An unexpected guest

Camp Kalahari is situated along the Makgadikgadi salt pans. It’s oppressively hot in the afternoons and even though we’ve come during the wet season, its seen no water for some time. In years past, the watering holes had run dry. This had forced the animals to travel further to survive. They’d come upon cattle, anger farmers by snacking, and get shot. Wanting to protect the wildlife, Botswana enacted a strict 6-yr ban on killing any wild animal. Farmers were at a loss, as government compensation for each cow eaten was not enough to cover the cost of a new cow. Man-made watering holes were the semi-successful solution to keeping the animals close.

Our camp has a small swimming pool, understandably mistaken for a watering hole by thirsty passerbys. We were told that animals would often wander in, but the combination of lions, overeager tourists, and the ban on firearms proved to be too much. An electric fence was installed around the camp a few years ago. Only the elephants have been smart enough to realize a little shock won’t actually kill. (In the defense of other animals, elephants are huge and for all we know, may barely feel the deterrent.)

The fence though, does not stop smaller animals from wandering in. On our last night in camp Kalahari, after our guide had safely walked us to our tent and we’d fallen asleep, I woke up to the sounds of an animal trying to get into our tent. Reasonably, I woke Andrew who just as reasonably told me to go back to sleep. He got up to use the bathroom, putting on his headlamp to navigate the zippers between our sleeping tent and the bathroom tent. “Oh, that’s unfortunate,” he says and comes back to me. “It’s actually in the tent.” I’m a bit panicked. “What? Is it a mouse?” “No, it’s a little bit bigger than a mouse.” The tent had been zipped and the hole between the ground and the end of the zipper couldn’t have been more than an inch or two of clearance. “So, like a squirrel?” I ask. “Yeah, maybe, if a squirrel was a little bit bigger.” For the rest of the night we hear this poor thing trying to escape, not sure how it got in, thrashing against the side of the tent.  We’d been given a box containing insect repellent and a bull horn to cry for help, but Andrew assured me it wasn’t necessary, so I instead used the box to barricade the opening to our tent.  I heard his little body slam against that too. Just before dawn, it found it’s way out. At breakfast Andrew described the critter to our guide. “Totally harmless,” he says. “It was a genet cat.” He pulls up a picture he had saved on his phone. Next time, we’re using the bullhorn.

Goodbye, Chiang Mai

I have been in and around Chiang Mai for about two weeks and am sad to leave but ready to move to my next destination.  Before leaving, there are a couple more sights, sounds, and smells that I want to experience.

At one stop in the Warorot Market, I have a chance to shop as the locals do. There are less wooden elephants, more practical items, and many fabrics. The colors coming from the fabric shops almost make me wish I know how to make something with it all; but instead, I am happy to realize that the clothing I already bought was sewn from those colorful rolls. When my feet began to tire, I take a break upon finding a stand selling sticky rice with mango, which I eat while watching a seemingly important Muay Thai boxing match on a television with other emotional locals. Rice, mango, Muay Thai, hot temperatures, humid weather, the smells of food from an open market, sights of cloth, and shops selling everything from kids toys to motorcycles made me feel like I am starting to better understand Chiang Mai.

Fabrics at Warorot Market

In addition, in my last 24 hours in Chiang Mai, I visit the Women’s Prison. Rumor has it that many of these women are being taught translatable skills that they can then use to get their lives back on track, and one of these skills is that of Thai massage. The money that the women earn while massaging gets put away and then is given back to them when they leave the prison as an aid in getting their lives restarted. Surprisingly, the atmosphere of this massage spa is one of the nicer I’ve experienced since away. Although the massage isn’t great, I am happy that I learned about the programs happening at the prison and had a chance to contribute a small amount while getting an extra massage in the process.

Lastly, I visit the Chiang Mai Zoo and Aquarium. The other visitors are mostly Bangkok tourists as becomes obvious when the tram driver only speaks in Thai. The zoo is a typical zoo, where the animals are placed in areas a bit too confined and many onlookers wait for the animals to do something spectacular like Mumble’s dance from Happy Feet. The Aquarium, on the other hand, I really enjoy from the fresh water tunnel to the obscure and beautiful sea creatures to the scuba diver feeding some of the larger fish. I also notice some fish, such as the stone fish and clown fish, that I had seen just several weeks ago while scuba diving in Bali. In the afternoon, sun turns to rain, everyone rushes for their cars and taxis, and back at the guest house, I do my last preparations before my sleeper bus.

Feeding at the aquarium

Stone Fish at Chiang Mai Aquarium

As with most places I’ve already visited, the people I met during these two weeks made the experience. These include the silent yet smiling other meditators at Doi Suthep, Aurelieu, my French friend, Beth, another meditator who I randomly ran into on the street after the retreat, Earl, a local from Chiang Mai, as well as those I had spent time with pre-monastery. I leave my second guest house, Grace House located on Soi 9 of the old city, watch out for any water-spraying Songkran celebrators, and make my way back to the bus station.

A Better Elephant Experience

bw elephant

Jokia was born in 1960 along the Thai-Burmese border. When she was younger, Jokia worked in the logging trade to support her tribal family. However, after the 1989 logging ban in Thailand, Jokia found herself unemployed. Being no longer useful to her tribe, they sold her to an illegal logging camp, after which she soon became pregnant. Working through her entire pregnancy, she gave birth while pulling a large log uphill and wearing heavy chains. The baby rolled down the hill behind her and she was not allowed to tend to her newborn. From the death of her new baby, Jokia was understandably depressed and refused to work despite physical threats. One such physical threat included being hit by a sling-shotted rock blinding her in one eye. She started working for a brief time before she hit her owner, who afterwards, completely blinded her by shooting her remaining eye with a bow and arrow. Now, unable to see, Jokia was forced back to work. When Sangduen “Lek” Chailert rescued Jokia in 1999, Lek found Jokia full of infected cuts and scars along with tears coming from her blinded eye and empty socket.

two elephants

The story of this elephant is only one of the 36 currently being supported by the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. The pasts of the others are equally tragic from being orphaned when only weeks old to stepping on forgotten land mines to being severely handicapped from being forced to mate when no longer useful. Lek Chailert, the Founder and Director of the Elephant Nature Park was born in the small hill tribe village of Baan Lao. She grew to love elephants when her grandfather received a baby one as payment for saving a man’s life, and now she has made it her life work to save as many of these sacred and revered animals that still remain.

elephant eye

Unfortunately, with these domesticated animals out of work and expensive to care for, their owners have started using them more and more in the tourism industry offering rides. My desire to go see Lek’s Elephant Nature Park came from my two-day trek when I saw how the elephants were treated. There were chains around their ankles and necks, their owners had hooks to stab them with, and many of their tusks were either missing or cut. In a country where no house, no restaurant, and no shop is complete without decorative elephants, I wanted a better elephant experience before leaving, and I found just that at the Elephant Nature Park. We fed the elephants, bathed the elephants, and learned about their complicated but rich history in Thailand.

elephant bath