When I traveled India last year, I did so with the naive idea that I would find myself and volunteer with elephants. I say naive without judgment, because I was naive. I am naive. And I didn't find myself. But I found an elephant.
Without consent, my friend and I were taken to a man who claimed to rescue elephants, claimed being the operative word here. He used them for money, wanting us to ride his elephants. We refused to do so, being perfectly content in her mere presence. This was far from popular, and we left fairly quickly. I remember looking back through the car window and I saw that there were already new tourists in our place, climbing on top of "our" elephant. We didn't do anything "wrong", but it sure felt wrong. While sitting in the car, leaving the elephant behind, I felt dirty. The kind of dirty you only ever feel when you have gone against all that you know in your heart to be right.
What do you call bad news that isn’t bad? Or that isn’t news either? Information coming your way that makes your inside freeze, that opens a place inside you filled with old pain? A fleeting moment that passed almost instantly, but left you out of breath? I had one of those. I got bad news that wasn’t bad, and wasn’t news. When done right, old pain can be a good wake up call. Once again, I woke up. Reminded that if I want to be happy, I must make myself happy. That was when I booked my week at the Elephant Nature Park. One week of volunteering, an early birthday present to myself.
Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary and rescue center in Northern Thailand. The founder is a small woman with a big heart, and the courage of a thousand tigers. She has dedicated her life to rescue elephants from the terrors caused by humanity. Through abuse, death threats and a constant wall of resistance, she has saved more than 200 elephants in 20 years. She saw suffering, and could not – would not, close her eyes. Her name is Lek, and she is an absolute hero to me. At this very moment, 74 elephants can call the Elephant Nature Park it’s home. 74 elephants with different disabilities and mental issues caused by humans. They have been saved, and in the park they can live out the rest of their life in peace.
Elephant Nature Park is surrounded by some controversy. Some people swear by her dedication towards the animals, whilst others insist that she’s a hard knock business woman in it for the money. I see no contradiction between the two arguments. Lek is a tough business woman, yes. She must be that in order to save the elephants she declare to be her family. I suspect that the big contradiction and controversy, that is the root to all the other controversy, is the fact that Lek is a woman. And not just any plain lady, but a woman born from the hill tribes north of Chiang Mai. Now she speaks in front of the United Nations, is written about all over the world and is the living proof that your background does not have to define who you are. Others peoples expectations is not the guidelines of your life. Lek fights for her family, regardless of the cost. Because she knows that there is nothing more important than being true to what you believe is right.
I don’t mean to toot my own horn now, but I am very in touch with my intuition, and I believe that I can “read” my environments pretty darn well. When I arrived at the Elephant Nature Park, something within me relaxed. Because even though I’ve had several people recommend the park to me, I was nervous. I have extremely high standards concerning animals. Even the general standard in Sweden, where I come from, is lacking in my opinion. Therefor, backpacking through Asia has been somewhat hard for me. For five months straight, I’ve seen it all. Chickens hanging by their feet, cows being forced to eat garbage, far too skinny horses carrying weights beyond them, and more homeless and injured cats and dogs than I can count. It filled my heart with despair. When I arrived at the Elephant Nature Park and saw how all the elephant, dogs, cats, cows, horses and all the other animals were being treated - it filled my heart with hope.
To be a weekly volunteer at Elephant Nature Park is to work hard, eat amazing food, witness the consequences of human cruelty, find lifelong friendships, laugh until you cry, carry more bananas than you ever thought you would in your life, become humble, fall in love with the surrounding jungle, find yourself standing knee deep in elephant poo, witness the consequences of human cruelty, lose all hope for humanity – and then find it again. To be a weekly volunteer is to see things you never ever wanted to see, but you know deep in your heart that you must. Because you must learn. And you have to pay it forward. Because above all, to be a weekly volunteer at Elephant Nature Park is to find your voice. And the motivation to use it.
People that support the elephant rides doesn’t do it to be cruel. People that gives money to begging elephants in the streets of Bangkok do it because they want to help. With the heart in the right place, but with a lack of knowledge. Lek spoke to all of us weekly volunteers about this. Her vision, and our mission, is based upon education. Help her spread the word, use our voices and tell all of you what is happening to the elephants, and why it is happening. And of course, how we can change the future for all elephants. Therefore, I am writing this post.
I will link a short video and some articles at the end of this post. And I dare you to see it all, read it all. This could be one of the harshest truths you'll see today. Elephants are suffering because of humans. And therefore, it is our God damn responsibility to help them. If we have the right to take away their natural habitat, steal their children and abuse them to our submission – it is our obligation to save them. I can’t do everything, and neither can you. But both of us can do something. Both of us can use our voices and speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. We can be the change we want to see in the world.
I will return to Elephant Nature Park someday. The warmth and love that lives in that place can open even the coldest Swedish heart. There I found everything I’ve ever wanted. A community, friendship, a vegan buffet, a way to help animals in need and I found knowledge. I did not however, find myself. Because there is nothing to find. Since I left for my Indian expedition I’ve come to realize that it is not about finding yourself, it never was. It is about accepting yourself. Accept your flaws, your shortcomings, your strengths, your weaknesses. And love yourself, unconditionally. After this week, I might just be a few steps closer to do just that. After this week, I am a few steps closer to being truly happy. I look back through the car window and I no longer feel dirty. I am using my voice now.
The experiences and the people I met in the Elephant Nature Park will always be in my heart. Thank you Lek, you are a true inspiration.
I urge, dare and warn you about the content in this videos and these articles. They contain a frightening truth. But to chose to not see the truth, is te most frightening thing of them all. So I give you: a video explaining what the problem, and the solution is, an article from the Independent concerning the dark truths behind unethical tourism and an article (with images of the elephants from the park) with information about the park and the work Lek and her volunteers do.