Will you look at these magnificent beasts? Shortly after taking this photo I was in the mud with them, and a wonderful experience it was. These elephants are looked after by “Retro Elephant Camp” not too far away from the town where I’m staying for 6 months.
The drive out there is extremely pleasant, the roads are mostly good and the route takes you through many different towns, small but obviously busy, banana plantations, rice fields and rivers. The elephants are left to roam completely free, they are not corralled at all. they disappear each night into the forest and appear again every morning for their breakfast. the lads who look after them are from the nearby Karen village, and they each have their own animal that responds to their voices and commands. The love between the boys and the elephants is so evident it can’t help but make you smile. They spend all day together, bathing in the river, feeding, getting muddy, getting washed again, just generally hanging out together. Not a bad life eh?
We joined them in all of these activities, including the trip down to the river, which forms part of the border with Burma. The opposite bank is another country, which of course just begs for you to wade across and shout something daft like “I’m in Burma!” Or rather Myanmar, although I hear it referred to by both names most days. Splashing around in the river with elephants is everything you’d imagine it to be: exciting, scary (they’re really BIG, with big feet that seem to get underneath you every time you move) and just magical. They take great delight in spraying their human companions just to get a reaction. We all obliged of course. How can you not scream when you get a face full of river water straight from an elephant’s trunk?
After 4 hours of elephant fun we were fed a traditional Karen lunch and sadly, had to hand back the tunics they loaned us before heading back to town. It was an exhausting, but also very rewarding experience. I am determined to visit again, at least one more time before I head back to the UK in March. I can’t resist another picture: Go on, admit it, you want his job don’t you?
The Perils of Public Transport
As I haven’t posted for a while I thought I would make this one a little longer than usual. My morning “commute” up into the mountains to Mae La Refugee camp is nothing if not uncomfortable and different! So far, the driver of the “songteaw”, which is an open sided minibus type of vehicle, has managed to overshoot the gate where I should get off twice. The first time was not too bad, he did a U turn and took us back about half a mile. The second time was a little more stressful as in 4 or 5 miles off target. In order to understand how this could happen you need to know that this camp is enormous. It has about 60,000 inhabitants now, and is divided into 3 “zones”. All along the road that runs beside it are gates and stopping points, which all look very similar to each other. As I usually share the songteaw with Thais and Burmans, and as I don’t speak their language nor they mine, it is no easy task to indicate where I need to get off. I’ve fixed a few landmarks in my head now so hopefully it will get easier.
The ride back is uncomfortable in a different way. I leave at about 1pm and the drivers on the way back seem to be in training for the position of roller coaster operative because they want to get back for lunch. It’s mostly downhill on the way back so I’m clinging onto the metal side railings of the bus as we swerve and careen round corners, on the wrong side of the road, and screech to abrupt halts for passengers. Oh well, all in a day’s work here I suppose.
I’m adding yet another picture taken outside my little classroom at the camp, just to show everyone how peaceful and serene the surroundings are, which is an unsettling thought when you contrast that serenity with the prospects of the students I teach. Many of them have no official documents, they have no citizenship, they are “displaced” in the world, which makes it incredibly difficult for them to progress on to higher/further education. Life inside the camp is relaxed and orderly, if a little monotonous for young adults. Life outside the camp, for most of them, would be extremely challenging, even assuming that there was anything for them to go back to if they did cross back into Burma.
However, I will sign off with this picture, so that you can imagine me sitting with my coffee getting ready to start the lesson.
Catch you all again later,