A Travellerspoint blog

Mmm...pavlova...

More recipes from our adventure

sunny

I got good feedback from posting recipes before, so here's a few more. These two dressings got very good reviews at the Mindfulness Project (keep in mind the parameters I had to work within!), and I'll rewind way back to the awesome pavlova we made at Jane's for Aussie night. Enjoy!

Coconut Lime Dressing

1 coconut, preferably green- all the meat and as much coconut water as you want for consistency. (Possible substitution, can of coconut cream?)
Fresh lime juice, 3+ limes
1 tsp chili powder
2-3 green chilis
1-2 dragon fruit (possible substitution, green bananas)

Combine in blender, only adding coconut water for consistency . It's all about taste- if you want it spicier, add more chillis. If it just needs more zip, add more lime juice. Go nuts. We ate it over a salad of shredded cabbage, shredded carrot, diced pineapple, cucumber, and a bit of spinach.

Green Monster Dressing

Fresh spinach (at least one bag, if purchasing in a store)
2-3 green bananas
Kombucha vinegar (possible substitution, white wine vinegar, but use very sparingly to taste)
Lime juice, 2+ limes
Coconut oil (a few dashes)

Combine in blender. Add vinegar to taste so it has a little bite but doesn't make it too thin. The bananas should thicken the dressing back up. We ate it over a salad of spinach, cucumber, tomato and carrot.

Australian Pavlova

6 egg whites (about 1/2c)
1 1/2c caster sugar (superfine granulated sugar)
Pinch cream of tartar
1 tsp vanilla
1/8 tsp salt
Heavy cream
Sugar
Fresh fruit

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment (or using a hand mixer), whip the egg whites, cream of tartar and salt in a clean, dry bowl until foamy. Add the caster sugar slowly and continue whipping until stiff, smooth and glossy, about 8 minutes more. Stiff peaks should form when you pull away the whisk.
On a sheet of parchment paper cut to fit a sheet pan, use a pencil to draw or trace a circle 9-inches in diameter. Line the sheet pan with the parchment, pencil side down (you should still be able to see the circle). Spoon the egg whites into the circle, using the back of the spoon to smooth the top and sides of the disk. Optional: hollow out the middle a bit to create a bowl shape.
Bake in the center of the oven for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 300 degrees and bake until the meringue has puffed up and cracked on the top and the surface is lightly browned to the color of cafe au lait, about 45 minutes more. Turn off the oven, prop the oven door open, and let the pavlova cool in the oven at least 30 minutes, to room temperature. This ensures a gradual cooling, which protects the delicate meringue.

Whip the cream and brown sugar together until stiff. Spoon it in the center of the cooled pavlova and spread out. Top with fruit. To serve, slice into wedges with a serrated knife.

Posted by Chloeah 19:08 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Love is our drug

Loving the Mindfulness Project

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The Mindfulness Project was started five years ago as a yoga and meditation retreat that also focuses on Eco-building and sustainable living. The lifestyle is very basic but the emotional returns are huge. It is rather like a commune in that we all lived and worked together all the time, but commune is a rather tainted word and I think implies a lack of freedom and certain level of mind control. But the project had none of that, unless you could a few very basic and reasonable rules (such as dress code while at the monastery, no drugs or alcohol, and no flushing toilet paper down the pipes, which you can't do anywhere in Thailand anyways). There is a ten day minimum but that is suggested in order to get more out of the yoga and meditation practices, etc. And we did have to pay, but it was only 2,000 baht for ten days, which is a little less than $60. I don't know how they even fed us on that amount, much less provided electricity and supplies and stuff.
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The property is very basic but its sustainability is really cool. The building has three main rooms--kitchen, girls' bedroom, and main room--plus three indoor bathrooms and a pantry. There were also three wooden outdoor shower stalls, with buckets much like we had in Surin. All of the water is recycled onsite except for the toilets. It flows out of the showers and kitchen sink and into a series of ponds, where plants filter it and it winds up in a final large pond, which in turn waters the garden. Drinking water is strictly separate from this system, and has to be purchased and brought in (none of the tap water in Thailand is drinkable anyways). This system is why everyone uses all natural soaps, shampoos, toothpastes, etc. Gina and I shared a bottle of shampoo/soap that project volunteers make from kaffir limes, and while it is lovely on your skin and you smell like limes after your shower, it does jack for your hair. But the end of the stay you could have molded my hair into shapes like play-doh. I'm sorry if that's graphic, but it's true and Gina will attest that it is no exaggeration. The bathrooms consist of one regular toilet and two squatty potties. There is a shower head on the wall next to the toilet, and a barrel for excess shower water so you can scoop it out with a bucket and use it to flush the toilets. Mmm.
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After that first night alone we got beds in the girls' bedroom, which is optimal because that bedroom doesn't get packed up every day. We had sleeping mats on the floor covered by large mosquito nets, two mats to a net. Gina's mat buddy was the lovely Kiki from France, and I had first Sarah from California and then Teresa from Germany. We were a bit packed it but it was like summer camp for adults. Our stuff was just liked against the walls and on the few shelves. The main room was also used as a bedroom at night, for the boys and overflow girls. Their stuff was also lined up against the walls but their mats had to be stacked up every morning and their nets pushed back to make room for daily life.
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The gong sounded at 5:20am and we were out in the yard on our yoga mats by 5:45. This was ample time as all you had to do was maybe brush your teeth and throw on some clothes. No one bothers with makeup (and many don't bother with shaving--men or women--or other customary habits). It's quite freeing. There's no mirrors except for a broken piece out in the yard, and we only used that so Kiki could give people haircuts.
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Sometimes you smell, but everyone smells, so you don't feel too bad about it. The lime soap and baking soda still leave your hair greasy, but everyone's hair is greasy so you don't feel bad about that either. We get dirty and our clothes get dirty and it was all just fine. Everyone seemed to shower a decent amount but it's Thailand and it's hot and often the work was muddy. Anyways after yoga and meditation there was karma yoga, aka morning chores. These are voluntary but no one was a dick about not working, and they operate on a three day rotation. Gina volunteered to be on main room cleanup (sweeping, rolling yoga mats, laying out the reed mats and cushions for breakfast circle) and I signed up for yard duty (watering the many gardens, filling the outdoor showers, sweeping the outside of the house).
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The gardens are very extensive, as the project grows as much as possible, as long as it's sustainable. Lots of spinach and morning glory, there were some tomatoes and Thai eggplants not yet in bloom, banana and papaya trees,a don lots more. Then everyone pitched in to help finish making breakfast or whatever else needed to be done. All of this was in silence, mind you. We didn't talk until Christian or one of the other semi-permanent volunteers officially broke the silence after breakfast. This would usually take the form of counting off to assign hugging buddies (maybe we did look like some weird commune since everyone was hugging all the time). Then we chose our seva (selfless service) for the day. I was usually on the kitchen team, Gina was on brick making a few times. We both did mosaics a few times. And on the last day Gina got a bout in the kitchen finally and I got to be white collar for the day and sit inside with Dean the Australian and write a (fairly humorous) handbook for newcomers to the project.
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Mosaic was probably my favorite though. Slowly all of the garden beds are being covered in blue, white and grey mosaics designed by the volunteers. It very relaxing, if you like that kind of thing.
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The biggest seva task was definitely brick making. The project aims to build a whole new property that is entirely self-sustaining and as much self-made as possible. For that we will need a ton of the huge clay bricks that volunteers make onsite.
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There are three mud pits, which we fill with buckets of clay and water. This should sit for a day or two and then volunteers tramp through the mud, churning it with their feet. Then sand and more water are added, while the people in the mud pit march on, and finally risk husks. When it looks right (to the well trained eye), we scoop it into buckets and press it into molds. The formed bricks then dry in the sun for days, are rotated, and finally stacked until we have enough to build something with.
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I was only in the mud pit once, but it was the day we broke the record. Gina was with me, and we went around and around the pit, churning the mud and stepping on stones with our tender little feeties, until the group had worked through four mud pits and completed 111 bricks in just one afternoon. It's exhausting. If you're not in the pit then your hauling water or wheelbarrows of sand, or slapping the mud into the huge molds. The sun beats down on you and I was wearing mud on my back and shoulders as sunscreen. The only saving grace is that you have something concrete to show for it at the end of the day.
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Kitchen duty was much more strenuous than one would think, and I recommended that anyone who had not yet volunteered to be on kitchen crew should do so, in order to better appreciate their meals and sympathize with fellow volunteers. Seva usually lasted 4.5 hours and that was sometimes barely enough time to get a full meal on the table. There's usually 4-5 people on kitchen crew, unless you have to share the space with other volunteers making powerballs or kombucha, which could be purchased separately along with the natural soaps, etc.
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The stress of kitchen duty was threefold. 1) you're cooking for around 30 people at any given time. That is a lot of people, so dishes such as curries, stews, fried rice, etc are best because you can make huge batches. 2) the project is vegetarian, both in the interest of cost and sustainability, but many participants are also on a raw diet (anyone could sign up for raw for additional baht per day). So while you made a ton of food for the general group, you also had to make separate raw food (not cooked or toasted or boiled or anything, in any way) such as spring rolls or gazpacho or whatever you could think of so that they weren't just eating salads every day. Plus there were some food allergies to deal with. So you're already making one general meal and a raw meal, but someone was gluten and rice intolerant and someone else was allergic to garlic and raw onion, so while you are making the general meal if you use garlic then you have to set some aside that is plain, etc. the gluten thing wasn't really a problem as we were pretty much gluten and dairy free anyways, since the pantry was so limited. Which brings us to 3) the resources are very scant. Feeding this many people on such limited funds way out in the bush is difficult. So there's not much to choose from in the pantry when you're trying to cook up some fantastic meal. So the biggest challenge is coming up with a huge meal (plus a raw meal) with the dietary restrictions from almost no ingredients. And making that different from what we ate yesterday, and the day before. It was so hard but I must say we were quite good at it. Literally the only spices in the kitchen were cumin, chili powder, coriander, curry, salt and pepper. We had an array of fruits but those were pretty much used for breakfast. We had rice, three colors of lentils, barley, raw spring roll wraps, and very rarely noodles. Garlic, ginger, limes, coconut milk and oil (use sparingly), olive oil and kombucha vinegar (if you were lucky). And lots of veggies. Got that? Now go. You have four hours, two gas cooktops, and no oven. Your kitchen team has to have excellent teamwork or nothing will be ready in time. All produce must be carefully washed in the drinking water, and make sure to save all of your seeds and pineapple tops for use in the garden. It was much harder than it seemed, and you're on your bare feet on the tile floor all day. There were a lot of people that volunteered in the kitchen once and then would rather make bricks or turn the compost or do something less stressful.
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Somehow I always got stuck making dressings. In my opinion, this was the hardest dish. We were urged not to use the coconut or olive oil unless absolutely necessary because they are expensive (and not something we can grow or make onsite). We were out of kombucha vinegar for like a week and I couldn't identify many of the herbs in the garden, except for dill and parsley. So wtf do you make a dressing out of for a salad for 30 people, the size of a kiddie swimming pool??? I came up with several, some of them better than others, and I will share them in an upcoming post in case anyone is feeling bold (they got good feedback from the group I swear). The saving grace of kitchen duty is that the group is always starving after an afternoon of hard work and everyone is very flexible about what they are served. Once we have all done kitchen duty we know that as long as there's edible food on the table and there's lots of it, it's a job well done.
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We always ate Thai style on the floor, sitting in a circle. Christian would say a blessing before we would dig in, and everyone pitched in with dishes, usually grabbing someone else's cup and plate in addition to their own on their way to the sink. It was quite lovely. We aimed to have lots of leftovers since we didn't cook dinner (lunch was around 2 or 3), but ate those leftovers before or during the talking circle.
Talking circle was many people's favorite part of the day. It was probably mine. Gina says she liked seva and the teachings best. After lunch we had a few hours of free time (shower, take laundry to the village, go for a run, shower, draw or write, play music, shower, take a nap, shower)
followed by the talking circle at 6.
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We sat in a circle on the reed mats again, and Christian would ask two questions. The first was always, "what was your favorite moment of the day?" which was a lovely little way to reflect back on the day and I highly recommend it. So we said our name, where we were from (volunteers were always coming and going, many stayed for weeks or months but the group was rarely exactly the same two days in a row), what our favorite moment of the day was, and then answered his second question. The second question differed every day, and was always extremely thought provoking. Some of them were, "what is the greatest thing you have done?" "what is your biggest fear?" "what would happen if you loved yourself 100%?" "of what are you most ashamed?" Crying was not uncommon in the talking circle, especially during that last question. Only the person holding the talking stick could talk, you had the option to pass if you didn't want to say anything, and we all tried to practice active listening, where we listened intently to the speaker rather than secretly dreamed up our own answers to the questions during that time. It definitely helped everyone bond, start to reveal their true selves, and get in touch with who they are and who they wish to be.
Afterwards Christian would give some sort of teaching, usually but not always based on Buddism. These were always extremely thought provoking as well. Mindfulness is a state of being, where you are always aware of what your are doing with your body, mind and words. You try to always pay attention to how you effect other people and the earth, and you try to always be a positive force in the universe. This wasn't school though, no one forced you to sit and listen. We were all adults, and if you wanted to go for a walk or go lay on your mat instead, no one was going to stop you. People rarely did though, as we all became very close and the talking circle was a raw and beautiful time. A few times he begged off teaching though. Once we watched a documentary (the only tv/video that was allowed, also music is not allowed unless you play/sing it yourself) and another time we gave each other shoulder massages. (That was a bit too involved for many of the volunteers, and was strictly optional).
By 10pm we were usually asleep, or at least in bed. The mosquitoes get bad outside and you get so tired waking up early and working all day. But it's a very satisfying tired. I never felt worn out or pushed too far.
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I don't have an exact moment when Gina and I decided to stay for the full ten days, but I do know that by the end, neither of us wanted to leave. It was lovely to be yourself, physically and emotionally, exposed and unapologetic, and still have people like you for you. The work was rewarding and sustainability was exciting to learn about, and the property was endearing. Love was our only drug and we were all quite high on it. The hugs were long and tight, the talks were longer and heartfelt. I felt like everyone got to use their skills and experience for the good of the group (eg. Luca from Italy knew how to use Autocad to help Christian design a house, Sara from Sweden knew how to weld door and window frames, Tiana from the U.S. patched up everyone's wounds, Damen from the U.S. sang us songs at night, and I made seventy kinds of friggin dressing) but as we were all trying to get away from our egos and expand our hearts and minds, there was no bragging or showmanship. We were all there to be better people, better consumers, better listeners, better citizens of the world. It's a lot to work on and there's a lot of changes to be made, but the project helped me see a way forward and a better me.
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And we learned a ton of cool stuff! Kiki taught us zen tangle meditation drawing, and Teresa taught a few people, including Gina, how to do some acrobatic yoga.
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Our last full day was another Buddha day, but this time the group stayed in the village and participated at the small local monastery. This time we cooked the food at the project and carried it there, and when the monks and villagers ate afterwards, we joined them.
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I didn't bat an eye at the three hours of meditation afterwards, and returned to the project that afternoon feeling very peaceful and content. I did not want to leave, but our visa was up in four days and we still wanted to see Chiang Mai. Many of our new friends tried to persuade us to get a visa extension, stay a few more days, stay for months, anything, but we have to leave. If we didn't have family and friends waiting and a trip to finish (and a flight to Vienna already purchased) it would be very tempting to stay for months. To work on my self and my thought process, to spend more time with these friends and make new ones, to learn more about the garden and Christian's teachings, to finally make something out of those damn bricks. I will miss the new friends we made here, and will never see many of them again (though you guys are always welcome at my place if you need a place to stay). But our trip is calling. And anyways, I am all out of dressing ideas.
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Posted by Chloeah 06:29 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

You're going where?

Getting to the Mindfulness Project

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We were able to take the 7:45 bus from Buriram to Khon Kaen, which landed us in Khon Kaen around 1pm. It is the third largest city in Thailand, and we had very specific directions from our next project on how to get to the remote village from there. It reminded me of a game we played as kids, where you blindfold your partner and then give them very specific oral instructions on how to reach the goal. They have no choice but to listen and slowly and specifically follow the directions, eg "take three big steps and turn 90 degrees to your right and step around the big rock." Khon Kaen is not on the tourist track so there isn't much English spoken there, and everything is written in Thai so we can't even sound it out.
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It would have been overwhelming to try to reach the village of Ban Kamyai if we didn't have those uber-specific instructions. "Go to the old bus station in Khon Kaen. If you are at the new, air conditioned bus station, show a tuktuk driver this message ("please take me to the old bus station" written in Thai). Look for platform 14, the sign will look like this picture. Tell the man selling tickets you need to get to Ban Kamyai. Get on the purple bus." Etc etc etc. so 2pm saw us dragging our stuff down a dirt road in a tiny village, searching for a gate that might look like it belongs to a monastery. But then a Thai man in a very large heavy duty truck pulled over and asked, "Mindfulness Project?" in English, and when we said yes he waved us in the truck. Thank heavens, because the sun was beating down and our packs weren't getting any lighter.
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He pulled up in front of a low, nondescript building with lots of people milling around the yard. We jumped out and hesitantly dragged out stuff up the drive. A young Latino guy said hello, asked us if we were new volunteers, and when we answered in the affirmative he screwed his face in concern.
"It's too bad you just got here, we're all leaving in about ten minutes."
".....Leaving where?"
"To Khon Kaen. To the monastery for a few days. It's Buddha day!" A girl appeared by his side.
"It's too bad you just got here. You could come with us if you want. We're leaving in about ten minutes. Or maybe you could come back later?"
(It took us two days to get here and we're in a remote village off in the forest. How can we "come back later"?)
We threw our packs down in the main room and stuffed a few things into smaller bags. Then it was back down the dirt road with the group, which numbered about 25-30. It was lead by Christian, a German man who founded the Mindfulness Project and runs it with his wife Anja and a few semi-permanent volunteers. As we approached the highway again I realized there was no bus stop or anything. This huge group was going to hitchhike the 30 odd kilometers back to Khon Kaen. This didn't seem very feasible.
Shockingly enough though, it only took three trucks to wedge us all in, and they appeared in quick succession. People were more than happy to offer us a ride. Christian spoke to our driver in Thai as eight of us wedged in the truck bed, and shouted to us as it pulled away that the truck was dropping us off at the bus station, and we were to meet the group at the monastery by taking the orange #23 bus. This plan seemed a little patchy but it was too late now and the truck was speeding down the highway.
The small hiccup in this plan was when the truck got into a slight fender bender just inside the city limits. The driver bashfully signed to us that he had to stay and handle this matter, so we walked the rest of the way to the bus station, and when finding the orange 23 proved difficult, a man wound up taking us to the monastery in his truck for a few baht. In retrospect it might have been a good idea to ask Christian WHICH monastery before the group separated, but we soon spotted more members of the group hanging off the back of a truck taxi. Once we were all assembled, none the worse for wear, Christian announced that we would enter the monastery at 8pm, so we were free for the next two hours or so. There were cafes with wifi, restaurants, or a festival gaining momentum across the street.
Gina and I chose to check out the festival. We were a little rattled by this point-joining a huge group that already seemed to have bonded pretty closely and were always hugging and stuff. Plus we were facing a whole day of meditation at the monastery tomorrow and neither of us had ever attempted meditation before. It occurred to us to cut and run. But the sun was setting and all of our stuff was back at the project. We decided to give this Mindfulness thing a try and if we didn't stay the full ten days well, so be it. We could always head for Chiang Mai early.
The festival had clunky little rides for kids and games with prizes, along with a few stalls with clothes and electronic accessories for sale. There were quite a few food stalls and Gina and I got fresh coconut water, chicken balls on a skewer with chili sauce, chicken kebabs, and these tiny little crispy pancakes smeared with gooey marshmallow and sprinkled with colored coconut. The latter wasn't as good as we hoped. There was also traditional Thai dancing in a small amphitheater, which is where we sat with our food and tried to get our bearings.
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My favorite aspect of the festival though were the offerings you could buy and float out on the river. Ladies sold intricate little arrangements of marigolds and palm leaves, usually topped by candles and incense. You could also buy live birds or bags of fish or eels, which you would then set free in or above the river with a prayer. The cages were crammed with tiny birds, which was hard to see, and the eels even struggled in their shallow bags, but at least their freedom was imminent.
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We met up with the group by the river, where we all sat and watched the big floating offerings bobbing up and down in the water. Then we filed behind Christian to walk back to the monastery. The girls slept up on the third floor in blank little rooms--there were plenty so Gina and I shared our own. We slept on meditation mats on the floor, and there was a very basic bathroom down the hall. The boys slept on the second floor in a cloistered Buddha hall, also on the mats.
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The next morning we were all assembled in the temple by 5am, and in silence. Some people were going to try to remain in silence for the entire day, but everyone was asked to be silent until at least after breakfast at 9. Christian spoke to us only as necessary, first teaching us walking meditation in the temple, and finally leading us in a seated meditation. For breakfast we left the monastery and bought fruit and other foods from street carts and 7-11, buying things not only for ourselves but also for the alms giving back at the temple. When each of us had a bag of food to bring we toted back to the monastery and back into the temple, which was filling up with people in white. Then we sat and listened to the Buddha Day chanting for quite a while, which was lovely and melodic to hear, even if we couldn't understand what was going on. I was on a mat next to Christian in the middle of the crowd, and I couldn't even see where Gina was. I was trying to remember never to point my feet at a monk or a Buddha statue, when to bow, and never to put my feet anywhere near any of the parcels of food scattered all over. In Thai culture the feet are the basest part of your body, and it's very important to remember where they are at all times. No shoes inside, especially in a temple or someone's house, don't touch anyone with your feet even accidentally, and never step over a person, food, books, or pretty much anything. If something is blocking your path, you just stand there and motion or wait for someone to realize it.
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For the alms giving, we filed outside into the courtyard where all of the monks' begging bowls were lined up on a table. Then we went down the line, filling the bowls with the contents of our bags. People were adding everything from homemade dishes in metal containers to fresh fruit or pre-packaged foods, bottles of water and juices. If a bowl became overfull a novice monk would take out many of the items and place them in a basket. Back inside on our mats, we watched as ladies (mostly older women) approached the dais where the monks sit and continued to offer them food and drinks. A person would approach, bow a few times, and the monk would lay out a corner of his robes and the person would place the offering on it, bowing some more. These items the monks then put aside, adding to them when the novices brought in their full begging bowls and the extra baskets.
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These amounts of food might have seemed excessive. But we learned that the community supports the monks in this manner. They want the monks to continue their spiritual life and their own work for the community, so they feed them and donate money in a large wooden box in the middle of the room. The monks eat only once a day however, so most of that food is actually separated into bags and left in front of the Buddha, where poor people can come and claim a bag. In smaller villages the monks might go and leave a bag on the gate of a family they know needs it. In a lot of places the monasteries are like a sort of social services for the community, and help care for the poor and needy as well as provide spiritual education, marriage blessings, and so on.
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After the alms giving we formed little work groups to help clean up around the monastery, as a thank you for letting us sleep there. Gina and I were on the sweeping team outside in the many courtyards. This monastery was founded by a monk who felt that the existing monasteries had strayed too far from the humble monastic life. So he and his followers went off into the forest, where they refocused on meditation and a simple, spiritual existence. That is why this monastery and temple are quite simple, but there was a cloistered section made to look like the forest that was quite lovely.
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My favorite was the t-Rex.
This monk also founded the monastery out in Ban Kamyai where the Mindfulness Project is based. Christian told us that the project used to be housed at that monastery but people proved that they couldn't handle the dress and behavioral code like adults, so they had to relocate to the current property, right next to the monastery grounds. The codes aren't even that bad. Apart from the feet pointing thing, you just have to refrain from affectionate or unnecessary touching, women should never touch a monk, and everyone's shoulders and knees should be covered at all times. No excess cleavage or bare midriffs and stuff. I find these very reasonable requirements of any spiritual house.
We all walked to a vegetarian restaurant in Khon Kaen for lunch, which was followed by optional meditation and darkness meditation. I was still pretty much winging it on this whole meditation thing, and I nearly got there when we did sitting meditation earlier. It's hard to quiet your mind and ignore the pains in your body from sitting on the floor for so long. The darkness meditation though, I wasn't so sure about that.
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There was a earthen hut towards the back of the property, with a circular double door and no windows. There was a ventilation fan but it was double vented to allow no light in. Christian and Anja have both done several days in darkness meditation, where you don't see light or living creatures for the entirety of your seclusion, and food and water are left for you once a day between the double doors. There is a bucket in the corner for other stuff. We were just going in for thirty minutes though, in two groups. My group went first while Gina's group meditated on their own in the small Buddha hall.
It was interesting. You have to remind yourself that there is ventilation, and the heat and stuffiness are uncomfortable but not life threatening. After Christian bolted the second door, he dimmed the lights until we were slowly immersed in complete and utter darkness. It made no difference if your eyes were open or shut. I still shut mine though because it was hard to meditate when my open eyes kept trying to pull something out of the darkness. I was a bit relieved though when he popped the doors back open and we all spilled out.
After one more meditation session in the small Buddha hall the group was free to do whatever they liked. Everyone was checking into a hotel for the night for a free day in Khon Kaen the next day, and most of them were signing up for massages in the morning. Gina and I pulled Christian aside though and asked if it was ok if we went back to the project. We were sweaty and exhausted and still very overwhelmed.
"Yes of course!"he said. "Here is the combination for the lock. But since you will be there alone, can I ask you if you would feed the cats?"
There's cats? Um no problem. I could definitely use some cat therapy by that point.
G and I visited the festival one more time for a quick bite before we boarded the bus back to Ban Kamyai. At least this time we knew what we were doing as we got off and walked through the village. Lucky us though, got picked up again by a couple in a truck who spoke no English. They figured though (correctly so) that any farangs (foreigners) in a village as small as Ban Kamyai must be headed for the Mindfulness Project. So we got another free ride and were very great fun for it. Thai people are some of the nicest I have met anywhere.
It was a bit strange staying at the project without knowing where anything was, but the four (four!) project cats gave us lots of welcome meows and even presented Gina with a grub about three inches long, still twitching on the floor. We dragged out two sleeping mats and draped them with mosquito nets and collapsed with the cats for a long overdue sleep.
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Posted by Chloeah 06:18 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Elephant Toots Part 2

Volunteering at the Surin Elephant Project

sunny

By Wednesday I was the dirtiest I have ever been. Not in a I've-been--having-fun-in-a-mudr-pit way but in a every-liquid-I-have-consumed-in-the-last-three-months-has-been-sweated-out-and-caked-back-on-by-Thailand-dust-and-elephant-poo kind of way. We've taken to showering twice a day, which means twice a day I balance on my flip flops as I strip down in front of a crowd of geckos and toads and pour water over myself with a chipped plastic bowl. Afterwards you feel marvelous but that lasts about two seconds. It's probably good I haven't looked in a mirror since we left Bangkok.
Wednesday's morning task for Team 2 was cleaning shelters. My enthusiasm was high--I was all geared up to help elephants however this has been rather chill--but the mahouts are so practiced at this that our contribution was marginal. The sugarcane scraps had already been raked into piles out by the road, we just needed to help fork it into the tractor wagon and then spread it in the cane fields. There, it shades the new plants from the harsh sun and then it breaks down and acts as fertilizer. Any attached elephant poo is a bonus. Isn't this a lovely cycle?
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Our treat for the day though was walking the elephants to the river. The spot is several kilometers away but they know the way, and we walked together down the paved road through the next village and a succession of rice fields.
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We're really off the tourist track here in Surin. Every once in a while we might see a white face on the way to the circus, but it's attendees are largely Asian, (many seem to be Chinese). But walking through a rice field in Surin is basically the equivalent of cutting through a cornfield in Iowa. Not a lot of international tourists penetrate that far into the boonies. It's lovely.
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When we got to the river the elephant started tooting a bit, excitedly. We drew names to get an elephant buddy (an elephant buddy!!!) and I drew Neeuathong, the Munch Queen, and Gina drew Wongduean. We got big bags of cucumbers and it was all I could do to stay in front of Neeuathong as I waded in with all of my clothes on and started showering out the veggies. She will take no fewer than six at a time and jabs at the bag impatiently if I can't them out fast enough for her liking. When she had consumed the twenty pound bag (90 seconds) Boonma the mahout handed me a scrub brush and tapped her to roll over so I could scrub her side. Boonma at least has a name I can remember and he's distinctive by his long white beard and yellow man purse. Most of the mahouts wear shoulder bags--I assume because their shorts don't have pockets--as well as a machete tied around their waist with rope and many carry a slingshot. When not in use, the slingshot is sometimes worn with the strap around their heads, either over or under the hat.
Neeuathong let me scrub her with evident enjoyment (it's gotta feel good when your skin is that tough and thick) but I only got one side done and her head and neck before she stood up and decided she was done with the water. I was just as wet as she was by that point, because one of the other elephants (maybe Pouki) was using her trunk to shower herself and I got caught in the flow. Also one of the mahouts had a bucket and a mischievous disposition.
We all staggered onto the shore behind the elephants. Wes, the lucky duck, got to buddy up with Kamsaen and Anda, though he said later that he pretty much only managed to scrub down Anda. I could see how it would be a lot of effort to wash her down when she wriggles in the water excitedly, like a puppy.
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We returned to the river later that afternoon to scoop the poo, rake up some cane, and pick up trash. Sadly there was a lot of trash. Then it was another elephant walk in. The afternoon, and it was our Team's turn to clean the shelters in the evening. Again, this was hardly any work at all, especially since Rahd helped us. Then we all piled into the back of the truck again and he drove us to a weekly market.
We were the only non-locals that I saw there. The parking area was crammed with motorcycles and mopeds, and the tables formed a very large figure eight. At the far end were some clothes and household items, along with a giant bouncy castle and slide for kids, but what we were interested in was FOOD. There were tables with piles of fruits and vegetables, tubs of eels and catfish and even a bucket of toads. A man hacked apart hunks of red meat and they were sold on the spot. What we were eyeing though was the ready-to-eat stuff. Linnea had already been to the market in her previous weeks so she knew to head straight for the fresh coconut ice cream. Jeslyn, Wes, Gina and I all bought and shared sausages wrapped in pancakes, waffles filled with sweet corn, little fried cakes made of coconut cream and dried fruit, some kind of fruit I don't know the name of that is similar to lychee, fresh ice cream, tiny pancake sandwiches filled with pudding, and little cornbread balls. And of course when I saw fried crickets for sale I bought a bag. Duh.
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These I saved until after dinner. All of us were brave enough to try the light brown ones except for Linnea, who could barely even watch. Tentatively Jeslyn, Gina, Wes and I all selected a cricket from the jumble inside the plastic bag, each one crispy (not battered) and sprinkled with salt.
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Down the hatch. It wasn't bad, actually. All four of us agreed that they just tasted fried, like one of those burned potato chips in the bottom of the bag. Only Wes and I were brave enough to try a black one though. The light brown ones looked like your standard American cricket, but the black ones were bigger, almost meaty, with longer legs and antennae and a shiny black finish. I had to collect myself before I could put it in my mouth. It was pretty bad. The taste was almost the same (more bug like?) but I couldn't get past the legs. My mouth was a profusion of pokey little legs and feelers and my brain was reacting accordingly. Shudder. But I did it! I could eat more brown ones on a dare but I couldn't eat more black ones unless there was money involved. Serious money. And salt.
Thursday morning Team 2 was on sugarcane duty. It was the by far the best job! Gina and I and several mahouts piled into the truck and drove through several villages until we reached one of the massive sugarcane fields. We had to wear long sleeves again and work gloves, and Sarote handed us each a curved machete, showing us how to cut the cane as the base of the stalk.
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Turns out I'm damn good with a machete. After a few tries I was felling each stalk with one blow, flinging the long stalks behind me in a pile. All too soon (I want to keep cutting! I feel so empowered!) we had enough and we helped the mahouts heap it into the back of the truck. I could see how, as with any manual labor, it would be extremely difficult task to endure day in and day out. But short bursts, cutting sugarcane is quite fun. They rode back on top of the pile with Gina (Gina Gina where are you going!) and I got shotgun with Nana.
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The rest of Thursday and Friday were more of the same, with shelter cleanings and elephant walks, huge Thai dinners and watching the elephants bathe in the lake. Thursday's lake bathing had a scary moment though. Elephants are surprisingly skittish, it's almost as if they are completely unaware of how intimidating they are. When we came up the road and rounded the corner towards the spot where they usually jump in the lake for a bit with the mahouts before we head home, there was already a male in the water. Fear number one.there was also a herd of cattle munching grass on the banks to the right. Fear number two. The mahouts spotted the male immediately and stopped their girls from proceeding until his mahout talked him out of the water and up the road.
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But the cows were still hanging out as our elephants walked past towards the water, and they did NOT LIKE IT. The elephants, not the cows. Doesn't that seem backwards? Shouldn't cows be afraid of elephants? Who's bigger, after all? Thai cows look like basset hounds, they are rather pathetic creatures with droopy ears and saggy skin. What're they going to do to a massive elephant? But the elephants don't care, they get worked up anytime they are around cows or water buffaloes. Maybe that's why they hate the cows--their resemblance to water buffaloes, which are temperamental and can be aggressive with their huge horns. Our elephant ladies communicated their distress with a few loud trumpets and a lot of low growling, which is bone chilling. The growling sends a warning to the whole herd that there is potential danger. They also make this sound like a drum popping by flicking the tips of their trunks against the ground. The volunteers scattered like rabbits when Nanglek gave into her fear and broke from her mahout, running for her mini-herd. Once she was with Wongduean and Neeuathong she calmed down, but I think she gave her mahout quite a start.
Once all of the cows were out of sight and the ladies had calmed down and were in the water, suddenly the growling started again. A dog was spotted not far from the lakeshore. Elephants are nervous around dogs too! Sarote said that the cartoon joke about elephants being afraid of mice is pretty much true. Do you want to know why? It all comes down to their feet.
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I love elephant feet. Their foot wrinkles are unique like a human fingerprint, and I like stepping next to their prints in the dusty road. Anda's is supremely cute, so small next to the others' but still as long as my foot. Her mother's is freakishly huge though--both of my feet fit inside it with tons of room to spare. Their feet are the cutest though when they are walking. Their footfalls are almost silent! This is how elephants always manage to sneak up on you, despite the rules about not walking in front of an elephant. A dog would make more noise on the path. But they hate dogs, most likely because they can feel them coming but can't always see them. Elephants have pretty weak eyesight, and a dog is small enough to wind between their feet and unnerve or trip them. They can literally feel a dog (or anything, from a motorcycle to a mouse) coming from quite a distance. This is due to the structure of their feet, which I find fascinating.
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If an elephant skeleton were in front of you, you would see that it's feet were positioned as if standing on tiptoe. The bones in their feet are not like tree trunks, but rather like fingers pointing downwards. The rest of the foot is soft flesh, filling out into that familiar tree trunk shape. The foot being mostly flesh instead of bone accounts for three main things. Firstly, the gentle footfalls. The earth doesn't shake when as elephant walks past (though it's pretty scary when they run). Secondly, and most importantly, it allows them to feel vibrations from the ground through their feet. Even the tiny vibration of a mouse. Thirdly, and my favorite, their feet squish like huge marshmallows when they walk.
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So the village dogs make the elephants nervous, and they aren't allowed on walks or inside the enclosure. When we go to the river Ocha distracts them with food so we can get away. But this time the ladies were already in the water, distracted and unable to feel the vibrations of other creatures walking towards them. So when they looked up and saw a dog not far away, it was pretty much chaos. We backed way off as they came charging out of the water, mahouts still clinging to their heads. Sa-ngud was luckily holding Anda's rope and he clutched it as he led her racing out of the water, her mother in full-on freak out mode. The trumpeting and trunk popping went on intermittently for several minutes as they clung to their mini-herds and assured each other that everything was okay. It was all very sudden and exciting.
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Wes had to go back to Singapore Friday, so it was just Linnea, Jeslyn, Gina and me that were subjected to the performance demands of Friday night. It was our second-to-last night so there was the mahout dinner, complete with dancing. First we were served our usual dinner, which was delicious but unfortunate as then the mahouts showed up for a barbecue. A Thai barbecue is a curious device. It appeared to be ceramic--short and squat like a mop bucket, with three short arms that reach up from the top. They built fires inside the base, blowing on the coals through a slit in the side, and when they were ready, fitting a metal piece onto the short arms. This metal piece resembled a sombrero, with a curved dish around the outside and a cone in the center, which was full of holes. They piled pieces of pork over the cone and filled the curved dish area with noodles, cabbage, fish balls and mushrooms, topping it off with hot water from a nearby kettle. This small barbecue was quite genius. The meat cooked more thoroughly in the center, over the holes, and the juices ran down and flavored the other items simmering away in the hot water.
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There were two barbecues set up right inside the platform room and we crowded around them with plates, chopsticks, and bowls of chili sauce. Even though we had already eaten (though why a separate dinner was prepared for us, I don't know) the mahouts piled food onto our plates every time we cleared a small space. It was so good but we were so full. Then, to my dismay, we had to dance. Originally we had each been instructed to perform some sort of song or dance, but in shy desperation we four banded together for a rather pathetic rendition of the chicken dance. They were not appeased and I was not surprised. They plucked Jeslyn from the safety of the bench and made her follow a mahout as he imitated a chicken and then a duck, both of them flapping and pecking around the room. Better her than me.... Linnea was offered up next, and she had to follow Suchard--a rather wizened senior but a hell of a dancer--as he strutted and wove his way around the room, fluttering his hands and moving his hips in a smooth arc. Fortunately for me and Gina, everyone else stood up and started dancing before we were pulled up there to perform solo. Unfortunately for me and Gina, all of us were dragged into a dance around the room that lasted several lifetimes. Ocha and Sarote shouted encouragement, but as neither of them had to dance I didn't want to hear it.
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After a millennia or three the song was finally over and we staggered for the benches. It was time for the mahout auction. They brought in several items for us to bid on, the money then went into a fund for them and their families. Gina bid and won on a piece of parchment with Anda's footprint on it as well as a small elephant woven out of reeds that depicts Wongduean. I purchased Neeuathong's footprint, to remember our bath times and her cucumber habit (that morning when I scrubbed her down in the river again and fed her cucumbers, she wasn't satisfied by her own twenty pound bag and snaked her trunk over to Gina's bag, demanding more from her friend Wongduean's share).
Lastly, we trickled outside under the stars, where Ocha handed out huge paper lanterns. Each one was at least two feet tall and I held mine aloft as Nana lit the ring inside. We held it until the fire was strong enough to lift it, and we watched them all get carried up over the treetops and off into the darkness. You are supposed to make a wish as it lifts itself out of your grasp and becomes just a tiny speck among the stars, and there was something wrenchingly human about all of us standing there, not even able to speak the same language but staring up at the sky with wishes on our faces.
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I don't want to leave!
Shocking, right? We never want to leave (burying the Mildura incident), but that's a fabulous thing. That means that on this trip we've been to places and met people that we don't want to say goodbye to. All day Saturday I kept thinking, this is our last elephant walk, this is my last cane cutting, this is our last meal together in the platform room. But we just got here! And I'm finally learning the mahouts' names and how to tell the elephants apart!
Saturday, after Team 2 cut sugarcane for the last time (question: do you think I can include this skill on my resume?), everyone gathered for the Mahout Olympics. This is a prestigious event, preparation for which we had not at all. Categories were slingshot, water ballon toss, leaf darts, seed jacks, and the classic favorite, the stick between the legs.
Turns out I kick ass at the slingshot. Suchard taught Gina on Thursday while we were in the enclosure, and she was doing so well. Even she was surprised.
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But then her team was up first at the Olympics and she choked. There were two rows of plastic bottles, and volunteers had to knock down the first row without disturbing the second, and the mahouts had to knock down the second row without disturbing the first.
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Um who knocked over all five front row bottles in order with only five rocks?? THIS GIRL. Ok I knocked over two back ones but still. I honestly hadn't expected to even hit anything at all. Watch out world, because G and I both bought a slingshot that the mahouts made. Don't cross us or we might knock over all of your plastic water bottles.
My team was not doing particularly well through the water balloon and seed game events. We won stick between the legs (where you hold a stick between your knees and have to waddle to the next person and pass it to them and they have to waddle, etc. Very suggestive.) but we tanked on leaf darts. There are these long pricker things that grow on a particular bush here, they are like really skinny ragweed but the tip has a little pricker hook on it. Sarote is always aiming for Linnea and Wes on walks, trying to get them to stick to their shirts. My team did not do well on throwing them like darts and getting anywhere near the bullseye, even after the youngest mahout showed me how to spit on the end before you throw it.
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All of this added up to a disastrous third place. Jeslyn's team won and received bags of potato chips. Gina and Linnea's team got second and received packages of sticky buns. But my team lost and had to stand at attention while everyone else smeared baby powder on our faces and then we had to parade around like ducks. It was not my best moment. Gina quite enjoyed it.
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There is this sad dog who follows us around, I think the poor thing has been a puppy factory and she's skin and bones. She has skin problems and sores and fleas and the male dogs all pick on her. She's so sweet though and we let her up onto our balcony whenever we are home, and we and Linnea have been trying to feed her all week. Gina would take her home if she could. She gave Ocha money to keep buying her food, there's not much else we can do. But she's so sweet and her big hound eyes watched us walk away and it was just the worst.
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Our actual departure was anticlimactic. We all wolfed down some toast at six and by seven we were jouncing along the road out of the village in the back of the project suv. We didn't get to say goodbye to most of the mahouts as many of them were off on other chores, and baby Anda wasn't in her shelter yet so we didn't even get any goodbye trunk smears.
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We drove for an hour to Buriram, where we waved to Jeslyn and Linnea as they boarded the bus to Bangkok, then Ocha helped Gina and me get a room for the night. In the morning we would catch a bus to Khon Kaen and our next project. We didn't do much in Buriram, just walked around to get our bearings, then played a rousing game with the television in which we watched CSI Miami dubbed in Thai and tried to both guess the crime and solve it without understanding a single spoken word. I assume we were pretty far off.

Posted by Chloeah 20:46 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Elephant Toots Part 1

Volunteering at the Surin Elephant Project

sunny

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
270_A3DF105CC9E1A6172855C5C988C4EBC2.jpgEven 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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."
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Posted by Chloeah 20:41 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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