Friday, April 7, 2017

Phuket Adventure, Part III


The next day, we headed to the sanctuary about 9:00. We met the two other volunteers for the week, Tate, and Lynn.

When we arrived, there was an elephant right there, munching on some grass beside the central pavilion. After much oohing and ahhing, we realized the other three were bathing in the pond beside the pavilion (more oohing and ahhing). We ate breakfast overlooking the pond, watching elephants take a morning swim.
This is Gaew Ta, the blind elephant.
The elephant sanctuary also does half-day tours, and so the first thing on our volunteering agenda was to participate in the tour. There were almost fifty people who showed up. First, we met the elephants and got to feed them a morning snack of fruit. Then, we were split into large groups, and followed the elephants around the grounds for several hours, learning about their stories, and watching them munch leaves, tear down bamboo, swim, and wander. The founders of the sanctuary stress that they want people to observe the elephants in their natural habitat - grazing, swimming, walking - and not doing any tricks or entertainment.

Feeding the elephants with the Day Trippers.

Headed out on their walk.

Getting into the pond very gingerly - you would, too, if you weighed 2 tons and were pushing 70.
There are four elephants, all rescued from either the entertainment business or the logging industry. Kannika is the youngest (thirty-three), but she is the boss. Dok Gaew, the “Grandmother” is sixty-eight; Madee is sixty. The fourth elephant, Gaew Ta, is blind, and Kannika does not let her join her, and the other two elephants, so she has to be led about on her own. All the elephants are led around by their Mahouts, who are like their nannies. The mahouts carry large bags of fruit (that each say "Ely Belly" on them!), guiding the elephants around from place to place.

Each elephant has their own personality – Kannika is sassy and does exactly what she wants to do (fortunately she has a mahout almost as sassy as she is). Dok Gaew is clearly very old, and takes all of her steps very gingerly. Madee is not quite as old as Dok Gaew, but still carries herself with the world-weary air of an elephant who has had a hard life. Both follow Kannika around from place to place – and Kannika takes care of them by tearing down the tender tops of bamboo shoots for everyone to enjoy a tasty snack. Gaew Ta is more cautious, understandably so because she is blind, but can find any outstretched banana quite well.

After an amazing lunch, we were given our first job: making rice and pellet balls. We were instructed to mash bananas, rice, mineral salt, and pumpkin together, and form them into balls. We then mashed bananas and some kind of pellet together, as well, also formed into balls. We became experts on this, as they had us do it every day. After making the balls, we were allowed to feed them to the elephants, who were in their enormous pens. It was phenomenal to be able to feed them without a huge crowd of tourists – or “daytrippers” as I started calling them – around. I fed Gaew Ta, the blind elephant, who still could find the handful of banana pellet balls that I held out to her. Her mahout stood by, keeping watch carefully as Gaew Ta is sometimes a bit fearful of humans, and sometimes in her efforts to locate food can swipe you with her trunk.

About to make the rice balls (this was on day three).

Nom noms...if you're an elephant or a toddler.

Rice Balls Team Photo. Photo Credit: Tate

Our next job was cleaning out the elephants’ pens. The elephants each have their own enormous pen, which needed some straightening up. The Mahouts took the elephants out for another walk – not before Kannika snuck up behind Tate when she was let out of her pen, and stole Dok Gaew’s last rice ball from the bucket. If you are asking yourself “How can a two-ton animal sneak up on someone?” the answer is: very stealthily indeed.

We raked up old pineapple tree-tops, and then replaced them with fresh pineapple tree-tops, which is part of their evening meal.

And we were done for the day. We headed back down to the central pavilion to wash up, and were driven back to the guesthouse for a quiet afternoon before dinner at a local restaurant with Si, and Niu

After dinner, Michelle bought six packs of cards at the 7-Eleven across the street, and we taught everyone how to play Nertz on the floor of Si’s bedroom, for lack of a table. Tate picked it up far too quickly and beat Michelle and I every time after the second round.

Not that I’m bitter about this or anything.

On Tuesday, it was the same as the first day – pick-up at 9:00 and breakfast. Our breakfast came with a bowl of rice, which told us we were probably going to be working harder.

And we did.

After the day trippers arrived, we made rice and pellet balls again, but saved them for later. Nong, the woman who gave us most of our tasks, led us to the elephant pens again. We were instructed to pile up the sand in the back of the pens as high as we could. Most of the elephants are very old, and they do not lay down to sleep, so they lean against the sand piles.

(What is it about making volunteers shovel sand? DA friends - remember the outreach to Thies back a thousand years ago [oh good grief - make that 17 years ago] where we moved a giant pile of sand?)

And so, we shoveled sand into higher piles all morning long. Our little group of volunteers ended up being a good combination – there was Lynn, an inquisitive Canadian woman spending three months in Southeast Asia, Tate, a thirty-something well-traveled American (he's even been to Hangzhou of all places!) who is spending the month in Thailand, Michelle, my friend and coworker who has never met a stranger, and of course, me – who admittedly takes a while to warm up to people, even if I instantly like them – but there’s nothing quite like shoveling sand in the hot, muggy sunshine to help shake a person’s reserve.

Shoveling in my chacos. 

Sandpile 4 of 5.

Little break.

Gaew Ta was brought back to her pen before the other elephants, and her mahout let us feed her a snack of bananas.

Our proudest work: this pile of sand was almost completely flattened.

It was hard work, but good work, and our lunch was well earned.

Oh – the lunches. They are amazing. The sanctuary prepares lunch for the “day trippers,” and as volunteers, it is part of the package. Imagine a delectable spread of Thai dishes – curries, vegetables, and fresh salads. Their slogan should be: Phuket Elephant Sanctuary: Come for the elephants – stay for the food.

After a leisurely lunch, we were tasked with feeding the elephants their afternoon rice pellets, and finishing up shoveling sand. We then helped clean up an area that had a lot of fallen bamboo (thanks to Kannika's handiwork) where Michelle's phone tragically fell into the stream. Fortunately, she was able to put it in rice almost immediately (however it won't charge at the moment). 

One thing I enjoyed about our volunteering is that though they do have work for us to do, and hard work, too, no one was a task-master, and we were given lots of time to sit, enjoy nature, enjoy the company, and enjoy the elephants. 

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