This week is all Elephant Nature Park (ENP), all the time. Every day will be a detailed post on a day or two of the seven days I spent at the park in February 2013. I hope that those researching volunteer opportunities will find the detail helpful in determining if this is a week and $400 they want to sign up for. In my opinion, it’s totally worth it! Once again, thanks so much to donors who made this week possible. For more info on the ENP, you can visit their site here and learn more about the individual elephants here.
One of the newer features of the ENP is the addition of a lot of dogs. There’ve always been a few rescues, but in 2011 Lek rescued hundreds of dogs who were abandoned by their owners during the floods in Bangkok. She set up a dog rescue shelter at the edge of the property, right when you enter from the road, and a lot of dogs stay up there, but at least thirty other dogs roam freely around the park and main food area. A few of them wear red bandanas to indicate that although they look cute, they will bite if you try to pet them. Most of them don’t wear bandanas and really are friendly. Their coats are brushed and they’re clearly well cared for, but they still have ticks and fleas, and a lot of people in the volunteer group wouldn’t pet them despite being dog lovers. But most people loved the dogs and found them all adorable, if a little intrusive.
As for me, I’m actually a little afraid of dogs. One on one, or even with a couple, I’m okay, and I appreciate how fun they are. But if they get too excited, or if there’s a whole pack of them, I get very tense. They just have so many teeth and they’re so unpredictable. These dogs, too, would often growl at one another and have little mock fights, which did nothing to calm my nerves. Apparently the website mentions the dogs, but I never saw it, and I wish they’d make it much more obvious what you’re in for when you sign up. Also, what about the poor people who are allergic? The dogs sit on the tables where you eat, the chairs outside your rooms, anywhere.
The other thing that made the dogs a hot topic of conversation was their tendency to bark, in unison, during the night. Sometimes right outside the dorm’s window. Every morning, without fail, they’d bark somewhere between 5 and 5:30 for a solid five minutes, and nearly everyone woke up for it. It was an early wake-up call, since most of us didn’t have to wake up til 6:30 to be ready for breakfast. Imagine how much I love sleep, and how hard it is for me to fall asleep in the first place, and how hard it is for me to fall asleep again once I’ve been woken, and how much I dislike barking, and you will have a pretty good idea of how I felt about that situation.
Our first day of work started with the 5:15am chorus of barking, and more formally with the 7am breakfast. We split into our groups at 8, and my group—Group C—started the week off with the toughest job. Nothing like getting it over and done with! We climbed into the back of a large open-air truck, picked up a few employees who do this daily, and rattled down the road to the main highway, then farther along for about 30 minutes until we reached the cornfield. The corn itself is harvested and sold in market for 10 to 15 baht an ear (about 30 to 50 cents), which raises money for the park. What we were there to do was cut down the cornstalks, tie them into bundles, and toss them in the truck. The elephants eat corn and grass as their main food, and the fruit visitors feed them throughout the day is a supplementary snack.
Our volunteer coordinator, Jane, did a quick demonstration of swinging the machete at the corn, then sent us off to find our own rows. They’re double rows of corn, so I cut down a few stalks on the right, then a few on the left, and put them all in a pile behind me, at a right angle to the rows. Swing the machete in an arc and slice the cornstalk at an angle, if you can. Sometimes I just pulled up roots, though, or had to hack at the stalk a few times. I never got into a rhythm more than 4 or 5 stalks in a row. After maybe 45 minutes we took a break, drinking water and eating tasty rice crackers drizzled with sweet syrup.
We only cut for another 20 minutes or so after the break, by which time we’d cut enough for the day. The next step was to take the bundles of corn up to the truck and toss it all in the back. The full-time employees had followed behind us as we’d chopped, tying the bundles up with thin rope and, when that ran out, strips of bamboo. The corn was unwieldy and heavy; you could carry it on your shoulder/back like the Thai employees, under an arm balanced on the hip, or dragged on the ground. This was tough work, especially since the ground was uneven earth full of bumps and rocks and potential holes. We did most of the front half of the field, then as we wandered to the back I suggested we do more of a tag-team thing; some of us moved them from the back half to the middle, and some moved them from there to the front.
After about 40 minutes, all the corn was loaded in the back of the truck, and then it was time for everyone to climb up and sit on top of the corn for the ride home. That looked fun, but also like a climb that might kill me, so I rode in the cab of the truck on the way back.
Our reward for cutting corn was a tubing trip. We grabbed inner tubes, the kinds with the metal knobs sticking out, and stood up in the back of a small truck for the drive upriver. I hadn’t been tubing in years, and it was great fun. The river meandered at a leisurely pace, except for a few exciting spots with mini-rapids to rush down. We floated along in nothing but swimsuits and tubes, passing tour groups from nearby resorts in helmets and lifejackets, presumably returning from whitewater rafting trips, but they still looked overdressed.
Children played in the river and yelled out “hello!” as we passed, and at one point a whole gang of them rushed up to each one of us as we passed and splashed until we were entirely soaked. One boy appointed himself captain of my tube, and steered me down the river for a ways. When I rounded the last corner before the park, a couple elephants were being led down to bathe in the river. I sat and watched them in the late afternoon sunlight, feeling totally at peace.