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:

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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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A CONFESSION

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I have a confession to make. I have been living a lie for many months—almost an entire year—but I can’t live with the guilt and shame any more.

I am deeply thankful for all the people who have read this blog and that have subscribed over the past year. I have become quite a blog reader myself over this time, so I know how hard many of you work on yours and I know everyone just has busy lives in general. So I appreciate the support. And for that reason I owe you the truth.

The truth is that it’s not really me that is writing this blog.

The truth is that I am a human being, and a human being of my particular type is not capable of writing a blog. You see, it’s too complicated to figure out and what if what I write sucks and what if people leave negative comments or even worse—no one reads at all. What if when I click on my page all I get is crickets and tumbleweeds or maybe some hell beast with three heads and a long silver tongue and all he does is spit at me.

I am afraid. Too afraid.

So I confess that the real writer of this blog all these months has been my cat Lyle. He’s done a pretty good job, I think. He’s a very good observer of cats, that’s for sure. But I also liked the one he wrote about Dick Cheney. Lyle is very good at satire.

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Lyle, ghostwriter cat.

I also confess that it wasn’t me who took the trip to Thailand to volunteer with elephants. Thailand was too far away and I didn’t speak the language and what if I got Japanese encephalitis and what if I got lost in the jungle and I was wayyyyyy too old to do something like that, for sure.

I was afraid. Too afraid.

So I sent my cat Sundance instead. Sundance got to meet some of the most amazing animals on the planet. When he got back, Sundance meowed at me about the elephants Thong Dee and Mana and Lulu and even about another cat that would follow him around sometimes. Sundance also met some pretty cool humans and he almost got a tattoo but backed out at the last minute.

Mana. Mana and Sundance got along well and even went drinking together.

Mana. Mana and Sundance got along well and even went drinking together.

Sundance brought back a Chang Beer T-shirt for me. When he handed it to me he was shaking his head. “You missed it, dude,” he said. “It was quite an amazing trip.”

Next time,” I said.

Yeah, right,” he said, and, after a month-plus away, returned to his favorite sleeping spot, curled up on the printer.

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Sundance. World traveler. Friend to elephants.

I confess that this year I met a beautiful woman I really liked but what if she thought the things I liked were stupid or that I was ugly or she wondered why I went to the bathroom so much (because I was trying to escape—and yet have a believable cover story)?

I was afraid to ask her for a second date. Too afraid.

So my cat Butch asked her out instead.

Man, what are you thinking?” he said to me as he hung up the phone. “She’s amazing. Oh well—you snooze you lose.”

This girl and my cat Butch have been going steady for many months now. They seem to be doing really well except sometimes when they’re watching a movie in a theater and Butch will suddenly throw up on the floor. I also think she’s a little tired of scooping the litter box after him—she wonders if he’ll ever be mature enough to handle that himself.

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Butch. Ladies’ cat. Can drive a stick.

I confess that in February of 2013 I was in the second decade of the same job—a job I was very grateful for, a job which paid me a lot of money, a job which didn’t match my insides any more.

My insides were to be a writer. Or some of my insides, anyway. I think I have a liver and a couple of kidneys in there too.

I was afraid. Seriously batshit scared.

I stayed in the job.

Thank god! You have to stay in this job forever! You are not capable of making money any other way. It’s okay to be unhappy as long as you’re making money. You’ll die if you leave!”

But my cat Picasso, who was working alongside of me, decided to quit. I guess he wasn’t afraid. He sashayed into my boss’ office and hissed at him.

What about the future? What about the February 2015 mortgage payment?” I asked Picasso.

Buddy, you’re tripping hard,” he said, while cleaning out his desk, packing up the scratching post, and taking one last piss on the carpet.

Picasso. "The hell with all a y'all," he hissed, and stormed out of his job.

Picasso. “The hell with all a y’all,” he hissed, and stormed out of his job.

That was a big move for Picasso. Quitting the job allowed Lyle to start fumbling around with a pen and Sundance to crawl into the window seat on a plane to Thailand. It allowed Butch to learn how to drive so he could take the girl out on dates.

And just so you know it wasn’t always easy for them: Lyle’s first written piece was a barely-readable haiku about choking a bluebird to death. Sundance hid under the bed for the first two days of the Thailand trip. Picasso wasted the first three weeks of his new freedom playing Bejewelled. And Butch for some reason tried to get to second base on only the third date with the girl. Bad kitty.

Thankfully I have all these wonderful cats, who are fearless and are able to live in the moment. Thankfully they’re around to live my dreams and live my life for me.

So before I have to hand this blog back to Lyle (he’s editing this as we go, from his position in my lap) I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season.

I know my cats will have a wonderful one for me.

Oh—and Lyle told me to tell you he’s working on a novel. It’s probably going to have cats in it, and surprisingly a dog too.

I was going to tell you something else but Lyle just hissed at me to delete it. I hate how he rips apart my stuff.

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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.

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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…

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(photo from Doc Mexico)

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.

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 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.

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.

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