Advice, Animal Rights, Family, Loss, Mental Health, Travel, Volunteer

Why I’ll Never Ride An Elephant

Dear Reader,

Tis my first post of 2017! My 1 woman trip to Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park was pure therapy.

1. Traveling Alone: Never Have I Ever

I never thought I’d like traveling alone. Who am I going to be loud with? When I think This looks like an edgy spot Lonely Planet hasn’t discovered, who’s going stop me? Dark alley. Not cool.

To anyone who’s nervous about a solo trip, just think: a machine levitates you into Smore-worthy clouds. By the time you’ve finished Mindy Kaling’s book, fully reclined your seat, and drooled all over your neck pillow…you’re in another world. MAGIC

2.The Elephant Nature Park Experience

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Brave One: Seal!

What You’ll Do

Schedule:

  • 6 am Breakfast
  • 8 am Work 1-2 hours
  • 11:30 am Lunch
  • 1:00 pm Work 1-2 Hours
  • 3:10 pm Elephant bathing/Free Time
  • 6 pm Dinner
  • 7 pm Ceremonies/Performances/Workshops/Free Time
  • Feed Elephants (They LOVE pumpkin and will reject not-so-juicy watermelon)
  • Bathe Elephants (Throw water on them from a safe distance, not into their eyes)
  • Scoop Poop
  • Cut Corn/Wash Watermelons
  • Shovel and sweep mountain to clear way for fire tracks
  • Group meetings to watch short elephant documentaries. Bring tissues.
  • Visit a local school: get your hair braided, drink iced cocoa lattes, jump rope
  • Free Time:
    • Walking handi-capped dogs
    • Assisting the vets
    • Listening to Lek, the founder, teach with love, not hate. Animal rights activists, please choose to educate instead of attack.
    • Waiting for Lek at her dinner table to profess admiration. Realize you’re sitting in her seat, next to her husband. Awkwardly leap to the other side. Turtle.
    • Tell Lek she needs a TED Talk. She’s already been approached. “Who’s Ted, anyways?” she asks. Laugh with the queen. #LekTalks.
    • Eat small donuts with huge bday candles.
    • Pick songs for Group C’s last night hurrah. Everyone loves Pony, especially Germans.
    • Pray for your family with new friends. Moment of silence cut short by trumpeting.

IMG_5341.JPGWhat To Bring:

  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses/Hat
  • Mosquito repellant( Miraculously, I didn’t get a single bite. Could be February. Or god)
  • Clothes you don’t mind getting dirty (they have a laundry service)
  • Long sleeves/pants/socks (cold at night!)
  • 1 pair of closed toe shoes
  • 1 pair of sandals/flip flops
  • Bathing suit to wear UNDER your clothes. Respect Thai traditions. Do not distract the mahouts(elephant guides). A Jumanji stampede is not worth your side boob.
  • $100-$200 spending cash for soda, alcohol, snacks, thai massages, souvenirs (Friendship bracelets, carved wooden elephants, tip generously)

What You’ll Eat

  • Buffet Style AMAZING Vegan Food
  • So FAHCKIN’ good they need an NYC lunch spot
  • So good they’re releasing a cookbook next year
  • So good I’m becoming a vegetarian. Live consciously. More clean, less death. Shoutouts CHolls&Stace&Steph.

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Accommodations

  • 2-3 people per room
  • Single beds with mosquito nets
  • Clean and spacious
  • Shared bathrooms and showers
  • Ours had a balcony overlooking the river
  • Optional: chubby cat/stealth door opener

Golden Rules Of Safety 

  • You are NOT an elephant whisperer. Maintain a respectful distance.
  • Each elephant is different. Some are NOT OK around humans or other animals.
  • Ask the mahout before feeding/touching/engaging
  • Do NOT stand directly in front of them.
  • Do NOT stand directly behind them.
  • Their trunks are extremely powerful. A small flip can send you flying.
  • Stay behind the red line
  • Listen to the staff. Watch Out means “Move away before you get popped like a prune”.

3. The Tale Of Lucky

Lucky loves his mom and his nanny. They tower over him, tickling his face with their trunks. Under the shade of a disappearing forest, they search for food. When vegetation ran out, they eat garbage left behind by humans. When garbage runs out, hunger drives them to stumble upon a farm. When night falls, they feast on sweet corn. Lucky, lulled by his family’s happy chewing sounds, drifts to sleep.

The darkness erupts. A piercing crack rings out. Human yells. Lucky’s mom screams. His nanny pushes him hard.RUN, little one, RUN! Lucky listens. He doesn’t see his nanny fall to the ground, nor his mom.

Days later, the locals find him. Lucky is caught between two trees. He’s starving, dehydrated, lost. He’s an orphan now.

The locals call Lek. She and her team bring food, medicine, transport but Lucky won’t let anyone near him. He refuses to eat. He cries for his family. Did you know elephants can die from heartbreak?

No one knows if Lucky will make it. Lek coaxes him with pumpkin, piece by piece. She sings him to sleep. Some days she passes out from exhaustion. One day, she wakes to the warmness of his trunk. Wake up. I’m hungry.  Lucky is healing.

What happens now?

  1. The locals let Lucky go. Either they cannot afford to keep him, or they understand the ethics involved. Lucky lives out the rest of his 60+ years in peace with the support of philanthropists like us.
  2. The locals ask for Lucky to be returned. They’ve lost time, labor, money due to destroyed crops. Their families need to eat. Debts must be repaid. Time to put Lucky to work.
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Navaan’s mom stepped on a landmine. Thank god for vet volunteers like Paige.

4.The Phajaan: The Crushing

When we see Lucky next, he’s all grown up. He carries us on his back. He paints for us. He performs tricks for our amusement. He walks down a crowded street, waving his trunk for bananas. What we see calm, obedient elephant. What you might miss is that the mahout still carries a bullhook.

None of these activities are natural or normal. How does one get a wild animal to obey?

***DISCLAIMER: This is graphic. I humbly ask you to read on.

There is an age-old tradition in Thailand called the Pajaan. Men tie ropes around Lucky’s neck, legs, trunk.  They shove him into a tiny corral. Imagine cramming a brick into a pencil case. From all sides, he is beaten with hooks. Blue-violet blood oozes out of his cuts. Lucky cries for his mom and his nanny.  He defecates from fear and anger. His eyes glaze over till you only see white.

This process will be repeated until the spirit is broken and an obedient elephant remains. Some don’t survive. 85% of the elephants arrive to ENP with mental health problems.

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Missing an ear. Cruelty is real.

5. How You Can Help: Do’s and Don’ts

Animal tourism puts food on the table for many locals. For change to happen, we need to 1. educate ourselves on better practices and 2. support a sustainable alternative. If we’re only willing to support ethical tourism, businesses will follow. Think SeaWorld’s stocks dropping post-Blackfish.

Education must come first. Laws are only half the battle. For example, once logging became illegal, elephants were either abandoned or put to work in tourism. When there’s no sustainable alternative, all animals suffer.

Do

  • Do your research. Find a reputable, ethical, sanctuary to visit and see for yourself
  • Do educate with love, not hate. Try “Hey did you know that…” rather than “What’s wrong with you…”
  • Do support conservation. Our time and money goes to buying food and medicine. ENP is also home to thousands of dogs and cats, a bunch of water buffalo and horses, and one crazy-ass goat.

Don’t

  • Don’t ride elephants
  • Don’t feed elephants off the street
  • Don’t buy products “made by” elephants. Paintings, etc
  • Don’t support festivals/parades with live elephants
  • Don’t visit the circus or zoos
  • Don’t attack others. Like Lek says, it’s very difficult to educate someone if you make them an enemy.
  • Don’t assume people know what’s going on behind closed doors. It took me 30 years.

6. Goodbye Grandpa

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While at the park, I got a voicemail from my sister. My grandpa passed the day after my 30th birthday. Before therapy, how would I have felt? Guilty. Overwhelmed. Out of control. How did I handle it last week? Terribly sad, but not guilty. I trusted my decision to be in a haven of healing. I recognized who could support me. I allowed myself to feel a spectrum of emotions. I laughed while shoveling elephant poop. I cried doing the same. I journaled, an exercise recommended by many therapists.

I channeled my grief into curiosity. I asked Lek about her grandpa, a shaman in a village of Northern Thailand. When she was 7, he gave her a gibbon to care for. Let’s call it Love.

“Do not name it. Do not hug it. Do not take it to your room,” he said. She did the exact opposite. When it was time to release Love, Lek begged her grandpa to keep it. He ignored her. “Love!” Lek cried out. The gibbon returned to her arms.

“You broke the rules,” her grandpa sighed. He sent her back to the village and freed Love alone. Lek refused to talk to him for months, believing him to be cruel. “I was wrong,” her voice now softens, “I’ve seen gibbons after too much human contact. They chew off their own legs.”

Remember: Love cannot grow in a cage. Release to nurture.

With truth,

writinginsoysauce

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Advice, Family, Mental Health, Travel

The Noonday Demon: Dear sister

Dear sister,

The scariest day of my life was neither earthquake nor pregnancy. It was when I received a message from your best friend on facebook.

On May 26, you showed up to work. You stopped talking. 911. The ambulance rushed you to New York Presbyterian. From Boston to Brooklyn, our parents drove through pitch black. You were sedated most of the month. When you were lucid, you did yoga. You sketched. Faces juxtaposed upon faces.

Dad sent me an email about praying. I had no idea he believed in god. You refused to take medication. Every second we waited, you were getting worse.

We had to go to court. The judge ruled that you had to take medication. When you got out of the hospital, your first request was a large cheese pizza. Hope.

Fear

At the airport, your hands trembled. At the restaurant, you walked out. Mom ran after you. Earlier that week, you had opened the passenger door while she was still driving.

On June 12, parallel to the Orlando shootings, I had a nightmare. We were on a plane. Sordid yellow, oxygen masks dangled. I screamed for you to wake up. But you didn’t. I awoke to a silver lining. That day, you put on a coral blue dress and pearls for some fine dining at Not Your Average Joe’s. Glow.

Come midnight, you stopped feeling good. You were shaking so hard you couldn’t put your sneakers on. ER.

The meds were too strong, but you had to keep taking them. I’m so glad you came home the next day. I’m so sorry it hurts.

Frustration

The hospital bills were astronomical, even with insurance. There was a minimum 8 week waitlist to see a doc near home. What happens to those who cannot afford to wait?

On sleepless nights, you came to my door, wiggling the handle, asking over and over: “Can I come in? What are you doing?” I had to lock it. You’d walk over to our brother’s room and do the same thing. Whether I was teaching, laughing, talking, you’d tell me to stop. I never knew if something I said would trigger you. I took phone calls outside.

It was extremely frustrating when you said and did inappropriate things. I worked out every day to keep calm. When I didn’t react, you’d turn to mom. You could always get a reaction out of her. It scared me to see you feed off that.

When you weren’t sleeping, you were eating. I know what it’s like to feel powerless over food. Eating when you’re bored. Eating when you’re anxious. Before Ecuador, I tried to force myself to throw up. I’m lucky I stopped. For so many, it’s a life long struggle.

Change

While the rest of the family tries to change your behavior, I know it won’t make a difference.  You cannot force someone to heal. Mom worries. Dad lectures. Alex tells you to get off your ass. I want to tell them to leave you alone: “Can’t you see she’s depressed?”

But I don’t. I am also recovering from my codependency. I cannot control, fix, save others. I can only offer my unconditional love and support.

What can I do?

I use every tool I learned in therapy. I accept others as they are and build a fortress of solitude around my heart. When it’s too much, I make my muscles scream so I don’t have to.

During my cool downs, I think of our New York moments: your sharp, dry humor that makes me eyes rain. Tuesdays with Sherry.

What Would Nandy Drew Do?

I rummage through your room. Your shelves are stacked with LSATs when you were so determined to become a lawyer. “Drawn Out” shows hellish sketches by a man who lost his dad at a young age. He drowned himself in sex, drugs, rock n roll. When he finally sought a psychiatrist, he discovered he’d been reenacting a “living death”. 40 years old. Illumination. I know you’ll find your lightbulb.

Still, the million dollar question remains: What happened?

There’s no easy answer. Here is my educated guess. Only you, mei mei, can discover the rest.

You were 16 when you stopped talking to dad for a month. 6 years later, you stopped talking at work. Since graduation, you’ve felt pressure to figure out your life. Worked multiple jobs. Said yes when you felt no. Your law office boss made you her personal assistant and punching bag. “She says one thing, but means another.” A sense of inadequacy amplified. Great bosses are rare. Horrible bosses abound. Not only is their behavior is accepted, but promoted. We know the world does not operate on fairness: see season finale Game Of Thrones. Sometimes it’s good to be a quitter.

In the media, whenever something terrible happens, family and friends are shocked, “we didn’t see this coming.” Kill my cynicism. You don’t know til it happens to you. Any questions about whether this is an illness have been erased. It is a cancer of the mind. It is every bit as deadly. “Do you have any family history of this?” the doctor asked. Our parents were confounded. We don’t know what it looks like because it hides in plain sight. Remember when Nai Nai would talk to herself for hours? Her moods fluctuated at lightning speed. When I lost track of time playing outside, she hurt me worse than dad. If there happened to be a romantic scene on TV, she’d turn it off. “Do not trust men,” she’d rage-rant.

I was 12 at the time. Grams is 82 now. She didn’t get a second chance. You do. I’ll be here.

Hope

On June 29, I dreamed of Mary Lynne for the first time in years. Dressed in white, we stood in the kitchen. “Sherry will be OK,” she held my hand. I got my visa to Korea the next morning.

She’s right. I’ve seen you get better. You show interest in life. You hang out with your friends. You got a job at the deli. You go to the gym.

We laugh now. We talk about boys. L said he prefers me paler so I wrote a mini-novel back, loosely titled, “Best love me no matter what color F@$%^&!” You offered sage like wisdom: “tell him you’d prefer him…bigger.” Turns out I misread his message. Glad I didn’t hit send. PMS is real. (L’s still the greatest)

We whatsapp while I’m on Seoul’s, clean-as-a-dream subway. Free wifi, shopping, food stalls, and public bathrooms. All underground. Welcome to the future.

You told me your greatest strength is courage. You told me your greatest weakness is fear.  I believe that words are strong, that they can overwhelm what we fear when fear seems more awful than life is good.

I love you. I’m proud of you. You are fighting the hardest fight of your life.

A fine line separates a fighter and a warrior. One is motivated by reason, the other by purpose. One fights to live, the other lives to fight.

You’re both.

writinginsoysauce

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