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This weekend brings the close of my third week working at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand’s Elephant Rescue and Education Centre, and marks a month of staying in Thailand. I’m glad I’m only halfway through the journey – but it is most certainly flying by too quickly. Before I know it I’ll be back in New Zealand. I have discussed with other volunteers my displeasure at the thought of potentially returning to my ‘old life’ back home. In New Zealand I had convinced myself that I would be content settling there as long as I could adventure somewhere once a year and get involved in projects I truly care about – now that I’m here I’m not sure if that will be enough for me though. However, travel and volunteering takes money, and I do have responsibilities in New Zealand that I ought to uphold. I would love to backpack forever and dedicate myself to wildlife – but I also need security, including financial security, and so I know I will return to my current job (which I love) to build up funds for the next adventure.
People here have mixed desires and plans – many are continuing travel after they leave the Centre, others will happily go back to their normality. Most seem content with the decisions they have made regarding the immediate future – sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who is almost terrified to return to my life at home. I know I will be going back with a different mindset though; things won’t be the same. I certainly won’t be the same. For this I am grateful.

In New Zealand I had truly been craving an escape from the western rat race and our peer-pressured culture. Growing up I was terrified of going away. Anxiety of the unfamiliar ruled me, and I feel I did not enjoy many away-from-home experiences (school camps, trips to family in other parts of the country, holidays overseas) nearly as much as I would have or as much as anyone else would have because I spent so long feeling homesick and clinging to familiarity. I don’t know when this changed. I grew up with the same groups of friends, I had a very stable family life, I always lived in my home town in Auckland – but somewhere along the line, somewhere after university, I must have suddenly grown more confident in myself, began questioning our western normality and found that a lot of it really didn’t gel with me. Thus comes in the steady criticisms of “Sam, you’re running away from your problems” – this is a line I hate. People I have known for years look at me like I’m not living correctly, just because I don’t want to be a part of so much of what we class as normal or important at home. I’ve gone through this before in earlier posts – fashion, money, power, popularity, the number of people you can ‘hook up with’ in a night, the robotic routine of work-sleep-work-sleep-play-sleep-work, and all the ways people manipulate and hurt each other for the sake of selfish desire. I think I was drawn to Thailand because I wanted to be a stranger – invisible in a way. Where I am right now white people are far from invisible; they are gawked and waved at, but a vast language barrier and the fact that I come from such an obviously different life does mean I am incredibly separated from the locals in many distinct ways. Once upon a time the thought of this would have utterly terrified me – I think a part of the reason I feel so uplifted and free here has come from the sudden realisation that I am actually completely comfortable and have totally embraced being away from ‘home’. I’m not afraid, I’m not homesick, I am a stranger but I feel as though I belong – at some point in my life I changed, and I lost my dependency for what I once would have classed as familiar. I am happy because I realise I am finally free. In a way I do perceive my ‘old life’ as a potentially binding chain, but I think life is what you make it – you are the person you want to be. I want to be a person who does things that makes me smile – I hope that when I return home with a new-found peace and freedom I will smile a lot more.

If you have kept up with my travels so far, you will know I arrived at WFFT a week after being in Bangkok. I turned up on a particularly busy morning where about a dozen other volunteers also arrived. It was a big group for the Centre considering there were already over 20 volunteers well settled in. My first day was spent getting familiar with my room, the food I would be eating for the next month and a half, the sanctuary itself, and the other volunteers I had arrived with. People came from a range of backgrounds – those like me who have worked with animals all their lives, to those here participating for school credits, to those who have never worked with animals but were looking for a change. I met my roommates – two awesome girls from the states in the middle of veterinary school. Accommodation seems to vary around the Centre, but everyone has a bed, a roommate-shared toilet and a simple shower-head on the wall. Rooms have a light, a fan and some form of storage if you don’t wish to live straight out of your suitcase. There are communal areas – where we eat lunch and dinner, watch DVDs or just sit around and chat, and there is even a bar kept open by Thai staff three nights a week. I hadn’t known what to expect before arriving, but I think I was somewhat surprised in a positive way at how inviting and volunteer-friendly the Centre is. That doesn’t mean there aren’t things to get used to. My first night saw me apprehensive to go near that bathroom – the toilets do not flush, the piping doesn’t allow for toilet paper, and the cold showers very often lose water pressure when you are all soaped up with a head full of shampoo, meaning you are forced to use a miniscule trickle to rinse everything off over a drawn-out period of time.
Stories of creepy crawlies mortified me on my first night. I mucked around with my mosquito net until I was sure that no mozzies, venomous centipedes or anything else with legs or wings would be getting anywhere near me. Unfortunately I hadn’t realised we were welcome to pick pillows up from the Laundry – I spent a very uncomfortable, pillow-less night tossing and turning so much that by morning I was tangled in a pointless mosquito net with my limbs sticking out all over the place.

Most of the volunteers that arrived together seemed to gel into a group quite quickly. It was obvious who had been there for a particular length of time – everyone was friendly, but there often were segregated groups. I spoke to a couple of volunteers who had been here a couple of months so far – they said that they had seen so many people come and go that by now they found it almost pointless to get to know new volunteers that would only be here a few weeks. At that point I didn’t really understand this mindset; I felt that I would always be excited to meet new, enthusiastic workers. Now, however, I most definitely can identify. People tend to turn up in groups, have little or no understanding of how the Centre works, and the dynamics of everything changes. I appreciate that after a while you would stop wholly investing yourself in new groups and instead stick to people who are as settled as you, with whom you have developed routine and understanding.

We were told that our group was particularly loud – but also very enthusiastic and hard-working. I heard more than once that it was refreshing to have determined, able bodies around the Centre. Apparently not everyone here is as open to hard work as others. This surprised me; I would have thought that anyone here, especially after paying a donation, would be ready for the experience and would be keen to work.

Daily job board

Daily job board

Myself and a couple of other ‘longer-term’ volunteers were trained up by one of the Centre’s employees as opposed to other volunteers; she saw our potential and wanted to make sure we were trained correctly so that we could pass knowledgeable information on to future volunteers. I spent my first few days getting used to the routine of the elephants ‘up top’ – those you cannot go in with without a mahout present. By my fourth day here I became a Leader and was training people new to my particular rounds. I loved that early group of volunteers; we supported each other to a high level and got along so well. Work days were productive and fun. I really enjoyed working with Pai Lin, See Puak and Duanphen, and started getting to know the different personalities of the mahouts. I felt settled in very quickly, and by the end of my first week was confident with the routines of most of the elephants. In the evenings a huge group of us would go out for dinner, visit night markets, take over a bar in Hua Hin or stay at the Centre and play games or watch movies. Strangely, although I had wanted to escape so much of that western culture, in this new environment it all felt so different. It is amazing what surrounding yourself with like-minded people can do. My first week was a blast, and I loved every minute of it.

Night market - Hua Hin

Night market – Hua Hin

Volunteer night out - Hua Hin

Volunteer night out – Hua Hin