base Hut and gnaw on legs of lamb big as tree trunks while new volunteers wash their feet.

Joking.

From left: Phoebe, Siobhan, Ian.

From left: Phoebe, Siobhan, Ian. (photo from Siobhan)

Then there is Thom and Ian, two volunteers who are like characters out of a buddy movie. They are both in their late 20’s, both culturally aware, both smart as whips—and as thin as whips as well. Ian is from London, England, Thom from Brisbane, Australia. They aren’t related, look nothing alike except for their stick-figure frames—and I still think they’re brothers separated at birth.

l to r: Ian, Jordoh (mahout), Thom. (photo from Siobhan)

l to r: Ian, Jordoh (mahout), Thom. (photo from Siobhan)

They love to argue and needle each other. They remind me of a more intellectual version of the Mafia characters De Niro and Pesci used to play, minus the gangsterism and, you know—the shooting people in the face.

Their banter forms the cultural, snark-filled play-by-play of the elephant hikes. When I want to take a break from meditating with the elephants and argue about who is the best James Bond (It’s Sean Connery, of course—although I go to bat for Roger Moore when I think he’s unfairly maligned), I can tune into Thom and Ian.

Thom can strike up a conversation with anyone about anything. On the ride from Chiang Mai when all of us volunteers are strangers, he suggests switching seats halfway through the trip so we can mix with different people and get to know each other faster. It’s a good idea and it works. He can serve and parry chatter with multiple people, like he’s a six-armed tennis player.

Ian is a little quieter than Thom, but what breaks the ice between us is a weird joke that Ian makes on a hike after one of the many stops to to pry a leech off my boot:

Eat the leech,” he says, “to gain its courage.”

This is a joke with its roots in Nerdland, specifically video games, and instantly I perk up, since video games are a passion of mine and definitely have their own language. Hearing Video Game spoken in the jungles of Thailand is like hearing French spoken in a dive bar in Texas. It’s unexpected, wonderful, and possibly dangerous… well, speaking French in Texas is dangerous. An elephant probably won’t pummel you for talking nerdy.

Ian. (photo from Mallory)

Ian. (photo from Mallory)

When we are all asked, as part of a get-to-know-each-other icebreaker, what one person we would pick to be stranded on a deserted island with, most everyone picks the usual suspects—significant other, movie star, world leader. Thom picks Ian without hesitation, like he’s been waiting for the question for weeks. The reason: he just wants Ian to suffer with him.

Ian cracks up with the rest of us. If twenty years went by and you arrived on that desert island with a rescue boat, fireworks exploding and flags waving, shouting “You’re saved!”—I think they would look up briefly, their long beards fluttering… and they’d go back to needling each other.

l to r: Singto (mahout), Thom, Ian.

l to r: Singto (mahout), Thom, Ian. (photo from Ian)

Thom in particular is an open book about his opinions, so it comes out very quickly that he is not a fan of Foster’s beer, which of course has all those commercials in America about how “it’s Australian for beer, mate.”

Thom’s opinion is that it’s rat piss and native Australians—like him—don’t touch the stuff (which is true—it’s not a popular beer in Australia). That’s only mildly interesting. What’s more interesting is that Thom is really sensitive about this. The very thought that the rest of the world would perceive Foster’s beer as even remotely representative of anything truly Australian is a personal affront to him.

So naturally, everyone teases him about it.

I even pile on. When he is moderating the “Quiz,” the weekly trivia contest where all the volunteers compete against each other (Thom and Ian are repeat winners), Thom solicits everyone to come up with a team name. Most everyone takes this opportunity to tweak Thom about the Foster’s thing.

Like the team name I made up was this: “Team Foster’s: the Official Beer of Australia.”

People laughed. But I saw Thom’s reaction—a look more fatigued than hurt, like, Oh, this crap again, har-har—and I recognized it. My heart lurched like it was a tiger locked in a box.

Thom at Base Hut.

Thom at Base Hut.

The passionate opinions coupled with the frayed live wire-sensitivity: I was the same way, particularly when I was Thom’s age.

I was opinionated, passionate, and sensitive. I always wondered why people who professed to like me would poke at my sensitive spots. And I’m still not sure I know why they did it and still do it—maybe because it’s exciting or exhilarating to feel someone storming about something—maybe because feeling deeply is a peak human experience and if you don’t want to bother with it yourself, you can always provoke it in others.

But what I learned from watching Thom is that the people who like you and also tease you don’t do it out of antagonism. There is love there—I just don’t know what type it is—what you call it. Feeling that teasing coming from people you like—if you’re sensitive it can sometimes feels like it will break you.

I let up on the Foster’s stuff with Thom. I knew how he felt, and I discovered a new appreciation for him. It’s actually a great thing to be so passionate. I could also have new compassion for my own sensitivity, which I have felt in the past to be more of a weakness.

I don’t know if the teasing I received in summer camp as a kid compares to anything I ever experienced as an adult, or that it’s even close to what I am talking about with Thom and the Foster’s incident. Walking into that camp years ago at that age I felt like I had glass feet and my heart was huddled under a tissue paper tent. Kids are looking for your soft spots at that age to weaken you—there’s definitely a brinksmanship that fades or at least goes underground as you get older… but obviously I’m not eight any more.

I’ve eaten the eight year-old to gain its courage.

But more importantly, here in Huay Pakoot I finally did get my “summer camp” experience. I’ll carry around this place and these people for the rest of my life.

And maybe some day I’ll visit the deserted island, and beardy Thom and Ian will nod at me… then go back to needling each other.

party

(photo from Siobhan)

THE OMEGA MAN

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

THE VOLUNTEERS, PART ONE

A person like me needs to be tricked into making friends with people. I can’t seem to do it directly.

When meeting a person for the first time, I guess my ego is so concerned with making a good impression that I never register the person’s name the first time I hear it. This puts me at a disadvantage immediately. I’ve considered asking the person if they would slap me after telling me their name, like, “Hi Mike, my name is Joe”—thwack!—across the face. Now I will surely remember Joe.

Beyond that, my natural state is hermit crab-shut. I am not much of a joiner, a Meeter-Upper, Grouponer, or group-anythinger.

When I watched I am Legend, with the solitary guy walking the empty post-apocalyptic streets accompanied only by his dog (although in my opinion the older, better version of this movie is The Omega Man with Charlton Heston), I was not thinking, “Oh, that poor lonely guy”—I was thinking, “Hey, cool—sign me up!” I could talk to the dog and I could shoot the heads off zombies, all by myself. I mean, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

But, I am willing to confront my weaknesses… this is another reason why I jumped head-first into this adventure in Thailand.

I wanted to be tricked.

One of the first people I meet on this trip is Mallory. She has just graduated from college in Vermont before embarking on the volunteering adventure here—this is a common theme for many of the young volunteers. Most of them choose to do this elephant trip as their major “gap year” activity, seeking out a grand adventure before transitioning to adult job, career, or even more higher learning.

At breakfast before the long ride to Huay Pakoot, Mallory asks to sit at my table. We had met briefly at the orientation meeting the night before, but of course I have to ask her name again.

Mallory,” she tells me, and slaps me across the face. She packs a punch—it feels like I’ve just been struck with a very large dead fish, maybe a tuna.

Kidding.

But Mallory seems to set things in motion—she tips the first domino, and they start to topple. Other young volunteers join us at the table, and the hermit crab begins to poke his head out.

Mallory.

Mallory.

Curiosity also trumps shyness with me—this is why it is easy for me to break the ice with the staff running the program—because I am constantly asking them questions.

Gemma is the Base Leader in charge of the rest of the staff, as well as a liaison to the Karen People in the village and the go-to for all the volunteers. She runs the place and participates in all the activities the volunteers do.

On hikes Gemma will stop everyone so she can take eighty pictures of a millipede zigzagging across the jungle floor. That’s one way the friendship with her develops on my end—her passion for bugs, birds, rodents, the entire diverse population of the jungle itself, big and small, insect and elephant—it all rubs off on me. Her enthusiasm is contagious.

Plus with all the things she has to do, all the details big and small, she always has time for asking me, “How you going then, Mike? You alright?” (She’s British—and that’s another thing—since the Brits comprise most of the staff and volunteers, they begin rubbing off on me too, both their accents and their even-keeled natures.)

At a pancake dinner with volunteers and villagers. Gemma is second from the right.

At a pancake dinner with volunteers and villagers. Gemma is second from the right.

Susi, a staff member originally from Paraguay, is similarly passionate about the surroundings, although my connection with her is initially through her facility with Packinyah, the language of the Karen people. For the first week in Huay Pakoot she accompanies me on dinners with my host family.

My family loves Susi because she is a charging bull about learning the language and communicating with them. I scribble down as much as I can while I listen to them chattering in Packinyah and broken English like excited chipmunks.

Susi also has a bombastic, haw-haw-haw laugh. It seesaws from gasping breaths to sledgehammering guffaws, and when I watch her laugh I can see that she holds nothing back—it comes from deep inside her. I have a bit of an explosive laugh too, so I know that laughs like that are contagious. Susi laughs a lot.

Tammy is another staff member, an unflappable Australian who is eager to help always, and she crams as much information about the elephants and the village as I can fit into my cranium.

On one hike while I am taping popsicle sticks into crosses and dousing myself with holy water to ward off the leeches, one of them burrows into Tammy’s ankle. Her foot turns into a blood fountain, and she barely breaks stride.

Kerri is a brand new staff member from Ireland who I share a wild Sung Tao truck ride with when I have to get emergency dental work done in Chiang Mai. During the ride with her I am in the unusual position of answering her questions about what it’s like in Huay Pakoot, since this will be her first time there. It feels good to be the teacher rather than the student for a little while.

All of the staff people are open and seem to genuinely enjoy their jobs. When I am radioactively glowing about an amazing experience that I’ve had on any particular day, they get excited that I am excited.

Eating with the other volunteers at Base Hut.

Eating with the other volunteers at Base Hut.

But in the end, I discovered that the best way to be tricked into making friends is to be thrown into the middle of a jungle with about 20 other people who, like you, don’t know the local language or customs, and are as baffled as you are by bug swarms, leech attacks, 90-degree climbs, perpetually dirty feet, and especially by being five feet away from wandering elephants for large parts of the day.

And don’t forget eating meals together, washing dishes together, and sharing the same squat toilet. And take away the Internet—or even better, put the Internet up at the top of a mountain and make it super-slowww and prone to bailing out, like playing poker with a sea turtle, so you have to actually work at being antisocial—and sooner or later, the wool gets pulled over your eyes. You get tricked into making friends with other people.

When I faltered, Mallory was there to say hi to me… then slap me with a dead fish.