A few months back I had the experience of a lifetime – I spent an entire week volunteering at an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This trip is one that I had been wanting to do for 10 years. I first heard of The Elephant Nature Park from a flight attendant who had gone there on her honeymoon. Though I thought it an odd choice at the time, as my honeymoon was spent sipping rum punch on a beach in Jamaica, I have since come around to realize her experience far outweighed my gluttonous week of all you can eat restaurants and sand in my crotch…as far as honeymoons are concerned, she won.
I arrived at ENP unsure of how the experience would shape me. I knew the basics of what we would be doing – prepping food (Did you know elephants eat 800 lbs of food a day?), picking up shit (400lbs a day…each!), and cleaning the park of the discarded corn tusks the elephants deemed inedible (picky, picky, picky). I had no idea there would also be 460 dogs there (most saved from the flood of Bangkok in 2011), herds of water buffalo, endless cats, goats, chickens, and any other type of animal that has needed rescuing in the past 25+ years. I also had no idea what the tourism industry had done to these magnificent creatures including torture, mutilation, and murder of many of the mothers in order to take the young. That week I learned a lot. I saw more than what I thought my heart could handle. That week, I became a voice for those who can’t speak…
I won’t go into specifics on the industry – just know that it must be pretty bad for a large global company like Trip Advisor to stop offering tours to animal-related attractions siting welfare and abuse – including elephant rides. It is a small step in the right direction and one that will have me as a customer for life…provided the follow-through is there. But more importantly, I wondered what I could do to make a difference? The answer – Educate.
On our last night at the sanctuary I took an oath: Take what I learned and spread it to others. Not a week or two later I saw my first opportunity. My friend, Mr. Groovy, tweeted a post on his FOMO of FI experiences…the picture attached was another blogger on an elephant ride. UGH… First off, I get it. I can totally see why someone would want to ride the largest and most intelligent mammal in the world. To see the world from above and to feel the mighty strength beneath you. I get it. I HAVE DONE IT. But now I know better. And so I wrote him. I wrote a private email explaining that his FOMO was messing up my MOJO. Seeing that image made me cringe inside and made me wonder if others might do the same. I wrote him a note apologizing in advance for bursting his bubble but I needed to take a minute to explain the truth behind that image. That promoting it hurts the very creature that we admire so much we want to climb on top and go for a ride. When it was time to press send, I hesitated. I am new to this community, love the Groovy’s, and didn’t want to overstep the boundaries of interfering with another man’s written word. But then I thought about it. I remembered the night that I took the oath. Sitting in that wood and grass hut surrounded by 35 other volunteers (and one HUGE spider), most with tears streaming down our faces, all shaking our heads in unison that we would do our best to end the images our eyes and hearts could never erase. I had to take a stand for what, in my mind, is right. I pushed send.
Once it was sent I had a total freak out! I called my boyfriend crying and told him I made a terrible mistake. Who am I to tell another person what they should and shouldn’t do or promote in their spare time? Why was I standing on a soapbox when I myself had done the very same thing (and, gasp, I have swum with dolphins as well!)? But, again, when you know better you do better. My BF listened and then took a deep breath. If there is any one person (besides my mom) who knows how much I love animals it is him. He has seen me pull over to grab a dog on the side of the road (multiple times), bring lost bunnies to wildlife rescues, trap and release every kind of spider in our house, and guide misguided birds down the back staircase. He has seen it all. But on this point he agreed – perhaps interfering with another person’s desires meant I had taken it too far. He told me not to expect a positive response if there was any response at all. But moments later it came. Mr. Groovy responded. And he was as pleasant as can be. And today…he responded again – my first clue was on Twitter:
If you haven’t yet read his post you can do so HERE. He talks about the correlation between personal finance and ethics. Are they involved? Should they be? And what can we do to promote the two. After reading the post, I wrote my response…it turned out much longer than I intended but I asked (and was granted) permission to share it here:
Like I said, a much longer comment than I anticipated! But even so, I held back. 🙂 What I wanted to mention was the best form of travel I have found has been to include some sort of volunteer activity with every trip I do…it makes my money have a greater impact on me and the world. In addition to my time in Thailand at the ENP, I have volunteered to write compostela’s in Spain at the end of the Camino De Compostela, I walked the first European Peace Walk across 6 countries mapping the way and adding signs for future walkers, and I have plans to volunteer in both Cuba and Peru next year with a possible Cambodia trip to help stop human trafficking. Besides the good juju factor, the financial bonus to these types of vacations (including the fact that one hour massages are only $6 in Thailand!!) is that they are usually far cheaper than a typical resort style trip…and, if you know me at all, you know I love a good bargain for a great cause!
Rum and coconut water never tasted so good!! 🙂 There are so many opportunities out there to use your money for good while also getting an education and a bit of a vacation… so what will you choose? What will you use your time and money for? Can you align your travels to make a greater impact on your destination? All food for thought!
Until next time…
PS – If you would like more information on the Elephant Nature Park and their mission you can read all about it HERE. If you would like to visit, I HIGHLY encourage the $350 cost for one week of an incredible experience including AWESOME vegan food – you can learn more about visiting or volunteering HERE. If you would like to see one of the many videos that have inspired me to speak out against the cruelty of these animals you can see that HERE…I warn you, it is graphic (with a few typos) and not for the faint of heart but seeing it will make you stronger to fight on their behalf. Thank you for reading/watching!!