By Deb McGahie – Returning Teaching Intern
It took a village and its elephants to change my life forever….
Last year, I participated in a teaching internship program offered through the Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary. I spent a long time looking at similar programs, however KSES stood out above the rest. Sure, I’ll shamefully admit, that for a brief moment I was lured by the pictures of some of the other “so called sanctuaries” that showed volunteers lavishly swimming, bathing and sitting on top of the elephants wearing huge smiles and skimpy bathing suits. And other programs promising to turn you into mahout in just six weeks. Of course, it didn’t take long for me to recognize that these places were obvious tourist traps, and clearly NOT at all in the best interest of the elephants.
Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary was refreshingly different. I noticed right off that they were a newly established NGO (not for profit organization), cofounded by a young couple who were obviously passionate about elephants. Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary created a culturally rich, educational experience for guests and interns that supports and sustains the needs of the elephants, their mahouts, and the local community. This was eco-tourism at its best!
I posted my interest in participating in Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary’s teaching internship, to see if any “friends” were interested in partaking in such a program. At my surprise, my long (not so) lost college roommate (also a teacher) expressed interest in learning more. Although we had seen pictures from the KSES website, it was hard for us to truly imagine what life would be like during our stay. As two 55 year-old ladies, we questioned if we had the guts and fortitude to partake in such an adventure. We knew it would be rustic, and very different from the lifestyle we were accustomed to, but despite our trepidation we decided to make Ban NaKlang our home for 8 weeks. “You’ll never be any younger than you already are!”
Upon our arrival we were warmly greeted by the KSES staff, a band of village dogs, and some inquisitive onlookers of town-folk. I was escorted to my new home, bags in tow, and introduced to my new “home-stay” family. I was greeted by warmth and graciousness and made to feel at home immediately. Although I was halfway across the world away from my own loved ones, they quickly made me feel as if I was part of their life and family. The village was not lavish but it was abundantly rich in family values and culture. Neighbors were genuinely neighborly, and property lines just didn’t seem to exist. Everyone watches out for one another and children roam freely from house to house, giving true meaning to the saying “It takes a village…”
There was a tenderness between husbands and wives that’s hard to describe, but might best be seen as a gentle foot massage or back rub. Throughout my entire stay, I never witnessed an argument between spouses, or anyone ever yelling at their children. These are people who seem to live in the moment, and appreciate their lives and families. It was so refreshing to be part of such a beautiful community. Despite the fact that we did not share a common language with my “new family” we develop a friendship and bond that I forever will remember. “Love is a universal language”
Life on base with Kerri, Talia, and Darian (a research intern) was incredible. Here we were, (Anne and I ) two 55 year-olds, hanging out with some of the most amazing twenty-something year olds I’d ever met! Something magical happened to me while I was with them, my age felt irrelevant and almost nonexistent. As a mid-lifer, that is a wonderful feeling! “Age has no boundaries”. Some of the best memories from my experience at KSES were the times we just spent chatting, playing games, and watching movies and eating popcorn. These three young women were inspiring, fun, and beautiful inside and out, and will each hold a special place in my heart!
When I first met the elephants I broke down in a joyous sob! Having heard the story behind each of the elephants I was meeting only magnified the intensity of my emotion, as I met them up close and personal, living their lives happily in the forest. It was such a moving experience – too hard to find words to describe. Spending the following 8 weeks getting to know their individual personalities and nature was just amazing! “I LOVE ELEPHANTS!” Teaching English to students in a Thai school who speak their own Pakinyaw language was an incredible undertaking to say the least. However, it was great fun getting to know the children, and finding ways to help them understand and learn the English language.
There was great enthusiasm and laughter as we all struggled a bit through the process. Although the lives and culture of these beautiful children were so different, there were so many similarities to those I had taught back home. “Children are the same wherever you go!” So, when I was asked if I’d write a blog about why I decided to come back to the village again this year, well – I suspect the reasons are quite obvious! I am so excited to back in the village with my wonderful village family and friends.
There have been so many wonderful changes, and yet the same magic and authenticity exists. Thank you Kerri, Talia and Sombat for putting so much thought, care, and passion into your work and program!