Rachel and I were paired up from the very first day, and I felt like I hit the jackpot, roomie-wise. She was super laid back, we had a similar sense of humor (that is, we laughed at the absurdity of almost every situation—from the ant infestation to her dubiously risque massage to the rats eating my underwear to shoveling poop while less-enthusiastic volunteers took pictures of us shoveling poop), and she was also traveling on her own, taking four months off from her job as a mental health nurse in England.
After dinner on the first night, Rachel and I stumbled upon Lek giving a talk to around a dozen other volunteers at a picnic table. Lek motioned for us to sit down and we listened for awhile as she described a hill tribe six hours away in Mae Chem, where volunteers would sleep in the villagers’ huts, do “whatever needed to be done,” and spend two days walking in the jungle with the Karen people’s elephants, among them two babies. At the end of the talk, Lek asked who wanted to go on this “Journey to Freedom,” a week-long trip from the park. As everyone else raised their hands, Rachel and I looked at each other. We had two weeks at ENP. Did we want to go? Oh, yes.
At 8am the next morning, we were clenching our teeth as our van barreled north down the back roads, shooting past buses and mopeds around hairpin turns on the edge of cliffs sorely in need of a guardrail. We later switched out of the van and spent the last hour of the trip standing up, bumping along a two track through the jungle and past fields of cabbage as we climbed higher and higher up the mountains.
The village looked down from its perch to the dense, green valley below, and the 13 of us were welcomed into three homes. Our house mother was really curious about us at first, and watched everything we did with extreme interest; the first night, she didn’t leave the doorway until all four of us had closed our eyes to sleep. The lives of the Karen people definitely contrasted my own more than any I’d seen up to this point. The huts were made of bamboo, some of them beautifully woven, others Spartan, some with decorative windows, others missing walls. Hogs, dogs, water buffalo, and chickens lived beneath the houses. The women wore beautiful sarongs which they wove, and only virgins were permitted to make the shockingly strong rice whiskey.
We spent the first couple of days generally being a nuisance to the villagers. No, that’s probably wrong, but it certainly felt that way much of the time. We had three vet students with us, and they led the group in vaccinating the abundance of dogs and cats for rabies and de-worming them. We also attempted to “build” a “shower,” which really meant that we knocked down a perfectly good bathroom (only built in the first place for Western visitors) in front of expertly-constructed new homes and, with no tools, nails, wood, leadership, or carpentry experience, managed to rig up a very precarious and hilariously lopsided shack with no roof. We even managed to jam a hole in the hose that was to supply said shower in the process. But regardless of the outcome, we did our damndest, and I think all of us knew that it was more the money we (and the ENP) paid that mattered, less our construction successes.
Toward the end of the week, we met the elephants. The mother, a teenage daughter, and four month-old twins are owned by one of the families in the village. It’s historically a sign of prestige for the Karen to own an elephant, but these days the villagers are usually far removed from their elephants and rent them out to logging camps or trekking camps. The elephants can earn far more a day in logging season than their owners can (300 baht/$10/a day versus 3 baht/day), so it’s a hard sell to fight the camps. In the case of these four elephants, the ENP essentially pays the owner instead to insure that the elephants can NOT work. As such, we got to don some gum boots/Wellies and plod after the elephants in the surrounding dense jungle, sloshing through mud and rivers lined with webs filled with these palm-sized spiders:
Apparently Hugh walked smack into a web and ended up with one of the nightmarish suckers on his face, but because he is both quiet-natured and Australian (i.e. used to unfathomably grotesque arachnids), he just brushed it off and waited until we were leaving the village to casually mention it to anyone.
In the evenings, we sat with the locals around a campfire under a sky glowing with more stars than I imagined existed. The oldest woman in the village, Sozu, who was 65, took a liking to me and linked her arm in mine. With no common language and no shared background, we could barely communicate, but we laughed and laughed as she tried to teach me to count to ten in Karen (Deh, Kee, Suh, Louie, Zeh, Ho, Nouie, Huh, Kwee, T’chee) and I tried to teach her the English equivalent. We had a chance to ask the Karen people about their culture and they questioned us in turn (“How old are you?” “Where do you come from?” “Why do you come here?” “What do you do at home?”) Jobs like “marketing assistant” and “children’s book writer” were a bit lost in translation, though Dino did his best.
Poor Dino. Dino was our guide throughout the week, and after a day or two, I began to pity him what must have been the overwhelmingly frustrating task of managing us: translating between us and the Karen (whose language seemed to have more French influence than Thai), the Karen and us, answering every imaginable question about the elephants and the Karen people, directing our hourly tasks in the village, all while explaining where we needed to sleep, when we would eat, where we’d go next, how many local customs we’d offended in the last five minutes, and how to manage the toilet (Tip: in Thailand, toilet paper does NOT go in the toilet. Ever.).
We also had a chance to buy the beautifully woven scarves, bags, sarongs, and shirts that the women had made. After we left, we learned that the women don’t sell their wares at the market in Chiang Mai or elsewhere. The woven items they’d made, they’d done so only to sell to us. When I learned this I remembered the stacks of scarves and bags, a dozen women’s eyes watching me intently. I wished I would’ve bought every single thing on that table.
I find it hard to know how to talk about some of my experiences with accuracy, honesty, and sensitivity, because so much seems marred by the haze of my own feelings of guilt—of my own excess, my privilege. (I expect this will be magnified in India.) The children had worms because of bare feet combined with rare toilet usage. There were starving dogs everywhere. The women chewed betel nuts so were spitting constantly, the oldest among them with very decayed teeth. It seemed…simple. Primitive. But it feels unfair to call it that, too. Only from a Western lens does it seem that way. To the Karen people, who seemed extremely happy living in their picturesque jungle paradise, it is only their life. The life they’ve always known. This was not a trek with an agency, which might cart ten groups a day through, encouraging the kids to beg for change and gifts. This was a trip set up through a conservationist organization with the goal of keeping more elephants out of logging camps just over the border in Burma, encouraging a closer relationship with the Karen and their elephants (as they once had decades ago), while providing them with a way to earn income. I know these things. But I struggled because it still felt wrong to be there, somehow. It felt like disturbing the peace.
The night before we left, Dino fielded questions around the campfire again. An older man asked something, and Dino shrugged, looking at us. “He wants to know if you’ll come back.” All of the villagers nodded and smiled.
As the Thais like to say, mai ben rai. No worries. We'll figure it out.
*Note: All names and phrases were a total guess as far as spelling. I'll do a separate post on my week spent at the actual Elephant Nature Park.