3 Weeks of Travel in 3 Minutes (Lessons and Adventures)

Patara Elephant Farm – Chiang Mai, Thailand

Yesterday, I visited the Patara Elephant Farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand (www.pataraelephantfarm.com). They’re a great organization that rescues and breeds elephants. The program I participated in is called Elephant Owner for a Day. No words can describe how incredible this day was for me but I’ve chosen to attempt anyhow.

Me taking a selfie with an elephant who smiled for the camera :)

Me taking a selfie with an elephant who smiled for the camera 🙂

Upon arrival at the property, we were greeted by a baby elephant and his mother. For the first hour, the staff simply observed us in order to determine which elephant would be our best fit. Just like humans, elephants have very distinct personalities and therefore, it’s important for the staff to carefully match the elephant and his/her “owner” for the day.

Patara Elephant Farm
Patara Elephant Farm

The baby elephant was very playful and kept trying to wrestle with us. Though he be but small, he is STRONG.

The baby elephant was very playful and kept trying to wrestle with us. Though he be but small, he is STRONG. Mama is always close by.

After this initial period of observation and a quick debriefing on the elephants, it was time for the staff to reveal our matches. We sat in a circular hut as they went around one by one and told us who our elephant for the day would be. When they got to me, I was informed that I had been chosen as the best match for Booyin, the alpha male and leader of our herd. He was noticeably larger than the other elephants and one of the only ones in our group with tusks.

Booyin

Booyin

I must admit, upon first sight, I was intimidated by Booyin. “He is the dominant male of our herd and doesn’t like to be told what to do,” the staff warned. “…But don’t worry, you will be great with him. Just don’t be afraid because he will sense your fear and lose respect.” ……….”Okay, I can do this,” I tried to reassure myself.

Booyin and I meet for the first time.

Booyin and I meet for the first time.

Despite my initial hesitation, Booyin and I hit it off from the start. The other guests would come over to us and want their picture taken with him. I found myself feeling territorial as I stroked his side and reluctantly agreed. (Perhaps I had more in common with Booyin than I thought?;) I fed him bananas from a basket (he stole a bunch too), while patting his head and saying, “Deedee, Booyin.” Which means “Good boy, Booyin.” We took our time getting comfortable with one another. I suspect Booyin sensed my initial fear, but as soon as I began to warm up, so did he.

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Before long, it was time for us to begin our 45 minute hike through the jungle. In order to get onto his back, I commanded Booyin to bend down. He bowed with his front right leg bent. I stood on his calf as he raised me effortlessly and I used his ear to pull myself the rest of the way up. I sat on his neck, my legs firmly clutching just behind his ears. I had nothing to hold onto and was suddenly much higher off the ground than I expected. We began our trek.

Patara Elephant Farm

We hiked through the jungle, up steep hills and back down. Through winding bends, and near the edge of deep cliffs. At one point, when we were descending a particularly steep and rocky hill, Booyin began to jog. I bounced around his neck, fearful that at any moment I would fall. I squeezed my legs as tight as I could and commanded Booyin to slow down. But he was used to being the boss and gave little attention to my measly commands. Instead, he graciously pressed his large ears back, covering my legs, as if to say, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you.” I instantly felt much more secure. Not only was I holding onto Booyin, but now he was also holding onto me.

Patara elephant farm

Never mind his independent nature and somewhat naughty streak, I trusted Booyin and he could sense this. In return for my trust, he gave me his trust and made sure to treat me with gentleness and care. Our connection was amazing. I wish I could describe this experience better, but like all of life’s best moments, it simply can’t be captured.

Patara Elephant Farm

After 45 minutes of trekking through the jungle, I was relieved when we reached a water hole and Booyin jumped in. I slid off his back and began to splash him with water. I used a brush to comb the dirt off his legs and trunk, only to discover I would need to climb back on him in order to brush the dirt off his back. After his bath, we splashed around in the water together before heading to a nearby waterfall so that I could wash myself, too. And boy was I dirty. In fact, the dirt still remains under my finger and toenails. I had no idea spending a day with an elephant could be so dirty. When I got home last night, I scrubbed my hands and feet for over an hour and still wasn’t able to remove all the dirt. I did, however, gain a nice, large blister on my right thumb from trying. Regardless, the stubbornness of dirt and mud pales in comparison to the joy of bonding with an elephant like I did with Booyin.

Lovely Lunch by the waterfall

Lovely Lunch after swimming in the waterfall

Booyin stealing kisses (and food) from me during lunch.

Booyin stealing kisses (and food) from me during lunch.

If you are ever in Chaing Mai and have a chance to visit Patara Elephant farm, do yourself a favor and go. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Just 24 hrs until I’m backpacking in SE Asia

Tomorrow I’m leaving to backpack through Thailand and Vietnam by myself. It will be my first time backpacking abroad alone. Up until two nights ago, upon hearing my family members express their concern, I’ve had little to no reservations or anxiety about my trip. I understand why my family would be nervous for me. I’m the youngest child of three and will likely always be “the baby” in their eyes. I take their concerns as an expression of love and don’t accept them as personal. After all, I know who I am and what I’m capable of. (More importantly, I know who my God is and what He is capable of)

While I appreciate my family’s expressions of concern, I also think that they don’t understand (nor may they ever) just how well equipped I am for this journey. If I were to try to give them concrete examples for how this is so, I would fail. Because it’s true that backpacking in SE Asia is something I haven’t done before.

So how do I know that I’m well equipped?

I know that this world can be a cold and scary place. I’ve experienced it firsthand, probably more so than most people my age. I know that as a woman traveling alone, I face unique challenges. But, none of this is new to me. The same challenges hold true in my own country, living alone as a female. The truth is, I wouldn’t take a trip like this if I didn’t feel safe and/or experienced enough to do so.

Experience is our greatest teacher and life so far has taught me much. For example, I know that good people are everywhere. That strangers offer to help at the most unexpected times. And that my God goes before me and stands behind me. That I am never truly alone. It’s precisely this knowledge that has propelled me to go fearlessly forward in most all of my endeavors.

But backpacking in Asia? Where did this come from? And why does it feel so natural for me?

I’m pondering this question and realize something incredible…

Every thing up to this point in my life has been preparing me to take this trip.

From the time I was nine years old, insisting that I fly by myself from my hometown in North Carolina to a summer camp in Missouri, I have always taken my own path. More often than not, this path has been a solo one. I feel the upmost comfortable being alone and I purposefully seek out experiences that challenge me. I always have.

I also find traveling alone to be particularly enjoyable. When I was fifteen, I travelled across the US on a bus with dozens of other kids. I toured almost the entire continent of Europe with a small group in high school. And I spent two summers taking classes in Salamanca, Spain. On all of these trips, I enjoyed going off on my own. I always made my own way through the hotels and airports. Perhaps, a strong desire for freedom is written in my DNA. I don’t know. But what I do know is that I’m perfectly capable of traveling to foreign places on my own. In fact, I prefer it.

Ok, so I’ve traveled to various parts of the world and always enjoyed exploring on my own. But still, I’ve never traveled abroad by myself. There were always other people, or a set schedule, or someone I planned to meet.

(I should note that the idea for this trip was sparked by a friend who is taking one of his own. People are often used to push us towards our next destination on life’s journey. While I will be seeing him abroad, the majority of my time will be spent alone. I don’t know whether his role was simply to push me towards this step, or if he’ll wind up holding a larger role in the next chapter of my journey. But I’m grateful for the role he played in getting me to this moment….typing on my computer, just 24 hours away from backpacking alone in the “foreign” continent of Southeast Asia.)

“Foreign” is an interesting word. We call SE Asia foreign because they don’t share our language or culture. But cultures vary widely, no matter where you are.

And there are far more foreign things than a language barrier.

For example, when I left everything behind after college and moved by myself to Los Angeles, THAT was foreign. When I befriended a group of Rastas who took me under their wing, and to this day, care deeply for my safety and well-being, THAT was foreign. When I drove 14 hours by myself to a small suburb of New Jersey and stayed on a couch for two weeks with three guys I met the day before, making music, THAT was foreign. Or just last summer, when I hitchhiked across Hawaii with a stranger and wound up meeting some of the most incredible, hospitable, and helpful human beings to date, THAT was really foreign.

And amazing. And liberating. And life changing.

I think I’ve always sought out foreign experiences for these reasons. They challenge, change, amaze, and liberate me. Language, I’ve learned, is just a compilation of words, and certainly not the most prevalent or useful form of communication. In fact, life’s greatest moments typically involve only a small exchange of words, if any at all.

The reality is, all of my life experiences thus far have been preparing me to take this trip.

So while no, I haven’t backpacked alone through foreign countries before, it’s not necessarily new to me either.

After some reflection (sparked my family’s expressions of concern- so thank you!), I can now say with confidence, that this trip was, and always has been, the inevitable next step on my journey. And I can’t wait to see where it goes from here!

To be continued…