THE MAHOUTS: PART TWO

Left to right: Boon Chew, Som Bat, Suwit

Left to right: Boon Chew, Som Bat, Suwit

In Huay Pakoot, the baby elephants have ‘baby’ mahouts: Suwit (pronounced Suh-weet) and Som Bat (Sum Baht) have barely scraped by 20, and Boon Chew is the youngest mahout at 15. All three are inseparable and tend to operate on Boon Chew’s wavelength: that is, they act like teenagers.

They are concerned with typical teenage pursuits: appearance, status, sports. Girls too, but they conceal this for reasons I’ll explain later. So even though they may be walking around in a jungle, they still have to look cool.

A mahout will wear a scarf sometimes to protect himself from the elements, particularly the punishing sun. Ostensibly, that is the reason these young mahouts wear them as well. But it’s pretty obvious once you see them the real reason they’re wearing them: because it makes them look like ninjas.

Cooking lunch with Boon Chew, ninja, and Som Bat, ninja.

Cooking lunch with Boon Chew, mahout ninja, and Som Bat, mahout ninja.

Suwit, ninja.

Suwit, mahout ninja.

Colorful ninjas. So the scarves will be blue, orange, green, or red. Sometimes Boon Chew will forgo the scarf, but that’s only because he wants to display his hair. And when I see it, well-coiffed but with a few strands carefully combed askew, it’s pretty clear that he’s spent some time working on it.

Individually, all of the younger mahouts are painfully shy, even Boon Chew. But together they have that magical blowhard strength of teen boys in groups. They like to pose, to tease, and they’re capable of extraordinary feats of athleticism and dickishness, like when I greet Boon Chew as he’s driving by on his stylish little scooter. He stares right at me, then looks away with a perfect combination of apathy and insouciance, pulling off the very complicated maneuver known as the moving vehicle freeze-out.

I guess it’s reassuring to know that all teens the world over, be they from the suburbs of Los Angeles or from a mountain tribe in Thailand—have the same asshole hormones.

Boon Chew.

Boon Chew.

But when they let their guard down, these young mahouts are respectful and friendly. In the English lesson classes all three of these guys work hard and speak English fairly well. Using English in front of the volunteers would not be cool, so they play dumb when you try to engage them in conversation.

On two separate occasions they ask me through a staff member (with a translation that they probably don’t need) if I’m married, and wonder how many children I have. The answers are the same both times: I have a girlfriend but no child. I think they don’t absorb the answers the first time because in their world an older man is almost always married with children.

Sometimes I catch them staring at the volunteer girls, but there is something in their looks that is more innocent, less brazen, than the stares of Western teen boys. The focus of the young teens here seems to be more toward finding mates and starting families than just having sex, and perhaps this is the reason.

Open male-female contact and affection is frowned on in the village. The volunteer men and women are strictly forbidden to display any outward affection toward each other. No man and woman are allowed to be alone in the same bedroom together, unless they are a couple and preferably married. Even casual touch can be considered too much.

But these restrictions don’t apply to male friendships, and there’s a peculiar gender reversal from Western culture that exists here. Male-to-male affection and contact is common and very open, and the younger males—like Boon Chew, Som Bat, and Suwit–seem to show it more than the older ones.

This is the exact opposite of what I would expect of boys their age. When I was a teenager, a boy would never get too close to another boy, or else there would be talk. In Huay Pakoot there is hugging and hand holding between male friends. The young mahouts will even lay together out in the jungle, arms and legs entwined, laughing, talking, joking.

Mahouts hug 2

These are the same guys who throw themselves in front of three-ton elephants. Drop them out of the sky into the middle of the jungle and they can survive for weeks. They pluck leaves off plants and use them to dress wounds, they walk for miles without rest, and they are able to be still and silent for hours. They call the male volunteers who complain about anything ‘lady boys’.

Once Som Bat greets me in the village as I am walking by. He clasps my hand—does not shake it—he clasps it. There is no male bluster to this gesture, no ego, just friendship. He smiles and his face is warm and open.

Som Bat walks away, going on with his day. Honest affection expressed simply between men is just not something I am accustomed to, as a teenager and even now as a man. And unless I return here, I don’t think I’ll experience it ever again.

Som Bat.

Som Bat.

Gallabay also is a very young mahout at 18. He is quiet and often looks somber, but he is easily coaxed into laughing. One day he suddenly disappears from the village, and there is speculation that he will be replaced as the mahout of the elephant named Mana. ‘Substitute’ mahouts show up, but Mana seems to ignore them, and is a little more unruly.

After a week Gallabay returns. I’m told that he had to be with his family in another village because his brother was arrested on a drug charge. It is a reminder to me of the Western, ‘civilized’ world, hovering just beyond the village. With her mahout back, Mana’s behavior returns to normal.

Galllabay with Mana.

Galllabay with Mana.

Next to the lead mahout Singto, Jordoh is the most gentlemanly mahout, always helpful and always respectful. He’s also the most enigmatic mahout, and perhaps that’s why he seems to get the most attention from the female volunteers. He is in his late twenties, unmarried, seldom talks and almost never in English. He has a big smile that he sometimes hides with his hand.

Jordoh.

Jordoh.

Jordoh ends up at the center of an incident that rubs up against the male-female taboo.

During one party at Base Camp with the volunteers and the villagers, he got drunk, along with some other villagers and a lot of the volunteers. Apparently when Jordoh gets drunk not only does he talk, but he even speaks English. Well.

And he gets too flirty with the volunteer women. Or maybe the volunteer women get too flirty with Jordoh. It’s a fine line, but the simplest physical touch or gesture could cause a scandal for Jordoh and potential expulsion for any volunteer involved.

Rumors fly after that night. I was not at the party, but after filtering through all of the noise, all I discover is that there was some friendly joking and shoving involved. Eventually the incident blows over, but I realize that gossip is as much a part of the landscape here as the elephants–it’s as big as they are and as hard to control.

Jordoh's smile.  Singto is behind him.

Jordoh. Singto is behind him.

Soh Eh is about the same age as Jordoh, and he has been dubbed by the volunteers as “James Franco Mahout”. At times his resemblance to the movie star is uncanny. It shows what kind of person he is that he embraces the name and the joke, and even poses in pictures like a movie star.

'James Franco Mahout' (Soh Eh) and Gallabay.

‘James Franco Mahout’ (Soh Eh) and Gallabay.

'James Franco Mahout' (Soh Eh).

‘James Franco Mahout’ (Soh Eh).

During my second week there, one of the volunteers challenges the mahouts to a soccer game, volunteers against mahouts. The field is next to the school, on top of a mountain. The sky feels close enough to touch, and clouds roll in as if to pack the stands.

Boys from the school round out both teams. They are young, none seem to be older than ten, and their sheepishness around us foreigners vanishes amidst the excitement of the game.

Boon Chew plays goalie for the mahouts and he is a vacuum cleaner, sucking up kicked fireballs, laughing as errant shots fly off the field and bounce down the mountain. Play has to be paused for five minutes while someone hikes down to retrieve the ball. I use the time to gasp for breath.

Som Bat and Suwit play like they’re the same person, easily floating the ball back and forth to each other as they move it down the field. Singto runs sideways on the field as fast as he runs up and down mountains. The school boys are athletic even in their bare feet, exploding in laughter as they launch the ball with wild kicks. Overhead the sky blackens and threatens rain, but never quite delivers.

I am going all-out, and I’m not sure why. My sports were always baseball and some basketball, and the mahouts are patient with me, laughing, as I almost knock them over with my brute force attacks on the ball.

In the heat my clothes stick to me like wet paint. The belt holding up my shorts is so drenched with sweat that it droops like a dead snake.

A few times I steal the ball from Som Bat and Suwit, and I see the surprise on their faces.

We lose, and it’s not even close. The mahouts are just too good.

I walk off the field thinking, these guys are cool. I feel like a teenager.

mahouts laugh

THE MAHOUTS: PART ONE

Canon pix June 15_2013 054

On the daily hikes I find myself watching the mahouts almost as much as I watch the elephants. A mahout is part elephant trainer, part elephant companion, part master outdoorsman. They lead the hikes and are at least partially responsible for the volunteers’ health and welfare.

The mahouts are also the face of the people of the village, the people we volunteers see and communicate with—well, as much as we can communicate with them—every day.

The mahouts don’t carry backpacks and they don’t wear hiking boots (Many wear only wear flip flops). They don’t apply sunscreen or bug repellent. They don’t ever have to stop to rest (unlike us wheezing volunteers, who dictate the pace of the hikes). I never once saw a mahout drink water, though I imagine they must have snuck a few swigs at some point. That is, unless they are part camel.

The mahouts shun most tools: so no flashlight, compass, or knife. But they all have machetes, and I rarely see a mahout who lets his machete rest in its sheath for very long.

There’s always brush to chop to clear a path, bamboo leaves to rip off for the elephants, bamboo stalks to whittle down to craft into cooking utensils. There are also slingshots to carve, leeches to slay, and even some jaunty machete-on-tree drumming to pass the time.

Canon_June 28 100

Carving a slingshot with a machete.

Patti Sai-Ee is the eldest mahout by far at 55. No other mahout is even close to his age. He wears canvas Keds–black–and a baseball cap—also black. The two caps I see in his repertoire have ‘Police’ and ‘Epson’ printed in bold letters across them. I doubt he has a printer, though I can picture him watching an episode of ‘Cops’.

Patty Sai-Ee with Tong Dee

Patty Sai-Ee with Tong Dee

Patty Sai-Ee.

Patty Sai-Ee.

His fingers have an arthritic-looking gnarl to them, though I never see that he has any difficulty using them. In fact Patty Sai-Ee, like all of the mahouts, is constantly busy with his hands—whether wielding the machete or smashing his hands together on a ‘popper’ plant—that pops like a firecracker when struck just so. I like the fact that a 55-year-old man still likes to make loud noises, especially among a herd of elephants.

Patti Sai-Ee talks haltingly if at all, in a low voice, mostly to the other mahouts. They are so much younger than him that I wonder if this makes him a bit isolated, if he’s an outsider in his own village and in his own dwindling professional circle. Mahouts are already marginalized in Thailand, and what used to be an honorable profession is becoming somewhat of a lost art. These days it is generally regarded as dirty, lowly. More money can be made as a beggar than as a mahout.

020iphone_June25 043

Patty Sai-Ee is the mahout of Tong Dee. She is around his age, and Tong Dee is like the elephant version of him: quiet, calm, stoic. But unlike her mahout, Tong Dee can be ornery. She will not obey the other mahouts, and they are open about their fear of her.

They approach Tong Dee only in the presence of Patty Sai-Ee.

patty and Tong DeeThe lead mahout is Singto, at only nineteen. He’s the mahout for Kam Suk, the oldest elephant of the herd, who is in her late fifties. Singto is the only mahout who talks about an elephant’s emotional state: he points out when she’s happy (most of the time), or when she’s aggravated or scared (steering us safely away from her).

Singto.

Singto.

Singto is already married and he has a baby girl. He is the most outgoing mahout and speaks the best English. He also seems to defy gravity: he runs up and down mountains–in cheap canvas sneakers. Up is one thing. At nineteen, and considering his work, he should be in shape to do that. But running down them requires a balance, agility, and fearlessness that I just cannot fathom.

Singto seems to be everywhere at once. He is at the front leading the way one moment, at the rear helping a straggler the next. When I think of Singto I think of him with his hand out.

He loves to tease and joke. In a quiet moment in the middle of a strenuous hike he will sing out, “Mike, are you okayyy?” He drags out ‘okay’ in a concerned motherly tone.

I like when I can surprise him back: “Singto, are you okayyy?” It becomes a regular thing, back and forth between us, and one time he shocks me when he spreads his arms out, grinning, and proclaims, “I am fiiine!”

Singto thumb wrestling with one of the other volunteers.

Singto thumb wrestles with one of the other volunteers.

After one particularly grueling hike I am alone with him, walking back to the village. He puts his arm on my shoulder for a moment.

“I am tired… you tired?” Singto’s smile cracks open his entire face. I tell him I am and he says, “Good tired, yes? Good tired.”

“Yes,” I agree, smiling back at him. This is a man who loves his work.

With Singto and Patty Sai-Ee, I witness a connection between them and the elephants that goes beyond dominating a beast, beyond leading around a four ton meal ticket (and make no mistake, the mahouts see their elephants as their livelihoods first and foremost).

Singto will slice up tree bark with his machete and spoon feed it to Kam Suk. The gesture is as delicate and loving as I imagine it is with his own child.

Kam Suk eats barkiphone_June 15 069

Patti Sai-Ee rarely fraternizes with the other mahouts or the volunteers.  He seems to genuinely prefer the company of his elephant. He will squat in front of Tong Dee, pick a blade of grass (hands always busy), and stare ahead into the distance.  Patty Sai-Ee says he thinks of Tong Dee as his wife.  As for Tong Dee, she may tower above this tiny man, but with a gesture or a few simple, quiet words from him, she will usually follow him anywhere.

Canon_June25 056

Every Tuesday night at Base Hut is quiz night. The volunteers pair off into teams and compete to answer a barrage of trivia questions. One quiz night, one of the questions is actually more of a challenge: each team has thirty seconds to draw their best version of Patty Sai-Ee.

The girls on one team draw a picture of Yoda. They win, hands down.

Great wide Tong Dee and Patty Sai-ee

LULU

Lulu.

Lulu.

THAILAND ELEPHANTS, WEEK TWO

Getting up to pee in the middle of the night in a mountain jungle village is a bit complicated. It’s not like at home where you can roll out of bed, stumble into the bathroom and take care of business without having to really snap into consciousness. Being over 40, normally I can pee with my eyes closed and continue to make out with Madeline Stowe in my dream. (Madeline Stowe is the beauty that Daniel Day-Lewis falls for in Last of the Mohicans.) And, like D.D. throwing his axe, my aim is still true.

But not in Huay Pakoot. First I have to dig for my flashlight. Then I have to pull on my pants. Then I have to slowly and carefully wriggle out of my mosquito net cocoon, in such a way that I leave no opening for the sieging insects outside to march in whatever hole I make to get out.

By the time I crawl across the floor and grope for the light I’m almost fully conscious, with the bugs, fired up by the flood of fluorescent light, kamikazing into my neck and face. It’s a good thing I am awake at this point, otherwise I’d probably tumble down the uneven wood staircase and roll down the mountain, because everything is on a mountain around here.

The first night I stumble toward the Outhouse-Plus, the symphony of jungle cicadas serenade me, and I look up at the night sky. I stop in my tracks.

In my life I’ve been on quite a few camping trips, in some beautiful places in Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Washington, and California. I’ve never seen a night sky as the one I am looking up at now. The stars throb and pulse so that they look like they are taking breaths. They dance on the heads of the mountains and shove their way through the milling clouds, demanding to be seen. The Big Dipper looks like I could slide it off a pantry hook, pluck it out of the sky, and drink from it.

I sit on the stoop, flashlight extinguished, and stare upward. The days are so hectic that the 3 am pisses become wonderful opportunities to bliss out in the jungle night.

By the second week I settle into a routine. I am jarred awake by roosters crowing at 4:30, try and usually fail to go back to sleep as my family gets up to cook and get ready for their day jobs farming rice in the fields. I dress, pack water bottles, sunscreen, bug repellent, and my Minnie Mouse lunch box into my backpack, and I trudge off to work.

Well, it feels like work, anyway. You know–early morning, carrying my lunch, hours of physical exertion ahead of me, saying hello to the baby elephant as I walk by.

– Okay, maybe not work, exactly.

I always greet Lulu, the youngest of the baby elephants, on the way to Base Hut. She is tied up overnight in the village while her mahout trains her.

All the elephants in this herd have chains attached to at least one of their feet. They have to be chained at different times for different reasons. Sometimes it’s for a health check, sometimes because the elephant may be close to another village’s territory (encroaching and feeding on someone else’s property could likely get the elephant shot), sometimes because us volunteers are feeding them.

While these elephants have been around humans their whole lives, there is always a dangerous and unpredictable element when dealing with them, and the staff always make sure to keep us volunteers at a safe distance. An adult Asian elephant can sweep up two grown men with it’s trunk and fling them like rag dolls.

The elephants will still wear the chains when they forage in the jungle, they just won’t be tied down. Remarkably, the chains, which trail behind them for fifty feet or so, never seem to get snagged. Usually the elephants’ sheer brute force is enough to plow through the obstruction. I did witness one mahout try to untangle a chain: the moment he touched it, the elephant decided to move, and the chain shot out of his hand, taking his fingernail with it.

The babies, on the way to a day of foraging.

The babies, on the way to a day of foraging.

Lulu quickly becomes a favorite elephant of mine, because I see her and talk to her every day. I love the tawny hair sprouting up from the fringes of her head and from between her ears, the baby with dyed old man hair. Lulu is the youngest elephant at three years old, new to the herd, and until about two weeks ago she has never been in a forest. She has spent her whole life inside a tourist camp.

Lulu's old man hair.

Lulu’s old man hair.

Lulu.  The forest is a strange place to her.

Lulu. The forest is a strange place to her.

This is Lulu’s first experience of the vastness of the jungle: the noise, the insects, the deluge of plant life. When she forages with Mario and Bpee Mai, the other babies, she scours their mouths with her trunk, to smell and touch what they’re eating. She’s asking them what’s good on the menu. When she grabs Mario’s tail with her trunk, most likely she’s feeling vulnerable and wants comfort. Sometimes she has a tendency to cling to the mahouts.

The most alarming trait I see in Lulu, however, happens the second she is tied down. It seems to induce a kind of trance in her. She rocks and sways in a jerky, monotonous rhythm. I feel like I’m watching a being in torment, suffering from some unseen demons.

Studies now show that, like humans, elephants can suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The swaying is a symptom of what captivity, abuse, and a life of boredom in the tourist camps have done to Lulu. Humans that have been prisoners of war know this trauma. The second Lulu is locked down, her personality disappears and she reverts to this rocking behavior.

Sometimes Lulu clings to the mahouts.

Sometimes Lulu clings to the mahouts.

When I pass by Lulu, tied up in the village, I stop and call to her. The first few times she stops, slowly turns, her trunk swings toward me, and she smells me. Her eyes widen and she stares at me.

We volunteers are instructed to not bother the elephants while they are tied up in the village, so I speak to her in hushed tones and I try to tell her it’s going to be okay. I feel like I’m outside prison walls, calling to a friend in solitary confinement.

Lulu swivels back around, turning her back on me. She resumes the rocking and swaying, as if yanked back into a nightmare.

After the third or fourth time of me greeting her, Lulu doesn’t even acknowledge me. She doesn’t turn, she doesn’t look, her trunk doesn’t grope for my smell.

She just rocks, back and forth.

The good news is that Lulu’s life is now infinitely better in Huay Pakoot. Over time, this behavior may lessen or even disappear.

On the day that I get to feed the babies, I seek Lulu out. Usually, the elephants are tied down for this, but not this particular time. Lulu is free to do what she wants. Her trunk frisks me for food. Her touch is much gentler than the adults. Lulu’s eyes open wide and her mouth stretches into a baby’s innocent grin.

I feed her bananas, pretending they are cakes with nail files hidden in them.

Feeding Lulu.

Feeding Lulu.

Helping to spring Lulu.

Gentle touch.

BUGS!

This is a bug of Thailand.  He's very cuddly.

This is a bug of Thailand. He’s very cuddly.

The bugs are everywhere. They include flying ants, moths, mosquitoes, flies, bees, beetles, centipedes, millipedes, ants, and on and on. Butterflies are easy to get along with, obviously, and thankfully they are common as well. The worst are the flying ants. They come out in swarms at night after a rain, and their huge papery wings have a creepy rustle as they whap into the walls, lights, the mosquito net, and my face. But if I’m going to get along here in Thailand, I just have to let go of my ick factor and accept them as my neighbors. Once I do this, things get a lot easier.

Flying ant.  Each morning I would find my bedroom floor littered with their wings.  I crafted a lovely papyrus stationery out of them.

Flying ant. Each morning I would find my bedroom floor littered with their wings. I crafted a lovely papyrus stationery out of them.

Mosquito net surrounding my bed.  Note the gecko poop on the top.

Mosquito net surrounding my bed. Note the gecko poop on the top. It’s a good thing.

Until I meet the beetle that hisses at me when I try to flick him off my sweatshirt. I flick again, he spits at me and digs his legs defiantly into my shoulder. I wriggle out of the sweatshirt and run away. It’s his now. There’s a USC logo on it, so maybe the other beetles think he went to college. It’s possible–with that hissing he practically talks.

View of the bug entrance to my bedroom.  I would find flying ant wings on the floor each morning.  I made a lovely papyrus stationery out of them.

View of the bug entrance to my bedroom. If I turned the light on, they had a neon sign guiding them, and they could invite all their friends.

In Los Angeles’ more temperate climate, applying the ‘live and let live’ philosophy with bugs is quite a bit easier. A few wayward ants in my office back in Los Angeles and I can rush to the rescue with my sheet of paper, fast-walking the little critters to the other side of the building and the exit outside.

Another bug of Thailand.  Adorable.

Another bug of Thailand. Adorable.

But in Thailand, there are red ants that rather enjoy gnawing on your flesh, so when they do get on you and get busy, it’s hard to resist screaming, “Die, fucker!” as you slap your body like you’re putting out a fire, trying to squash the little bastards.

And there’s the bees. In my experience, if you meet one bee in Thailand it won’t sting you but it won’t leave you alone… ever. You can hike three miles and he’ll still be circling your eardrum, taking off and alighting on your arm. Might as well offer him some lunch, he’s not going anywhere for a while. If you meet more than one—well, I guess they don’t want to look like pussies in front of their friends. So they sting the shit out of you.

After careful observation, and getting zapped myself, I learn that the bees have a thing for rotting logs that are alongside or partially submerged in rivers or streams.

eye butterfly 1

Butterfly. There are many different species in Thailand, and they’re everywhere. They are good bug role models.

During one hike we are walking along a river and I am behind a girl who is heavily fatigued. Her pack hangs low to the ground, unbalanced, and her steps are leaden and clumsy. I spot a fat, moldy log just up ahead of her, half in, half out of the water—potentially a creepy little haunted bee house.

Before I can say anything, this girl tries to scale the log, swinging her leg on top of it, and I hear a loud fwump. The girl’s entire leg sinks into the rotted log, the moldy wood swallowing her up to her waist. I offer my hand to help her out, breaking out in a fresh sweat, as I imagine a cloud of stirred up bees glomming onto her leg, stingers angrily tattooing her flesh.

Nothing happens. I’m thinking, Get her!

–No, not really. I am actually pleasantly surprised that there appears to be no one home.

Slowly she extricates herself from the log. The moldy wood reluctantly gives up her leg with a heavy sucking sound, pieces of rot cracking and falling away.

I look up to see the mahout wildly gesticulating at us.

Come on!” he’s panting, in heavily accented English. “Hurry!”

I’ve watched this scene many times. One or two times I helped to make a scene like this, since I used to be a movie trailer editor. I start running forward—we are all running forward—only I can’t help but stop to look back over my shoulder.

More rotting wood is splintering from the log, and the sizable amount of wood that is falling away–as well as the sizable amount of movie scenes stored in my head–suggest to me that this is a horror way more terrifying than mere bees. That some…thing… has been disturbed… awoken… and it is bursting out of the rotting log… 

My mouth opens.   I’m staring.  My fellow hikers run by me.  I’m that idiot in those horror movies who freezes and is the first to go, staring stupidly up at the huge thing as it springs and devours me.  I’m forgotten a half hour into the movie. 

Alien, I’m thinking.

Nope. Bees.

They stung three people, including the mahout. I was left alone this time. The girl who had served up half her torso for the bees to tenderize when she fell through their roof—she also walked away unscathed.

Tracks photographed near the river.  Frog... or baby alien?

Tracks photographed near the river. Frog… or baby alien?

GET TO THE ELEPHANTS ALREADY

THAILAND ELEPHANTS WEEK ONE, PART THREE

Mana.  Mana would turn out to be the most photogenic elephant.

Mana.

There are about 3000 domesticated elephants left in Thailand, down from 100,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century. The wild elephant population is down to about 3000 (or even as low as 1000 by some accounts) from 300,000 in the same span of time. This qualifies the Asian elephant as endangered.

Most captive elephants in Thailand are now in tourist camps, a $15 billion-plus industry. When logging was totally banned in Thailand in 1989, the elephant trainers/owners, or mahouts, turned to the tourist camps to make money. In tourist camps elephants usually undergo cruel and abusive ‘training’ to make them perform tricks, give ‘rides’, and pose for pictures.

baby dirt bath

The babies give themselves a dirt bath. Dirt and mud protect the elephants from the sun and keep them cool.

In Huay Pakoot the elephants won’t have to do any of that. Neither will they be forced to paint, play soccer, or beg in the streets. They will never be completely wild, either. They are here and the mahouts are here because people like me are paying to visit the village and follow the elephants around as they forage in the jungle. The goal is to turn the business of this paid volunteerism over to the people of the village itself. That’s in the future.

In the meantime, the mahouts get paid a wage comparable to what they would make if they took their elephants to the tourist camps. So the real benefit to the mahouts in this program is not the money, but the opportunity to stay at home with their families. The elephants get the best deal, since they get a chance to live better lives, free from abuse and servitude.

In Huay Pakoot, there are eight elephants in this man-made herd. The oldest are Tong Dee and Kam Suk, both in their mid to late 50’s. Kam Moon is Kam Suk’s female offspring, she’s in her 30’s. Then there’s Mana and Sen Jap, also in their 30’s.

Mae San Jep.  The 'Mae' means 'Lady'.

Mae Sen Jap. The ‘Mae’ means ‘Lady’.

Tong Dee.  She was exploited for logging until it was outlawed.

Tong Dee. She was exploited for logging until it was outlawed.

Kam Moon.  The largest elephant of the herd.

Kam Moon. The largest elephant of the herd.

Kam Suk.  Her mahout is feeding her bark.

Kam Suk. The oldest elephant of the herd. Her mahout is feeding her bark.

There are three baby elephants: Bpee Mai, Mario (the only two males), and Lulu. They are five, four, and three respectively. Kam Suk, Kam Moon, and Lulu, three successive generations of elephants (Lulu is Kam Moon’s offspring), are brand new additions to the herd, and they have been here for only a couple of weeks. All the elephants are from tourist camps except for Tong Dee, who was used as a beast of burden for logging. Lulu has never been in a forest until only a couple of weeks ago.

Bpee Mai.  He is the "veteran" baby, and the other babies often follow his example.

Bpee Mai. He is the “veteran” baby, and the other babies often follow his example.

cute Mario

Mario. Mario was always curious about us volunteers.

Lulu.  Lulu had never been in the forest until now.

Lulu. Lulu had never been in the forest until now.

The first time I meet the elephants I am allowed to feed them, which is thrilling beyond belief. I feed Tong Dee, who looks the oldest, even though Kam Suk is slightly older. Maybe it’s all the hard labor Tong Dee has had to endure. Her skin is saggy and wrinkly, her eyes big and sad-looking. She nudges me with her trunk for the bananas in my hand. A nudge from an elephant is like a shove from a dock worker named Moose. Tong Dee snorts, chews noisily, her trunk poking at me for more. I stare up at her.

Feeding Tong Dee.  She became one of my favorites.

Feeding Tong Dee. She became one of my favorites.

In Hinduism and some other disciplines the god Ganesha takes the form of an elephant. He is known, among other things, as the Destroyer of Obstacles.

Later I see the photos of me feeding Tong Dee and I don’t recognize them. There is a strange smile on my face that I have never seen before. It’s like I’m looking at a different person.

I will snap hundreds of photos and videos of the elephants, but every one seems to fall short of what it’s like to actually be in the presence of one. When you see one up close and in person—and not in a zoo cage– you feel like you are looking at an animal not of this time, as if you are suddenly seeing a dinosaur stomping out of the forest.

Elephants are massive, slow, deliberate, and surprisingly quiet. Take your eye off them and they will surprise you. More than once I will pick out an isolated jungle observation post from which to safely view the creatures from a distance, only to turn around to find an elephant on top of me.

They forage at their own, relaxed pace, hoisting their trunks up like periscopes to periodically sniff the air. They are curious about us and they touch and smell each other. They snort when eating, trumpet when frustrated, squeak for who knows why. It is alarming to hear rodent sounds (albeit a large, steroid-gobbling rodent) coming from the belly of such a massive beast. They even growl when agitated or giving warning, but it’s not like say a big cat growl. It has a basso profondo rumble to it, like a giant awakening from under the earth.

Seventy percent of the day they spend eating, so they do a lot of that. Sometimes they take a few steps and just stop, pausing, eyes darting, trunk gliding a few inches off the ground. With their tufts of hair at the fringes of their lumpy heads, they look to me then like wise old men lost in thought. Every time I am near one I am struck with a sense of peace and awe.

Mario stomps on a tree branch to make it more bite-sized.

Mario stomps on a tree branch to make it more bite-sized.

Kam Moon touches her mother, Kam Suk.  Kam Moon never strays far from her mother.

Kam Moon touches her mother, Kam Suk. Kam Moon never strays far from her mother.

Each day there are elephant hikes, some longer (six hours generally), some shorter (about four hours). I go on all of them. This alone keeps me busy, and there are many other things to potentially do, including attending lectures, teach English to the children or the mahouts of the village, help my host family cook, weave baskets, and more.

In 2010 I quit smoking. I had smoked for over twenty years before quitting. Up until this week I had still been chewing Nicorette nicotine gum, usually two pieces per day. I had debated whether to buy another box before I left because I had counted them all out (as an addict will do), and had almost exactly enough for the whole trip, if I kept on the two a day dose.

Quietly, almost without me noticing, I stop chewing the gum. I don’t miss it. I am among the elephants every day and I am thinking about the phrase, Destroyer of Obstacles.

Who is this man?

Who is this man?

THAILAND ELEPHANTS WEEK ONE, PART TWO: BLOW-DRIED CHICKEN

In week one I eat my first meal prepared by the matriarch of my host family, Apah. She is told that I am a vegetarian. No eggs, either. She laughs, and after a translation, I am told she has said in her language: “Then what do you eat?” Throughout my stay she smiles, laughs, and tries to joke with me. Despite the language barrier, I understand her warnings about the low ceilings everywhere in her house.

At six o’clock every day I arrive for dinner, and every day I bonk my head on the low ceiling. Apah rolls out a rug onto a sort of porch area of her house. It begins to sink in that there is no furniture anywhere. People in the village sit on the floor to eat, relax, hang out. There is a lot of squatting. Tigers used to prowl the jungle here fifty years ago. After they were hunted into extinction, it looks like everyone went after the chairs.

My host family's house

My host family’s house

Apah and her daughter, Tee Ta Poh.

Apah and her daughter, Tee Da Poh.

I love Apah’s cooking, and from this vegetarian’s perspective the key to the food is not necessarily what it is, but how it’s flavored and spiced. Some of my favorite dishes are spiced potatoes, spiced pea puree, spiced peppers (perhaps you’re seeing a theme here), and sometimes Apah makes a cold paste out of red chilies that goes well with anything. Occasionally there is fruit, usually mango, pineapple, or watermelon, which is delectable and balances the other dishes well.

I have a striking view of surrounding mountains from where I eat. During this first week, a staff member eats with me and my family. After that I will be on my own, so I can either try to learn some of the language, or go the other way and just get down some really cool blank stares and grinning idiot poses.

The staff member knows a lot of Packinyah, which is the native language spoken by the Karen people that live here. As the staff member and my host family converse in fits and starts, I write down as many words as I can and practice pronouncing them. Packinyah is not a written language, so I write down the words phonetically. It’s hard to figure out grammar rules. A lot of it sounds like some weird version of French, like if Pepe Lepew had invented his own language.

One phrase I manage to get down is ‘Da bleu!’, which is a good all-purpose phrase, since it means hello, goodbye, and thank you. One little wrinkle is if you slightly mispronounce it, if you say ‘Ta bleu!’, you are calling the other person crazy. After a few days I’m da bleuing all over the place.

My view while eating dinner

My view while eating dinner

Apah packs my lunch for the day hikes in a pink Minnie Mouse plastic container. Breaking out a Disney lunch box in the jungle is a bit off (another British expression, I can’t stop myself), like if I clopped into a Disney board meeting with hiking boots and a backpack. (That might be my next trip.) All the other volunteers are jealous of my Minnie Mouse container, and they should be, with their plain no-mouse-eared food containers. I am very proud of it, beaming as I unscrew Minnie’s head. Lunch is eaten cold, either out in the jungle on the hike or at base hut if the hike is shorter. The food is good no matter what, even if you imagine it’s Minnie’s little mouse brains, which I would never do.

Minnie pre-lobotomy

Minnie pre-lobotomy

Canon_June 28 151

And post-lobotomy

The bathroom facilities are in a separate building from my host’s house, in what is for all practical purposes an outhouse with ‘shower’ facilities. So, Outhouse-Plus. Here I am introduced to the squat toilet. This is a happier meeting than I expected–I thought I would be actually crapping down a hole. It is at least a toilet, made of porcelain, and even imprinted with the manufacturer’s name. ‘Otto’ is the manufacturer. Strangely, in the city, the toilets are imprinted with ‘Cotto’. The brothers Otto and Cotto, twin toilet titans of Southeast Asia. The toilet is set into the floor and the squatting takes some getting used to. I consider it a victory that I somehow escape crapping on myself.

The ‘shower’ is a big barrel of ice cold water in the corner across from the squat toilet. A little plastic pot is used to scoop up the water and pour it over myself. I start the week ‘showering’ (you can substitute ‘dump arctic water over my head’ if you like) once in the morning, and once after the hike.

Outhouse-Plus

Outhouse-Plus

By the end of the week I shower only after the hike. Morning showers are bracing but pointless, since I am clean for all of thirty minutes before the hike begins. They do get my attention. I stifle a shout as the poured ice water bashes me like a baseball bat made of ice. This feels great after a hike—or at least less like electroshock therapy–but only if I walk directly from the jungle into the shower without breaking stride. If my body temperature cools down even a little while I’m hunting down soap, towel, fresh clothes, etc.–then I will suffer an ice cold water beating once again.

After all the intense hiking, I am a little concerned about my protein intake. Since all the chickens are free range around here—and I’m serious, they’re walking around everywhere, in and outdoors, pecking, tending to their chicks, bumming cigarettes—I ask the staff to tell Apah that eggs are okay. After I lift the egg embargo my weekly egg intake goes from zero to a metric shit-ton. I get served rice and eggs, vegetables and eggs, egg omelets, fried eggs, hard and soft boiled eggs, eggs with a side of eggs.

Clockwise: rice, egg omelet, soup with egg, spiced pea puree

Clockwise: rice, egg omelet, soup with egg, spiced pea puree

There are a lot of other animals around here. All the village families seem to have chickens and pigs. Some families also have buffaloes, which look and behave roughly like cows. And there are stray dogs and cats everywhere. Or, sort of stray—it’s unclear. Many of them are fed to a degree and hang around certain houses, but when I stop to pet a dog or cat, invariably the animal’s initial reaction is to go stiff, as if unsure of what to expect from my contact. It’s clear that they don’t get much affection, especially the cats. The dogs are all of similar breed and on the small side. The cats are shockingly small, about a third the size of one of my cats. The pigs are confined in tiny cages or tied to stakes and are barely allowed to move.

Buffaloes often just lounge under the houses

Buffaloes often just lounge under the houses

Piglets at least have some freedom

Piglets at least have some freedom

I have to bite my tongue on this stuff, obviously I can’t be Mr. Animal Crusader around here. On the plus side, I am told that the people in the village don’t eat their pigs (they get pork elsewhere). I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I like to think it is.

There’s one famous chicken in the village. His feathers have grown out in a strange, almost afro-like fashion. He is dubbed ‘Blow-Dried Chicken’. When I first encounter him, he gives me a suspicious, sidelong stare and a wide berth, like a movie star avoiding the paparazzi.

Da bleu!” I bellow cheerfully at Blow-Dried Chicken, testing out my Packinyah on every soul I meet.

He waddles away, clucking imperiously at me.

Blow-dried chicken ducking the media

Blow-Dried Chicken ducking the media

Blow-dried chicken escapes after pecking attack on paparazzi

Blow-Dried Chicken escapes after pecking attack on paparazzi

LAND OF A THOUSAND SMILES

I have returned from my trip to Thailand with the elephants. A lot has happened and there was a lot to absorb. I’ll be blogging about my week to week experiences in Thailand in the days to come.

iphone_June25 071

THAILAND ELEPHANTS WEEK ONE, PART ONE

I realize that I am part of something special the Wednesday of my first week in Thailand. A heavy tropical storm has just struck, shooting bullets out of the sky, and I am kneeling on the floor, helping to chop lettuce for a girl cooking dinner for me and three other ‘gollas’, or foreigners. I look out the window to see a baby elephant munching on sugar cane leaves and scratching himself. He lifts one hind leg to scratch the other, almost human-like, snorting in the cool air, his muddy gray skin darkening to a dark chocolate brown in the downpour.

It hits me. I’m eating dinner with an elephant in the backyard.

Five days earlier:

I arrive in Chiang Mai, Thailand, after 22 hours on a plane. I check into the hotel and I walk around in a daze. Part of it is jet lag, part of it is culture shock, part of it is I see no one who looks like me in the first hours at the hotel. The white people are all twenty-plus years younger. High school and college kids mostly, an endless gabbing, hard-bodied, partying parade of them. At breakfast I see a guy in his mid-thirties. We share the look of the damned. The old and the damned.

I conquer my fear of eating at a restaurant where no English is spoken nor found on the menu. The owner and I grunt, smile, and gesture at each other until somehow there’s some pad thai in front of me, and it’s delicious.

I meet other people in the volunteer program, run by GVI, Global Vision International. We’re all here to help elephants. I have signed on for a month with these strangers. I’ll be sharing meals, hiking with them, hanging out with them. They are from New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Australia, Switzerland, and there’s a person from California, like me. The British contingent outnumbers all other nationalities, probably because GVI is based in the United Kingdom.

I arrive at Huay Pakoot, a tiny village in the mountains of northwest Thailand. It’s 3300 feet up, and there’s no flat land anywhere. This would be a good retirement community for mountain climbers. On my casual walks around, casually gasping for breath and casually waiting to hear the snap of a leg tendon, I get lost four times. I get lost looking for my family’s house, finding Base Hut (where the volunteers hang out), looking for the road that climbs up to the school. I get lost after a hike, which means I have another hike after the hike.

Huay Pakoot

Huay Pakoot

The blessing ceremony

The blessing ceremony

There is a dinner welcoming ceremony, where a few members of the village come to base hut to welcome new people and give blessings. The ceremony involves blessing a bowl of rice and going around a circle of us volunteers, tying strings around our wrists as a symbol of blessing and protection. I stare admiringly at the little twine ball around my wrist like it’s a Rolex. I do feel blessed and honored to be here. And I’m excited by string. My cats would be so pleased.

Base Hut

Base Hut

I meet my host family and they show me to my room. It has a thin not-quite-a-mattress on a floor, and a sleeping bag for a blanket. The key feature is the mosquito net surrounding the mattress and blanket. There are no such things as screens on the windows, so the mosquito net is my only sanctuary from the myriad of insects that swarm my room every night. Geckos prowl the walls and ceiling, announcing themselves with one of two strange calls. They sound either like an overstimulated squirrel or a frog that has taken voice lessons. They snap up some of the bugs but there are just too many of them.

By the end of the first week, with all the Brits around, I am helpless against the tendency to start spouting British expressions. I say things I would be shot for in America, like ‘sort out’, ‘have a go’, and ‘Hey gov, your googlies are well tarrowed in the henpot’. That last one I made up, but hearing the Brits speak I feel like they just make up words and expressions anyway.

After a few hikes, which I handle okay, and better than many of the younger people, the age gap fear fades. Does this mean that I’m okay to hang with younger people only if I can hike mountains?

Hiking in the clouds

Hiking in the clouds

Still, I am uneasy around the new volunteers and terrified of the veterans, some of whom are here for six month marathons. I am eager to score even minor social points with my fellows, so I accept an offering of some sticky toffee and chocolate candy that I have never heard of. Most likely it’s British. Here’s how that goes, roughly: “Hey Mike, want a barmy whompun-pat*?”

(*Not the name, but it could be. I’m telling you, they make this shit up.)

Does an elephant shit in the woods?” I quip smartly, and with a self-satisfied flourish, pop the unknown candy into my mouth. In my eagerness to impress, somehow I’ve forgotten that my teeth, through a combination of genetics and bad living in my twenties, have had to be systematically repaired and replaced over the last two decades, so that now they are like rows of pearly white condominium facades. They look pretty good, but one touch and everything collapses in a dusty cloud of porcelain veneer. The candy feels like a small rock liberally coated with Krazy Glue, and on chew number two I spit out the candy, and one of my dental crowns with it.

So I have to go to the dentist. The procedure should be simple. The crown is still intact, it just needs to be cemented back into place. Simple maybe, but this is the point I realize just where we are and how hard it is to accomplish certain things. There is a dentist in a little town about an hour’s drive away. The villagers are asked their opinion of this dentist.

Some of these villagers, incidentally, chew betel nut. Chewing betel nut looks roughly like chewing tobacco while wearing lipstick as your gums bleed. The locals also smoke thin, foul-smelling cigars, and have more than a few early check-outs from the Hotel Pearly White. They give this guy a thumbs-down. He must be a medieval torturer.

Next plan is another town where there is a small hospital. There is also a dental clinic there. Apparently for this dentist the whole dental gig is just for fun though, since the clinic is open only one day a week. Maybe.

So eventually I am shipped back to Chiang Mai. The clinic there caters to western ex-pats, in fact all the people I see in the waiting room are white. After a short wait I am called in and the procedure is simple, it takes about ten minutes. Total bill: $13.20. My dentist in L.A. would charge me thirteen bucks just for reading a magazine in his waiting room.

The ride back to the village is my first ride in a Sung Tao, probably the most common mode of transport in Thailand. A Sung Tao is a truck enclosed on the top and sides, with the back open. Benches line the two side walls, and there are railings attached to the ceiling. The railings are extremely effective in pretending that I have a sense of safety and control as I am spun, yanked, and thrashed around in the back of this truck on winding mountain roads. Lovely greenery shoots by in an acid-strobing blur, the tailpipe pumps in exhaust fumes unfettered by oxygen, and driving over gaping potholes allows my face to eat generous helpings of my knees.

I never thought I would rate a trip to the dentist higher than a scenic ride through the country, but I’m learning a lot about myself here.

View from Base Hut

View from Base Hut

CONVERSATION BETWEEN MR. ANIMAL GUY AND MR. FEAR GUY ON A PLANE FLYING FROM LOS ANGELES TO THAILAND

SCENE OPENS on a typical Airbus A380 jet flying an international route.  Mr. Animal Guy, a mild-mannered dude (except when he is not) in his 4o’s, is alone in seat 3A when someone–or maybe something–seems to float down the aisle and sit  next to him.  As this shadowy form sits, a gust of wind buffets the jet sharply, all the babies on the plane begin to cry in unison, and Gerard Butler sashays across the little airplane screen in a rubber surfer suit in “Chasing Mavericks”.  The shadowy form stares a few moments at Butler’s modern hippie ‘do, shadowy hand perched over the barf bag, before turning to face Mr. Animal Guy.

MR. FEAR GUY: Thailand? You’re going to Thailand? What, are you crazy? Why are you doing that?

Mr. Animal Guy rolls his eyes, turning to face his new companion.

MR. ANIMAL GUY: Oh, you againYou’re really not looking well.  If you must know, I want to help some elephants. I’m an animal guy and I think elephants are one of the coolest animals on the planet. In Thailand there’s a program that helps them, and so I’m going.

MR. FEAR GUY (rubs hands together sinisterly): Oh, this is gonna be good. You know, I’ve got like a million reasons why this is the biggest mistake of your life.

MR. ANIMAL GUY (sighs): Yeah, I know.

MR. FG: They speak a foreign language. You don’t know Thai.

MR. AG: I know a few phrases… and the people in the program said they would teach me.

MR. FG: You don’t know shit. You’ll look like an idiot. You won’t even be able to get to the hotel. They’ll laugh at you, you know how you loooove that.

MR. AG: Is the sarcasm necessary?

MR. FG: Oh, I haven’t even started, big boy. Your life was good. You had a nice house back there in Los Angeles. You should’ve stayed there. Locked the doors and pulled the drapes even. Hide under the bed. Get serious brother, you need to be safe.

MR. AG: Hide under the bed? Seems excessive.

MR. FG: I’m looking out for you. There could be earthquakes back in L.A. Leprosy outbreak. People, for god’s sake. People. Stay away from them, they can be nasty. They can talk to you or even give you leprosy. But you’re changing the subject. Let’s just stay on this trip to Thailand and how you’re fucking up big time.

MR. AG: Clock’s running on you. I hear you talk, you kind of sound like you’re full of it.

MR. FG: Am I? What about this? You’re 45. Jesus, you’re 45! Holy crap, you’re old! Anyway, point is, these kinds of things are done by kids. You can’t hang with them. You can’t do the physical stuff, and you sure can’t talk to them. Nothing in common there.

MR. AG: I’m in the best shape of my life.

MR. FG: Mosquitos will eat you. Or the teenagers. They’ll eat you alive. You should see them when they strike, they can unhinge their jaws and swallow you whole.

MR. AG: Mosquitos or teenagers?

MR. FG: Teenagers. The mosquitos suck your brains out of your skull with their proboscises. Just like a Slurpie.

Mr. Animal Guy looks doubtful.

MR. FG: Check this. You’re leaving your cats back there in L.A. to be taken care of by total strangers. They won’t feed them right. Lyle’s finicky. What if he starves to death? What if someone breaks into the house and hangs everybody? I’m talking not just the cats, but even the cat sitter. At least it would serve him right for starving Lyle.

Mr. Animal guy says nothing, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

MR. FG: Ah, I got you there. That’s a familiar one, isn’t it? You’ve had that one for years. Broken windows, home invaders, and cat hangings all around.

MR. AG: Yes. But you know, I’m starting to realize how stupid this all sounds when you say it out loud.

MR. FG: I have a cold. I’m all nasally.

MR. AG: I really think that this trip might be pretty cool. And as long as I’m open, I think mostly some pretty cool things will happen. And I don’t know what it is, but I’m just not buying your line right now.

MR. FG: Smooshed.

MR. AG: Smooshed?

MR. FG: You’ll be smooshed by an elephant. Flattened. Trampled to death.

MR. AG: I have to go. Plane’s landing now.

MR. FG: Is it landing, or just maybe… is it crashing?

MR. AG: Your voice cracked on that. Kinds ruins the effect.

MR. FG: (sighs) Are you gonna eat those nuts? I’m hungry, like, all the time.

MR. AG: Yeah, I know. Sure, have a nut and then crawl your ass back to coach. This is business class, dumbass, and you don’t belong here.

Mike feed 3