Goodbye, Prius

She sits in the lot at CarMax, her dark gray exterior even darker against the overcast winter sky in Maryland.

I blink back tears, then head inside to sign her away.

“Well, this is really easy,” the sales clerk says to me across his desk in the fluorescent lit office. “Just sign here and here, and then we will pay off your loan and give you a check for the difference.”

My mom sits next to me. I turn to her, my brown eyes watery.

“D, this is what you want,” she says, rubbing my leg.

Yes … but …

I take the pen and sign.

Deal. Done.

We walk back out into the nippy air and she’s gone. Gone. Whisked away before I could even let my fingers linger over her smooth body one last time.

I grab for my keys, out of habit, and sign when I realize the key FOB for her is no longer in my possession.

Mom and I pile into her car and sit there for a second.

“You OK?” she asks.

It’s not like I’ve lost something huge. But, my car … she’s gone.

My Toyota Prius

The first day with my car, July 4, 2007.

“Yeah,” I breathe. “I guess … well … now it is final. I’m really an expat when I sell my car.”

Yes, my sweet little Prius that I have loved for five years … gone. Taken into the depths of CarMax, hopefully to reemerge loved by someone who loved her as much as I did, even though I never gave her a name. But, rest assured, the Prius was most definitely a “her.”

For five years, she was my partner in crime. My friend. I’d sit in her comfortable seat, drive along on a soundless ride, challenge myself to use battery power versus the engine. She’s been my faithful companion on two major road trips. But more importantly, she’s seen me on the best and worst days in my life.

As we drive away from the dealer on my last night in Maryland, memories of my car run through my head. Sitting and toying with the little bubble in the steering wheel when the car was parked and I would just sit on my phone, talking through my bluetooth. Singing at the top of my lungs to whatever song would cheer me up. Hauling my life from Las Vegas to Maryland. Driving down Las Vegas Blvd. with travelers packed into my car listening to Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights.” In fact, most songs I hear involve a memory of driving in that car.

Toyota Prius road trip

Road trippin’ in comfort!

I’m not a very materialistic person. I don’t get attached to things easily. But, Prius (OK, we’ll name her that), she was mine. She was the first thing I had ever invested in. The first thing, other than my cats, I was truly responsible for. In a way, she was my real passage into adulthood. Not moving to Vegas, not getting a job, but owning a car.

Drive Toyota Prius

More than 3,000 miles crossing America … thanks to my friend, Prius.

But, at the end of the day, she was expensive. Really, really expensive. And, living in Thailand with no expected return date to the States? Well, there’s is no reason to continue to pay off a loan when I don’t even get to enjoy driving her.

There are times now in Chiang Mai when I will see a Prius drive by, silent in its passing, and I will smile to myself and think of the memories I have of my girl. Then, I look around at where I am and know I made the right decision. Hopefully, little Prius is making someone else as happy as she made me.

Americas Blog Expat Life Maryland Nevada

The faces of Ratanakiri

The little boy’s face in front of me is smeared with dirt, coupled with snot. But, he doesn’t care. Instead, he pushes his tiny, dark face closer to me. Closer to my lens, and smiles big.

A little boy from Ratanakiri

Click.

I turn the camera towards him, displaying his chubby little face for him to see and he erupts in a fit of giggles, delighted at seeing his image on the display.

As I move from him and towards other children surrounding me in this dusty village in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri Province, he follows me, jumping into every photo I take and then standing there after, waiting anxiously for me to turn my camera around so he can see his face once again.

Ratanakiri is far off the tourist path (for the most part). It is a bumpy ride 11-hour ride from Phnom Penh, and an even more tretchreous 16-hour drive on mostly dirt roads from Siem Reap. Unexpectedly, I find myself in this village, which has a fine layer of rust-covered dirt blanketing everything from the trees on the side of the roads to the quickly put-together wooden homes on stilts to even the people, including me.

Armed with a bag of clothing and snacks to give to the children, it is only a matter of moments before my boss and I (who are here on an entirely different mission) are surrounded by the village’s children.

For an  hour, we snap photos of them before we head out and stop in another village.

As night falls and my boss meets with someone, I wander off towards a small group of kids. They run around me, laughing, mimicking my movements. At one point, I crouch to the ground with them and place my hands over my mouth, over my ears and then, over my eyes. They do the same.

Speak no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.

I sit and stare at them as they follow my lead, marveling at the lives they lead. There is no electricity in this village. There are no iPads, no televisions, barely a radio. Instead, these children live with nature. They live a far simpler life than the children I have met in my days. And, it is a beautiful thing.

I find myself back in these two villages a month later, as we are en route to rescue elephants. Once again, the children crowd us, fighting to see my camera, to play with my iPhone. And, once again, I feel this sense of peace come over me as I sit and am reminded of the little things in my childhood that would make me happy: afternoons sitting outside with my friends, dancing into the sunset, simple moments of nature.

Despite their dire conditions, despite the fact these children will never know Facebook, or Twitter, or likely Gangam Style, they are happy. Even living in poverty, these children sparkle and exude a warmth I feel very rarely with little ones.

Here are their moments:

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It makes me wonder: if kids in first world countries who have those iPads, the cell phones, the video games, could come here and see how these children live, I wonder if the next generation would be different?

Asia Blog Cambodia

The A-Z of D Travels ‘Round

Happy 2012!

Well, Happy 2012 a few days early. While everyone is either dragging themselves into work for the short week, or spending time on a lil’ holiday, I figured now is the time for some fun travel stories. I’m not doing a “Best of” this year, but when the opportunity to participate in the A-Z post came up, I decided it would be a fun little read (plus, a nice trip down memory lane for me).

Thanks, Nomadic Samuel and Adventurous Kate for nominating me to partake in the A- Z Travel fun.

So, without further adieu, the A – Z’s of D’s Travels ‘Round! (PS — there are five of my favorite bloggers tagged below, so at least scroll down to see other bloggers you should definitely check out in 2012).

A: Age you made your first international trip

Don’t get mad, Canada. I totally heart you, but I’m not going to count you as my first international trip since back then, I didn’t even need a passport to cross into your beautiful, clean country.

Therefore, travel back with me to 1995. It’s summertime. I’m an actress with dreams of winning an Emmy for playing the part of drama queen in a (now canceled) soap opera on ABC. Despite being located in the middle of a cornfield, my high school, Magruder if you really want to know, is 1 of 10 schools chosen to participate in the first ever high school leg of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

We receive the packets announcing this opportunity to perform in a play “over there” and I somehow manage to convince my parents it’s the best thing in the world for me to do. So, half-a-year later, I’m getting stamped into the United Kingdom. We stop at Buckingham on the way, then fly on up to Edinburgh. I grace the stage. It does not result in any acting contracts, but it feels damn good. Then, we bop back down to London for a few days before we return to Maryland.

Quick trip. Bitten by the travel bug.

B: My first Guinness in Ireland.

B: Best (foreign) beer you’ve had and where

Well, B is not easy at all. I’m going to go with Guinness. In Dublin. At St. James Gate. Yeah. I didn’t like Guinness, or Jameson, for that matter, until I landed in Dublin. Then, my German – Russian – Romanian – Polish self became a bit o’ Irish at first swig. Love.

C: The brilliant and delightful Chef Maria Jose San Ramon at Monastrell

C: Cuisine (Favorite)

I’ve had some of the most amazing food in the world in Spain, courtesy of Chef Maria Jose San Ramon of Hospes Amerigo’s Monastrell. In fact, the entire time I was a part of #blogtripf1 (thank you, Land of Valencia for the amazing opportunity to see the region!), I ate well. Nay, damn well. I even wrote a post over at Matador Network on all of the damn well eating I was doing.

Other than that, I was a sucker for the fresh fish, homemade EVOO and jugs of wine in plastic bottles made by store owners in Croatia, particularly on Solta, a little slice of island heaven on the Adriatic.

D: Destinations. Favorite. Least Favorite. Why.

I operate in life without favorites, which is weird because, as my friend Katie says, I am in love with the hyperbole. When people ask me my favorite place, I spout off a list. Which is the same list I am going to spout out now, only with brief explanations.

Madrid: Vibrant, alive city with easy transportation. If I could live anywhere in the world, Madrid or anywhere in Spain would be the top of my wish list.

Berlin: Holy crap, the amount of culture, art, eco-friendly living here, just blows me away. I love the little nooks and crannies I discovered and the history. There’s something about WWII that really intrigues me.

Sarajevo: This one makes people scratch their heads. But, for me, seeing a city that is still so scarred from ethnic cleansing and a brutal war be so alive now, just warms my heart. The people here are friendly and kind. And, I just fell in love with the city.

Split, Croatia: Split is where my life changed. And, along with its beautiful Adriatic beauty, holds a very special place in my heart.

Least favorite? Now, that’s much easier. Turkey. Not because the country isn’t awesome, because it is. But, because I had a hell of a time there. Between a hotel owner and a restaurant worker who didn’t understand “no” means “no,” to nearly dying in an attempt to paraglide, Turkey beat the crap out of me. Would I go back? Yes. However, the first experience did one big number on me.

E: Living with elephants for a week at Elephant Nature Park.

E: Event you experienced that made you say ‘Wow’

Ah, one event that made me say “wow” is difficult, to say the least. That being said, the first thing that comes to mind would be the first time I fed elephants at Elephant Nature Park, just north of Chiang Mai, Thailand. At ENP, the elephants get to live the rest of their lives without having to give rides, perform in circuses or paint (if you want to know why you shouldn’t support such outlets, click here). I spent a week with these elephants and it was magical, life-changing.

F: Train or bus? I don't know ...

F: Favorite mode of transportation

I like planes because they get me to places fast. But, I like buses and trains because I can see the world at the ground level instead of thousands of feet up in the air. Of the two — buses or trains — which do I like better? It’s a toss up. I think it’s safe to say that in Western and Central Europe, I like the trains. But, in the Balkans, where they are unreliable and late, I opt for buses.

G: Greatest feeling while traveling

There are so many feelings I experience when I travel. But, the most spellbinding is the one at the beginning — the idea that anything is possible. Travel is an unwritten story, and I have nearly full control of what I want those blank pages to be filled with.

H: Hottest place I’ve traveled to

I’ve been to a few hot places. Europe in the summer, with no air-con is dreadful. I remember dripping, dripping, dripping sweat in many Eastern European hostels. The worst was in Istanbul and later in Varna. Being in a dorm room, with no air-con, in the dead of summer in thick summer heat is absolutely horrible.

On a completely different level, Chiang Mai during the rainy season was really hot. And humid. It was impossible to walk out into the Sunday Night Market without sweat trickling down my face and soaking my clothing. I know. Attractive.

I: Incredible service you’ve experienced and where

The people in Thailand are so kind, so considerate, so attentive. One instance that comes to mind was my recent visit to Chiang Mai. I found a spa and went to get a foot massage. At the end of the hour, my  masseuse sat me in a stool and told me she was going to do my arms to. The reason? She had no other customers and wanted to be nice. Yup. Great service.

J: Journey that took you the longest

Oh lord! The most recent long-haul trip was the longest I have ever experienced. Thank you, United, for the awesome itinerary. It went something like this:

– Flight from Las Vegas to San Francisco: Delayed on runway one hour. Two hour flight.

– Flight from San Francisco to (surprise) Narita, Japan: Delayed one hour. Nine-and-a-half hour flight. Five hour stopover. Which was not on my itinerary.

– Flight from Narita to Bangkok: A little more than six hours. Plus, overnight at the Bangkok airport. So, another six hours.

– Flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai: One hour.

THEN, on the way back, it was less painful, but still sucky.

– Flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok: One hour.

– Flight from Bangkok to Los Angeles: Fourteen-and-a-half hours. Overnight at LAX — an additional six hours.

– Flight from Los Angeles to Las Vegas: One hour.

Yuck.

K: Hand-carved elephants at Elephant Nature Park

K: Keepsake from your travels

Because most of my travels are longer-term, I don’t really buy a lot of things. When I do, they are special and remind me of special moments. I have a bracelet with the Madrid Metro map plastered to it. I have a little carpet I bought in Chefchauen, Morocco. I have hand-carved wooden elephants done by mahouts at Elephant Nature Park. Those are probably the things that mean the most to me and conjure up detailed memories — the thoughts, the feelings, the smells, the atmosphere — of the moment I was in when I purchased each of them.

L: Let down sight. Why and where?

The biggest let down for me was Dubrovnik. Every traveler I spoke with when in Croatia sang such high praises of the city. Yes, it is absolutely magnificent, beautiful, charming … but it is also crowded and expensive. After spending a lot of time in the other cities in Croatia, Dubrovnik was my last stop on vacation and it was so built-up that by the time I got there, it wasn’t nearly what I imagined it to be.

M: The moment I fell in love with Spain.

M: Moment where you fell in love with travel

I can’t recall the first moment I fell in love, but I can recall a moment I was reminded of why I travel. After a day of traveling from Galway to Dublin to Madrid, I arrived at my hostel after dark. Filled with warnings about the city and getting my bag slashed, I arrived to the hostel after dark. My little private room had a balcony overlooking a bustling plaza. I flung open those doors and was greeted with the most magnificent view of the square, glowing with colors, pulsing with people. It was magical. And, in that moment, despite all of the negatives I heard about the city, I was enamored.

N: Nicest hotel you’ve stayed in

Kismet Dao in Brasov, Romania. It rocked. Free beers. Free nights if you stay a certain amount of time. Great staff. Chill travelers. Free breakfast. Common room with hundreds of movies to watch. A basement to party in. A backyard with a grill. Awesomeness.

O: I can't stop snapping shots of doors and windows.

O: Obsession. What are you obsessed with taking pictures of while traveling?

Doors, windows, street lamps and clothing hanging from clothing lines. I am pretty sure I could do quite a few essays of just these images. They tell stories landscapes and normal shots of places can’t.

P: Passport stamps. How many and from where?

This passport has UK, Ireland, Spain, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Spain, Belgium, Rwanda, Belgium, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, Germany, America, Thailand, America. I think. There might be a few more from train/car travel over borders, but I don’t remember.

Q: Bran's was a quirky let-down.

Q: Quirkiest attraction you’ve visited and where.

I don’t know how quirky it is, but Bran’s Castle in Romania was … interesting. They removed all of the old furniture and replaced it with antiques instead.

R: Recommended sight, event, or experience.

Pay to have a guide in Auschwitz. Take SA Guesthouse’s tour of Sarajevo. Madja’s Guest House’s tour of Mostar in Bosnia and Hercegovina. The free alternative tour in Berlin. They all rock and all are historic and fascinating.

S: Splurge. Something you have no problem forking over for while traveling.

It depends on my mood. Sometimes, it’s a good meal. Sometimes, it’s a bottle of wine. Other times, it’s just for the privilege of enjoying “free” wifi at an outdoor cafe with a cup of coffee or a Coke Light. Oh, and tours of places that really move me, like the ones I took in Bosnia.

T: Touristy thing you’ve done

The historical free tour I took in Berlin that took us to Checkpoint Charlie. Oh, and running through the Lourve so I could snap a photo of Mona Lisa but not sticking around the museum because it was so crowded with school children I thought I would pass out.

U: Unforgettable travel memory

So many! Kayaking in circles in Spain. Falling off a cliff in an attempt to paraglide in Turkey. A night of sultry flamenco in Granada. Teaching English in Spain and living with locals there. Bonding with elephants at Elephant Nature Park. I could go on and on.

V: Visas. How many of them and for where.

Turkey.

W: Wine, best glass while traveling and where.

Croatia. My last night of my trip. Sitting by myself at a restaurant enjoying homemade noodles and a view of Zadar’s harbor.

X: View of Goreme.

X: eXcellent view and from where

Coming in to Goreme at sunrise. The reds and oranges turning the fairy chimneys the same color as the sky, and hot air balloons beginning to lift off. Mesmerizing.

Y: Years spent traveling

Collectively? About one year. My longest trip was almost seven months.

Z: Zealous sports fans and where

The F-1 race in Valencia. Hands down. Oh, and every game I watched at bars during the World Cup, particularly the games in Spain with Spain playing. The passion and enthusiasm from those fans turned me into a futbol fan!

Now, the fun part! I nominate the following superb travel bloggers to share their A-Z’s:

Abby, The Jungle Princess

Lindsey, The Traveller World Guide

Erica, Overyonderlust

Bobbie Lee, Heels and Wheels

Jade, Our Oyster

30 Life Crisis

I am thankful for …

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. It’s the time when I get to come home from wherever I am, and spend precious moments with my parents, my brother, my gorgeous little niece, and my friends from childhood and beyond.

It’s the time of year when I bundle up and head East to breathe that icy air into my lungs so deep it hurts. It’s the time of year when Mom and I hit the shopping mall to take advantage of those Black Friday deals, and I always swear through clenched teeth I will never participate in another Black Friday shopping experience again.

But, more than anything else, Thanksgiving is a time of year where I relish those special moments I have with the people I love. Where I give thanks for the years of blessings I have had, and look forward to the next year of blessings.

In honor of my favorite holiday, I am going to take a break from the grind. I am going to actually take some time for myself and not write, not post, not do anything but be in the present for the next few days.

So, enjoy Thanksgiving if you are in America. Hug your family tighter. Spend an extra few minutes at the dinner table sharing stories. Be sure to tell the people you love that you love them and are thankful for them.

And, if you need a breather from family time, or whatever, here are some of my favorite posts that highlight moments in my life I am so thankful to have experienced.

Instantanoues Enlightenment on the Adriatic — what happens when you meet someone who changes your life forever?

Traveling the World to Say ‘Thank You’ — tracking down that someone who changed my life, to tell him he changed my life. Spoiler: it ends with a kiss.

I’ve Always Relied on the Kindness of Strangers — finding the beauty in getting lost in a foreign country.

I Blame My Blog … and Twitter — this new family I have is amazing!

‘Twas the Nigh Before London — sometimes the hardest things in life are the best … and lead you to a better place (like traveling the world)

Love, life and loss … while on the road — words could never do justice for how thankful I am for my grandmother and her endless love and support. My cheerleader. My biggest supporter. My inspiration to write my book.

Escape of the Week: Birds on A Wire — HOME. My family. My friends. Sometimes, that’s all you need to make everything better.

See you next week, when I’m back in the desert.

Happy Thanksgiving! Eat until you have to unbutton that top button!

30 Life Crisis

Tuk tuks, red cabs … and elephants: arriving to Elephant Nature Park

The drive from Chiang Mai to the Elephant Nature Park is nothing short of surreal: from urban to highway to jungle in about an hour. And from cars and tuk tuks to elephants and ox on the side of the road.

We start our first day as volunteers, 23 of us ranging in age from 8 to retired, at the park’s office in Chiang Mai. There, we sign papers, get volunteer T-shirts and water bottles, and begin to mingle with the group who would become our family in the next week.

Jack is the first person I meet, our volunteer coordinator with a dry (and endearing) sense of humor. Example: “I’m Thai. But, my name is Jack.”

Over tea and fresh muffins, I make my first volunteer friends: Sarah, Lucy, Katy, Pam and Steven. Sarah, from the UK, is like me — a solo traveler. This stint marks nearly the end of her long-term travel. Talking to her brings me instantly back to my travel-travel days. Lucy and Katy, also from the UK, are fresh off of volunteering for an NGO in Cambodia. And, Pam and Steven, a couple from Vancouver, are at the beginning of a sublime month-long holiday taking them to various parts of Southeast Asia.

Together, we sit on couches, sharing space with three-legged dogs and other animals, doing the obligatory Travel Talk, until Jack hustles us back into vans to begin the trip up to the park.

En route, I begin to shoot questions at him, all about the elephants. Would we ride them? What’s the situation with the park? What’s the deal with the elephants?

Fortunately, there is a video for us to watch on the way up that answers most of my questions.

My primer to the plight of Thailand’s elephants.

We learn quickly about the logging industry that became illegal, which prompted elephant mahouts (owners) to seek ways to make money with their animals a different way.

Enter elephant tourism.

With people coming in droves to Thailand to see these revered creatures, the elephant tourism industry quickly snapped up the elephants and mahouts once they found tourists would pay money to feed their street-begging elephants bananas. And, found tourists would pay to take an uncomfortable ride on their backs, because who doesn’t want to say they have ridden an elephant? Or, they would sit and giggle as the big, adorable creatures balanced their bodies on one foot or played a game or something cutesy like that. They even found people would pay to see them paint.

Sadly, we learn that to introduce elephants to this world, there is a great deal of suffering that goes into the training process. (For more details, check out this post I wrote a few weeks ago)

The video we watch hits me as soon as the camera zooms in on the vacant look in the elephant’s eyes as it stands, feet in pain, in front of a store, begging for food, mahout next to it, doling out fruits to people to place in the creature’s trunk.

Tears well up in my eyes, and Pam, who is next to me, shoots me a sympathetic glance as I try to cover up the fact that I am getting upset.

In that moment, I know Pam and I will be friends.

Once the video concludes, we are nearly to the park. The highway has given way to pothole spattered jungle roads.

That’s when I see my first elephant.

She’s huge. Walking slowly on the side of the road. And, there is a bench tied around her. With people on it.

“Jack, do we get to ride an elephant while we are at the park?”

He looks at me and instantly I regret those words. Hadn’t I just watched a video that basically makes it known the elephant tourism industry is riddled with abuse?

“No.” He states, then looks out the window at the elephant. I look, too. “It isn’t good for them to be ridden on like that. They aren’t made to take riders on their backs. The only place they should be ridden is a spot on their head, and they shouldn’t go on treks like that with tourists.”

I feel bad as I hear his words, and again, tears fill my eyes as I look back out at the elephant and the tourists riding her who don’t know any better. Just that brief amount of information Jack presented was enough to convince me I don’t ever need to ride an elephant.

I realize something in that moment: this week isn’t going to be easy.

We continue on the road to the park, passing more elephants than I ever would have liked to see walking alongside the road, competing for space with our van, red cabs, trucks and more. We drive by the camps where we can plainly see the elephants, standing under shelters, feet chained and rocking back and forth in discomfort. We see ox with huge wooden carts strapped to them, giving people rides (often times, tour operators offer package deals — elephant trekking, ox cart rides and then river rafting).

And then, I see a sign announcing we are entering the Elephant Nature Park.

In the next moment, I see her, in the distance, standing in a field of grass with huge jungle hills in the background. The sky is overcast. And she is beautiful. A dark grey with brown.

My first rescued elephant.

It feels very Jurassic Park-like, elephants wandering freely as we are brought up in a van to the park.

The first photo of an elephant I have ever taken. Can you spot her?

I am instantly in love as we pull up to my new home for the week.

When we get out of the car and are greeted by an onslaught of saved dogs (there’s more than 100), and head up to the main park structure –essentially a huge covered deck with three feeding platforms, a kitchen, plenty of seating, a conference room and a sky walk — the views take my breath away.

Bright green hills shrouded in clouds. A rushing river. And elephants. As far as the eye can see.

For more information about Elephant Nature Park and the Elephant Nature Foundation, visit it’s Web site.

For more information about the elephant tourism industry in Thailand, click here.

Asia Blog Thailand Travel

Speaking for the Elephants … in memory of Mae Sai Roong

Yesterday morning, when I turned on my computer after a night of restlessness, my heart sank.

There, on the screen, were two Facebook status updates. One from the Elephant Nature Park & Foundation page stating Mae Sai Roong, an elephant our volunteer group had taken care of when she fell ill on Sept. 10, had taken a turn for the worst. Then, an update time stamped about five hours later from one of the staff with the words that made my cry aloud — “Dear Sai Roong, RIP.”

No. Nonononono.

Mae Sai Roong had only been at the park for a little more than four months. An older girl, she spent her life in the logging and trekking industries, for the most part at elephant camps treating passengers to tick marks on their bucket lists by taking them for treks on her back. She was sold to people in Chiang Mai who had her go to a big elephant camp, and, a little while later, was transferred to smaller elephant camp near the park. Her owner was not happy with the way she was treated at the park, and decided to transfer her — yet again — to another park. However, her feet barely wanted to move after a live of giving rides, so the decision was made. It was time for Mae Sai Roong to retire.  The owner, along with members of Elephant Nature Park,walked her the short distance from her current camp to her new home, the park. The walk took her three hours because, after years of trekking for tourists, her movements were so labored.

I had wanted to wait to talk about Sai Roong and Elephant Nature Park. And, I still plan to fill readers in on my time volunteering at the park in the coming weeks.

But, for now, to honor her life, I wanted to post a few photos of her. And, talk candidly with my readers.

These photos were taken the day she was so ill, she had no strength to do anything but lay down, and the following day, when she stood up. The day she laid down was one of the saddest of my life as I, along with all of the other volunteers, some of the staff and the vets, rushed to fill sand bags and shovel dirt to create a bed for her. We watched as a harness wrapped around her saggy belly was hooked to a crane that tried, in vain, to get her to stand. We watched as she would get tiny bursts of life, sit up, look around at everyone, and then give up and allow herself to simply lay, nearly lifeless on the mound we had quickly created on the hot and humid September afternoon in the jungle.

Two volunteers sit with Mae Sai Roong the day she lays down, Sept. 10, 2011. Photo: Julie-Ann O’Neill

We didn’t think she would last the night. She did. The next morning, when a few girls went to see her, we didn’t think she’d last past breakfast. She did. A couple of hours after their early morning vist, we were informed that, somehow, Sai Roong, had found the strength and the will to live. After laying down for more than an entire day, the elephant had stood up.

Overjoyed, we walked down to where she was being treated a few times on our last day. We spent time feeding her, talking to her, giving her the love that she had been so deprived of in her trekking days.

Surprising everyone, Mae Sai Roong stood up less than 24 hours after her bleak prognosis. Photo: Julie-Ann O’Neill

On September 27, 2011, Mae Sai Roong, “Rainbow,” was finally able to rest, free after nearly a lifetime of suffering due to people supporting the abusive practices of the elephant tourism industry.

She had no elephant friends, but I am sure she was surrounded by a group of volunteers like the ones I spent my time with. Hopefully they were rubbing dirt on her, scratching her back and singing lullabies softly to her.

I had wanted to wait to start talking about this … to first share my stories of the elephants and the park, which was one of the most fulfilling and heart-warming experiences of my life.

But, then Sai Roong passed away. And her death shouldn’t go unnoticed. Instead of just posting that I am sad about her death, I am going to explain to you why, ultimately, she died.

Sai Roong, like most elephants that “work” in Thailand have to go through the a ritual called phajaan, or “crush.” It begins with the baby elephants (usually three to four years old) being taken from their mothers and placed in a small, wooden pen. To get them securely in the pen, these babies are beaten with bamboo, sticks with nails attached to the tip and bull hooks. Once in place, the crush lasts for roughly a week. During this time, they are beaten, bludgeoned, have hooks attached to their sensitive ears, and are deprived of food and water, all in the name of breaking ties with their mothers and becoming domesticated. While in the crush, through the infliction of pain, they learn how to accept riders, do circus tricks and paint. The end result –to crush the elephant’s spirit and deem them domesticated.

And, once they have their souls stomped out, they are simply vessels entertaining people. They are chained. They don’t eat enough. Like humans, elephants have the capability to form relationships and have emotions. But, not the elephants working for the tourists.

People who visit Thailand — and other countries with elephant tourism — don’t realize the damage they cause these elephants when they support trekking camps, go to circuses or buy the paintings done by these creatures. Without knowing, they send a clear message to the elephant tourism industry that shows they support the torture these animals go through early in their life, as well as the horrific conditions they live in as cogs in the tourism wheel.

It’s not my goal to upset readers. What I want, on the day after World Tourism Day, is for readers to KNOW what goes on behind-the-scenes.

Lek Chailert and the Elephant Nature Foundation, work tirelessly to show elephant owners there are other options to training elephants that doesn’t involve abuse. And, they have programs, like the Surin Project, that works with mahouts (ele owners) who had used their animals for street begging and circuses, and shows them there are alternatives for these elephants. The foundation also operates the Jumbo Express, which provides medicinal care and educational assistance for people and elephants in tribes. There’s even more, and a visit to the Web site can fill you in on all the good they do.

She, and the foundation are trying to make an impact on the elephant tourism industry.

You can make an impact, too.

For those who have ridden on elephants, I don’t judge you. I bet you didn’t know what the elephants are subjected to. Now, you do. So go … tell someone else who is going to Thailand (or any other country where eles are part of tourism, because there are far more places that abuse these animals in the name of a dollar than don’t) what I’ve just told you. Then, maybe they will tell someone else. Who will tell someone else.

One day, the message will be loud and clear to the elephant tourism industry: There are ways to train elephants without torture. And ways to make money from elephants without subjecting them to cruel living conditions. Change. Your. Practices. And we, as tourists, will support you.

If you really want to see for yourself the crush, here is a video you can watch. I warn you — it is disturbing and contains VERY graphic images of elephant abuse. But, sometimes people need to see it to believe it.

Asia Blog Responsible Tourism Thailand Travel

How to have a Travel Adventure without Adventure Travel

 

 

Adventure. It’s a pretty hefty word with a lot behind it.

To me, adventure is more than just jumping out of airplanes … more than climbing a mountain. I’m so not that girl. In my world adventure is about taking risks. Going off my beaten path to experience something new.

As a traveler, each day is an adventure. Whether it is getting off a bus before check-in time at a hostel and trying to find something to do, or kayaking in the Mediterranean.

I tried to be adventurous each day on my trip. And, unlike the time I fell off the cliff while embracing adventure/sports, I normally was met with pretty great results.

So, how can someone have an adventure without raising your pulse?

Well …

1. Don’t plan. Well, plan a little. But, don’t feel the need to always stick to the plan. There were plenty of times when I would wake up in the morning and decide I wanted a different view, so would ask around to other people in the hostel, find out where they were going/coming from, and then make a game-time decision as to where  I would go later that day. To ensure I wasn’t bed-less for the night, I would book a room, but that’s it.

Really, I’m a Planner

2. Book a hostel, not a hotel. Hostels are much more social than hotels. At hostels, you are much more likely to meet like-minded people who want to check out A, B or C. Some of my closest friends today have come from hostels. Just be sure you follow hostel protocol during your stay. Nothing sucks worse than being That Guy/Girl at a hostel.

Dude, don’t be a hostel dick

3. Try the local cuisine. I didn’t really venture anywhere with cuisine that was too out of my comfort zone, but I can assure you eating bugs AND snake are both on my list when I hit Asia this year.

Para morirse — food to die for in Valencia

4. Get lost. Within reason. Pop on some good music, grab the camera and wander. Take note — don’t be ignorant about wandering. Find out the safe places to go before you leave your room. Ladies, keep your purses under your arms. And don’t broadcast your riches.

Being Jewish in the Krakow Jewish District

5. Hit the local markets. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of fresh fruits, veggies, flowers and crafts. Super easy. And, most times you can actually purchase items at these markets without spending a lot of money.

6. Rent an apartment for a little. If you want to spend more than a night or two in a city, rent an apartment. All over the world, there are apartments to rent for a few nights to months or longer. When I traveled, I rented a gorgeous little place on the Adriatic for a few nights with some friends. It was amazing.

Living in Technicolor

7. Talk to the locals. Nothing can make an experience in a foreign place better than having a local’s insight. The more locals you meet, the more opportunities you have to really get the flavor of a place.

A week of Spanish

8. Volunteer. There are plenty of options for short-term volunteer work all over the world. Plus, volunteering opens you up to meet other travelers and locals. And, its totally good karma.

The only English-speaking town in Spain

9. Take a class. Learn how to make sushi or prepare Thai dishes. Or do a language exchange.

10. Rent a car. This may be a little bit risky, but it lets you travel places you might not normally see.

Steering wheel death grips and driving in Romania

11. Go camping. Get a cheap tent and fork out the few bucks to camp instead of stay at a hostel.

12. Use a squat toilet. Seriously. You haven’t lived until you use one.

13. Go to a nudie beach. Or a topless beach. If necessary, grab some tall boys before hitting the surf. Just make sure you do it. And use sunscreen to prevent burning of the bits.

To be or not to be … topless

14. Find a festival or event that sounds good and go. Like La Tomatina in Spain, or Exit Festival in Serbia. Or Fringe in Scotland. This would require a little planning, but still. Go.

15. Don’t book a return ticket. Until you have to.

What do you think makes for a travel adventure?

This post was sponsored by InsureandGo Travel Insurance.

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