Saturday, March 23, 2013

Earth Hour

It's Earth Hour here at the Treehouse.

The lights are out, the candles are lit, and everything's turned off except my computer.  But that's running on battery power, so I'm going to count that as Earth Hour-compliant.

I thought that in honour of the day I would share a few pictures from some power-free hours I spent wandering the shores of Lake Erie with a couple of pals.

My friends are GIANTS!

Camping at Rock Point Provincial Park is one of my favourite things to do in the summer.  I usually manage to get there at least two or three times a year.

Ancient lake bed.

When the afternoon wanes, we generally take a slow stroll along the shore toward the sunset.

Kelly Long-Legs.

The light is just incredible, changing constantly but ever so subtly, so that just when you think you know the shore you look around and realize it's completely different again.

Blue Steel.
I like to study the fossils and poke around in the muddy, weedy tidepools that are everywhere.  Or dip my toes in the cool water.  Or just look up at the sky and be quiet for awhile.

So still.

Observing Earth Hour reminds me to treasure hours like these.  Just a couple of pals and a sunset shore and a hundred thousand fossils. 

Or nights like tonight.  Just me, my candlelit Treehouse loft, a pile of soft pillows, the night sky outside the glass doors, and a few minutes alone with my thoughts.

Vote for me

Thursday, March 21, 2013

16 purely physical travel memories

The breathlessness of that first early spring dive into the steely blue-grey depths of Lake Erie.

Letting two Thai teens "teach" me Thai dance by essentially snapping my fingers off.

Flying backward down the aisle of the bus during a sudden stop on our way down from Lake Louise.

Learning the strength of an elephant's trunk as he tugs a banana out of my hand. 

Floating on a champagne cloud after an evening at the Moulin Rouge.

The slippery skin of a "bandit" (stingray) who sprung up unexpectedly under my feet in Florida.

Filling my lungs with cold misty mountain air after my triumphant ascent of a 4000m+ pass.

Shaking with anticipation in a darkened Broadway theatre waiting for my beloved Sir Patrick Stewart to take the stage as MacBeth.

Cuddling Funky the baby monkey.

Smoking a lotus seed cigarette with a clairvoyant monk in an overstuffed armchair.

Squeezing the spine of a piranha between my fingers.

Losing my grip on up-versus-down as I tumble in the barrel of a too-big wave in Mexico.

Feeling a baby alpaca wriggle with pleasure in my arms as his toes are tickled.

Floating out of myself somewhere around hour two of chanting with the monks at Wat Don Chan.

The stinging cold and stunning clarity of the water from the Athabasca Glacier.

Kissing by the light of the Southern Cross in the middle of the Andes.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Thai Cooking Class: Making A Spectacle of Myself

Many of my memories of Thailand are recorded in sensations: the way the flavour of my first-ever mango seemed to explode on my tongue; the thousand folds in an elephant's leathery skin beneath my fingers; the scent of hookah smoke as I watched it curl lazily up into an endless spread of stars over my little straw beach mat.

But these are the pleasant sensations.  I can think of at least one sensation I experienced in Thailand that was --- somewhat less pleasant.

My new pal Rose, whom I'd met while volunteering, suggested that we spend a day taking a Thai cooking course.  Seeing this as a means of inexpensively supporting my newly-accelerated Thai noodle addiction once I got back home, I agreed.

New friends - pleasant sensation!
We met our small class at the beautiful old teak wood building that housed the cooking school.  After a short orientation we were off to the local market to learn how to select ingredients.

That market was a blur of pleasant sensations: fresh fruits and vegetables piled in bright towers; the mingled scent of a hundred spices perfuming the air; fresh fish whizzing from vendor to vendor, slapping wetly as they connected with their targets.

We learned the fine art of choosing the best ingredients, sniffing and squeezing and bartering, and then toted our selections back to the school.

The teacher's daughter Bam-Bam made some excellent recommendations.

The first course (papaya salad) was prepared without incident.  The teacher complimented me on my dicing technique, and I moved into the next course -- green curry -- puffed up with gastronomic pride.  Forgetting, of course, that pride always comes before a fall.

 I was excited about the curry course because I was going to get to use a mortar and pestle for the first time.  The set we were using was massive and made of heavy stone, so the group took turns pounding the chili peppers. 

My first turn went by without incident.  I happily pounded away with the heavy pestle, the spicy chilies tickling my nose, then passed the mortar on when my arm got tired.  When my second turn came I took hold of the pestle, laughing, overconfident, and slammed it back down into the mortar.

I could never in a million years have managed it had I been trying, but I somehow hit the half-mashed chili at just the right angle to send a huge chunk of the fiery hot juice straight into my open left eye.

I can't remember exactly what thoughts were running through my head at the time, but I imagine they went something like "AAAAIIIIEEEEEEAIAIAIAIEEEE!" punctuated by some inventive cursing.  The mortar and pestle hit the ground with a mighty clunk.  My body flailed around wildly, unequipped to cope with that kind of pain.  A veritable waterfall of tears spouted from my eye in a vain attempt to flush the terrible stuff out. 

Fortunately for my ocular health (and my self-esteem), this was a common enough injury at the cooking school.  The teacher herded me over to the outdoor sink, turned on the tap and shoved my head under it.  As the tepid water slowly soothed my burning eyeball (but not my embarrassment), the rest of the group pounded up another pepper and finished the curry in record time.

Apparently you don't need to ingest chilies via the proper orifice for them to make you sweat.  Also, check out that bloodshot eye!  SEXY!

The rest of the courses were prepared without incident, thanks largely to the group's wise decision to keep me far away from any dangerous produce.  Once the burning had been reduced to a tolerable level I contrived to enjoy myself immensely.  I even managed to get in a few eye puns, each one cornea than the last (WAH-wah!).

I think it's safe to say that I learned a lot more in that cooking class than the average student.  I guess that makes me an excellent pupil?  Bahaha!  What, you don't like puns?  Don't lash out!  Wooo, eye'm on a roll!  Badoom-CHING!

Saturday, March 09, 2013

"A girl playing in the mud?!"

A little story from my childhood in honour of International Women's Day.

I would have posted it yesterday, but first I was busy helping my family and then getting all dressed up for a night out. Just like a woman. :)

One year my elementary school was renovating the long jump pits. The construction crews had dug them out leaving a massive mud pile in the middle of our playing field. I doubt that I need to explain what a temptation this was for a yard full of bored children. Naturally the administration instructed us not to touch the mud pile. And just as naturally, being told not to touch it made it next to impossible not to.

 The other girls managed to resist the lure of the mud pile, but about a dozen boys and I scaled the mighty mud mountain. We clambered happily over and around it, slipping and squelching until, inevitably, we were caught. They frogmarched us to the office and lined us up outside the principal's door. I was last in line, and I was petrified. Sure, I'd been chastised by the teacher for talking too much on occasion, but I'd never been in the kind of trouble that required the principal's intervention before.

One by one the boys went in, the door shut, the principal's voice droned for awhile, and then the boys came out. The line inched forward silently until it was my turn. I stepped inside the office, eyes cast down, and stopped on the worn spot in the carpet in front of the desk. I peeked timidly up at the principal from under my lashes and saw his eyes widen in surprise. "A girl?!", he exclaimed. "A girl playing in the mud?"

Not "A student with a perfect behavior record!", or "A child with straight A's!", but "A girl!", as though there was something shameful and shocking about a female who liked to play in the dirt.

I remember wondering as I carried out my punishment (copying two pages out of the dictionary by hand) if there was something wrong with me. Was it not OK for me to like dirt and bugs and the Ninja Turtles? Did I have to trade in my sneakers for jelly shoes in order to keep my 'girl card'? At the time the thought repulsed me. I was most decidedly a tomboy and I was determined to stay that way.

Now I'm a little smarter. I know being a girl can mean anything I want it to. I spent the first half of this International Women's Day using power tools to help hang a sign on my aunt's store. In a few minutes I'm going to put on makeup and heels and a fancy dress and spend the evening being ladylike. And tomorrow I'll probably go out and play in the almost-spring mud. All those girls are me, and that's pretty OK.

Horseshoe crab!

Saturday, March 02, 2013

When Kelly Met Needles: An Amazonian Love Story

A few people have asked me about this picture:

"Where are you?"  "What kind of fish is that?"  "And what the hell are you doing to it?"

I was in the Amazon jungle.  We set out before dawn, our group stumbling sleepily out of the lodge, down through the jungle, and piling into long wooden boats that cut almost silently through the dark water.

We were headed for an oxbow lake, which is a U-shaped body of water that's formed when a wide curve of a river is cut off and creates a lake (thanks Wikipedia!).  This was allegedly the favourite haunt of some river otters, and was also a good place to view many of the larger birds that lived in the area.

And then we were going to go piranha fishing.  Naturally.

The journey through the cool early morning was beautiful, the sun creeping dreamily up over the tops of the trees.  We drifted around the edges of the lake, but the otters didn't appear to be at home that day.  We did catch sight of a toucan in the distance, and some of the ubiquitous monkeys chittered away from the darkness below the canopy.

A couple of other boats joined us, keeping their distance to maximize the chances of seeing some wildlife, but there wasn't much to see.

At least, not above the surface of the lake.

Our guides pulled out a few fishing rods and some bloody chunks of mystery meat and showed us how to thread the meat securely over the hooks.  We all took it in turns to drop the hook into the water and jig the gruesome bait around, hoping to arouse the interest of the piranhas.

It seemed that we had chosen a bad spot.  All around us, cheers and cries erupted from other groups tucked into the folds of the shoreline as they pulled piranha after piranha from the depths.  But on our boat, no luck.  Well, one of our guides DID manage to pull up some kind of large snapping turtle, which was cool but not the kind of excitement we were looking for.

For some reason, I was very focused on catching a piranha.  Despite the gorgeousness of the brightening sky and the exotic foliage and my general distaste for harassing wild animals, all of my attentions were concentrated on the muddy water below.

I tried first one end of the boat and then the other, holding my rod near to the sides and then as far out as the pole would reach.  Wrinkling my nose, I squeezed more blood out of the meat to scent the waters with.  I tried to think like a poor defenseless prey fish, doing my best to make the bait glide cautiously through the water, then jerked it around as though I were in distress.

I had just about given up on ever catching anything (and was thinking some very dark thoughts about the more successful fishermen all around us) when I felt a sharp tug on the line.  I'm not sure, but I think I may have squealed like a 12-year-old.  I tried to remember all the advice my grandfather had given me about reeling in a fish:  don't jerk too hard or you'll shake him loose, but don't hesitate too long or he'll work himself free of the hook and get away.  I gritted my teeth, closed my eyes and pulled.

I bet we made a pretty hilarious sight, with the piranha swinging wildly over the boat and everyone diving out of the way as though it were a great white.  One of the guides managed to catch him in his hands and held him up for everyone to see.  He was tiny, but SO AWESOME.  His scales were a shiny golden-green, his eyes wide and red.  The guide showed us how to hold him by pinching him vertically between your thumb and index finger.  In this position, he couldn't move much so we could get a good look at him.  He offered a thick leaf to the little guy and we watched as his teeth, like tiny shards of broken glass, shredded it effortlessly.  Needles, I thought.  That's his name.

I was feeling pretty bad for poor Needles, stuck up here out of the water, but I was ACHING to hold him just for a minute.  The guide passed him carefully over to me.  I was struck by how solid his body was.  The other fish I'd held were floppy and fluid, but Needles was like a slimy green rock.  With terrifying teeth.  I looked him in the eye for a minute, predator to predator, and thanked my lucky stars that I was so much bigger than him.

After everyone had had a chance to get a quick look, I insisted that it was time for Needles to get some oxygen.  As I tossed him back into the lake, I was worried that we'd kept him out too long, but my worries were in vain.  With a contemptuous flick of his tail, Needles shot off into the depths in search of less annoying company.  Or perhaps a snack.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Say sure!

Hey guys, what's up?  What do you mean, where have I been?

I've spent the last couple of days with my family in Niagara helping my auntie Lise get her new store ready for the grand opening in the first week of March.

Ain't it pretty?

I'm really glad I was able to come home and help her, and not just because I, y'know, love her and all.  I've had a really rough couple of weeks, and tearing down crappy walls and painting up shiny new ones is all soothing and symbolic and stuff.

While we were working today, my aunt told me about my childhood catchphrase.  Whenever I asked someone for something, I would immediately follow it with "Say sure!" in my chirpiest, winning-est voice.

"Hey Auntie Lise, want to go to McDonald's?  Say sure!"

"Hey mom, can we go to the zoo?  Say sure!"

"Hey dad, it's OK if I keep this raccoon I found, right?  Say sure!"

My mom said "sure" to short-shorts!

I love this, and I'm making it my new philosophy!

"Self," I'll say, "Wanna sign up for that tap class you've been eying?  Say sure!"

Or "Hey self!  Let's hit the road and go visit the world's biggest ball of yarn like you've always wanted to.  Say sure!"

Or even "Yo!  Self!  That guy is totally cute and definitely checking you out.  Aren't you gonna go chat him up?  Say sure!"

There'll obviously be one or two things I'll have to say "surely not!" to (especially once my male friends get wind of this), but for the most part, I think this is going to be awesome!  I'll keep you posted on the results.

Tomorrow Dad and I are going to visit some old Winger haunts -- like, seven-times-great-grandfather old -- and I'll be blogging about it.  There's at least one suspicious death in our family history, so it should be good reading!

Vote for me

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The kids are all right!

Back when I worked as an educational tour guide, my bread and butter was leading high school trips to New York City.

It's a bull market!

I’m sure it goes without saying that there are lots of awesome things to do in New York, so you can imagine that no two trips were ever the same.  But there WAS one quintessential New York experience that groups requested more than almost anything else -- a Yankees game.  I love baseball, and Yankee Stadium is so inextricably woven into the mythology of the game that I can’t help feeling a thrill of excitement every time I find myself under its big, bright floodlights.

On one trip, I took a particularly sporty group of Toronto kids to see a game.  They were a great bunch, and I was thrilled to be able to share the experience with them.  But for the first time ever, my thrill of excitement was replaced by unease. 

For one, our tickets were for “The Bleachers”, the one area of Yankee Stadium in which you couldn’t buy a beer.  I’m sure the teachers who booked the trip thought it was a great place to seat a bunch of minors under your protection, but unbeknownst to them, the Yankees fans who buy bleacher tickets generally get their whole night’s drinking done before they get to the stadium.

Combine that with the fact that the Yankees were hosting the Toronto Blue Jays that night, and you’ll understand what I was feeling.  My uneasiness deepened as I brought up the rear and realized that one of the students had unfurled a Canadian flag.  In the rest of the stadium it would have earned him some loud, good-natured ribbing -- Yankees fans, at least in my experience, were a pretty cool bunch.  In the bleachers, though, the ribbing wasn’t quite so good-natured. 

The kids were too excited about the game to notice the rumblings around them, at least at first.  I’ll spare you the details of what was said, since I don’t like to speak ill of those who are too drunk to know better.  Suffice it to say that eventually the kids started to feel decidedly uncomfortable. I gave them what I thought was a pretty good pep talk about rising above the negativity, but I wasn’t sure that they’d take my advice.  Not entirely convinced of the power of positive thinking myself, I went up for a chat with the very large security guard at the top of the aisle.  He said, and I quote: “I effing hate Yankees fans.  I got your backs.”

But to my surprise, the kids took care of their own backs.  I don’t know if it had anything to do with my little speech or if they were this awesome all on their own.  Either way, I watched in amazement as they rose to their feet, put their arms around one another and started singing “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” at the tops of their voices.

The drunken rumblings around us stuttered and then died.  A chuckle from a few rows down echoed outward, and soon most of the crowd was laughing, and a few were even singing along.  A skinny middle-aged woman staggered over to us, put her arm around me and said “You kids are ALLLLL RIGHT.”

And they were all right.  They had a great time at the game, laughing and joking with everyone around them, all bad feelings forgotten.  And our Canadian flag flew unopposed for the rest of the night. 

As we walked back to our bus after the game, the aforementioned security guard (who insisted on accompanying us to our bus ‘just in case’) said “That was pretty cool.  But I still effing hate Yankees fans.”

Sorry, pal.  We’re going to have to agree to disagree on that one.

Vote for me

Sunday, February 10, 2013

100 Votes, 100 Travel Goals (and counting!)

I just hit 100 votes in the My Destination Biggest Baddest Bucket List contest!

Vote for me

To celebrate, here's my bucket list of awesome things I want to do around the world (in no particular order)!  BTW, this list is far from exhaustive...

1. Spot tigers from the back of an elephant in southern Nepal.
2. Dig a well in a hill-tribe village in northern Thailand.
3. Meet the boobies (and giggle about their name) in the Galapagos Islands.
4. Hang glide at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina where the Wright Brothers first flew.
5. Immerse myself in the "flower and willow world" of the geisha in Kyoto, Japan.

6. Read "A Moveable Feast" in a cafe in Paris.
7. Gaze across the ice fields in Antarctica.
8. Watch the condors soar over the Colca Canyon in southern Peru.
9.  Get soaked at Songkran in Thailand.
10. Get drunk like a local at a country pub in England.
11. Get spiritual at Stonehenge.
12. Finally taste truly authentic nuoc cham in Vietnam.
13. Learn to make spanakopita from a proper Greek yia-yia.
14. Walk the circumference of Easter Island and ponder the origins of the moai.
15. Meet the glow-worms at the Waitomo Caves in New Zealand.
16. Explore the incredible puppetry scene in Denmark.
17. Dance wildly at a Full Moon Party on Koh Pha Ngan in Thailand.
18. Soak in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland.
19. Pay my respects at Vimy Ridge in France.
20. Salute the chinstrap penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula.
21. Check out Iguazu Falls in Brazil and see how they compare to my home falls in Niagara.
22. Learn tracking from the Masai in Kenya.
23. Trek to Everest Base Camp.
24. Hear Loch Ness Monster tall tales from an old Scot.
25. Swim with Great White Sharks off the coast of South Africa (well-caged, of course!).

26. Ride the Trans-Siberian Express.
27. Hike the Great Wall till I drop.
28. Get soaked in a Mayan sweat lodge (Temazcal) in Mexico.
29. Sleep under the stars in the endless Sahara.
30. Mow down a medianoche after a night out in Havana.
31. Take ukelele lessons in Hawaii.
32. Get jazzed at the Preservation Hall in New Orleans.
33. Float in bioluminescent Mosquite Bay in Puerto Rico.
34. Take ridiculous pictures on the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia.
35. Seek out the hidden corners of Angkor Wat in Cambodia (and maybe find that spot with the tree growing out of the temple!).

36. Marvel at the rock-cut architecture of Petra, Jordan.
37. Cruise down the Nile in Egypt.
38. Pay a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.
39. Wander through rice paddies in China.
40. Get down to the bottom of the Cave of Swallows in Mexico.
41. See a little Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre.
42. Drive across America and only stop in small towns.
43. Dive the Titanic.
44. Seek out Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross in London.
45. Appreciate the splendor of the "fall colours" in New England.
46. Serenade a special someone on a gondola ride in Venice.

47. Have a proper Turkish bath.
48. Commune with the fae at the Fairy Pools on Isle of Skye, Scotland.
49. See Jeanne Claude and Christo's Over The River in Colorado.
50. Scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef.
51. Learn to waltz in Vienna.
52. Oktoberfest in Germany.
53. Indulge my nerdiness at Comicon in San Diego.
54. Glory in the natural beauty of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.
55. Gaze at the Aurora Borealis from a glass igloo in Finnish Lapland.

56. Let art surprise me on Naoshima Island, Japan.
57. Sleep in a yurt in Mongolia (and maybe pet a yak!).
58. Sail the South Pacific.
59. Wander the fjords in Norway.
60. See the great migration of the wildebeests in the Masai Mara.
61. Trek with a Berber family in Morocco.
62. Take part in the Sambadrome Parade at Carnaval in Rio.
63. Ride a horse across the Andes to Chile.
64. Track mountain gorillas in Uganda.
65. Fly in a hot air balloon over the fairy landscape of Cappadocia in Turkey.
66. Hang out with lemurs under a baobab tree in Madagascar.
67. Count waterfalls in the rain in Milford Sound, New Zealand.
68. Watch the sun set over Santorini in Greece.

69. See kayak with orcas in British Columbia, Canada.
70. Fly a kite in Afghanistan.
71. Surf the Andaman Islands.
72. Whitewater rafting in mysterious Bhutan.
73. See big game by boat in Botswana.
74. Howl at the wolves in Slovakia's Carpathian Mountains.
75. Feast on suckling pig and swim with humpbacks in Tonga.
76. Drive a dogsled in Finland.
77. Snooze over turquoise waters in Bora Bora, French Polynesia.
78. Linger over a fine wine in Tuscany.
79. Snorkel in Ambergris Caye, Belize.
80. Spot northern wildlife in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska, USA.
81. Ski the Alps.
82. Take my rabbit to Sweden to participate in bunny show jumping.

83. Watch the sea turtles lay their eggs in Queensland, Australia.
84. Chuck some tomatoes during La Tomatina in Bunol, Spain.
85. Have a Scooby-Doo style adventure sleeping over in a haunted castle in Scotland.
86. Line up with the Terracotta Warriors in Xi-An, China.
87. Cruise the incredible Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.
88. Get to the heart of the blues in Chicago, Illinois, USA.
89. Learn to tango in Argentina.
90. Fly a bush plane into the heart of deepest darkest Africa.
91. Take a dip in the Ganges.
92. Burning Man.

93. Partake of a Japanese tea ceremony.
94. Float in the Dead Sea.
95. Explore the Skeleton Coast of Namibia.
96. Tell fairytales in the Black Forest in Germany.
97. Eat my way around Malaysia.
98. Catch my reflection at the Taj Mahal in India.
99. Board down a volcano at Cerro Negro, Nicaragua.
100. Run the Spoelana Naturist Race in Spain.

Always end with a little nudity, I say!

Vote for me

Friday, February 08, 2013

I'm a friend in need who's got friends, indeed!

Nothing shows you who your friends are like trying to win a trip around the world!

I've entered the My Destination Biggest Baddest Bucket List contest.  If I win, I'll be spending 6 months wandering the world writing blogs and creating videos -- in other words, doing what I'm meant to do.  I've got a ton of competition, but I'm determined to succeed by any (legal) means necessary.

Since all the voting is via social media, I've been spending a lot of time on Facebook.  A lot of negative crap can go down on there, but the past day and a half have been heartwarming to say the least.  The friends who have shared my link so far have all said such unexpectedly lovely things about me and why they think I deserve to win.  And it's not just my nearest and dearest, either -- several people I haven't seen in years have popped out of the woodwork to share my link, catch up a bit and wish me well.  

But the biggest surprise came this morning.  I had commented on a post made by an old friend from high school, and shortly thereafter I got a message from a non-Friend, asking if I was "THE Kelly Winger, from WELLAND?!"  It was a girl I hadn't seen since our early high school years.  We were probably the two goofiest girls in school -- she used to call me "Kelly Winger, worm eater"!  Oh man, the laughs we used to have!  We didn't really travel in the same circles though, so when I switched schools in my last year we lost track of each other.  I often wondered what had happened to her.  The years went by as they tend to do, and then suddenly here she was popping up on Facebook!  And it turns out she'd always wondered about me too!  We had a lovely chat about our lives thus far -- she married a great guy we went to high school with and has two beautiful little girls.  It was so nice to reminisce about our silly times together.  It's crazy to think that, if I hadn't entered this contest and started spending extra time on Facebook, we might never have gotten back in touch.

Like I said at the start, I'm determined to win this contest.  But if by some evil chance I don't, the well-wishes and renewals of friendship are their own reward.

Wanna help me live my dream?

Vote for me

Just click on this link, then share via the social media links in the green box on the right.  I get one vote for each platform that you vote through.  And don't forget -- if you've got a GMail/Google account, you've got Google+!

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

An elephant never forgets (to catch the bus)!

The first rule of group travel -- don’t miss the bus!

In 2008 I travelled to Chiang Mai, Thailand to work and play with the amazing and hilarious children of the Wat Don Chan orphanage.  The other volunteers and I wanted to do something special for them -- many of them had never left the wat! -- and we decided that a trip to an elephant sanctuary was just the ticket.

I worked for 5 years as an educational tour leader, so I’m quite comfortable travelling with and keeping track of large groups of children.  But as I watched all 600 of them swarm out of the dorms to meet the assortment of buses and military vehicles we had commandeered, I knew that this was an elephant of a different colour. I tried not to panic as I squeezed into a seat with three ecstatic little Thai girls.  We wouldn’t leave anyone behind, right?

My fears evaporated in the face of the kids’ excitement as they fed, petted and even rode the elephants.  It was an incredible day.  But the crowning glory came when we all packed into the open air pavilion to watch the elephants paint, the claim to fame of this particular sanctuary. 

I fell in love with the work of one particular pachyderm -- I can’t pronounce his Thai name, but he looked like a Fred to me.  I vowed to bring home Fred’s masterpiece and raced down to the little shop to stake my claim along with two other volunteers.  We must have been chattering pretty excitedly, because we somehow managed to miss the departure of 600 overstimulated children and volunteers.

I’ll never forget how it felt to run out into that parking lot and find it completely deserted.    My heart dropped into my flipflops, Frank’s still-wet painting dangling limply from my hand.  We had no cell phones, no number to call even if we had, and the staff at the sanctuary spoke no English.  The insect sounds from the surrounding jungle seemed suddenly louder and more ominous as we contemplated the 75 km walk back to Chiang Mai.

I cursed myself.  How many times had I told kids on my tours -- whatever you do, NEVER miss the bus! 

I was about to throw myself down in the dirt and have a good cry when a pickup truck bounced around the corner of the building and into the parking lot.  Turns out that 600 kids make a LOT of garbage, so the wat had brought along a recycling truck!  I leaped desperately in front of it.  Fortunately the driver recognized us, and we crammed ourselves into the foot-wide gap around the recycling bins. 

It wasn’t the safest or most comfortable ride, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it.  As I closed my eyes and and reveled in the cool wind on my face, I remember thinking -- well, at least we didn’t leave anyone behind!

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