May my curiosity open doors to new worlds, to other ways of being. May I meet others who show me something beautiful and sacred. May we collaborate and make good in the world. May I learn and grow into a better human being, at ease, curious, and receptive. May I gain strength in this process of learning. May I stay safe while taking risks that will expand who I am. May I return safely and more capable of being an asset to this beautiful planet. May it be so.
In the beginning, or perhaps before the beginning, we wait. We wait with a sense of anticipation; anxious and unsure. And when it feels like forever that you are waiting we can forget that something even lies ahead. We fall back into the past of what we know for comfort because the mind’s nature is to solidify, to cling, to make ‘real’. The past is gone though, it is memory, an echo, fading light. So I commit to feel myself in this room at the Elephant Nature Park office in the Old City of Chiang Mai, Thailand where I wait to climb into a vehicle with ten other travelers all seeking transformation. Whether we know it or not, transformation will occur. We will be taken to the high mountain forest where 7 elephants rescued from cruel human deeds and misunderstandings live as free as they can in the complex relationship of the world. There is something new and special ahead of me, something that has never happened before.
A 3 hour journey up into the mountains of Northern Thailand. In a van, we weave and twist through forests of bamboo, banana, and trellising passion flower ascending with each turn. The hillsides warp steeper and steeper, the cutting road slices deeply on the hillside of these narrow valleys, running along rocky rivers and laughing creeks. On occasion a town pops up, with food carts, wandering dogs, parked motorbikes, tuk tuks idling alongside little old ladies with woolen hats and puffy coats standing around, squatting down, laughing with toothless smiles and watering eyes.
We arrive in a village and have to transfer our bags and bodies into the back of two pickup trucks with tall standing side racks to hold us in like cattle going to slaughter because the vans cannot drive on the roads ahead. They are rugged, rumpled, lumpy pathways with ditches deep on either side and potholes that rock us side to side. The sun shines down on us and our eyes are wide open amazed at the landscape that begins to change into farmland. The steep forest hillsides have been clearcut and burned and turned into production crops of cabbage, strawberries, and lettuce. This looks beautiful in a certain way, the patterned lines of uniformity are pleasant to the human eye, but this I find out is not good. The forests and habitat are being destroyed for the profit of agribusiness. Chemicals are sprayed by immigrant farmers of the hmong tribes that have come down from China because of a threatened life in their homeland. With the support of huge companies the Hmong lease the Karin Hill tribes land to farm, the land that once was called Elephant Heaven. Many elephants once lived here. Families of mothers with their sisters and children once roamed and foraged all day, napping under the canopy of trees, playing in the mud, nursing their young, living in peace, but no more. Now there are only seven elephants protected by the elephant nature park but still ‘owned’ by the village. They could choose to take them at any time and lease them out for work once again. They might be used for illegal logging, street begging, or enslaved in a circus. But at the moment, they feel free.
After another 30 minutes, we arrive at our destination, and topple out of the trucks and carry our bags to where we will be living for the week. We walk over a flowing creek by way of a small bridge made of bamboo. To the left are fallow rice paddy field with a herd of cows mingling around with bells clanging away around their necks babies follow their mothers and bulls stand and stare at us. We follow the winding trail up to the compound that has a massive slab of wood 20 feet long covered by a roof, no walls. This is our conference room, dining room, and living room. There is a fire pit with fat pieces of wood smoldering sending smoke swirling upwards towards a big blue sky. Birds sing in the trees and their are two huts also made of bamboo elevated on stilts where we will sleep dormitory style on thin mattresses on the floor each having their own mosquito netting to protect us. Straw mats cover the floor and the open window have swinging wooden shutters to keep the cod out, yet the light slices through the walls, so there is not much of a difference between the temperature in and out. It is rather cold up here in the high mountain air. Most of us are a bit unprepared for this. Thailand seems to equate warmth, but this is Northern Thailand and we are 1,500 feet above sea level. We drop off our things and gather around the long table to listen to the wise and humble Mr. Yo who informs us of the plan for the day. It is late afternoon and we will be heading out to find elephants who roam this 20 kilometer area where they are safe and free from harm for the time being. Yo is Karin and has always lived in this area. His family is 10 generation elephant keepers. His father had 6 elephants that he cared for and used for logging. WHen logging became illegal the government took his best three elephants and he was left with the three weakest ones. He began illegally logging and then was arrested and fined. Yo in his confusion of how this worked began studying the laws and investigating the complexities of this human world, this elephant world, this confusing mess of control and compromise. All of this brought him here with a desire to live in harmony and devote his life to saving the elephants habitat and lives.
The 7 elephants living here do not all spend time together. Due to the fact that they all have been through a lot of pain and suffering, they have issues. Mae Yui was the first rescue at Journey to Freedom. She is 34 years old. She suffered illegal logging for 7 years and then went into the painful and degrading slavery of trekking tourism. Along with the mental effects this had on her she developed mobility issues in her legs by being overworked and malnourished. Mae Boi, who is Mae Yui’s daughter, was born in 2011 and ripped away as a baby to work in the circus. She had to go through the Phajaan, which is a process of torture and brainwashing that must occur to break the spirit of the elephant. This family of two was reunited in 2015 and now walk among the forest here. Mae BoonSai was born in captivity in the Mae Hare Village area of Thailand. She also worked in the illegal logging industry and trekking. While being forced to carry people on her back without water or food for many hours, day after day, she developed an infection on her back. She could not work and her ‘owner’ surrendered her to Journey to Freedom. At the time of her rescue she was 11 months pregnant as a result of forced breeding and to be clear, forced breeding is Rape. It is a violation that most women unfortunately have had to go through at sometime in their life and it is the foundation of so much suffering on this planet from humans to elephants, from farm animals to dogs and cats. Also living on this beautiful land is Mae BoonJan who was born in 1975 and worked for 30 years as a trekking elephant providing rides for tourists. In 2014 she gave birth to her son Zuki. At 2 yrs old, Zuki was taken from her and experienced the Phajaan as all ‘tamed’ elephants do. During this time he was beaten so badly and it is thought that he sustained a head injury that disabled him. This 4 year old boy is now damaged to the point where he cannot survive on his own. He is unable to feed himself because he has limited ability in using his trunk, his eyes do not track, and he has lost control of his tongue which is very important for an elephant to eat, and it seems he has a hard time feeling a bond with his mother or humans. At Journey to Freedom, Zuki has two mahouts that care for him. They walk all day with him as well as prepare a special diet that they must hand feed him everyday. Arawan is another elephant that lives here and was born in 2010. After he went through the phajaan, he was trained to paint pictures for tourists. (This may sound like an easier path, but it is only through the hidden abuse of the human and the fear of their cruelty that motivates the elephant.) Standing for hours in front of tourists, Arawan was fed a poor diet and suffered significant malnutrition. As a result he came close to death and was rescued by ENP in 2015. These are the 7 that now live in the land of elephant heaven for the time being.
So as we walk in a long line following Yo along the dry red earth trail we don’t know who we might meet. We come to a meadow with a stream running through it and then the low rumble runs through my bones and others feel it as well. Looking up to the left hidden among the foliage I see her. A massive swaying form camouflaged. How big she is yet subtle among the nature that she is and we are and it is. Mae boon Sai and Mae Boi are up on the hillside and it is incredible how agile these massive creatures are. An Asian elephant, although much smaller than their African cousins, weigh as much as 5 tons when fully grown. So multi talented, they are able to climb steep hillsides and slide through thick vegetation with ease. with their incredibly strong trunks they pull whole trees down and with delicate precision they can use that same tool to strip bark and leaves, pick up the seeds, consume everything from flower to root. They love variety and in the wild they eat all day compared to when enslaved where they are limited to eating perhaps once or twice a day or endlessly given bananas, which cannot sustain their incredible bodies. When in the nature they forage, loving the variety of nutrients they find in vines, banana trees, and grasses. Elephants only sleep 4 hours a day. The rest of the time they eat, find water to drink and make mud to protect their skin from mosquitoes and sun. They rub their bodies on tree trunks, they walk and walk, they rumble and squeek, they cuddle and dance with each other. This is the way life lives through them. In the past 30 years the population of elephants in Thailand has dropped from 100,000 to 6,000 and only 3,00 of them live free. That means 3,000 are enslaved. Humans are the only reason for the suffering of these gentle vegetarian beings.
We spend an hour or two watching, learning, just being in their presence. The sun hangs low in the sky a quiet farewell over the mountain waves of the western horizon and we say farewell too. We walk home. Yo and his apprentice, Warung, prepare an amazing vegan meal of black rice, red curry with pumpkin and thai basil, watermelon and pineapple for dessert.We talk after dinner around the fire with the magnificence of a dark sky embedded with infinite jewels of light and one statement that Yo says rings so true and is now my invocation. May we be the last generation to touch Elephants. This would be the truest blessing for them and the only hope for their survival as freel living beings. As I curl up tight under the blanket on the floor of this hut of a home I am grateful. This is a privilege. What shall I do, what shall I make with this privilege? Peace!