A story from Chiang Mai, Thailand

Spring / 18.8372° N, 98.9706° E / 2013

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The van came to a grinding halt on the dirt path we had been traveling on. The resistance from our wheels against the rough terrain created a large cloud of thick dust, enveloping the small utility van we were in. Our guide, a petite Thai woman in her mid thirties, got out of the vehicle abruptly. We looked at each other with uncertainty from the backseat. Moments later the side door to the van slung open, implying we were to get out. I shielded my eyes from the bright morning sun as we emerged into a quiet, pristine valley surrounded by mountains on either side. A lively cadence of insects and birds serenaded us in the background, welcoming us. I had been told that the mountains of northern Thailand were beautiful, but nothing had prepared me for this. Suddenly, without warning, my admiration for the scenery was cut short when the brush just beyond our path began to rustle. Small trees and shrubs began to give way as a massive, mammoth-like creature emerged onto our path. There, standing less than 30 feet in front of us, stood a large adult female elephant. Her tan leathery skin was covered in wrinkles, her trunk swaying from side to side as she pulled brush from the earth into her mouth. She stood chewing, staring at us.

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We had traveled to this remote village in northern Thailand’s Chaing Mai province to visit a rehabilitation sanctuary that rescues injured and mistreated elephants; mostly from small villages that still engage in illegal logging. The night before, we had boarded the late train from Bangkok and spent the night partying with a train car full of travelers who only spoke the universal language of beer and Billy Idol songs. And now here we were face to face with the largest terrestrial animal in the world.
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She was enormous, with eyes the size of tennis balls. Then, with nothing more than a flick of her huge ears, she swung her trunk to the side and continued across the road. A wave of adrenaline rushed over me. Seconds later, a tiny calf teetered across the path desperately trying to keep up with its mother. I turned to my right and saw another large, older female trumpeting in the distance. And that’s when it hit me. I was standing in the middle of an endangered Asian elephant family.

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Entering the sanctuary was somewhat of a Jurassic experience. Hidden in these hills were herds of gentle giants roaming free. Some gathered at the river that ran along the edge of the sanctuary, others rested in the shade of palm coverings. Our guide led us to some of the elephants so we could meet them and their mahouts (care givers). We were able to assist the mahouts in their daily care  by feeding them and splashing cool water from the river onto their backs.

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I can’t imagine ever forgetting this experience. It was ethereal.

And so it begins

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On a Wednesday around 3:30pm.

I’m sitting behind a heavy wooden desk that’s older than I am at a job I feel ambivalent about. Large tattered binders filled with backlogged data flank me to my left. To my right sits an open mason jar half full of this morning’s coffee. Surely my lab manager would have a conniption if he saw it.  A large, bare bulletin board glares at me from above my workstation reminding me I have yet to fill it. Others in the lab have theirs adorned with family photos, political comics and notes. It’s been 9 months, I really should put something up. Or maybe a plant. People like plants. But, as much as I’d like to make my space more personal, part of me wonders how long I’ll be here. Tacking things on a bulletin board implies longevity, something I’ve never exactly been great at. I moved to this sleepy town on the gulf coast to study a group of bottlenose dolphins inhabiting the bay here. It’s miles away from home in San Francisco, but I suppose that’s what comes with being a biologist who studies migratory marine mammals. You inadvertently turn into a wanderer of sorts. Living a semi-nomadic lifestyle has it’s perks. I’ve had the opportunity to research unheard of whales in the Caribbean, live on boats in frigid waters studying orcas, and come face-to face with blue whales and other behemoths of the sea.
But, as I sit here, I can sense a change coming. Something different. A turn in the tides, a tectonic shift of magnitude that I can feel down deep in my bones. Who knows what is ahead, but now feels like a good time to start documenting it all. And so… it begins.