Just before we get stuck into this amazing post I just wanted to say that the wifi has been dow and unfortunately I haven’t been able to post. I’m not sure when it will be up and running but stay tuned and I will get up some pictures when I can but know this…. we are all having the time of our lives.
Walking With Elephants; A Day in the Life of a Volunteer on The Cambodian Wildlife Sanctuary
Written by Natalie “Bucky” Buchholz
This morning I woke in paradise, the sun filtering through the thatch and open window of our traditional Cambodian cabin. My bunk mate, Carly, and I opened our front door to find a world full of life and wonder. Even on the thinning edges of the jungle, geckos and long tailed lizards appeared from nowhere fleeing our steps as we made our way to breakfast. The group was well rested, although some volunteers had had visits from unexpected guests. It appeared that one of the girls cabins had a run in with a rat, and recruited Joe to remedy the situation, waking most of the boys and a few of the other sleeping volunteers in the process.
After a simple, but delicious breakfast, the volunteers split up into 3 working groups. One group left to build a house for the workers, while another helped construct a pond for the monkey enclosure. My group went on a jungle walk, which was the most surreal experience of my young life.
We met the mahouts (elephant handlers) at the edge of the elephant enclosure and disembarked on a hike into the 20,000 acres of jungle that makes up The Cambodian Wildlife Sanctuary. The jungle itself was bursting with life. It was impossible to take in everything surrounding us, the height of the trees, the fruits that peppered the ground, the mushrooms that pushed their way through the earth and burst from tree trunks, all the while hearing the mahouts traipsing behind us, gently singing traditional chants and calling the elephants forward. We came around a bend and entered a clearing. When we turned back, there they were. Three of the four elephants at the sanctuary had followed us into the jungle, Sorai-Mia, Arun Reah, and Di-Poh, pulling up long strands of grass and munching contentedly as they went.
As we continued on, the sound of the elephants surprisingly light footsteps trailing behind us, I spoke to Chan, one of the workers on the sanctuary and our guide for the morning. Chan told me about growing up in Siem Reap, what the schooling system was like, and how her brother had worked on the sanctuary before her, eventually encouraging Chan to come work here herself. While we talked and wandered she pointed out various plants and fruits to me, telling me their names and how the locals used them. Chan paused in one of her answers to my many questions to pick the top of a knee high shrub, telling me to split open the center stem and taste the juice. The taste was like a sweet and sour candy. When I told the others this they all gathered and tried the juice only to find Chan laughing at us and telling us that they use the sap as soap.
In a few minutes we reached another clearing and stopped to sit at an open air hutch overlooking a dammed up lake. We sat there, enjoying the breeze and watched the elephants backs cresting above the long grasses. They seemed so far, and yet they were suddenly there, waiting for the truck to arrive with their morning sugar cane. The truck dropped off the cane and the elephants followed the mahouts to our shelter where they lazily munched their snacks and allowed us to pet their trunks.
I sat on the ledge of the hutch, watching one of the elephants head towards the pond when I felt something rough brush against my side. Sorai-Mia, the youngest of the four elephants, had silently crept up on me, and was now gently leaning her left shoulder on my side. I was taken aback by the clarity and human like intelligence staring back at me from her large, brown eyes. Her ears gently grazed my face as I returned her stare, her trunk reaching around as I pet her face and leaned back into her side. For a moment I placed my head onto her shoulder and heard the slow, yet strong, steady beat of her heart, echoing over the soft whoosh of her lungs filling with air. We both sighed, and at that moment I felt that we were one and the same.
We made our way back to the common area shortly after saying goodbye to our new friends. The whole group had a hearty vegetarian lunch and then headed out for afternoon projects. My group planted jackfruit saplings in the monkey enclosure, ensuring a future food source for both the animal residents and the volunteers who visit the sanctuary. The sanctuary itself is self sufficient. There is a nursery and garden where saplings, vegetables, and fruits are grown to supply all of the residents needs, the daytime electricity is generated by solar panels, helping to decrease the amounts of fossil fuels used on site, and volunteers come to help care for the elephants and continue building or updating enclosures.
Once the jackfruit was planted our group went to clean the elephant enclosures, shoveling up droppings and raking up uneaten sugar cane.
Then came everyone’s favorite part of the day; feeding time. The elephants returned with their mahouts and the volunteers gathered around to feed them sugar cane and watermelon. Each volunteer would take up a handful of cane and approach an elephant, talking to her and gently stroking her trunk while she reached up and took the canes from the volunteer. Feeding time seems to be when the elephants personalities show the best. Di-Poh purposefully drops her sugar cane so that she can gather more at her feet to eat later, while Arun Reah acts protective of Sorai-Mia and makes sure the sanctuary dogs don’t get too near. Sorai-Mia, in the meantime, takes her fill, every once in a while pausing to poke Arun Reah in the temple. Kahn Lin, an older, blind elephant, eats separately from the others. The volunteers approached her slowly, talking to her and stroking her trunk so she knew where they were, she would hold out her trunk and we’d feed her balls of rice and bananas.
The volunteers headed back to the common area where a monk blessed us and wished us luck and safety in our travels. He had us sit in two lines, each of us reaching forward to touch each other’s shoulders while he blessed us with holy water and adorned us with hand made bracelets. We thanked him for his blessing and warm welcome and tucked into a delicious dinner.
As I head to bed I know that another day of adventure and surprise awaits me. This morning I woke refreshed in paradise. Tonight I will fall asleep to the soundscape of the Cambodian Jungle, feeling hot and tired, but completely at peace.