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.