I had the opportunity to participate in the Elephant Owner for a Day program at Patara in Chiang Mai. Elephants are one of my favorite animals because of how similar they are to people. They show emotion, they mourn the dead, they value community. In one of my many daydreams, I quit my job and head to Africa to work on conservation for this amazing species. Now I had the opportunity to actually get an introduction in how to care for elephants. I was debriefed about the organization and the elephants and was assigned an elephant and their respective trainer. The gorgeous creature I was paired up with was named Metit. She had a young calf that stuck by us the whole time. I learned how to identify when an elephant is healthy and happy: flapping ears, wagging tail, "tears" coming from their eyes, sweat from their toes, a dirty side from where they've slept for only four hours a night.
I learned some necessary commands in Thai that I'd later use to feed and praise them. As I was feeding Metit from an overflowing basket of bananas, sugar cane, and tamarind, her son kept sticking his nose in and grabbing some goodies for himself.
We trekked through the jungle together and came to a little river where I'd bathe Metit and have lunch. Metit was a bit of a trouble maker, going off path a couple times to grab some grasses on the side. The elephants really seemed to love the bathing, laying on their side and putting their heads down just as a dog would do when you're rubbing them.
Next was my turn to wash off. I hopped in a small water pool underneath a waterfall and let the sweat and dirt run off me while I watched the elephants play about in the river. It was a really wonderful experience and something I'll never forget. As dirty, intimidating, and sometimes ridiculous as it seemed, this was one of those moments I was able to connect with the country, the trainers, and the elephants who were gentle and playful.
Among this incredible day, one of the highlights was actually on the ride to and from the camp, where our driver, Sun, told us his story of growing up in the Karen tribe. This is the only hill tribe in Thailand that specializes in working with elephants. He shared his life with me. He told me about getting married, about how his father used to own an opium farm and became addicted to amphetamines and when the government made it illegal, his family was left with nothing. That's when he decided to go to school and get a job with Patara. His wife is pregnant and once she gives birth, they will return to the tribe. They still use the barter system.
It's moments like this I search for. The Thai people are so open and friendly, they want to share their story with you. Life is completely different in this country, but still they are the most warm, helpful, and cheerful people.