Elephant Nature Park: Shoveling poo, a good thing.

After my volunteer vacation in Punto Banco, I realized that sometimes, there’s more to travel than snapping a picture  in front of the famous place I’ve dreamt about,  and checking off one more “did-that” on my bucket list. Not to say that “just” traveling is OK, and volunteer vacationing is better. Heck, I love/do both.  But what’s really super cool about volunteering  abroad is doing something you really love, in an area of the world you’d love to be in, get up to your ears in a culture you really dig, share your love with other like-minded freaks AND, it’s all for a good cause. For me, that’s Elephant Nature Park (ENP). I’ve been back twice and believe me, Jonah and I will be visiting our elephant and human family for years to come.

So what is this Elephant Nature Park? Simply, it’s a sanctuary in Northern Thailand for abused elephants. You see, what I didn’t realize years ago, nor do many tourist  realize today,  that to ride or “trek” with these gentle giants, an elephant has to go through extreme and abusive training called the pajaan. Even for an elephant to paint a picture, he/she had to go through the pajaan. And that “training” is pretty horrific. Actually, mostly all the elephants at the park have been have abused in this way or worse.  We humans can be a very shameful species at times.

But with that important stuff being said, here’s what else keeps us coming back for more:

Lek- Founder of Elephant Nature Park

People have often asked “If you could invite anyone for dinner,who would it be?” For me, besides, Aung San Suu Kyi or my celebrity crush, Anthony Bourdain, it would be Lek. Her compassion and ability to communicate with the elephants is astounding. It’s amazing to watch Pha Mai, the 2 year old elephant she raised, hug her as if she were her own mother.  Lek’s humility is brilliantly sincere and I’ve watched her go out of her way to  meet and thank each and every volunteer and day visitor. In one word, inspiring. Take your kid, just like I took Jonah, and show them how, and with passion, you can change the world. She has single-handily saved over 200 elephants. How can you not want to be part of her movement?

Chet- our favorite volunteer coordinator
Chet knows how to make unloading 3 tons of watermelons from a truck , washing 2000 pumpkins or planting new crops in monsoon rains, just plain fun.
Blasting Lady Gaga on a portable ipod speaker sure helps. So does his fashion sense and evenings leading a wild game of Thai Uno. He’s the best
damn party/volunteer motivator I’ve ever seen.

Jodi- resident volunteer,  tatoo artist, and best photographer of elephants
Jodi is the “Liz Smith” of Elephant Nature Park. Wanna know Hope’s new heart throb or who’s Sao Yai’s new BFF, Jodi will know. She’s also a terrific tattoo artist. And in between our volunteer duties and Jodi’s elephant walking tours,  Jonah and I slipped off to her hut in the middle of the elephant field that seriously, would make the top ten list of best places to get a tattoo. So this is where we got our, not matching, mother/son elephant tats. Or as Jonah broke the news to my very jewish father, “We got something in Thailand that we can’t return”.  For those interested, there’s a tight volunteer schedule and she only does tats on break time.

Mahouts and Karma
Many of the mahouts and some staff are Burmese refugees. Last year it was curious to see them  in a long line waiting to be examined by a Doctor. Apparently,they needed an examine so that they could get their papers to legally be in Thailand. So ENP arranged for a doctor to come to the park. Interestingly enough, this is as much of a sanctuary for them as it is for the elephants. How’s that for good Karma?
The land of misfit toys
Lek not only created a sanctuary for her elephants but all living things. The first year we were there, the park had 90 dogs running around. Local villagers and monks would bring dogs that were sick, injured or just unwanted. Our first year we friended “Eddie Machete” whose owner tried to cut him in half  with a machete one night when he got drunk.(Ouch!) This year, he was full-grown and running with the pack.  Then there’s Ruby,the pig. Ruby was another poor 4-legged creature who was hacked by a machete and just a heartbeat away from becoming bacon. There’s Beauty, the blind dog, rescued from the floods and Noah, the 2 month old goat who’s sleeping in Lily’s bed. (Lily runs the gift shop). And last year’s floods brought over 200 dogs to the park that Lek and her volunteers personally rescued. So when Jonah and I finished our elephant duties, we played with puppies, walked sick dogs, visited Ruby (she loves company) , and babysat Noah.  There’s a strange sense of acceptance when you’re surrounded by  living creatures who each and every one of them have some sort of “story” to tell. Well we all got stories, and it kinda feels comforting being in a world that is no longer about judgement but one of compassion.

So why is shoveling poo a good thing?
Because I get to stand in a magnificent landscape, beside the most majestic and intelligent creatures in the world.
I stop  from time to time as other volunteers do, to pet a trunk, scratch an ear or just watch in awe at the sheer intelligence of this magnificent creature taking a simple string from a fence and using it as a “tool” to scratch a hard to reach spot on it’s back. Drenched in sweat, and sincerely doing hard labor, no one ever complains. There is an unspoken understanding that it’s actually a privilege to be here and sharing in a cause that’s well worth shoveling for.

If you’d like to find out more about volunteering at Elephant Nature Park, just click here.
And feel free to send me a message if you’d like to know more about our personal experience.

Punta Banco: saving turtles and feeding souls

2009, me and a gazillion other worker-bees were laid off. I hadn’t found a job in 6 months and honestly, It was making me bonkers. I needed out of NYC in a big way, but could barely afford my grocery bills at Zabar’s. So I got the brilliant idea to volunteer in a place that wouldn’t cost us much to live or get to.

Honestly, it was the best idea in my life. For 9 days, Jonah and I shed our materialistic desires, and as volunteers of Pretoma living in the local field station, we transformed into “the turtle people.”

During the days, the guys who worked with Pretoma took us around…Alej borrowed a couple of horses from his neighbor and took us on a long ride up to his uncle’s farm. Freddie, arranged to go out fishing in a pongo with a bunch of his fisherman friends. And mini-pini, our little dog friend, showed us the best tide pools. I swear.

As I look back on those times, I think, “Damn girl, you did good!” We got so much more than we bargained for. What was meant to be a “cheap” little escape, turned out to be a life changing event.  A life changing event definitely worth repeating.

Kuala Lumpur: Get a taxi and achieve nirvana

After  2 weeks of Mosquito nets, cold showers, and lousy hotels , I was ready to come back to civilization and embrace my inner princess. And since I was feelin’ flush with a strong dollar, I booked our last 2 nights in Malaysia at the Traders Hotel.  Our fully loaded room overlooked the Petronas Tower.

And along with the Sky Bar, a sexy glass enclosed penthouse with pool, bar, jacuzzi and the works, Trader’s was worth every penny.

But, we only had 2 days left in Malaysia and there was loads to do. I did what any NYer would do. I made the taxi fleet of KL my best friend. So now, let me digress for a moment. Don’t get caught up going to the endless shopping malls. We did and you can get most of this junk in New York. In terms of designer stuff, no bargain. If you must, Petronas Towers and KLCC is worth a stop. That being said, head over to Central Market for the last chance to open up your wallet and spend, spend spend. We brought home gorgeous weavings, sarongs and antique posters. They also have some tribal stuff too. More pricey,not as good as Kuching. But, it’s a backup.

Besides taking care of our shopping addiction, we had to do our last Malaysia hurrah of foodie stops. For breakfast, we had taxi man take us to the Imbie market for some noodle and skewer things. Totally authentic and quite a bit off the tourist trail.

For lunch, a stop in Little India at Sagar. I ate way too much of best indian food I ever tasted.

And for dinner…we went upscale  at Mythai Jim Thompson. (Drop dead thai food). By the way, that’s where I told Jonah “he was every child’s worst nightmare” because he wouldn’t stop bugging me about eating with my left hand in a classy place. Sure, let’s see him try changing it up for someone else’s custom. Not easy my friend.

Day 2, we jumped into our transportation of choice, yes, a taxi, and  headed out to the Batu Caves.

Having watched 1000 times, the “No Reservation” episode where Anthony Bourdain channels George Harrison at the caves, there was no way I’d leave Malaysia without doing the same. The big question is, how would little ol’ us without a producer and crew reach George Harrison nirvana?

Step 1: Use Jonah as a “such a nice boy” prop, and make friends with random Hindu lady.  It worked. Random hindu lady graciously volunteered to guide us through the steps of  buying our offerings to getting our blessing in the Temple cave. Step 2: give yourself  2-3 hours at the caves then head back to the Sky Bar to complete full nirvana. OMMM!

Sandakan: Orangutans, elephants and cockroaches, Oh my!

Going to Borneo without seeing an Orangutan or a Pygmy Elephant would be like going to NY and not seeing a show. Fuggedaboudit! So, I booked a trip with S.I.tours and Jonah and I were off to Sandakan. Our first stop… Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. Look, it’s amazing to see these “jungle men” up close, but being part of a pack of 100 tourist following 2 apes in love is not my idea of being one with nature. If you’ve been to Semenggoh, cross this stop off the list.

After our brief stop at Sepilok, we (us plus 30 odd tourists) piled into boats to be shuttled to our various river lodges. Jonah and I were dropped off first, and get this, we were the ONLY ones staying at the Abai Jungle lodge.

Mostly because it was new and promoted as “eco”. We planted trees, visited a village and did the wildlife thing. Most tourist JUST do the wildlife thing. So, it was us and the staff. And since no one else was there, why cook? They took us across the river to Abai village and we had a traditional dinner with the locals; homemade Malaysian food, served on a banana leaf and we ate with our hands. Caveman Jonah really dug this style of eating. I dug the whole authentic thing. After 2 nights in Abai, we moved on to the Kinabatangan River Lodge where there were actual tourist and forks.

The Kinabatangan River Lodge is like a summer camp in the Catskills.  The day trips are like a down-sized African safari experience on a river. You go out on an expedition early morning and late afternoon to catch prime time viewing of the animals.

There were no more than 6 of us in a little boat. Seeing magnificent wildlife puts you in a terrific mood and fueled great chatter on the boat and at mealtimes.During our last lunch at the lodge, old couple from London convinced young German newlyweds, that they’d never see a rare sighting of Pygmy elephants on their last boat outing and having seen enough primates, they should go to the stinky Gomantong caves.  Now, I heard from my boatman who has a little network with all the other lodge boatmen on the river, that there was a “rumor” that an elephant herd was heading towards the river waaay up north. There was no way in hell that if this was true, me, Ms. “Obsessed with elephants” was going to miss this event. My NY instincts were right.

Those poor newlyweds honestly thought I was yankin’ their chain when we regrouped at dinner and I said we saw a herd of 70 pygmy elephants coming down to the river! Until I showed them the pics. (I did feel a little bad).

The next day we left the lodge and stopped at the Gomantong Caves on the way back to Sandakan. Now, if you’re a voyeur like me for odd and disgusting things, the caves are once in a lifetime opportunity. And once is ALL you’ll need. Here’s what awaits you: A million pooping swiftlet birds that make a highly valued Asian gourmet delicacy of nests from bird spit. There are also a zillion bats, mountains of bird and bat crap and more cockroaches than can fill an entire NY subway system. The stench is as bad as 5-day-old garbage rotting on the sidewalk waiting for a pickup during a hot August heat wave.

The lesson here?  Be zen with wildlife and have patience for a possible pygmy elephant viewing. It’s well worth the wait. And if I managed pique your morbid curiosity, DO NOT swap it out for a jaunt on the river.

Kota Kinabalu: I’m done on this side

Kota Kinabalu has the personality of a dollar store. Cheap and ugly.The only reason to come here is because there is no other way to get to somewhere else. Which is how we found ourselves there for the night. If you want to imagine what a Vegas hotel felt like in Asia during the 50’s, I’d recommend the Promenade hotel. But funny thing, it wasn’t the experience we were looking for.

So I had a brilliant idea, let’s escape to a spa. Another brilliant idea…let’s go to the one the taxi driver handed us a flyer for.What the hell was I thinking? Like, when would I ever do that in NY? We both decide to get a foot massage as it seemed like a safe place to start. We sit in the lazy-boy-like lounge chairs, get served some tea all the while the masseuse boys are chattin’ us up.

7 bucks for 45 minutes for the 2 of us.  I’m thinkin’, “It don’t get better than this! Seeing how good we’re feelin’, masseuse boys convince us to get this treatment called “cupping”. We both get the “adventure rush”. Meaning….”Yeah, let’s do something we never heard of ’cause we’re in Borneo”. So here’s what cupping is…You lie  face down on a massage table, they light a match or candle into a cup and then place 10 cups on your back. The heat from the candle creates a vacuum-like suction and “supposedly” pulls the “toxins” out of your body. The darker the mark left from this procedure, the more lovely toxins are removed from your body. “tisk, tisk, tisk, toxins”, that’s all we kept on hearing from Jonah’s non-english speaking masseuse. We and couldn’t figure out why he kept repeating this. We found out soon enough.

Those damn embarrassing circles and burns were on our backs for the next 2 weeks. Honestly, I thought I scarred my son for life! My advice, stick with the foot massage and leave the cupping for the next dumb tourist.While we’re on the topic of seared meat… right across from the spa is the best Korean bbq, EVER.

So how to survive a day in KK? Stick to a foot massage, chow down at the bbq then get the hell out of dodge.

Kuching: tribal junkie goes shopping

Maybe there’s more to Kuching than the Main Bazaar that runs along a picturesque waterfront. Honestly, I have no clue and really don’t give a damn. For me, or should I say, for the person who waits for the clearance sales at ABC home and carpet, the main bazaar experience was like being a heroine addict running through a poppy field.

Here’s what it is…a long but manageable row of stall-like things that are just across the street from the waterfront. Stall after stall of enormously high quality tribal art at Loehmann prices. Antiques and modern, yes they still use the stuff. But all original pieces. And, they’re legit. I shopped, I conquered, I shipped. But darn it, not enough.

So let me just throw out these little pearls of wisdom. If this is your first stop in Borneo before becoming one with the Orangutans, SHOP! If you think you’ll find this stuff in Sandakan, KK or Kuala Lumpur, YOU’RE NOT! If you’re there and stop in my places (Nelson’s Lot 14 and John’s Gallery Lot 52), SHOOT ME AN EMAIL. We can coordinate shopping efforts. I’ll love you, and I’m not kidding. I have serious regrets about not buying more. Oh yeah, I forgot about Jonah. The 17-year-old man-boy that I travel with that needs to eat.  And yes, man, he had all the shopping he could take. So if you walk a block behind the Main bazaar there is a street that has a mega-charm all unto its own. Stop in at the Siang Ti Miao Temple.

After that, right next store is a little chinese dive with the best sweet and sour chicken I ever tasted. For what?, 2 bucks. It don’t get better than that.

So to sum up Kuching, I found more than I bargained for. I arrived there thinking it’s just some gateway to super cool things see and do. It was my little layover for tribes and Orangutans. Definitely well worth it. Tribes, 4 thumbs up. (see previous post). Semenggoh, waay more authentic than Sepilok Orangutan Center. There weren’t hoards of tourist corralled onto a viewing platform.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d keep the side trips and ADD a full day in Kuching just to embrace my inner shopper junkie, relax on the waterfront and enjoy finding another “this is light years better than any NY Chinatown” meal.

Nanga Sumpa longhouse: Buying a knife from a headhunter

Jonah and I somehow ended up in Borneo. I say that because 2 weeks prior, we were scheduled to arrive in Bangkok for a completely different adventure. Since political upheaval and burning shopping malls didn’t seem like the most idyllic place for a vacation, I opted for plan B. Borneo. First stop, Kuching. A fabulous little city and also known as the gateway for visiting the indigenous tribes. You can drive an hour outside the city and visit a tourist set-up and see tribes dance in costume like some Disney World event OR you can book yourself a guide at Borneo Adventure to take you to the real thing. So no guessin’ what this Dian Fossey wanna be did. Real deal, baby! To get to the tribe, it’s a 4 hour drive from Kuching to some river near the Indonesian border. At the river we were greeted by an Iban who took us in his longboat for the final leg of our journey to the longhouse.  After an hour and a half in torrential rainfall, we finally arrive at the longhouse for our 3 night stay.

Our accommodations were a simple little tribal version of a bed & breakfast where we stay with our guide. BTW…there is no electricity in the middle of nowhere. But look, I’m there to experience tribal living. Not a spa weekend.

Our days are filled with hiking and exploring the river and  jungle with our guide and an Iban boatman. Jonah (my 16-year-old kid), can’t help but notice, every one of these Iban guys has a huge knife tied around his waist and is using it for everything….. chopping up chickens, cutting string beans, hacking paths through the jungle…whatever. Everything is this big freakin’ knife. It’s basically a machete. And every Iban male from the age of 6 to 90 seems to have one attached to their hip. Actually, every male BUT my  son. And now his male hormones are crying out “MUST GET KNIFE”.

We spent our evenings at the longhouse as guests of the chief. The chief brings out rice wine and glasses and serves it to our little group of guides and fellow tribesman. We all sit in a circle on the floor  as a candle is placed in the center for light. The atmosphere is like your favorite neighborhood bar. Nice, casual, everybody’s just hangin’ and  having a relaxed good time.  Rice wine is generously flowing and Lemon, one of our guides tells us it would be some insult if we didn’t drink it. So now, Jonah is drinking alcohol. Mind you, all in the spirit of cultural respect.

So back to knife obsession…In the longhouse, outside every door, are hanging things for sale. Mostly baskets. But here and there are…THE KNIVES. I mention to our hosts that my son is dying to have one.  The tribe guys love this and in an instant a magical male bonding thing takes-over like Superbowl Sunday and melts away any and cultural barriers that existed. The big white boy is now one with them.  They tell him  to go pick the one he is thinking about and bring it to the chief.

He picks out 2, and brings it back to our little circle. The men pass around the knives. They feel the blade, the weight, the action. They examine the knives with pleasure and expertise and a consensus is made on one.

My PC son is questioning if he could even have one in NYC  and the chief and the Iban guys give him a look as if he’s lost a screw. How could a big man-boy, not have a knife? How could big man-boy not even know how to use one???  They knew they had a job to do. One tribes member gets up and starts to show him how to handle a knife. Another ties it around his waist and teaches him how to take it out of the sheef. Over and over they practiced how to take it out and swash it around. In the meantime, I was sipping rice wine, getting nicely buzzed, watching my nice jewish boy getting lessons on how to use a knife from an actual headhunter. True. We ended up buying the knife for 20 bucks. But the demo…priceless.

The next morning our guide Paul, took my son out into the jungle and taught him how to really use “the weapon”. He cleared a path from Borneo to China with that thing.Today, it hangs on Jonah’s bedroom wall. I pity the poor slob who might try to break into our nice little place on the Upper West Side. The poor schmuck would come face to face with a warrior. Who knew!