Well, I have almost come to the end of my time at the elephant sanctuary, and its been a weird couple of days. There have been forest fires, a motorbike accident, , a machete-wielding man, serious rifts within the volunteer groups, killer snakes, and 2 of my group freaked out about how the elephants are being treated. Jesus! I dont know why I thought travelling would be chilled out!
There are 5 elephants within the sanctuary, and they have 3 mahouts with them. These mahouts used to take the elephants and walk them on the streets, charging tourists money to pose with them or feed them sugarcane. As a result, a lot of elephants have suffered from polluted lungs, bad diet, and even been victims of traffic accidents. One of our 5 has a broken leg from being hit while she was out walking. The point of the sanctuary is to get them off the streets and become semi wild again. If only it were that simple. The mahouts know that theres a lot of money to be had in keeping elephants, and so they will only allow them to come to the centre if they are paid hansomely for it, and can still call the shots. The mahouts have been trained by their fathers, and their fathers were trained by their fathers before them, and the only way they know how to control the elphants is by force. Sticks with big hooks in them actually. Because our volunteer coordinater is crap and has nothing to do with the elephants and as a consquence has explained NOTHING about them, the system at the centre, or even the basics about what they are about, we have had no guidance and no explanations or understanding where our volunteer money goes and how these animals are being protected by the centre. All we have been told is that elephant volunteers pay a bit more to work with them, which in turn benefits the rest of the centre. Well thats fine. but id quite like to know that the elephants i work with are being protected too!
The elephant group spend all day shovelling elephant s*** and cleaning their spaces and washing them, as well as trying to stop the mahouts whipping the s*** out of these animals, so it was understandable that after seeing them being mistreated one too many times, an argument was bound to happen.. Things came to a head today when the baby elephant sent out a distress call and the big elephants charged to get to her. The mahouts went crazy and started really kicking and poking and scratching the elephants. The elephants went even wilder and it was a big mess. 2 of the new volunteers got really upset, and there were tears, accusations, basically a bloody big scene. Thankfully yours truly was out with the baby elephant and missed all the drama, but it sort of continued throughout the day. The head of the centre made his first appearance and finally some questions were answered.
As with most things, a delicate balance has to be had between western culture and eastern culture. The mahouts are not going to change their attitudes overnight, and the hook and whip stems back to the days when elephants were used for logging, a practise that has since been outlawed. It was needed them to control them, but its not needed now, especially since the idea is to get the elephants back out into the wild and doing what they want without human interaction. However, the mahouts will never sell their elephants to the centre, as they know they can make far too much money off them. Their conditions to the centre is that they are still in charge, and they threaten to walk and take the elephants with them if they dont get their way on this. The centre is working with them to lay off the hooks, but its just easier for them to fall back on what they know. So, its a long slow process. The centre aims to buy more land and get enough funds to buy out the mahouts completely, but that means getting more money than they could possibly earn from tourists over an elephants lifetime. So, it will take time. Once things were explained a bit clearer, things calmed down a lot and we were able to air our grieviences about why elephant volunteers are sort of shoved in the background and ignored, basically its been acknowledged that a new volunteer coordinator and new system needs to be in place.
So anyway, that was yesterdays drama! The day before, one of the volunteers got hit by a man on a motorbike, who then got scared when other volunteers showed up yelling, and pulled a machete out! It took a lot of fast talking to calm him down and get him to put it away). Thankfully the boy that was hit is fine. As for the snakes, I was walking the baby elephant when a rather aggressive cobra came slithering rather fast towards us. It wouldnt have fazed me if the mahout hadnt been worried, but as it was he turned and ran in the opposite direction! Luckily the baby elephant didnt want to stick around either so it was quite easy to move her out of harms way. I felt horribly vulnerable though, i live in flipflops and shorts and theres a lot of long grass around, perfect for snakes. So ive taken to beating the grass weith a stick before wading into it! One woman woke up to find a snake half wedged under her bedroom door, luckily its middle section was too fat to get all the way in, else there would have been trouble! As it is we are told to pat our beds each night to make sure none of the b*****s are hiding in there. Close to nature doesnt even begin to describe it!
I cant even be bothered to go into the group arguemnts that have been occuring. Suffice to say its riduculous.
Today I spent the day at the local secondary school, teaching english to a bunch of 13-16 year olds. It was brilliant fun actually, we sung songs ('row your boat' and 'im a little teapot' featured heavily) made up dances, named animals, talked about where they live and how they are spelled, and tried to explain why we were at the centre and what we do there. (it definitely helped that we had had that talk yesterday!) We ate lunch with the english teachers and it was really interesting to see the differences between the schools here and back home. For one thing, the kids are so polite. They stare at you and giggle and get shy, but they join in wholeheartedly and listen when spoken to, and dont whisper or anything. Could you imagine getting a bunch of western teenagers to sing songs and do silly dances in front of one another!?! The teacher is really really respected here and learning is fun for them. Kids in Thailand are supposed to study til about 14 or 15, but its not enforced. IF you need to help your parents in the home, you do, so a lot leave school at 10!! A lot of girls get engaged at 15 and so leave school then also. Country kids dont pay for education but in the cities they do. IT was such a wonderful experience to see the schools and meet the children, i really enjoyed myself. They had a "welcoming ceremony" and a 'closing ceremony' for us, they all wanted our autographs and to know if we had boyfriends or girlfriends (three of us went), it was like being a celebrity! The thai kids look really young, they are a lot smaller than Western kids and none of the girls wear make up and they pride themselves on their appearance. Despite the poverty of the village and area we are in, they are neat as a new pin. I dont know how they keep their hands and feet so clean since there are no hand baisins (thank god for hand sanitizers) and theres so much dust that your feet get filthy in an instant. I was really embarrassed at the state of mine, but it doesnt seem to cling to them the way it does us! They dont get bitten by mozzies either!!
Well, tonight is my last night and if I can find a shop that burns CDs, I shall copy all my photos onto one and upload it onto this site. I have really enjoyed my time here and I feel like I have learned a lot. I have also met a massive range of people, some I shall keep in touch with, some I will cross the road to avoid if I ever see them in future! Tomorrow I will make the 3 hour journey back to Bangkok by bus. I saw most everything I wanted to see there last time, so I think ill spend the weekend relaxing before heading to the madness of Vietnam. I do however want to see the Pingpong girls, so maybe this weekend, or maybe when I meet Reuben (we are spending a week in the thai islands before heading back to the US for him and Peru for me!)