This is a story about one thing I (used to) hate and one thing I (will always) love.
From the age of about ten, I hated bananas. I despised them for all sorts of reasons: the texture, the flavor and those little stringy things. I hated the sound it made when someone chewed on a banana… UGH! And for some reason, EVERYONE around me loved bananas: my mom, my best friend, my little brother… I think this is all just encouraged my dislike. This worked out very well in college because my roommate, and one of my best friends, is allergic to bananas. Needless to say, we were a perfect a match.
And then, kind of all a sudden, when I moved to London I started eating half a banana almost everyday. What happened?!
So now, I have half a banana for breakfast in my cereal-granola-fruit bowl. In fact, I become incredibly sad when we run out of bananas because I love it in my breakfast meal so much. But, I didn’t know someone could rely so much on bananas until Thailand.
Yes, bananas are the thing I used to hate. Now, what about the thing I will always love?
For as long as I can remember (not kidding), I have always adored elephants. There was a long period of time when I would receive an elephant related present for pretty much every occasion. And of course I didn’t mind because the more I was surrounded by elephant memorabilia the happier I was. In addition, it increased my desire to see elephants in their natural habitat. I didn’t want to ride them or see them at the zoo. I just wanted to feel their presence because I truly feel so connected to them. They are magnificent creatures.
Ever since leaving Thailand in 2005, I vowed to one day return and visit Elephant Nature Park. There are numerous programs at Elephant Nature Park, which at first seems a bit daunting but how do you know what you’re going to love? Well, rest assured if you’re hanging out with elephants that I think you’ll have an amazing time. We chose the program Sunshine for Elephants because it would involve a small group of people, and also a hike through the elephants’ natural habitat.
We were picked up at our guesthouse in Chiang Mai early in the morning along with six others. The drive from Chiang Mai to the Sunshine for Elephants camp is about one hour. Once we arrived at the camp, we immediately got put to work. We cut hundreds of watermelons to prepare for the elephants. And then, in the distance, I glimpsed at our new elephant friends.
The feeling of seeing these precious creatures is indescribable. I felt a great sense of awe and joy which brought tears to my eyes. I’ve waited for this moment for so long, and it really just felt like coming home. We spent the next 30 minutes or so feeing the elephants the crazy amount of watermelon and bananas we prepared, though I soon learned that there can never be enough food available!
After their first feeding, we lead the elephants (with bananas) up through the jungle on a short hike. I admit I was a little nervous walking beside them as I was worried they would step on me! But I made sure to stay clear and check the space around me from time to time. Banana after banana after banana… we continued on our way.
We stopped at the top of the hill for about 30 minutes to let the elephants roam around and play with their environment. They promptly went on to break bamboo stalks and toss dirt up and over onto their backs to cool themselves off. As you might guess, I definitely got hit by some of this flying dirt!
It was now time for lunch, for the humans! In the middle of the jungle is a lovely encampment. Waiting for us were several workers ready to help prepare some delicious Thai food. We used a giant mortar to mix some papaya salad.
Once we ate, we went back to focusing on the elephants. We prepared some different food, which I’m not sure what else to call them other than rice balls.
After this second feeding, we went on another hike. The sun was starting to scorch the paths we walked, but in all honesty I did not feel it because I was so distracted by the joy I felt walking alongside the elephants. For the hikes, everyone was sort of assigned to a different elephant to feed and lead. Maybe everyone thought this, but I truly think “my” elephant was the hungriest of all. Banana after banana he gulped them down. It was rather impressive!
Of course, he sometimes appeared impatient and annoyed when I didn’t quickly produce bananas but he was also gently and never did I feel in danger. He’d playfully sniff around my face to find more bananas in which case I was be painted with mud. Perhaps normally I’d find this annoying, but here I was so happy.
Our safety was also supplemented by the fact that each elephant had a mahout. Traditionally, mahouts would have been riders or trainers, however ethical elephant organization mahouts are more like keepers. They are responsible for looking after the elephant — anything from feeding, washing and checking up to see if they need medical care. No hooks, tools, etc, just hands, sounds and food. Mahouts truly love their elephant friends. They also enjoy educating others about the elephants’ lives.
After our long, hot hike we headed to river. The elephants joyfully entered the cooling water, something they obviously were looking forward to. We grabbed buckets and splashed water onto the elephants. They absolutely loved it. The mahouts also got a bit cheeky by “accidentally” splashing buckets of water on us tourists!
I’m so grateful I finally got to go on a program with Elephant Nature Park. When I left the Sunshine for Elephants camp, I felt my heart full. It was full of joy and gratitude. If I’m ever back in Chiang Mai again, I promise myself I’ll always visit.
And so ended the most wonderful day of my life. I’ll never forget these beautiful creatures.