By Fiona Leake – 1 week volunteer
Having spent the last six months in China, most recently in a highly polluted one-shade-of-grey city during the dead of Winter, enjoying -2 degree weather, arriving in Thailand was a relief in and of itself. Little did I know the delight I was in for.
Don’t get me wrong, there are challenges involved, but nothing worth doing is entirely easy.
Bouncing about on the open back tray of a Hilux four wheel drive, myself, four other volunteers and the incomparable Project Assistant, Jade, headed five hours South East of Chaing Mai, finally turning down a rickety gravel road into a forest enshrouded village.
While relatively gregarious, I’m also an introvert, and I was exceptionally anxious about meeting people who have dedicated themselves to such a cause. Would they judge this now-city-bound, less than fit, often clumsy Aussie? All I can say, is that strangely, I seem to have found ‘my people’ in the most unlikely place of all.
The group of interns, volunteers and employees are so themselves, you can do nothing but feel at ease in being yourself and within moments believe you belong… that you are part of this project as much as any of them. From the vivacious Teaching Co-ordinator Bea, the dedicated and inspiring leader, Kerri, to Alex who exudes confidence and kindness while not a stranger to a good bit of banter, not to mention Jade (and I won’t), and all those in between… It’s a unique and special group of people that I will forever be grateful to have known.
I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, I was close to terrified about the hike… I’d spent a month scrambling to get as fit as I possibly could… but still, nightmares reared their ugly and vibrant heads where I was stranded in the forest, or worse… one of the locals would need to be called and I’d need to be carried back on some kind of bamboo apparatus!
Dawn is yet to crack and we are up. Heading out from your homestay with a quick “Da Blu” (hello) to the family and collecting a packed lunch you walk through the village, small fires burn and families surround enjoying their own morning meal. Chickens and roosters sprint infront of you as you make your way along the dusty dirt path and village puppies come out for a quick pat. “Da Blu”s come from left to right, and you sing back in greeting. The cattle are lying with half opened eyes and you come to the wobbly wooden bridge over a streaming river which connects the Base Camp of the project to the Village.
After breakfast, we collect the bananas as an enticement for the Elephants and with our Mahout (Elephant Whisperer and Mountaineer!) head toward the forest and fields beyond the village.
That morning light, how can I describe it? The soft light flickering on luscious leaves, the scent of green and manure and water and somehow… nature itself. Continuing on the well-trekked path, we snake our way alongside the river which now sparkles and shimmers, reflecting the rising sun. Birds in the distance delight most and cause Jade some frustration as she tries endlessly to classify the call without the fortune of seeing the creature.
The group chats comfortably until we meet the steep hills… I start planting my hands on my upper thighs in the hopes of pushing through the pain and making it to the top. Fortunately there are ‘water breaks’… which I suspect is more for breath catching of the less-fit amongst us, but I will remain silent in my gratitude.
Stumbling can be a common occurrence, being distracted as you pass rice fields, with a lone hut, the sun sending shadows of the trees creeping over the yellowing straw. Or coming upon ladies standing in the stream, brightly clothed, bending with baskets and scooping up tadpoles and fish for a later meal.
And up and down and up and (thank goodness!) down again… before you come to a stream… and a log. A wet log. A slippery looking log. Deciding to watch the more experienced of the group to identify the best crossing methodology and suddenly it is your turn to cross.
This is a rather specific example, my first hike there was a mahout at the ready to assist in said crossing, so please know you will be provided with all the assistance that you need… For me, ego overtook logic – which would have been to just take off my shoes and cross via the river bed.
I take the first step, all seems well, the bank is so close. The second step… my foot ignores my instructions and rather than hitting the centre of the log hits the side and within a blink of an eye, I’ve swivelled and butt-first fallen into the river with a smack and a splash and a lot of gasps from my rather concerned fellow hikers.
My take-away? Its all part of the adventure of this experience. You will get wet, you’ll get dirty, you’ll get cold and hot and then… you’ll be in the forest… and then… you’ll be with the Elephants.
That very first time, huffing and puffing and wiping sweat from your forehead, when those huge, majestic, placid and powerful beasts appear in the distance, the hike is worth it. The graceful wave of their trunk, the fan-like flap of their ears… and as you get closer making contact with those warm, considering, intelligent eyes.
To date, this has to be the most incredible experience of my life. While only having spent a week at the project I know I will be sad to leave. Sad to depart the forest, to not observe the elephants every day, sad not to walk through a village with all its vibrancy and authenticity… but to be completely honest? I’ll be most heartbroken to not enjoy the banter and comradery with the extraordinary people on this project.