As I write this, I'm sitting on the floor of a bamboo hut. It's late afternoon in Northern Thailand and the days are still warm here as monsoon season comes to an end. I'm learning to love the bugs, humidity, and simple life the jungle has to offer. Mostly though, I love my new elephant friends and the people I work with.
Anthony and I spend our days volunteering with Daughters Rising, an organization that employs, empowers and educates women refugees and women at risk for trafficking. I help specifically with their marketing and website while occasionally teaching English or taking the girls on field trips. For example, we all learned to kick some serious ass in our Muay Thai class last week.
So that the girls can earn their own paycheck, they work at The Chai Lai Orchid, an eco-lodge in the jungle. Anthony and I live nearby in a bamboo hut and use the café as our workplace. The Chai Lai Orchid focuses on sustainable tourism and is working on leading the example of humane elephant treatment in their surrounding area. They just launched a CrowdRise campaign to rescue overworked, chair-ridden elephants from a camp across the river.
While Anthony only arrived in Thailand last week after trekking through Nepal, I have been here almost 4 weeks now. Thailand really feels like home to me - it has from the moment I arrived. The people here are as warm as the air and I love everything about this place.
Some days have been more challenging than others though, specifically last week when a man lost his life in the river.
His name was Chai and he was a mahout or elephant caretaker. Chai worked for the elephant camp across the river, the one The Chai Lai Orchid is fundraising to rescue the elephants from.
Last Wednesday, Somjai, one of the male elephants, was in musth. This is a large rise in testosterone levels that causes extreme aggression and can make male elephants very dangerous. When musth occurs, it is typical for them to be secluded or led to the jungle to mate. Even though all the mahouts protested, a high demand in tourism forced Chai to ride Somjai anyway that day.
It was around nine in the morning when, as I was eating breakfast in the river café, I saw Somjai pass by with Chai on his head and a family of three tourists in a chair. They descended into the river, about 300 feet from where I was sitting when Somjai threw Chai from his head before stabbing him in the neck with his tusks. Somjai then trampled Chai before running off down the river with the tourists (they were physically unharmed).
I was one of the first on the scene. We pulled Chai's body from the bloody water and attempted CPR, but he was already gone. Another Daughter's Rising volunteer and I placed a sheet over him as we waited the grueling 45 minutes for the paramedics. His body ended up laying on the rocks for over three hours. Bystanders shamelessly snapped photos of his body until he was carried away.
I share this story with you because I believe it is important to raise awareness about the inhumane treatment of both elephants and mahouts in Asia (as well as animal cruelty everywhere - including the US). If I am learning anything from my time in Thailand, it is that animals deserve respect.
This accident was so avoidable. Now, an unemployed widow is left to care for her children and an elephant will lose his tusks. Sadly, the tour company arrived the next morning anyway, expectant for chair tours. As the funeral for Chai was underway, tourists rode elephants and snapped selfies.
I also share this story because I believe my readers are my family and friends who want to come around those in need. I believe the internet is a powerful tool to share our stories, raise awareness, and work as a community towards solving problems. It's why I write and it's why I'm still here.
Today a friend asked me why I didn't leave after the incident - I am, after all, on an around the world trip with my husband. I could wipe my hands clean and board a plane tomorrow. It would be easy for me to give my condolences and then leave. It would be even easier to write a check on my way out. But after thinking through this for a few moments, I landed on this as my answer:
I'm not leaving because, while it might be easier or safer to detach, I want to dive deeper and ground myself here. I want to stick around through the pain and watch as this story finds redemption. I'm here for the moment the light shines through. I want to give every piece of my being to helping fight for change.
I'm developing such a strong, deep respect for non-profit workers. Their work is incredibly hard, exhausting, and grueling. It requires sacrifice and laying it all out on the table every, single day. These selfless workers are fighters and heroes. They believe in a better way and they sacrifice everything for it. They have hope, even though their work involves scaling walls. I'm honored to join their fight.
Will you also join in?
I know I'm using a "big ask" here, but I believe my people care about those in need - whether humans or animals - and I hope we can watch the light shine through this story together.
First, will you help me raise money for Fasai, Chai's wife? She's a Daughters Rising alumni and weaves fabrics for RISE. She is now supporting 2 children (Matthew, age 3 & Airay, age 12) and must find work since the lawsuit from Chai's death is only providing her $50 a month. Our goal is to raise enough money for her to start a sustainable business.
Additionally, The Chai Lai Orchid is raising money to rescue 11 elephants, including 4 babies, from the elephant camp across the river. With high demands from tourist companies, the elephants give rides all day, without time to rest or eat. On top of that, most mahouts, who are mostly refugees from Burma, receive less than half of minimum wage and work without medical benefits or vacation days. They work long hours and do not receive any education on how to properly care for an elephant.
As you can imagine, elephants are as expensive as they are big. The Chai Lai Orchid needs to raise almost $300 a day, or $9,000 a month, to rent the elephants and run the camp in a humane way. This means no chairs and fair wages for the mahouts. Their goal is to show the current owner that tourists from around the world will still pay to visit elephants in a natural and humane environment.
I read this beautiful quote today from Askhari Johnson Hodari:
“If everyone helps to hold up the sky, then one person does not become tired.”
What a beautiful concept, to come around those in need and help to hold up their sky.