08 April 2013

Homestay with the Elephants at Thai Elephant Conservation Center, Day 2 of 3: Mornings and Afternoons with Wanalee, and Elephant Dung Paper.

Every morning--even though I had my alarm set--Tiem would pound on my door exactly at 6am. My alarm would be just starting to go off (playing Mirrors by JT). I would get up, get dressed in about 5 minutes, and then head outside where Tiem would be nowhere in sight: already off and gathering food for Wanalee before coming back to meet us all. I would skip down the stairs and drink two small cups of coffee and walk around a bit before the others arrived. Our call time to go and find the elephants was always around 630am.

I found it so peaceful to walk around taking pictures of everything waking up at the Conservation Center. Things would take place that normally wouldn't happen once the tourists started arriving. Everyone was calm and relaxed.

Look how beautiful the elephant bathing pool looks in the morning sunlight, with a pinkish glow. A flower across from where we ate our meals looking absolutely gorgeous. And an elephant chair propped up against an old food storage shed.

Then the mahouts would start arriving with their elephants. And that was always fun to watch: traffic in Thailand!

On our walks to the forest, we would pass the Conservation Center community housing: friendly dogs, chickens, and roosters running around all over the place. 

One of the mahouts was an accomplished sculptor. He had several pieces in his front yard that he was working on. Really amazing pieces! I kept looking for him in the evenings when he might be working on his art, but he was never around. 

Once we got to the barn, we were given big pieces of sugar cane and off to the forest we went. Time to find the elephants!

It was so funny to me to pass random elephants hanging out on the side of the road. Here is one of the younger elephants being scrubbed down by his mahout.

Once we got to the forest, we had to climb up the side of a sizable and relatively steep hill. It was always a question where Wanalee would be. In the top picture, she was waiting for us. In the picture below, we were looking for her for quite a while and ended up finding her hanging out with one of her friends.

When the elephants are eating and when they are brought to the forest, their front feet are shackled in chains. This does not inhibit them from moving, nor does it cause them any pain (they are quite loose). What it keeps them from doing is running away or getting into fights with each other. 

Whenever we would find Wanalee and she would see us, she would start galloping in place and then come running over to us. You will never be so happy as when you see an elephant come running over to you in joy, ears flapping like crazy.

Then Tiem would take off her shackles and we would have her lay down so that we could clean her off. It was surprising to me just how filthy she would get during the night. She must have been rolling around all over the ground because sometimes she would have dirt caked all over her back. So we would take a clump of leaves and gently brush her off. I think she liked it because she would make these little pleasant sounds and get sort of a glazed look in her eyes, not unlike a dog when you scratch them just above the tail.

Then she would stand up and begin to gather her own leash. She would pull it with her trunk and lay it out in perfect 5 foot lengths in front of her that we would then drape over her neck so that we could take everything back down the hill with us. While the chains felt quite heavy to me, they were not for her. It was as if she were wearing a necklace, nothing more. Then we would start back down the hill and back to the feeding area and show grounds.


The second day that we were coming down the hill, while I was sitting on her back, I dropped my shoe. I giggled when Wanalee--without being given any commands--stopped and picked it up and handed it back to me. These elephants are so intuitive and really quite remarkable.

Once we got back down the hill, we were sort of left to "roam free". We would let the elephants drink for about thirty minutes and eat for about an hour, all while sitting on their backs. I love the picture below: looks like we are all standing around the water cooler gossiping.

You can get a sense of Wanalee's hilarious personality below, as she is standing in the water trough and not outside of it. 

Once our second parade and performance were finished--generally between 4 and 5pm--we would take the elephants back up the hill again to the forest. Here we are having a conversation in the second bathing pool that is next to the forest. I was remarking how sweet it was that Wanalee and her friend are kissing in the lake. This is her same friend that we found her hanging out with one morning in the forest.

As we were putting Wanalee up for the night, the sun was usually going down or about to go down. I captured the above shot just as we were saying goodnight to her.

We were always lucky enough to make it back down the hill just in time to catch some of the other elephants during their evening bath time.

After all was said and done, and the sun had gone down, we would hang out at the dinner table and chat. The father of the family that was in my mahout group was a great sketch artist. He spent several hours working on a few drawings of the elephants that his daughter colored in.

Really cute drawings that the kids ended up giving to their mahout trainers just before they left on our last day there.

One afternoon, before the sun went down, we were taken up the hill to the building next door to where we picked up the sugar cane for our elephants. In this building was a tiny store carrying all sorts of paper products made out of collected elephant dung. 

Just to the side of the store was a huge paper-making studio where several people were at work making the paper and dying it all sorts of beautiful colors. It was an incredible process to watch.

The Conservation Center's belief is that to truly conserve, you conserve (or recycle) every part of the animal.

Just look at these gorgeous colors! Each large piece of paper was only 25 baht (or 85 cents USD). So I ended up buying about 10 giant pieces to use in the upcoming Buoyant Echo show at SKyPAC. So beautiful: I can't wait to use them!! I'm going to photograph how I use the paper in the show and send it back to the Conservation Center so that they can see it in action . . . Excited!

Up next? The elephant hospital, the new elephant babies, my mahout graduation, and saying goodbye . . . 

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