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!