One year ago, elephants I will never forget

One of the main reasons I travelled to Thailand a year ago was the chance to see and experience the amazing presence of elephants.  Before the trip, my sister and I researched different elephant tourist opportunities to make sure that the elephants were treated well. We settled on the Elephant Nature Park (ENP), near Chiang Mai. But until we got there, and heard the whole story, I had no idea that elephants in Thailand (and surrounding countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos) were abused at such a horrific level.

Part by luck, part by research, we ended up at the right place.  Started by Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, the Elephant Nature Park is a place that buys and rescues elephants so that they can live out the rest of their lives free from abuse. They heal the physical and emotional wounds as best they can and give the elephants a loving home while providing visitors with an experience that raises awareness and allows an up close connection with these amazing animals.

Before visiting ENP, my sister and I talked about what it meant to visit animals that had been abused and, as in the case of elephants, where abuse continues to this day. Emotionally difficult, we made a commitment to bearing witness while there, to expressing our apology as humans through emotion, and to following up by speaking up and by sharing.  That is part of the purpose of this post. To share with you these elephants, and to raise awareness that when you visit Thailand and nearby countries you know that the elephants in trekking camps (where you can ride on the elephants), and street begging, and painting pictures, have all been abused so that they will “behave”.  And so that you can help share the message and educate others.

To help you to bear witness, here is a short description of the abuse and then I can share some more amazing photos. In places like Thailand, baby elephants are captured from their Mothers and Nannies (who usually die protecting them) and are submitted to the “kraal” or “crushing”. They are placed in a stall, tied up, and then submitted to beatings and other punishment until they “behave” and then they are used in the logging industry, for street begging or to carry humans (especially tourists). You can see many examples of this abuse from the photos – chunks of ears missing from beatings, knee injuries from being forced to work in the logging industry and poor eye sight or blindness from the car lights while being used for street begging.

ENP was a place where my heart broke at these sights, but filled again with love watching the elephants rescued and free from chains.  While at the Park, we had the opportunity to watch the elephants, walk near them (with supervision), throw water on them in the river to cool them and make rice and banana balls for the elephants that couldn’t see to find food and feed themselves.  Each elephant is cared for and watched over by a mahout, an elephant keeper who is bonded to the elephant. Some of the mahouts made carvings of their elephant, which visitors could purchase. We stayed over one night so we could hear the elephants at night and in the morning, rumbling and trumpeting to each other.

My gratitude and thanks to those who play a part in rescuing these elephants and to the educated tourists who support ENP and the related sites and programs that work to end elephant cruelty and use eco-tourism to support Thai communities.

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Counting my fears

Today, I headed out on a hiking journey in Scotland but instead of counting sheep, I ended counting my fears.

Part of the reason to sign up for this week-long hiking trip was to face a challenge. To stretch my body and my mind and to experience new adventures. But today was far more challenging than I ever expected.

We hiked an area of the Island of Skye called the Quiraing. A giant landslip in the northeast part of the island, the Quiraing has large jagged cliffs with a slope that falls away into the green valley below. Our path wound is way up and through the cliffs, rocky face on one side and steep drop off on the other. Rocky and muddy, the path topped out at a windy and misty summit.

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While I knew some of the hiking trip would be difficult, I was not expecting the steep slope or the rocky terrain. It was probably the scariest thing I have done in a long time and most of the four hour hike was spent battling the trail and my fears.

Some of the fears were easily dismissed. The fear of not keeping up? Whatever. The terrain was a challenge and was going at my own speed. The rest of the group could deal.

Fear of physically being able to complete the hike? Well, I could stop and rest when needed. After all, frequent stops for photos was clearly warranted and gave a good chance to catch my breath.

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But the one fear that left me paralyzed and struggling to breathe was the fear of falling. About a year and a half ago, I was diagnosed with a type of vertigo and while I have had a few bouts of room-spinning, this was entirely different.

My body physically felt like it was about to fall. Panic flooded my systems, I couldn’t breathe and my body would not move. Not a step. It was like my body was saying, “we are about to fall to our death, so I’m not moving from this spot in order to save us from that”.

What is frustrating is that my mind knew better. I knew I was okay. There were other people on the trail, I had a climbing pole and I could go as slowly as needed. But my body was not listening.

But since I couldn’t stand on that hillside forever, somehow I had to figure out how to go forwards, despite that fact that it was the last thing I wanted to do. I had no choice but to try and unparalyze myself from the fear.

Since I’m back at the hotel room writing this, you will know that somehow I made it. I talked gently and lovingly to my body, respecting how it felt while trying to keep it moving forwards. My sister helped me, talking to me the whole way, telling jokes and stories to keep me distracted and she even took my camera and took photos so I could see them later. I watched only the path in front of me although I did manage to look up a few times, if rarely down.

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This was my second experience with whatever you call this kind of vertigo panic attack. The first was on Glastonbury Tor last year. From that experience, I learned that sometimes you just have to move forwards through the fear because there is no other choice.

What struck me this time, once the adrenaline had cleared from my system and I was having a nice cup of tea at the end of the walk, was that people say that one of the worst fears is the fear of the unknown.

I’m not sure about that. If I had known at the first upward turn of the path today what was ahead of me, I would not have continued. After struggling through the first of river crossings and down-up that first slippery slope, if I had known that it was but the first of many heart-pounding, breath stealing, panicky stretches of trail then I would not have been able to continue. Hell, if I’d known what that hike was like, I would not have left the carpark!

Perhaps when we face our fears, it’s best not to know what is ahead so we can do it one tiny step at a time. Focus just on the challenge in front of us and not worry about what is next. Perhaps the whole path ahead is too intimidating to think of in its entirety. It can only be traversed one challenge at a time.

Did I have fun? No. Would I ever do it again? Not willingly. Am I glad I did it? Meh, maybe give me a few more days to recover. Am I proud of myself? Hell yes!!!! And I am grateful for everything that my fears and that path taught me today.

And as I take my tired body to bed, I’ll be happy with just counting sheep.

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Sailing Away

Sometimes, you just need to sail away for a few days.

I am incredibly lucky to live in a place where I can do that.  And, I am even luckier to have good friends to sail away with.

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There was a long run on my favourite running routes.
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There was lots of wildlife.

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There was one of my favourite beaches.

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And, there were good friends.

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And, then, on the ferry on the way home, there were two orcas. A momma and a baby.

I just don’t think it gets better than that.