Monday morning we had said goodbye to Tae and were stuffed inside a cab and whizzing down the highway by 6am. We had to be at the big Mo Chit bus station across town by 7:30 to meet our guide for the Surin Elephant Project.
It's already elephant time! What's cool about this (besides, you know...elephants) is that this is how all of this came into being in the first place. For years Gina and I had talked dreamily about volunteering at an elephant sanctuary together in Thailand. Obviously that grew into a much bigger idea and we started tacking on countries like eager contestants stuffing items into their carts on Supermarket Sweep. Suddenly there were Incan ruins and glaciers, hobbits and air regulators. But it all started with elephants.
By 7:30 we were all assembled--a whopping four of us--by the high profile meeting spot that surely must be used by all major celebrities and visiting foreign dignitaries: the Dunkin Donuts on the third floor of the Mo Chit bus station (not the first floor Dunkin, we're not gettin' crazy here. Stay with it). We boarded a bus bound for Buriram, and Gina got mildly irritated at the guy behind her that was kicking the back of her seat, until she realized that it was a built-in massager. It also had television screens, plentiful (if weird) snacks, and that holy grail of all transport: leg room.
Five hours later we were tossing our bags in the back of two pickups and riding another hour to Surin, with a quick stop at a market along the way for a literal truckload of cucumbers. Elephant food! Ellies eat around 10% of their body weight each day, so you pretty much shovel it in and shovel it out. Not that different than owning a cat, really...
By about 3pm we were pulling into the village of Surin, famous for its elephant circus. Their elephants are kept on chains most of the day, most of them with their two front feet bound barely inches apart. I saw one enormous male with a rope around his neck tied to a tall post, his head pretty much locked right next to the post, always at attention. At the circus the elephants dance, paint pictures for tourists, play soccer, and generally try to look exotic and fun all at the same time. Their shelters are mixed in with the village houses and two or three small shops, as well as an elephant information center and museum that may or may not be colored with government crayons.
The Surin Elephant Project, the reason G and I came out here to the sticks of northeast Thailand, operates out of this village. http://www.surinproject.org It stands here as an alternative to the circus, both for the tourists and the mahouts in charge of the elephants. In 2009 the government declared it illegal to take elephants panhandling. One could usually beg for more money (or at least more successfully) with a sad-faced elephant present. So now the mahouts need to rely on circuses or elephant rides in order to make a living with their elephants. But riding elephants hurts their backs, even with the padded saddle they usually use.
Elephant spines are not like horse spines. See how each vertebrae points up like that? While an elephant's back looks strong and smooth from the outside, it has individual bones sticking straight up along the way along its back. So riding an elephant pushes down on those bones and hurts them. Most mahouts ride on the head or neck and that doesn't hurt quite so much but this is definitely not an animal built for riding. Nor are they naturally inclined to soccer playing, or dancing, or any of those things. Those are tricks learned for crowds, and leaning those tricks often invokes the bull hook. (A male elephant is a bull). A bull hook has a handle about the size of a pick axe, and a sharp metal prong that curves out from the top.
Gina and I were appalled to see that they sell souvenir bull hooks at the little stands outside the circus. Many mahouts use it to train and control their elephants, by jabbing the elephants with it, especially on their sides behind the leg. And with two legs chained, an elephant can't lay down to sleep as its used to, it's forced to sleep standing up, which is also painful.
The Surin Project currently has ten elephants. Mahouts that participate in the project with their elephants cannot use the bull hook, may only use rope or one chain, and cannot offer rides or tricks with their elephants. The project seeks to prove that modern tourists can prefer to see and learn about elephants more naturally, in a way that is more compassionate and comfortable for the elephants. We help feed and care for them, accompany them on walks and even scrub them down in the river. We pay for this experience (it was around $350 usd each, for one week), and the money goes towards the running of the project and our room and board, as well as to the mahouts for the access to their elephants (the mahouts are still here every second of every day, feeding, scooping, scrubbing etc. But their animals are exclusive to the project while they choose to participate. We just help out). The project elephants have a better life, the mahouts can still provide for their families, and the tourists get happy hands-on elephant time.
I will venture to say though, that we were perhaps a bit unprepared for the lifestyle. Namely, the bathroom. We preferred not to speculate about that situation until we got here, and perhaps that was for the best. There is a flush toilet in that A) there is a toilet B) it has a pipe and C) waste goes down the pipe. Eventually.
To flush the toilet you scoop water out of the bin with a plastic bowl and dump it in the toilet. The pressure forces the waste downwards into the pipe. But that pretty much means that the little bit of water at the bottom of the toilet is sewage, so the smell can get quite overpowering. For a shower you just strip down and pour water over yourself with the bowl. This means the floor is pretty much always wet. And since the concert building has gaps by the roof and the door, etc, there's always an audience. I've had as many as six geckos stick around for the shower show, plus a mini toad, two snails, and god knows how many bugs. Sometimes we accidentally leave the light on when we go to dinner, and the sun has set by the time we get back. This is gecko heaven because everything that can flap its little bug wings is drawn to that light, and the geckos can just sit back and feast. Gina did the same thing with her bedroom light last night and when we went to bed I could see two huge geckos on her ceiling (6-7") taking care of the problem.
We haven't slept in separate rooms since we left Kalamazoo in early June. I almost don't know what to do with a room to myself. Almost. But the dividing wall stops about three feet short of the very tall, sloped ceiling so maybe that is close enough.
This is our house. It is across the road from the common area, the guide's house, and two other volunteer houses. We got the good one with an open balcony and hammocks underneath. When the guide showed us around he instructed us to remove our shoes before entering as you would in any Thai house, but here we should keep our shoes up on the balcony so the village dogs don't steal them. Also we should keep the little door closed so they don't make themselves at home. And please don't leave any clothes on the floor--hang them on hangers or on nails on the wall so the scorpions don't get any ideas.
Even inside your mosquito net it's a good idea to keep things contained and organized. Any food must be kept in the fridge, otherwise the ants will consider it theirs. Every morning I shake out my boots for scorpions and tiny geckos. We have yet to see one of the stinging horrors--knock on wood--but we did see spiders on the path last night the size of a child's hand. It feels like nature is closing in.
This is the local earthworm. It's pretty much like the movie Tremors. The dirt here is so fine and dry that it piles in the road like sand and gets into every nook and crevice, including your toothbrush and under your eyelids. Every morning there are long tracks where the earthworms have started their pilgrimage across the road. Many of them are squished in this process by the numerous mopeds in the village, and lay draped on the ground like bicycle tubes.
Ocha is our project guide. He is a one-man band. He handles the schedule, the accounting, many of the meals, the Bangkok pickups, and generally tries to prevent us from being killed. Apparently this last item can be rather difficult sometimes. He told us that occasionally he will be treated with a volunteer who claims a great connection with the elephants, and ignores the very prominent rules about approaching the elephants without a mahout present. This person is usually rewarded with an injury or very close call, which I'm sure gives Ocha a certain secret satisfaction. His assistant is Rahd, who is new to the project but also manages to stop us from getting squished or losing an appendage to elephant molars. Rahd is very quiet but very sweet, and knows what we need before we need it.
The Surin Project is the country cousin of the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. That is a sanctuary though, which owns it's rescued elephants, unlike Surin where they have an agreement with the mahout owners. The nature park is much bigger but there's scads more tourists (you can go for just the day) and it is much more developed than Surin. I have not visited their facility but I rather like this one. We're out here in the sticks and see both what elephant tourism currently lowers itself to as well as what it could be. We live in the village among the mahouts and other locals and we have tons of contact with the ten elephants on the project. I have heard that it is nothing like the nature park in this respect, where you pretty much just view their elephants from a distance.
The roll call is also much, much shorter. While the nature park can welcome hundreds of people--some overnight volunteers and some just visiting for the day--those of us brave enough for the backwaters of Thailand numbered just five. Linnea is a 62 year old American artist currently living in Arizona, who's finishing her third and final week in Surin. She's blonde and wiry, soft-spoken and compassionate yet effortlessly cool. Jeslyn is a 22 year old student from Singapore who will be attending culinary school in California in January. She's tall and quietly sassy, with an array of superhero t-shirts and a thirst for horror movies. Wes is a 38 year old American currently teaching in Singapore. He's tall and thin with a question for everything and the most heartwarming belly laugh. And then of course there's the Miss USA Sisters. But they sound like trouble if you ask me.
After we had all settled in (and Linnea had finished her work assignment for the day) we were all ushered to an open-air building overlooking a large pond. This is uncolorfully referred to as the platform, and it's where we eat breakfast and dinner. There's a long bench along one side and a chalkboard in one corner, and there is a small kitchen attached, equipped with a fridge and a gas camp stove. For meals there is a wide, low table set up in the middle, surrounded by bright cushions (traditionally, Thai people sit on the floor to eat. This is the main reason to always remove your shoes before entering the house). Now though the cushions were arranged in a big square, with the five of us seated facing the local shaman. The mahouts sat behind us with armfuls of branches that they stripped of their leaves while the shaman talked. Sarote the head mahout wound a white string around the group, circling us in, beginning and ending it at a large ceremonial arrangement of palm leaves and marigolds. The shaman prayed for a long time, lighting candles and incense and anchoring them in a bowl of rice. Toward the end he said something and nodded to the mahouts, who grinned and pelted us with the piles of leaves in their laps. Then the shaman went to each of us and tied a bundle of the white string around our wrists. The mahouts all followed, each one adding a chunk of string until we all had a thick bracelet around our right wrist. We had to leave this on for three days and then hang it somewhere high, to protect against ghosts.
Afterwards the five of us ate dinner together, consisting of several Thai dishes, some of them vegetarian many of them spicy. Then we all trickled off to bed. Everyone goes to bed pretty early around here and now I can see why. They all work pretty hard from around 6am onwards, and when the sun sets here any lightbulb is a beacon of holy light for bugs of all shapes and sizes. Another of Ocha's warnings was not to leave any light on too long, or it will create a major insect situation. We learned this the hard way when Gina accidentally left the bathroom light on before we went to dinner, returning to find every bug in the province attracted to its glow. At least this also brings the geckos, who are mostly about 3" long and a ghostly pale yellow. They shriek when they are scared which is one of the cutest sounds I have ever heard. I fell asleep listening to the occasional gecko shriek up on the high tin ceiling, punctuated by elephant toots and dogs howling at the moon.
Tuesday morning I was pretty much awake by 3am. Between the ambitious roosters and the occasional dog fight there wouldn't have been much sleeping anyways, but then someone set off a firecracker at 5 that scared the elephants and their trumpeting was quite lengthy. No matter. It was our first day on the project and I was ready to get my hands dirty. We met the group for breakfast at the platform and Rahd wrote out the schedule on the chalkboard. Wes and Jeslyn were named Team 1, G and I were Team 2, and Linnea was Team 3. Team 2's morning work assignment was cleaning the enclosure. We were told to pick out thin, long sleeved cotton shirts and a pair of work gloves. The we each received a rake and Gina and I followed Ocha down the path from the platform to the enclosure. It is one of the places the project elephants can go to during the day when they are not in the river or on walks, so they are not on a chain in their shelters for very long during the day. Each elephant has a shelter--just a simple corrugated tin roof with cement pillars usually, and a piece of cement sunk in the middle with a single chain on it. The only exception to this is Anda's shelter, which she shares with her mom.
There is a baby! Anda is a year old and quite the little stinker. She already almost comes up to my shoulder and will stay with her mom until she is at least four years old. Their shelter has a fence around it with wire, because Anda is not chained. When we go for walks she is tied to her mother with a little rope.
The enclosure has a shelter in it for shade but it is mostly just a huge area of grass and trees that is fenced in so the elephants are loose. It has access to the big pond and most of the trees are bare and covered in red pond mud from the elephants costing themselves in the mud (elephant sunscreen) and then spending large amounts of time scratching themselves on the trees. They also get fed in the enclosure (they get fed in a lot of places, there's a reason for the expression "eat like an elephant."
So each morning one of the teams goes in and rakes up all of the sugar cane leaves and uneaten bits into piles, and scoops the poo. I had reasoned that this project would involve scooping. Elephant poo is proportional to the food that they eat, sooooo that's a lot. You get a rake and a basket and basically play hockey until the enclosure is clear of all leavings.
Then we got to feed them! Elephants will eat a lot of things, but their primary diet here is sugarcane. They get piles of it in their shelters and in the enclosure, and anywhere that we plan to stop during our walks. They also munch on lotus leaves in the pond and tree leaves during the walks. When we feed them by hand though it is a treat and we get to give them cucumbers. We had picked up a truckload of cucumbers the day before, and now we had huge laundry baskets of them up on a platform in the village. We stood, armed and waiting, but I was a little unprepared for the assault. Jeslyn and I were at one end principally dealing with two elephants (I didn't know them well enough yet to know which ones) and it was all we could do to shovel cucumbers at them. They would accept no less than four cucumbers curled into the end of their truck, sometimes demanding as many as seven before launching them into their mouths with a mighty chomp. Then you didn't even have the next armload ready before they were feeling around with the tips of their trunks for more, plucking them out of your hands and beckoning for more. The tip of an elephant's trunk is much like a finger and they will feel around with it and can pick up even very small items. Contrary to popular cartoons they don't swallow anything with their trunks, but suck up water and then snort it back out into their mouths. When we handed an elephant a cucumber she would just prop it into the lower third of her trunk, and use the tip to grab more. If you weren't ready then the trunks would sweep around by your feet (we were up on a platform so there was no issue of getting trampled) and try and reach into the basket. It was over in two minutes flat, several laundry baskets of cucumbers gone.
Next the elephants filed off down the road for a walk and we ran to catch up with them. They usually go for walks twice a day, in the morning and the afternoon. Upon our arrival we were given a short but very serious list of rules, most of them about where to NOT be. Don't go up to an elephant without a mahout present. Don't stand behind an elephant. Don't stand between to elephants. Don't ever put your hand anywhere near an elephant's mouth. Do not under any circumstances tease an elephant with food. Some of these seemed like common sense to me (Gina learned about food and teasing when our cat Nikki swallowed her entire finger along with the taunting strip of bacon) but the rules about placement were a bit hard to follow sometimes, especially during walks. Because while you don't want to be behind an elephant, you don't want to be I front of one either, and beside them is not the safest choice, especially if you are between two. So where does that leave you? I pretty much just went wherever Ocha or Sarote told me to go. Usually this was behind them, a safe distance away. Then if she changed direction I had a few seconds to get out of her path. And keep an eye on the tail because, just like a horse, if the tail goes up then you want to be more than a few steps back. If we walked through the woods then the path was narrow and we were usually behind, but if we were out on the road then it was wide enough for us to walk in a large group.
On this particular walk we left the elephants at one of their munching spots so we could check out the poo paper factory (they use the word "factory" perhaps a bit optimistically. The village produces more than its fair share of elephant poo, so someone decided it would be savvy to transform some of it into paper to sell into the tourist trade. Elephants are herbivores, and the sugar cane is very fibrous. That's a lot of fibers coming back out their other end. This makes rather a nice parchment paper. Don't freak out-this process involves a lot of bleach. They soak and bleach the poo to kill off bacteria, then strangely have to add the poo color back in because it sells better if it still looks like it came out of an elephant's ass (tourists). They add more fibers and then we got to take this gross mixture and put it into this big sink, level it out onto a screen, and lay it in the sun to dry. Once it is dry they will peel it off the screen and there you have a lovely sheet of poo paper.
Ocha also showed us the elephant graveyard, which is listed as the only one in the world. The markers are made to look like tree stumps with the king's hat on top, and the elephant's name, family name, and age are on their marker.
We caught up to the herd after this, still downing the last of their sugarcane, and we finished our walk out to a small lake. There the mahouts shouted commands and the elephants let them sit astride their necks as they waded into the water. Once in the water the mahouts scrubbed the elephants' backs from up there and rubbed down their heads. The exception was Sa-ngud, Anda's mahout. He waded in with Anda and her mother Kamsaen, and teased and scrubbed the baby elephant as she scooted around in the water.
She is just the cutest--definitely the darling of the group. All of the project elephants are female. Male elephants can be very aggressive and confrontational, and usually live by themselves once they separate from their mothers. Males have huge hormone surges and they are the only ones with big tusks. Females just have small tusks about six inches long.
They had a few males in the village but I don't think the adult ones were used in the circus for much more than photos, and the elephants they use for rides are always the most docile females. Anda is never far from her mom and if she gets scared or overexcited (as she does sometimes when you play with her) she will trumpet and her mom, who appeared to be obliviously eating her sugarcane or peeling the bark off a tree, will come crashing over with murder in her eyes. It's best to back way off when this happens, until she sees her baby is fine and Sa-ngud can murmur to both of them.
She is roped to her mom on walks not just to keep her with the group, but also to keep her mom calm. If Anda were to trumpet and be several elephants away in a single file line in the woods well....that would be very, very bad. Anda is still nursing but she eats sugar cane too, tearing at the stalks as if saying, I'm a big girl! Indeed she copies her mom a lot of the time and it is just the cutest. If her mom finishes scratching on a tree she might go give a try, or when her mom was peeling off tree bark to eat part of the tree underneath, Anda watched her for a while before tackling her own tiny sapling, trampling it and tearing at it with her trunk.
When her mom tried to cool herself off by flinging some dust on her back with her trunk, Anda ran up and did the same, snorting in the dirt with her tiny trunk and flinging it in the air excitedly. Sa-ngud is like her other parent, and she is the one person she won't knock over if he squats on the ground. In the enclosure she is always going up to him and bugging him, trying to flick off his hat or touching his face with her trunk, or she will just go lean against him and he will murmur to her. She will listen to him if he calls her name or warns her not to play with us too hard. If she is nervous or shy she will run to him just as much as to her mother.
Maliwan is the third in their little mini herd. Just because an elephant is in the project doesn't mean they all automatically get along. They still have their own preferences and little strifes. We noticed that three elephants are kept largely separate on walks or during enclosure time and this is to ease some of this tension. No sense in asking for trouble. So sometimes on walks it will be two of the mini herds, then us, then the third. Anda and her mom and Maliwan are a mini herd, and are usually at the front of the line because of Anda's enthusiasm and her mother's long stride (Kamsean is the tallest and largest elephant in the project and she is very intimidating). And Maliwan keeps up with them even though she is seven months pregnant and has quite a considerable bulk.
My rear profile pictures don't even show how large her belly is and how uncomfortable it seems. And she is not even halfway through! They told us that elephants gestate for anywhere from 17 to 22 months. Imagine being pregnant with a baby elephant for two years! Her mahout Loh has the most distinctive call. I don't know what the mahouts say to the elephants but when we are walking it is mostly in the form of short grunting noises from the chest. "HUH! UHN! HA'" you get the general idea. But Loh's is the loudest and the most distinct, and I can usually hear him all the way up from the front of the line. He has a handlebar mustache and usually wears a He-Man tshirt and a bandanna around his head under his hat. Combine this with the machete that mahouts usually wear in a bamboo scabbard around their waists and he cuts quite the jungle man figure.
It took me quite a while to learn any mahout or elephant names (except Anda, that's easy). When someone speaks Thai to me I can't picture what they're saying and I think that's why I have trouble committing the names to memory. Sarote the head mahout doesn't have an elephant in the project but he knows the behaviors and communications of each one and I've seen him step in if a mahout can't reach his elephant or something. He speaks a bit of English as does Paen but with the other mahouts we have to mostly sign. My Thai is limited to "hello," "thank you," "temple," and "elephant." You only need four words to get by....right?
They love Gina though, right from the start. On Tuesday we played a ball game with the mahouts to try and learn each other's names (good idea but didn't really happen) and when Gina introduced herself they looked at her incredulously and repeated "Gina? Gina?" Ocha informed us that Gina means "where are you going?" in Gwi, the local dialect. So then it became a thing to laugh and say, "Gina Gina! Where are you going!" every time they passed by her. Naturally I think it's hilarious.
We get surprising amounts of free time. If you finish a task early or we come back from lunch earlier than scheduled then you can do whatever you want. I choose to try and scrape some of the very persistent dust off by dousing myself with water in the bathroom. We eat lunch at one of the noodle shops in the village, riding there and back in the back of the beat up project truck. Gina loves to ride on the roof of the cab and I prefer to stand in the back and Mom if you're reading this it's okay because it's over now and we're alive. Everyone rides this way here.
Apart from showering though, I would almost prefer to work more rather than have so much free time. I was prepared to work my tail off but so far we have just scooped some poop and raked up a bit of cane. At 4pm one of the groups cleans out a few elephant shelters but because there are three groups you only have to do this every third day.
Tuesday we also got some enclosure time. We fit a lot in on Tuesday. First they let the elephants into the enclosure and we sat on the bench in the platform room, overlooking the large pond. Eventually one of the mini-herds came out--this one consisting of Neeuathong, Nanglek and Wongduean. I won't even begin to try to explain how to say those names because I only have a very tentative grasp myself. They have formed a mini-herd because they are friends, and if there is trouble or they feel I. Danger they will run to one another. On walks and in the enclosure they prefer to stand or walk together, and now we watched as they ventured out into the water for a little elephant ballet.
Later, Wongduean would be partnered with Gina for river baths and I would be with Neeuathong, so we got to know them a little better. Wongduean has a stiff back leg that won't bend at the knee--they think it's an accident from her birth--and she's almost as big as Anda's mom. Neeuathong is a mischief maker and she's ALWAYS munching. She will be the one to break up the line during walks because she has to check out these tree leaves right here or that tussock of grass looks awfully tasty. I find this completely understandable. Now in the water she pounces on Nanglek (as much as an elephant can pounce) and pins her under the water, standing on her broad back (she can still breathe through her trunk snorkel). Wongduean wades nearby, barrel rolling into the water and snorting.
Of course Neeuathong spots some lotus leaves that look tasty and, as it's been five minutes since she polished off her sugarcane, she leans over her still-pinned friend to nom on a few. The more we come to know their personalities, the funnier they are to watch. Considering how hot it is though (this Michigan girl is DYING) I am surprised when they stagger out of the water after only ten or fifteen minutes.
Then we went into the enclosure ourselves. The mahouts usually stand somewhat near their elephants, especially Sa-ngud with Anda, but some of them sit on a little covered platform in the shade, playing a game a bit like jacks with seed pods. Suchard always practices with his slingshot. Nanglek is his elephant so while she is getting dunked in the water by her friends he sets up a plastic bottle on the shore and strikes it repeatedly with tiny rocks. He's a crack shot.
In the enclosure we were all a bit shy around the elephants. This is a massive wild animal and I don't want to invade its personal space, for polite as well as safety reasons. When they bit down on a stalk of sugarcane it makes a massive snapping noise, and it's not too far of a mental leap to imagine that's a limb. Pouki let me feed her though, handing her pieces of the thick stalk after I had ripped off the leaves, but she spit out my offerings once her mahout started peeling stalks for her. Pouki's cute trait is that she has an oral fixation and always has to have something in her mouth. When we go on walks she will save a piece of sugarcane and walk around with it in her mouth like a lollipop. If she eats this or loses it I have seen her walking around with a stick.
After an hour or so altogether in the enclosure we went for a walk again and then Team 1 cleaned shelters. Dinner was a Thai feast again (I could get used to this) and then the five of us sat around and talked for a while before the bugs became too much. We tried Chang beer ("Chang" means "elephant" in Thai, see now you speak Thai too) and it was pretty much the most watery beer I have ever tasted. Sleep was welcome but I still felt disgusting. After my shower earlier I was dirty again before I hit the stairs back up to the house. Gina had left her bedroom light on this time but two ENORMOUS geckos were already on the scene, taking care of the bug issue.