I am just finishing my third week here in Chiang Mai, Thailand and I’ve had the most incredible time! I work with the Save Elephant Foundation, bouncing around between working on assignments in the office and visiting the various projects the foundation runs in the region. It’s amazing how quickly I adjusted to life here, and how content I now feel without reliable hot water or even the promise of a comfortable bed.
Before I arrived I was incredibly nervous. I knew that I would be thrown into a completely different culture and a completely different language, so I was apprehensive of how comfortable I would feel. I have travelled all over the world, but this is the first time I’ve come to a country whose language I didn’t know in the slightest. In Italy and Panama, I was familiar with Italian and Spanish, so I picked up conversational skills quite easily. Here, I can’t even read the alphabet! However, everyone in the office speaks at least a little bit of English, and all of the staff has been incredibly helpful to me in terms of making me feel like a part of the family. Chiang Mai itself is also very accessible to tourists, which makes it quite easy for me to go anywhere and see most anything. Since I traveled to the Elephant Nature Park as well as the Journey to Freedom project my first two weeks, I’ve only spent about 5 days total in Chiang Mai, and split the rest of my time traveling between these other two sites. Now that peak tourist season has hit and the foundation is booked up with travelers, I will spend the next few weeks here in Chiang Mai. I am looking forward to discovering the city’s different sights and districts as I begin to get a feel for the streets.
In the office I’ve been handed a variety of projects over the last few weeks. From distributing and collecting feedback surveys, to drafting up forms, helping answer emails in English and even teaching English. The work I’m given is a little bit like busy work and I’m sure that in my absence everything would go just as smoothly. Nonetheless, I’ve learned a considerable amount in being present among all of the work that gets accomplished. I am fortunate to sit at a desk right next to the founder of the organization, which is incredibly inspirational. The opportunity to engage with her and senior staff members in conversation about day to day happenings in the office gives me a lot of insight on the intricacies of running a nonprofit. I am also lucky enough to witness the challenges that come with trying to accomplish such a huge task like saving the species of Asian elephant from abuse and extinction.
The time I spent away from the office was perhaps even more eye opening, though, because I got to travel around and see rural side of life in Thailand. The economic importance of various industries became startlingly apparent as soon as we left Chiang Mai, and suddenly I had a completely different perspective on tourism and the role it plays in this economy. It’s really interesting to be in the thick of things and to see with my own eyes the product of little development and poverty, as well as the product of over development and natural destruction. Just as I thought in the beginning, I continue to believe the work the foundation does is incredibly vital to sustaining the existence of Asian elephants, but I have a more in depth understanding of the issues that arise from trying to change generations-worth of traditions and customs related to their exploitation. The grey areas make more sense in the context of this society. It really makes me ponder about other absolute truths which make sense to people who aren’t aware of the pervasive nature of traditions in many developing countries: vegetarianism isn’t an option for some people and the environment doesn’t come first on the long list of things to worry about. In my time here I have met so many wonderful people and had an absolute blast. I cannot wait to experience more and learn as much as possible.
Cambodia- The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries. -Winston Churchill
Over the last two weeks I had a wonderful opportunity to travel to Cambodia with a group of people from the foundation office. We took a (much less painful than expected) fourteen hour van ride from Chiang Mai down to Surin, where we had to go through first a Thai and then a Cambodian border post. After we got everything squared away we drove for about 30 minutes before we arrived at the conservation project site that the foundation runs situated just outside of Siem Reap. Since we drove through the night, we arrived in Cambodia fairly early. We had lunch and sorted all of the donations we brought with us into two. We also set up these two money-tree type things which were really interesting and pretty fun to put together.
Then we were ready to deliver the donations. The first temple we arrived at there were at least 100 children lined up in their nicest school uniforms all along the driveway, boys on the left and girls on the right. They were clapping and cheering and I was instantly overwhelmed. So many people had come to receive the donations from many generous individuals which we had been collecting for about a month. We were welcomed as a group and sat in the center of the temple with a line of monks situated in front of us. A welcoming ceremony commenced, but I can't really explain in much further detail because much of it was in Khmer, and even my Thai coworkers were confused for a large part of it! However after the founder Khun Lek spoke to the community through a translator, the monks in the temple offered a blessing to us all through a traditional ritual and prayer. It was beautiful and an exhilarating experience.
Afterwards we handed out donations of shoes and clothes we had collected to the children which had been patiently waiting outside the temple during the ceremony. These 30 minutes are the most poignant memory of the trip for me. I have never experienced a situation of the like. Growing up in Russia and Ukraine and later adjusting to life as immigrants in the United States, we weren't exactly on the giving end of donation lines. Thanks to my mothers persistent and undying spirit, it has been quite some time since I had last wanted for anything- but holding a bag full of shoes with hundreds of barefoot children lined up in front of me was sobering to say the least. I had crossed over into the land of opportunity and gradually become so steeped in my privilege that it never even dawned on me. This brought up a mixed string of emotions for me. Should I feel shame of my ignorance? Pride of my mother's unbreakable spirit? Or simply pity for the wide-eyed, barefoot and gorgeous kiddos looking up at me? Maybe all three...
We traveled to a second temple where a fairly similar ceremony took place, except this one had a much smaller temple, around which we joined with the locals for a traditional dance. We were also treated to music and dinner at the end of the ceremony, which was lovely. The spirit of all these people was beautiful.
The next day we got to visit Angkor Wat and the several ancient beautiful temples associated with it, which was a fantastic thing to see. But at the end of it all I just couldn't help thinking about the dynamic I had experienced. I couldn't stop focusing on how odd it felt that in the struggle of poverty, I had somehow landed on the other side. Something that should seemingly feel like a triumph produced an incredibly unsettling feeling. Here I was, someone who grew up with little and now held an abundance of gifts in my hands... but the joy was embittered by the sight of the equally deserving yet unequally served Cambodian children. What made it even more a striking situation were the plastic croc-like shoes which we handed out. Back home, these types of shoes represent capitalism, outsourcing, environmental destruction. Here, they represented safety: a somewhat protected walk over fields littered with broken glass. So now I sit here thinking. Winston Churchill had it right. Socialism and Capitalism are just two different edges of the same sword. Unequal abundance or equal misery. In parts of the developed world we see the harsh truths of inequality rising out of a culture of abundance, and in opposite parts of the underdeveloped world we see countries starved, often as a product of communist or colonial oppression. Surely there must be another way. Surely those imbued with inherent curiosity and persistent ingenuity can come together with those who represent effortless compassion to find that better way. That is the hope and the vision.