Monday, June 4, 2012

Elephant Nature Park volunteer journal for April 6th

During the night there was a thunderstorm, the sound of what surely was a hog being eaten by a Tiger and of course, the roosters and the animals calling to be fed at dawn. In the morning, we discovered the sounds during the night came from a hog giving birth. The Piglets were suckling on the exhausted sow lying next to the still wet placenta.

One of the hogs gave birth during the night
Today we would walk all day with the herd of elephant while they grazed along the creek bed. We walked down the same steep road through the burned out hills and saw from above the herd approach with their Mahout (keepers).

Tanya, Kim, Andrew, Iggi, Katie and James walking to join the herd
We joined the herd and walked for miles along rough foot trails, over rice paddies and through the creek. The adults in the herd were less friendly and less attentive that Pugee, the adult male elephant we walked with earlier in the week. There were babies to protect. The aunties watched us constantly and we heeded their warnings when passing through tight sections along the creek. We stayed away from the twin calves, even though we wanted to hug them like the crazy foreigners that we were.

Mother with child
A rare moment of peace between Naughty Boy and his sister 
Naughty Boy thinking about charging Iggi again
Naughty Buy decides to bother our guide Pada
What, you have no bananas?
Video of auntie waiting to follow the twins, keeping them between her and their mother

The twins were always kept between their mom and auntie
We approached a herd of water buffalo lying in a big mud pot. While the elephant grazed, we waded into the warm mud and laid with the buffalo. Rachel was lying close to one buffalo and asked if we too could feel the buffalo peeing under the mud. It seemed like a normal observation. Our guide, Pada, took many pictures of the the crazy foreigners in mud with buffalo.

Rachel with buffalo
Buffalo, Tanya, Katie and Rachel
Just friends
We washed off the mud in the creek and continued with the herd through the valley. While the herd grazed, we sat with our feet in the creek, took in the scene and ate delicious Thai noodles and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves. We ate with bamboo chop sticks made earlier that day by the Mahout.
Lunch was made in the morning and carried in banana leaves

Picture taken for Mary, who was sick and could not join us this day

Sam's picture - catching up with the herd in the rice paddies

 Late in the day we walked into the woods along a tall cliff and approached a 100 foot waterfall. Finally, we were in a tiny piece of jungle. The Jungle, cliffs and waterfall created a micro-climate that felt cool. We stood under the waterfall and were pounded with cold water.

The air in the jungle by the falls was 20 degrees cooler
We wished this was the end of our hike, but the last mile was the hike up the hill to the village.  As we climbed, the heat was intense, but everyone maintained a good stride. Kim’s 11 year old son, James, was one of the first to crest the hill. There was a machismo within the sub-culture that was our group of volunteers. Throughout the week there were moments of discomfort, cultural disorientation, giant spiders, heat, dirt, birth and death, but I never heard a complaint.
Too bad we didn't get along

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Elephant Nature Park volunteer journal for April 5th

On Thursday we stayed in the Karen hill tribe village. We were lucky to have the school aged children home that week for a Thai holiday. The village does not have a school, so the older children usually live in another village to attend school.

The morning in the village was busy as usual. The women were doing chores like processing rice below the houses using the ancient method of pounding the kernels to remove the husks and separating the rice from the husks with large, round, wicker baskets. We taught the kids English and they tried to teach us the Karen language. The kids fared better than the volunteers. With our guides Pada and Chay as interpreters, we entered a couple of the houses and hung out with the owners.

The latrine & bucket shower

Rice is sorted after pounding in wooden pot (left background)

Rice is separated from the husks by the wind
Weaving Karen tribe traditional patterns and colors

Possessions are hung from the walls and held in satchels

Kitchen hearth where rice dries in rack above the cook fire

Andrew teaching the boys how to count in English

 The Village Shaman held a ceremony for the volunteers before lunch. As we sat in a circle on a large tarp, the Shaman tied a bracelet of string on each of our wrists while saying a blessing under his breath. Most of the village was there for the ceremony.    

The Shaman ties a bracelet on Katie's wrist while Sam & Iggi watch

The volunteers and guides after the Shaman's ceremony
The woman and older girls brought piles of goods to sell to the volunteers. We bought a lot of the woven cloth and handbags, some desired, others bought with the intent of putting money into the village economy.

The kids, Sam, Rachel & Chay watch the women selling their goods
By afternoon It was 95 degrees and humid. The village fell into siesta. The adults from our host family relaxed in the open side of the house where I slept at night to free the volunteers from my snoring.  Rachel, Sam and I hung out in the shade below the house. I was reading Kim’s Thailand travel book while a buffalo licked Rachel’s face and another buffalo licked Sam’s bare foot. I thought nothing of it. I would let my dog lick my face and toes knowing she had a habit of eating poop. What did the villagers thing of volunteers letting buffalo lick their faces and fawn over the dogs like they were human babies? They were kind, engaging and seemed to like us in spite of ourselves.

Mary's picture of the kids from our host family relaxing during the midday heat

Rachel glowing after a buffalo kiss
After each meal some of the villagers would gather near the kitchen hut and picnic tables looking for leftovers to feed their families. Owan and another girl would clean our dishes and the children would gather to be with us. On this night, most of the village showed up for the camp fire, hot chocolate and the lemon cookies. The full day spent with the villagers seemed to draw them closer to us. 

Most of the village came to the camp fire on this night

Katie with Owan and other kid from the village

Rachel took pictures of the kids and showed them the images

The kids in the village did not see ice very often

The Shaman brews his tea by the fire
Even thought it was late, the party moved from the camp fire to the porch in a house. Andrew and Tanya taught James, Mary and five children from the village how to make bracelets with hemp and beads. Owan picked up the method immediately and was the first to finish her bracelet. The roosters would call at four o’clock and Owan’s chores would start before dawn, regardless of when she went to bed that night.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Elephant Nature Park volunteer journal 4-April

The inner walls in our new host family’s house were woven grass panels. I fell asleep listening to the husband and wife talking and laughing. They had a good relationship. Their 4 kids seemed happy. The 11 year old girl, Owan, became my favorite kid in the village. Each day her work started before dawn and ended when she washed the woks and dishes after our dinner. One grandmother was healthy. The other old lady in the house was frail and she hacked throughout the night.

The family had water buffalo, hogs, goats, chickens and dogs. The ribs on the animals did not show as much as those on the animals in the first village. Overall, this village seemed to thrive more than the first village. The father in our house and other men in the village were mahout for the elephant in the local herd. Perhaps the payments to the village from Elephant Nature Park (ENP) for the Mahout and hosting the volunteers made the difference between a thriving village and one that just scrimps by.
Host family house and animals
Katie's picture of our host family

I woke at 4:00 to the sound of the roosters telling each other who was the biggest stud in the village. I woke again to a swishing sound. Owan was squatting in the dark a few feet away stirring grains and water in a big bowl. After dawn she feed it to the pigs and the dogs fought over what remained in the bowl. We never saw the dogs being fed. Days later I was scolded by one of our scouts, Pada, for feeding my favorite puppy under the picnic table. He explained the men in the village could not control the dogs if they were fed by the volunteers. I guessed the dogs were kept half-starved to keep them motivated to perform jobs like hunting or herding buffalo or elephant. When a scrap of food was found, the dogs fought fiercely for it.  I was unable to stop a fight before one dog was mortally wounded by three other dogs. The dog had gaping wounds and a dislocated hip. It was seen dragging its leg the following day and disappeared two days later. 

Katie's picture of Owan and her sister
Owan feeding the hogs while the dogs hope for scraps

Katie's picture of my favorite puppy in the village
 The entire village was working by 5:30AM. The animals below the house were squealing for food. It was impossible to sleep. By six o’clock we walked to the kitchen hut and picnic tables at the edge of the hill top. Our guides were already cooking breakfast and boiling water for coffee and tea on propane stoves. After breakfast, we rode in the back of a truck toward another village to cut tall grasses with machete to feed the herd of elephant. We bounced around in the back of the pick-up truck until we found good pickings. We cut enough grasses to fill the bed of the truck while leaving enough room to stand on the pile. We stopped at the nearby village store, a steel roofed structure with two tables of goods and a refrigerator with cold beer. We each nursed a beer on the way back to the village. We ate lunch in the 90 degree heat under the wood shed and fell asleep on the big logs. Our guides woke us to go feed the elephant. 

ENP volunteer kitchen, tables and fire pit - Owan cleaning dishes
Iggi cutting grasses for the herd
truck load of grasses for the herd

nap time after lunch and hard work in the heat

From the hilltop we saw the mahout lead the herd along the creek and rice paddies toward the road. It was a beautiful sight. As we descended the hill, the tires skidded on the steep, rutty road. This section of hilltop was recently cut and burned to rotate crops. The entire region was a patchwork of clear cut, burned, planted or recovering forest. The sky was a haze of gray from smoke. There were few old stands of jungle. We heard gibbons far away in the mornings, but never saw them. There were few big trees left for them to occupy. I got depressed a few times over these scenes. I expected to see and be in sections of ancient jungle. Does this scene repeat itself throughout Southeast Asia? I wondered if we have tipped the balance. Do enough oxygen making trees remain on the planet to offset global warming?

Sam's picture of the road from the village to the herd in the valley

We unloaded the grasses as the herd lined-up to feed and be photographed. There were two nursing mothers, a few aunties, twin newborn calves, Naughty Boy (a 3 year old who earns his name) and his 5 year old sister. Naughty boy’s job was to annoy his sister and the rest of the herd. He saw me and ran over fast. I was forced to butt his forehead with both outstretched arms to prevent a collision with an elephant. We pushed toward each other until he realized I would not relent. After the encounter, I looked up to see the Mahout and volunteers watching with gaping mouths. I then realized the encounter looked dangerous, but I was ecstatic. The best part of my video of Naughty Boy rolling on his side and his sister smelling his butt with her trunk was the sound of giggles from the volunteers. The sounds in most of the videos were giggles of joy.  

Sam's picture of  Iggi and Rachel watching the herd

The twins trying to feed with their trunks - good thing the are still nursing

Sam's picture of Iggi feeding the herd

Our guide, Pada and the mahout watching the volunteers feed the herd

Naughty Boy after he charged Iggi

Naughty Boy's sister gets revenge


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Elephant Nature Park (ENP) volunteer field notes 3-April

We woke before dawn in our host family’s house to the sound of noisy farm animals. The plan that day was to walk all day to the next host village with Pugee (poo-geee), an adult male Asian Elephant.

 I asked our guides Pada and Chay (Chai) if I could help make breakfast. I needed to be Italian, even while volunteering in a Karen hill tribe village in Northern Thailand. It was a smart move. The two young boys in the family warmed up to me while I chopped vegetables on the floor in the family’s kitchen space. It was a good vantage point for pictures of the boys and the women from the village while they sold traditional Karen tribe cloth and handbags to the volunteers. The guides also cooked rice noodles with vegetables for our lunch and wrapped individual portions in banana leaves tied with string. 

Pada cooking breakfast & lunch to-go

The boys on the house

Woman from the village selling us there goods

Kim buying a Karen tribe shirt
Andrew, Kim, Chay & Mary loading the truck for move to the next village
 After breakfast, we loaded two trucks with our gear and food and said goodbye to the people from the village. We walked for a mile on the dirt road up a steep hill into the forest. There was the deep roar of an elephant. Pugee heard us coming. We rounded the bend and there he was, a big, 35 year old male elephant in his prime. His Mahout (keeper) told him to hold back. Pugee wanted bananas. We approached him slowly. He looked down at us, one by one and seemed to say with his beautiful light brown eye that he felt safe. He also told us by constantly flapping his ears. Pugee is known in the region as the gentlest of the adult male elephants. He forgave humans for what they did to him. His tusks were violently removed. One tusk was broken off at his skull. The other tusk was cut off with a chain saw four inches from his face. He was rescued and treated for months by a Vet to remove the infection in his face where the tusk had broken away. How this gentle giant could forgive humans for such harsh treatment is beyond me.

 Pugee posing for the new visitors

everyone was ecstatic

Pugee is a hungry boy

Iggi with the boy
"Dude, I'm hiking with an elephant", said James

Pugee walking behind Iggi - nice strut!
We grabbed handfuls of bananas and handed them to Pugee's waiting trunk or put them in his open mouth. He gently pushed the food up and back into his mouth with his big tongue. His wet mouth felt beautiful. He was beautiful. We hiked with Pugee all day, stopping along the way to wait while he ripped sections of bushes and tree limbs out of the forest. We saw what leaves he liked and rushed ahead to pick the same leaves and feed that beautiful mouth. We took pictures and videos of Pugee doing everything, from every angle. At times we waited for Pugee while he fed. At times we ran to keep up with the boy. We walked beside him while touching his legs and lower belly. We caught up to the trucks and fed him more bananas. Everyone was visibly ecstatic.  I was as happy as I could remember.

Pugee cooling down after a day on the trail

When we arrived at our new host village, we waited while Pugee took a mud bath in the creek. Some volunteers watched from the bridge above the creek, but Kim and I needed to stay close to the boy. We were spattered with mud from head to toe. We looked at each other, laughed and felt exhilarated. Suddenly, Pugee’s Mahout took him away. There were no formal goodbyes. Our last view of the boy was his shadow under the roof of a hut. It was one of the best days in my life.

watching Pugee take a mud bath