Ready for the fall

It's been a little while since I concluded my series on my year of living in Chiang Mai. I hadn't planned on taking a break from posting on here after I finished that, but it appears to have been a good time for a break. Writing that series helped me get closure on a lot of things that happened during my first 12 months in Thailand, appreciate everything I've had here and cleared some mental space for what's next.

I went into the last full month of the summer somewhat uncertain of what the rest of my year would look like, but knowing I was feeling restless and ready for some changes. Since turning 28 in April, I have noticed an underlying sense of...urgency, perhaps, to figure out what comes next, a feeling that I've entered a new stage of my life.

Birthdays have never freaked me out; I never fretted about turning a year older. After all, another year on the planet seems a cause for great celebration, not despair. But 28 did freak me out. It's close to 30. It's firmly in the late 20s. Suddenly things that I used to put on the mental backburner seemed much more urgent and important: my health and overall well-being and what I was doing (or not doing) to maintain it; my finances; my professional ambitions; long-term goals for a romantic relationship and starting a family.

Earlier this year there was a lot of buzz about Meg Jay's TED Talk on Why 30 is Not the New 20. While watching it, I had a moment of fleeting panic - what if I've wasted my 20s? What if I've gotten everything wrong?

The panic subsided when I evaluated just what I've been doing for the past eight years of my life, and considered the investments I've made in myself. I graduated from college and grad school, gained valuable professional experience working at a newspaper and freelancing for reputable publications, traveled, evaluated long-held biases and embarked on a path of learning about people and the world that has changed my life.

Most importantly, I have invested in self-growth and development, which has changed the way I see myself, solidified my values and laid the groundwork for the types of enriching, supportive, healthy relationships I want to maintain and cultivate.

So all of that is great, and I'm thankful for the experiences I've had up to this point. It's been an incredible ride so far.

But that doesn't mean that there isn't room for growth (isn't there always?) and that it's not worth asking questions about what comes next, where I want to live and travel, whether my priorities are shifting and if so, what are they, where do I want to be focusing my energy going forward.

I still haven't answered all of those questions for myself, but some priorities have become clear. The top priority is my overall health and well-being. Once I started reading seriously about fitness and nutrition, I was alarmed to realize how much of my diet and lack of exercise were likely exacerbating my feelings of anxiety and depression. I won't go into all the gory details here, but suffice it to say that some changes needed to be made.

This is an ongoing journey for me, but an important one, so vital to making real progress in any other area.

I'm not sure what the future of my work life is and for the first time, that excites rather than terrifies me. I love writing and will focus on creating a body of work I'm proud of, though I am eager to learn new skills, such as design, that will allow me to do more professionally and creatively. I'm excited to think beyond my self-imposed constraints of “I'm a writer and that's it; that's all I will ever be” and see where that takes me.

I'm also not sure where I will live next, though I have some ideas in mind and all of them have some great potential benefits. In the meantime, I've continued hanging out in Chiang Mai and have decided to visit America this fall.

It will be the first time I've been back since I moved to South Korea, and I am deliriously thrilled to have booked the trip. For a long time, the prospect of visiting the States seemed daunting for a number of reasons, not the least of which was how much I've changed and how much my relationships with people there have changed.

But I've wanted to go back for a visit for awhile now, and decided that this fall would be the time to do it. The idea had been there for months, and then one night, I found an incredible deal on a flight and took the plunge. I expected some waves of anxiety or a feeling of “What the frell did I just do?!” but to my pleasant surprise, all I felt for the first week after booking the ticket was elated.

The response I got from people when I told them I was coming to visit was so warm and enthusiastic, it was impossible not to get swept up in the moment. I felt totally at peace with the decision, and genuinely happy to plan for the visit.

I fly out a month from today and will be there six weeks. It's a short trip for having been gone such a long time, but I'm going to make the most of it. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone, to visiting some of my favorite places in the States and to spending some time in cities I've never visited before.

I planned the trip for October in part because that is my favorite month and I have missed autumn in America something fierce. I'll get to enjoy all the fall colors and the pumpkin and apple treat goodness for the first time in three years. To say I'm looking forward to that would be an understatement.

Oh and the food...I'm already fantasizing about the food.

It will be an emotional trip, I have no doubt. I also think it will be an opportunity for me to reflect on where I want to live next, what I want out of my lifestyle and what I'll do in the coming year. There are some trips that I just know are going to be great opportunities for growth, which adds to the excitement and eager anticipation. This is certainly one of them.

2013 has been interesting so far, with many highs and some lows. But fall has always been my favorite season, and I'm going into this one looking forward to some wonderful things.

As far as Spinning Free goes, I'll be posting more frequently, and am working on moving the blog to a new platform that I think will give it a more elegant, enjoyable look. I hope to have that ready to roll out in a week and look forward to sharing it.

A year worth celebrating

This is the fifth and final post in my Unexpected Year in Thailand series. To read the other posts in the series, click here It is now exactly one year since I arrived sweaty, tired and elated in Thailand, not knowing that I would spend the next year of my life in Chiang Mai.

Even having looked back and seen my struggles with depression and anxiety during the past year, I find that what I feel more than anything else is gratitude for all I've experienced in these 12 months. Playing in the world's biggest water fight, releasing lanterns at the Yi Peng ceremony, sleeping in a bamboo hut in a hill tribe village in the mountains, volunteering with elephants, hanging out with friends at a (vegetarian) piranha fishing resort, interviewing a world-class chef in Bangkok. The list goes on and I know years from now, I will still treasure those experiences and what they taught me.

But most of all, I will treasure the people with whom I've shared those experiences. I've written a lot about the negatives and how badly I felt before I came to Chiang Mai. But to close out this month of reflection and this month of blog posts about this year in Thailand, I want to talk about the people I've met here and who are so important to me.

Back in September, when I found out my friends Will and Skeeter were planning to come back to Chiang Mai as well, I was stoked. Skeet was heading back to the States in October so I knew he'd only be here a short time (he has since returned to Chiang Mai with his partner - I'm telling you, this place has a way of getting under your skin) but Will was also planning to go back to Beijing. We figured we'd hang out in Chiang Mai for a little while and then head to China, just in time for a bitter cold winter.

But then people started giving us all of these reasons to stay: "You can't miss the Yi Peng festival or Loy Krathong; people come from all over the world for those!" and "The winter months are the best time to be in Thailand; not humid, not rainy, just perfect weather!" (This was quite a selling point for someone like me, who hates the cold.)

The real reasons to stay, it turned out, would be our friends. When I arrived in Thailand last summer on a quest to get my head on straight, I didn't expect that the journey would be aided by other people. I already had good friends in China and the States; I didn't expect or think I needed to make close friends in Thailand. I thought I'd find maybe a few interesting travel companions at best.

I don't believe in God or fate or destiny, but I believe deeply in the power of the unconscious and its intuition for what we need in order to heal ourselves and grow. I needed Thailand. I needed Chiang Mai. I needed a space to break down, really break down, to be afraid, to face my fears, to be sick, to be sad, to grieve. I needed that so much more than I realized, which is something I was unwilling to accept or see clearly until recently.

I needed to allow myself to be happy and appreciate the beauty in the world, too,  and to really, fully enjoy being healthy and alive and engaged. And I also really needed friends and love and compassion; I needed to receive those things and to give them. And I had that, in an abundance that humbles me and makes me grateful in ways I'm not sure I’ll ever be able to fully express.

There are so many people I've met in Chiang Mai who have inspired me, impressed me, given me much to think about and been a pleasure to know. But there are a few in particular who I now count among the dearest in my life, and who I hope to know for many years to come.

Will has been my closest friend for several years now, and this whole Chiang Mai experience - the good, the bad, and the outrageous - would certainly have been less exciting and less enriching without him. He's a better friend than even he probably realizes, is one of the most genuine, smart, thoughtful and inspiring people I know, and a fantastic human being.

Ruby, Mika and Hilary - affectionately known as my biscuit sisters - will forever be woven into the fabric of who I am. Ruby, who taught me the meaning of Minnesota nice and who delivers even the harshest truths with love and support; Mika, who inspires me with her willingness to defy conventions and her passion for the oppressed; and Hilary, who I knew was a kindred spirit from our first meeting, when we talked religion, corporate America, writing and a million other things over beers.

There have been so many smart, interesting, passionate, kind women I've met here - Kailyn, who reminded me constantly to be generous and nice simply by so embodying those qualities herself; Sarah, whose effervescent personality and willingness to be unique and embrace the world (not to mention amazing dance skills) made me want to let loose and enjoy life more, too; Alyse, who is friendly, giving and game for a laugh no matter what else is going on; Jules, Laura, Agnes, and so many others who touched my heart and who I'm so glad to know.

Before I came to Chiang Mai, it had been a long time since I had had a close group of girlfriends and here, I was fortunate enough to become friends with a group of women who are all passionate, hilarious and warm. They reminded me of how vital it is to have a community of women you can relate to, cry to, and with whom you can drink copious amounts of wine and just really be yourself - scars, mistakes, dreams and all.

The men I know here are wonderful as well. In contrast to the stereotypes put forward about men's inability to emote and empathize (which I disagree with, by the way), Neil and Rob are both sensitive, compassionate, intelligent, well-read and also hilarious. Neil's earnestness and integrity, and Rob's candor and unique sense of humor make them both so much fun to be around. The romantic relationships between Neil and Mika and Rob and Hilary have taught me a great deal about relationships, and inspired me in their closeness, intimacy, and honesty.

Skeet and his partner, Ally, came back to Chiang Mai later than everyone else, but it has been great having them here, too. I have long been impressed by Skeeter's talent, creativity and passion for music, and his commitment to being a good person and standing up for what he believes is right. Ally continually reminds me to question my own biases, to consider the other side of the story or argument, and to be just in my considerations, an area that remains a challenge for me - but a worthwhile one.

Then there are May and Num, the wonderful people who run the guest house where so many of my friends and I have lived. They have really made Chiang Mai a home and made the place where we live somewhere special.

And there are so many others I haven't mentioned who have made this experience as great as it has been. Together, these people have taught me so much about relationships, honesty, bravery and about the world, and I only hope to be able to return the favor. And they have made me laugh, endlessly, which is such a gift in and of itself. It is a privilege to know each one of them.

A special bond developed among our group and while many have left Thailand to travel to new places and start new chapters, we'll always have Chiang Mai, and the hopeful plans to reunite and be part of each other's lives in another part of the world.

When I stop to think about all of the special occasions, the hangouts, the jokes, the stories, the experiences I have shared with the friends I've met in Chiang Mai, I feel overwhelmed by a sense of love and gratitude.

To commemorate this year in Chiang Mai, I decided to make a short video with some highlights of the time I've spent here. The music is "Safe & Sound" by Capital Cities. I chose this song because while listening to it one day, I thought, This is exactly how I feel about our Chiang Mai crew.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A08Y0tKXBg4?feature=player_detailpage]

I'm not sure where I'll head after Chiang Mai or when exactly I'll go just yet, but I do know that I will always look back on this time as being among the most special in my life, and will be so grateful to have lived in this special place with such wonderful people.

How Thailand taught me to be generous again

This is the fourth post in my Unexpected Year in Thailand series. To read the earlier posts, click here About two months ago, I was talking to a friend about feeling like I was in a transition period in terms of my professional life. I was trying to decide what types of stories I want to be writing, the type of work I want to be doing, and mapping out my goals for the rest of this year and beyond. A few days later, this friend sent me a link to "The Desire Map", a book by Danielle LaPorte.

Admittedly, some might read that title and roll their eyes, writing it off as New Age-y fluff about living your best life. And sure, there are some things in there that don't resonate with me, like aligning your chakras. But there is also a lot I have found quite helpful, not the least of which are suggestions for shifting your perspective from bitterness and negativity to one that brings your outlook into alignment with your desire to be happy and fulfilled.

LaPorte invites readers to identify their Core Desired Feelings, or CDFs. These are what you want to feel regularly in your life and can include everything from happy to sexy to wealthy to inspired - pretty much anything you can think of.

So I considered my own CDFs, and came up with a list that included happy, abundant, safe, debt-free, creative, loved and loving, and a range of other words. But the one that really stood out to me was generosity.

I've always considered myself a reasonably generous person. I enjoy buying gifts for people I love, I like doing things to brighten their day, and am usually happy to help a friend in need, whether that's with money or time or some other type of assistance. One thing I don't ever want to be considered is miserly.

But this past spring and early summer, I started to feel...well, like a miser. Not only when it came to money, but when it came to my time, patience, empathy, compassion. I found myself getting impatient with people, and with myself. And I stressed out more when lending people money, or covering a dinner here and there.

To put this in context, my year got off to a pretty rough financial start. I was robbed on New Year's Day, and had to spend money I had saved to cover my living expenses replacing some of what I had lost.

So that sucked. But it wasn't the end of the world. I knew I'd get back on my feet and that the whole episode would just be a good story.

But getting back on my feet was harder than I thought it would be, and I started to feel badly about myself. I kind of got stuck in a rut when it came to work and my finances, and those negative feelings made me crabby about other things more often than I would have liked. I was aggravated that I felt I always had to monitor my bank account, annoyed with myself for not making more money faster, and then even more annoyed with myself for not doing something to stem the tide of frustration I was feeling in general. This was all exacerbated by the fact that I was trying to decide where in the world to move next and what I wanted to do creatively - which are really exciting decisions to make, by the way. But I was blinded by my crabbiness and negativity and saw all these opportunities for growth as added stressors.

I really wanted that outlook to change. The negative thought spiral was hampering my creativity and drive, and I'm smart enough to know that you have to step out of that cycle and get some perspective in order to move forward.

So one afternoon, I took myself to lunch and went shopping for art supplies, deciding I'd try a new creative outlet. I read some of "The Desire Map" during lunch, and found that one passage in particular really resonated with me.

LaPorte wrote, "In the toughest of moments, what makes me feel better is thinking about my core desired feelings." Instead of staying stuck in a negative thought pattern, she reflects on the way she would prefer to feel in that moment. This helps her make choices that will bring on those feelings, rather than just bitching about how bad things are.

I loved this idea. I like to think I'm generally a happy person, but I have been known to latch onto a bad mood or a grudge, sit down in it and refuse to move for long past the sulking expiration date.

I decided to try LaPorte's tactic that afternoon. Rather than stress out about the cost of my lunch, I thought, "I desire feelings of generosity and gratitude, and a sense of abundance." I didn't want to be miserly with myself, or with other people. I wanted to do good things for myself, and feel positively about that, not go stare at the numbers in my bank account and raise my blood pressure by berating myself for spending $5 on lunch.

Armed with this consciousness of my desires, I set off to finish up some last-minute errands. It was hot and I was tired after eating, and annoyed that I couldn't easily locate the local post office. But I was determined to not get cranky. For every negative thought: "It's hot out", "I have work to do and this is taking forever", "Who insists on mailing hard copies of documents anyway?", I recognized those complaints but then countered with some gratitude. "I'm grateful I'm healthy enough to walk around and run these errands without assistance", "There's plenty of time to get things done today; I'm not on deadline"; "I'm excited to be working with this new client, so it's a positive that I need to go to the post office at all."

Surprisingly, this actually helped. And the more I was able to shift my mood, the more goodness I began to notice. I was grateful for the generosity of the cashier at 7-11, who not only gave me directions to the post office but walked me there herself and translated my request to the clerk who mailed the documents. I found myself feeling increasingly grateful to be in Chiang Mai at all, and reflecting on the many times people in the city had shown me kindness and generosity, even though they didn't know me.

When I arrived home to the guest house where I'm living later that afternoon, I found several friends and fellow residents gathered around a table on the porch, sharing food. They invited me to join them and before I knew it, I had a full plate of food, a glass of whiskey and a shot of some other type of alcohol that had been fermenting for a year and had just been opened by one of the guest house owners. He and one of the other men encouraged everyone to eat and drink, making sure we all had enough or did not go wanting.

Here, I thought, are abundance, generosity and so many things to be grateful for.

For the first time in awhile, I made myself sit down and relax and socialize in the middle of the afternoon, rather than rush to my room to get back to work. I enjoyed the food and the company and the warm, breezy weather. And I allowed myself to really reflect on all I had to be grateful for, and be thankful that I was in Thailand, among friends, surrounded by people who were willing to give and share what they had.

And I considered all of the people I have had the opportunity to meet this past year, all of the strangers who have shown me kindnesses, and the friends who have been generous with their time and patience, and with sharing their own stories with me. I'm not saying money isn't important or isn't helpful, but I think it's easy during lean months to get caught in a web of scarcity and forget that abundance and generosity aren't only the products of financial wealth.

I've been trying to be more conscious of when my thoughts and feelings turn toward annoyance, frustration, impatience and this overall sense of being in scarcity mode. And I try to shift out of that now by doing something for someone else, or treating myself to a massage or just thinking about what I could be grateful for in the situation. It usually does help and has made me appreciate all the positives in my life, rather than living in the negatives.

photo (1)

One last chance, this world is gonna pull through

The Buddhist New Year festival, Songkran, was celebrated in Thailand this past weekend. It's the biggest festival of the year and the celebrations go on for at least three days. These celebrations are not your average holiday festivities, however. Songkran is a massive, multi-day, city-wide water fight. Everyone buys water guns and buckets and plays outside for three days, the only goal being to soak everyone who passes you as much as humanly possible. It's quite possibly the greatest holiday in the world.

Thapae Gate

Friends who had been in Chiang Mai for the holiday before had been telling stories for months, getting the Songkran newbs pumped for what promised to be the most epic waterfight we had ever seen.

I marveled at the stories; I watched the videos; I saw the pictures. I was not prepared for all that is Songkran.

Thapae party

The day before the holiday officially began, people were already lining the streets with Super Soaker knock-offs, PVC pipe syringes, buckets and hoses, ready to take down anyone who crossed their paths. Street vendors lined Chiang Mai's famous moat selling sausages, sweet corn, spring rolls, water and beer.

My friends and I donned t-shirts we had made for our crew, the Songlorious Basterds, and spent a wonderful pre-Songkran afternoon eating home cooked Thai food and drinking Sangsom, a sweet Thai whiskey, in between bouts of unleashing hell on every passerby who dared walk past our guest house.

Songlorious Basterds

Already, the holiday was off to a glorious start. But even that didn't prepare me for the real deal.

In some ways, words fail me when I try to describe Songkran. On the first full day of the festival, we took to the streets and found the best party you could ever imagine: an entire city playing, eating, drinking and dancing in the sunshine. It's absolute mayhem and you can't walk two feet without getting soaked to the bone. There's no place for vanity or reservation. You simply jump into the fray and enjoy.

Swimming in the moat

Celebrating Songkran in Chiang Mai was, without exggeration, one of the most wonderful experiences I have had since moving overseas. There were many times when I couldn't stop smiling from the sheer joy I felt at being there, and being surrounded by friends and a city full of people in celebration.

There were countless instances and interactions that made me smile or laugh out loud: getting covered with foam and dancing in front of Thapae Gate, having children smear talc on my face to stave off the heat, being beckoned by a laughing old woman eager to throw her bucket of freezing water on me. But I will never forget the way I felt on the first day of Songkran.

Songkran child

The water symbolizes a time of cleanse and renewal at the start of the new year, which is why it factors so prominently into the celebrations. On Saturday afternoon, the first day of the festival, rain clouds rolled over the steaming hot and already drenched city. People had been in the streets all day, blasting each other with water guns, dumping buckets of ice water on each other's heads, clinking cans of warm Chang beer in a toast to the new year. But then the sky opened up, punctuating what had already been a perfect day.

If I was Buddhist, or religious in any way, I would have taken the rain as a sign from God that the coming year was a blessed one. Instead, I stood there in the middle of the street, arms wrapped around my friends as we laughed and hugged one another and I was grateful that I, and they, are alive.

Foam party

That's the kind of celebration Songkran is. The generosity of spirit, the abundance of people and food and drink and water and music - it makes you happy to be alive. And when you're dancing to Bruce Springsteen in the middle of a reggae bar, sopping wet and surrounded by people who are just so damn happy they could burst, you can't help but love them.

And when you start teaming up with Thai kids to attack trucks full of people with squirt guns and buckets, and see groups of strangers helping a drunk old man who's done a little too much celebrating for the afternoon, you can't help but really like human beings as a species. And when you watch a little girl celebrate her first Songkran with shrieks of delight and demands to be doused in water, you want to cry a little out of happiness because it's moments like those that make you think that maybe humanity does deserve to exist.

Songkran trucks

Songkran is the sort of holiday that helps you continue to believe that people are good, even when you wake up the morning after it to the news that people were murdered and maimed at the Boston marathon and that 55 others were killed in Iraq on the same day. Yesterday morning, when I read about this wave of horrors, I held on to the memory of Songkran. Seeing people in such a pure, happy state, in a communal moment of joy, sharing and celebration ... I have to keep that in mind in the face of senseless tragedy, and believe that decency will eventually triumph.

Thanks to Will Moyer, Joshua Du Chene and Agnes Wdowik for the photos.

A week with the elephants

If there was one thing I was going to do when I arrived in Chiang Mai for the first time, back in March of this year, it was ride an elephant. Vain visions of myself communing with nature while riding atop a massive elephant as we ambled through the Thai jungle had been playing in my mind for weeks. And there are plenty of companies here that would have been willing to help me make that dream a reality. You can’t walk two feet in Chiang Mai’s Old City without seeing company posters promising a life-changing experience trekking through the jungle on an elephant’s back. As it turned out, I would have a life-changing experience with elephants in Chiang Mai, but it would not be quite the one I had expected. When a fellow traveler at a Couchsurfing meet-up mentioned he had heard that many of the elephants at trekking camps are treated badly, I began to rethink my plans. I had never been what anyone would call an animal rights activist, but I also wouldn’t go out of my way to hurt one or support cruelty. This same person told me about the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary about an hour and a half outside of Chiang Mai. There was no riding there, he said, but volunteers and visitors did get to feed and bathe the animals.

Mae Kham Geow

Good enough for me. A week or so later, two friends and I boarded a minivan to the Mae Taeng Valley to explore this Elephant Nature Park. By lunchtime, I was so impressed by the work being done there, I promised myself that should I ever find myself in Northern Thailand again, I would come back to this place to volunteer.

Three months later, back in Beijing, I made a 4 a.m. decision to take a China break and return to Chiang Mai for a few months. My volunteer application to the ENP was submitted before I had even booked my flight.

A home for the elephants

The ENP sits on a large plot of land in the Mae Taeng Valley. Lush green mountains surround the park on all sides and a cool brown river divides it from a nearby village. Elephants roam the grounds, playing in the water, chewing stalks of bamboo and occasionally chasing down a baby elephant who's wandered too far from the herd. Without exaggeration, this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.

Nearly all of the 33 elephants here have been rescued from logging or tourist camps. Only four - Hope, Tong Suk, Chong Yim and Faa Mai, who have been raised at the park - have not been subjected to a brutal, barbaric practice known as the pajaan. This ancient custom is used to break young elephant’s spirits until they are submissive to their owners’ demands. Liz at the blog Gentle Living gives a good description of this disgusting practice and its purposes. Many of the older elephants at the park have been beaten, overworked, and in some cases made to participate in forced breeding programs. One female, Medo, had her hip broken when a bull mounted her during a forced breeding session. Between that and a broken leg suffered while working in a camp, it’s a wonder she can still walk at all. Sadly, most of the elephants here have similar stories.

Medo

The ENP was founded by a petite and courageous woman named Lek Chailert, who has devoted her life to saving elephants in Thailand and throughout Asia. She has faced down the Thai government, disgruntled peers, and even her own family in order to protect her herd and raise awareness about the plight of the endangered Asian elephant. For someone who has been profiled by TIME magazine and was recently named Thailand’s Woman of the Year, she is impressively unassuming, friendly and down-to-earth.

Meeting Lek and watching her comfort beautiful Faa Mai, a baby girl elephant who was crankily adjusting to no longer being able to feed from her mother’s milk, was one of the most amazing moments I have witnessed between a human and an animal. Lek can walk among these massive beasts without fear because they love her and respond to her in a way they don’t to anyone else. I have never seen anyone exhibit the kindness and patience she shows not only to the herd, but to the nearly 300 rescued dogs who also live at the park. Many of those are street dogs rescued by Lek and her crew from likely death during the Bangkok floods of 2011.

Faa Mai and Lek

I arrived at the ENP as a weeklong volunteer the last Monday in August. One of about 20 volunteers who arrived that day, I was riding a high of excitement at being back at this beautiful place, though I had little idea of what to expect in the days to come.

The life of a volunteer

When I first signed on to volunteer at the park, I expected it to be hard work but wasn’t quite sure how hard. As I imagine many would-be volunteers do, I had visions of bonding with elephants, spending hours lovingly attending to their needs.

I realized early on that volunteering would not mean hanging with the eles from morning until night. The elephants each have a mahout, or trainer, who is with them the entire day. They see to the elephants’ needs and in most cases develop a deep bond with them. Even when visitors are feeding and bathing the elephants, the mahouts are never more than a few feet away.

Sunset at ENP

The work we did as volunteers was harder than I anticipated. As someone who spends the vast majority of my work days sitting in a coffee shop working on my laptop, I don’t have a ton of experience with manual labor, and don’t have a particularly strong inclination to do it again. Planting jackfruit trees on a mountainside sounds like much more of a lark than it actually is, especially when you’re doing it in near 100-degree heat.

Of course there were moments when unloading pick-up trucks of fruit for the elephants, painting walls and shoveling remarkably large piles of elephant dung lost its charm and I started to lose my patience. The work was hot and tiring but after allowing myself a brief internal bitch session, I decided it was time to change my attitude.

I reminded myself that I came here to help the elephants in whatever capacity I was needed. I came because I was inspired by their stories, humbled by their resilience, and wanted to do something for them. The way I could do that was by planting trees, washing pumpkins and shoveling poop. I didn’t want to waste any of the time I had there being crabby; rather, I wanted to appreciate every moment I had at the park.

The most beautiful boys: Hope and Tong Suk

Were I to choose one highlight of the week, it would undoubtedly be a morning walk I took with Jodi, a long-time volunteer. Our walk ended up being mostly an extended conversation while observing Tong Suk, a young bull with a strong personality.

Tong Suk is magnificent. There is no better word to describe him. Others apply, certainly: young, ornery, strong, proud. But none suits him better than magnificent.

Because Tong Suk has never been through the pajaan, has never felt the end of a hook or nail gouge his thick but sensitive skin, he is fiercely independent and strong-willed. He is as close as it comes to a wild elephant in captivity at this park.

Hope and Tong Suk

Because he is wilder than the other elephants, and because of his gorgeous but deadly tusks, visitors do not spend much time around Tong Suk and he doesn’t join the other members of the herd for bath time at the river. The family group, which includes the babies Faa Mai and Chong Yim, are fond of Tong Suk, however, and regularly pay him visits.

Since my first visit to the park back in March, I have admired Tong Suk from afar. Though I’ve heard affectionate stories about how he’s “naughty,” acting up when he’s in musth (a period elephant bulls go through during which they are particularly sexually aggressive), I always felt a particular fondness for him and for Hope, another young bull who was rescued from the jungle by Lek when he was a baby. My delight knew no bounds when Hope meandered over for some downtime with his friend and I had the chance to observe them together.

The two young bulls, who went through a competitive phase during which they were kept away from one another, have become friends during their adolescence. Watching them share food and wrap their trunks around one another was truly wonderful. That the elephants are capable of such great affection for one another and yet also possess such tremendous strength was humbling and inspiring.

Afterthoughts

My feelings about leaving the park at the end of the week were mixed. On the one hand, I had had my fill of manual work and was ready to return to Chiang Mai. On the other, I knew I would miss the elephants. Though they seemed even wilder and more mysterious when I left than when I arrived, I felt a great deal of respect for them.

Dogs

The work being done at the ENP is important. The Asian elephant population in Thailand is seriously endangered. The people at the ENP aren’t just rescuing elephants who have been abused, they are trying to educate local communities about alternative ways of training the animals, to prevent the abuse from even happening.

Again, I’ve never considered myself an animal rights activist, but it is impossible to leave this place without being moved. Once you’ve learned about the emotional intelligence of elephants, seen what they are capable of and also what many of them have been through, it’s difficult to not feel passionate about this cause. As long as there is a market for elephant riding, painting, dancing and performances, elephants will be captured and forced to work against their will. Getting to see an elephant up close and touch them is amazing, but the more I learned, the more I appreciated Lek’s dream of a place where elephants can roam freely and safely, without human interaction or fear.