How many Americans can you fit in the back of a truck?
There is no limit, as long as they are friendly.
We woke up at 6:15, excited for our first elephant filled day at the Elephant Valley Project. After breakfast at the Green House restaurant, we piled in to several vans, along with a group of unsuspecting British volunteers. We took a road out of town and passed through several of the nearby communities, making sure to wave to all of the curious children. We soon reached the first field area of the extensive property owned by Jack and the Project.
Armed with pineapples, bananas, and lemongrass, we followed Jack into the jungle to meet our first elephant, a specimen named Onion. Onion, is an elephant who had been heavily abused. She had a chain attached to her foot and loosely draped around her neck as a safety measure in case she tried to run. Jack then explained to us that most of the elephants in the project had suffered extreme trauma in their time as work animals, and had thus “forgotten how to be an elephant”. Therefore, much of his work was in allowing the animal to relearn their natural behaviors in an environment where they could feel safe. Though it was hard to hear Onion’s sad story, it was clear that she was now happy and pleased to see us, or at least our sugary offerings.
We left Onion to her munching to meet the rest of the herd – four female elephants named Ning Wan, Mae Nang, Milot, and Ruby. Each elephant in the project has one to two Cambodian caretakers, called Mahouts. We watched (and heard) the elephants rumble into camp, each one with a Mahout perched behind their head. While there is a checklist of activities for each elephant to complete everyday, they are provided ample time to socialize as a herd without any obligations. Our group was able to observe them in their natural environment in a way that a zoo could offer.
After elephant viewing, we hiked back to the trucks to go to base camp, a cozy settlement of buildings, Cambodian workers, and a great dane named Xeraxs. For lunch we ate an assortment of local fruits and delicious curry. After waiting for the daily lunch-time rain shower to pass, it was time for elephant washing.
As it turns out, you can’t rush a creature that weighs 6000 lbs. more than you, so we sat and chatted as we waited for our elephants to show up. We then met the elephants Milot and Moon who waited patiently as we scrambled about with buckets and scrubbers. Some people also got a chance to touch their first elephant (think hairy rubbery leather). With the day’s activities over we headed back to town, and had a dinner of delicious curry. We were truly tired, but had little warning of what was in store for us the next day.
How do you tell a bar of soap from a gift wrapped candy?
You must taste it. There is no other way.
We woke up on Tuesday ready to work in the field. Unfortunately, there is no experience in America that can prepare one for hard labor in the Cambodian heat and humidity. Today, instead of fruit, we were armed with knives and hoes, with the task of clearing and planting a field by the end of the next day. For me, I describe the experience as similar to jumping into a muddy, salty lake and then heading straight to the sauna.
For lunch we ate delicious curry and watched the rain, which conveniently ended as we headed straight back to the field. Our merciless taskmaster Jack kept us company, and though he’ll never admit it, I think he was impressed by the vigor shown by a bunch of lazy Americans. We marinated in our sweat for a couple more hours as a swarm of (what else) dragonflies descended upon us, perhaps protecting us from the cloud of other, more irritating bugs. After our stinking bodies were hauled back to the hotel, we all agreed that there was absolutely nothing better than a cool shower. We slept well and deep after a dinner of delicious curry.
What smells worse than a rotting Jack fruit?
This is a trick question. Nothing smells worse than a rotting Jack fruit.
It was day two of field work, and this time we were better prepared, with a better idea of what was in store for us. We quickly cleared the rest of the field and started planting banana trees before lunch. A lunch of delicious curry was enjoyed just as the daily afternoon rain storm started.
Next Jack graciously gave us a new task – the collection of Jack fruit seeds, to be planted in the newly created field. This oh-so-pleasant task involved digging through rotting Jack fruit to procure the seeds. If this sounds unpleasant, don’t worry; the smell will only last 30 hours, tops. It was all worth it though to see Milot and Moon happily munching on ripe Jack fruit, with juice dripping down their gleeful faces. It was clear that they were eyeing our field, perhaps with dreams of raiding dancing through their heads.
In fact, though it was a lot of hard work, it was all worth it to know that we were helping these beautiful animals. With the knowledge of a job well done, we headed back to the hotel. And ate dinner. Of delicious curry.
10/29 Family Workshop (virtual)
11/11 Parent Cohort Virtual