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.

024

THE ELEPHANT POLICE ARE HERE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mana pole dancing pose.

Mana pole dancing pose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kam Suk and Kam Moon.

Kam Suk and Kam Moon.

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

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

The mahouts tried, and failed, to stop them.

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

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

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

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

We got quiet.

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

Trapped in this clearing, we were on their terms.

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

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

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

The two of them were frisking us like elephant cops.

We were helpless, pinned down.

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

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

"This thing is loaded."

“This thing is loaded.”

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

This almost made me laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep within.