Monday, 25 June 2012

Baby Elephant Walk

I can lift my leg if I need medical attention
It isn't often a kid from Texas and a woman from Saskatchewan have a chance to get up close and personal with orphaned elephants in the jungle of Malaysia but that is what I managed to find for my guest while in Kuala Lumpur. There is an elephant wild life sanctuary about two hours from the city that deals with injured and orphaned animals or elephants that are causing destruction to the farmers and must be relocated.

Hundreds of elephants work in Jaipur
I wanted to find more than the typical pachyderm ride and the ubiquitous photo op you find in Asia. I have ridden elephants in Langkawi and also in Jaipur, India. Both experiences left me ashamed that I had contributed to the abuse of these magnificent animals. In India, the elephants are forced to carry thousands of tourists uphill to Fort Amber on a narrow, steep passage, often in the blazing sun. They are painted and decorated in bright colours to make you think it is a joyous experience. The elephant handlers are rough, and in my opinion, cruel to the elephants to keep them under control in such tight, crowded conditions. I am not certain if I was the only one on that trek that was sickened while seeing the elephants struck repeatedly on the head with a takaw. I promised myself I would never do something that causes the elephants distress, but my fascination with the beast remains.

Fer and Elephant Man
After much research and several calls I found a person they call "The Elephant Man."  He is a volunteer with the Kuala Gandah Elephant Orphanage Sanctuary for the past 25 years. I sent him a message about educating R2's son, Fernando and I on elephant behaviour. He agreed to take us to the sanctuary the next day but we had to be prepared to work, get dirty and fall in love with the orphans. 

I can't feed her fast enough
The Elephant Man wanted no credit in this story, he only wanted me to spread the word about the work from the Kuala Gandah Sanctuary that runs on a shoestring budget with 55 local employees. My goal is to tell more tourists know about this place, explain the difference between elephant abuse and elephant rehabilitation (which, to some may seem like exploitation), and hope people that read this story have the means to donate much needed equipment or goods to the elephants' plight.

We didn't know what to expect when we got off the monorail in an area far removed from the Petronas Towers in KL. We tried to look inconspicuous but something tells me we were a spectacle in that neighbourhood. A man pulled up with a car that had various elephant stickers adorning the flaking paint. R2 asked if I was nervous to jump in a stranger's car but how can you go wrong with a man that has "Real Men Love Elephants" on his windshield.

After a quick stop for petrol and to buy the elephants eight loaves of bread we headed up the mountain towards the sanctuary. The countryside was breathtaking as we watched the mist rise over the jungle.  When we arrived Elephant Man introduced me to a number of the staff and explained what Fer and I were doing. He wasted to time getting us acquainted with the orphans. 

We grabbed bananas to feed to the babies and made out way to the huge, corralled area that keeps the elephants in their natural environment. You could see the injured orphans loved the Elephant Man. The tiny herd responded to his voice and looked forward to his attention. What a thrill it was to watch these gentle giants react to him. Each elephant had a unique personality, and each elephant had its share of medical problems.

Missing part of her leg from a trap
One of the animals had her tail amputated and lasting scars on her tiny body from a vicious tiger attack. Another elephant had a disabled leg so she will never be released in the wild, and then there was Miss Tripod; an orphan with a portion of her leg missing. The Elephant Man explained they were hoping someone could design a prosthetic leg for her, and the staff could be taught to build one due to the expense of such a device. One such prosthetic was used on a elephant in Thailand with no success due to the advanced age of the elephant but the Sanctuary thinks with Miss Tripod is young enough to get used to to a prosthetic leg. If there are any Mechanical engineers or creative geniuses that want to  make a difference to this elephant, the Sanctuary will listen to all ideas.

There were six orphans but only one we were not allowed to touch, speak or approach.  He was a recently rescued male and he was not accustomed to having strangers near him. We spent over an hour in the corral observing the movements, fears and destruction elephants cause unknowingly to the local farmers. Even these tiny orphans cause much damage to the trees by stripping the bark and pushing on the trees.  A herd can flatten and trample an entire grove of trees as they move from one area to the next searching for food to satisfy their daily 250 kg eating need. 

This orphan has no tail and uses a switch to rid flies
With the devastation of the rain forest in Malaysia, and the Palm Oil plantations taking over what used to be untouched land, the elephants are losing their homes. The sanctuary understands the circumstances of the elephants but also is sympathetic to the local farmer who is able to grow palms for income to feed and clothe his family. The rain forests are dwindling rapidly and the elephant numbers are declining along with the forests.

The sanctuary is trying to desperately educate the locals to not shoot an elephant on site when they start causing damage to their crops. The creatures don't mean to cause destruction, they are looking for food and shelter that is rapidly decreasing. Often elephants will end up in banana groves or durian plantations and farmers will shoot to scare or stop the elephants from destroying their crops.

In the 25 years of volunteering The Elephant Man says 600 elephants have been rescued, relocated or sent to zoos for protection. It is no easy feat to capture an elephant. Often the brave men are in the jungle two weeks tracking a herd to move them to safer ground. Once the elephant is found, the real job begins. An elephant must be shot with a dart from close range. It will be shackled and then given a drug to revive it.  The men must remain close to make certain the elephant doesn't injure himself trying to escape and often a drugged elephant will charge out of fright. One Ranger was trampled to death, trying to save an elephant. The elephants are moved via trucks and boats to a nature reserve but at times, have died from the stress of the long move. There is no easy answer on how to safely and quickly move these 5,500 kg beasts. Some of the elephants are tracked with devices but they are costly and the centre doesn't have the funds to track them all.

$100 Ringitt per day to feed her
We continued our day preparing the milk for the babies. We put our hands in a huge pail of milk, palm sugar and bread, squeezing the bread between our fingers to make the mixture drinkable through a bottle. Fernando was going to feed the orphans when all of the tourists were finished taking photos, watching the show and queuing for their ride.

The mature elephants are paraded out for a tourist performance but the show isn't what you would expect. The elephants are showing stunts they must learn to receive medical attention or jobs they do in the rescue of other elephants. The mature elephants are working elephants and help in the rescue and recovery of the wild elephants, providing comfort and guidance to the newcomers.

The centre lets the tourists have a quick ride but not in a basket. You are riding bareback which is more natural. If you really want to get down and dirty with the elephants, the handlers let you wade into the river and play with the elephants, scrubbing and getting splashed.  It was great hilarity to see everyone having so much fun. The elephant seemed to enjoy the attention and the cooling of the water.  For me, I kept my distance because I know how much elephant dung was in the river!

As soon as the show was over, the tourist buses were packed and on the road. That left Fernando to clean elephant dung and to prepare the bottles for the orphans; once these babies get the hang of eating, there is no stopping them. We were covered in milk, dirt and flies so we quickly grabbed a shower at the facility and went to a local eatery to have fried bananas, ice lemongrass tea and watch the local girls cast shy glances our way.

It was a once in a lifetime event for both Fer and I.  We were hot, sweaty and dirty but we couldn't stop smiling. Elephants have been brutalized over the years from circuses, movies, zoos and working in logging camps.  While tourists (like me) think it is fun to take their photos or ride on the elephants, there are very few places in the world that are trying to save them and not benefit from the money they bring.   Granted, there are many destitute people that wouldn't survive without using the elephants as their only means of income.

Having fun splashing the tourists
As a tourist, it is your duty to look at the facilities and make a conscious decision to do the right thing. If you see something that doesn't look right to you, it probably isn't. Come on people, how often do you think an elephant wants to imitate Picasso and paint a self portrait? He has been beaten repeatedly and humiliated to learn to paint for your amusement and dollars.

If you are able to volunteer or contribute equipment such as milk, bread, waterproof cameras (so the rescue can be documented the entire way), prosthetics, food or anything the centre is in need of, please contact the number below, or email. The Sanctuary, while it won't turn away money, prefers tangible goods as money must go through hoops before it reaches the elephants.

Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre,
Jabatan PERHILITAN, Kuala Gandah
Pahang Darul Makmur, Malaysia

Telephone:  09-279 0391

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

From Orchard Road to the Borneo Rainforest

I missed this face
It is a 29-hour flight from Canada to Singapore and while I waited for my son and his girlfriend to arrive I was watching those dreadful hours tick nonchalantly by in anticipation. The day I had waited months to arrive was finally here.
Sam & Luc at Buddha Tooth Temple
R2 and I wanted to take the kids somewhere unique and unusual.  Of course, they did the commonplace tourist rounds to Universal Studios, Sentosa beach, the water park, Orchard Road shopping extravaganza, movies, and Chinatown, we wanted them to remember this trip for more than the typical day in the life of a tourist.
I did arrange some more interesting events for the kids to partake. Lucas, an accomplished guitar/bass artist jammed with some excellent blues players at the Singapore Blues Club. He even took his talent down to the Crazy Elephant one night to jam with funky musicians.  He isn't old enough to play in the bars in Canada so this was a great opportunity to jam with all styles of musicians. We also rented a karaoke room, where you buy the room and sing your heart out for an hour; luckily no one hears you or I might have been arrested for noise pollution. A little archery was thrown in for good measure so we could all pretend to be Xena and Robin Hood for an hour.
A Gibbons hanging around
To give our guests more of the Asian experience we left the safety of Singy and flew to Kota Kinabalu in the Borneo Rainforest of Malaysia. The Borneo is the oldest rainforest in the world; a mere 130 million years old. There are so many species of wildlife you will only find in this part of the world and we wanted to experience a small part of it before more of the jungle and magnificent animals are destroyed by the Palm Oil that is taking its toll on the region.
Kota Kinabalu or KK as it is known by the locals, was a mixture of old and new Malaysia. You could be walking amongst provision shophouses and street merchants, only to come across a six-story fashion mall with arcades, theaters and shops galore.
Our hotel was an adventure in itself. We never did figure out the rancid smell and the holes in the ceiling that had a faint resemblance to bullet holes.
I am not Richard Nixon
We were there for the monkeys and the snorkeling, not the hotel so we hired a van and made the 2.5 hour trip to see the Proboscis monkeys. If you don't know what these leaf-eating monkeys look like, think of your pot-bellied old uncle with the whisky nose and that will give you an idea of how strange these primates are. Scientists are not sure why their noses are so large, but think it is to attract the smaller-nosed female. Like many oddly paired couples in Asia, I guess there is no accounting for taste.
Sunset at KK
After the sun went down, we were also treated to an amazing show put on by thousands of fireflies that light up the Mangroves better than the Christmas Tree in Times Square, New York.The "flies" are actually beetles that the locals call Kelip-Kelip which is Malay for "twinkle." And kelip, they do. The sight of these insects is outstanding. Imagine gliding on a boat through the black night when you round the bend to a Mangrove swamp lit up as far as the eye can see. I think this is a memory that will stay with Sam and Luc for a long time.
From primates to clown fish, we decided to snorkel in the crystal-clear, warm waters of the South China Sea the following day. I am not much of a snorkeler but I thought I better give it a go with Luc here. The last time I snorkeled with him was in Punta Cana, DR. I was so worried about the drunken jet-skiing tourists cruising too close to the coral and not seeing us, that I didn't enjoy that experience. This time was much better. We were able to snorkel off the beach and it was closed to any type of boats or motorized sports.  The only casualties we had were the bites from the Jelly Bugs. We think this is the local term for minute Jelly Fish stings. I offered to pee on Luc and Sam but they thought they would go to the lifeguard station and get vinegar to ease the itchiness.
On the boat ride back to KK, heavy rains blew in making the ride a mixture of a bucking bronco and a car wash. There were a couple of times, we thought the small boat was going to capsize; drenched doesn't describe how wet we were when the ride was over.
KK was a learning experience for the kids. We took in many local eateries, decided to let them try reflexology on their feet for the first time, had their ears candled and found Sam her first massage.  They went to a movie where the entire flick had Malay subtitles.
We saw Orang utans (which are also only from the Borneo), adored Pygmy Elephants and showed them Civets that produce "Poop Coffee" which is the most expensive coffee in the world. The coffee beans are processed from the digestive tract of the Civet earning it the title of "Poop Coffee Beans." Once again, no accounting for taste.
His poop worth his weight in Gold
We experienced many strange things in the Borneo that will be a once in a lifetime event for my son and I. Luc has promised to come to Asia once he is done his second year at UBC to find more adventures in Cambodia, Korea, Thailand and Malaysia. He adapted, as most teenagers do, quite well to the Singapore heat, the strange food and enjoyed chatting with the locals who frequently told me, "Your boy, so handsome."  Who knows, maybe he will make Asia his home once his University career is over. I hope, if nothing else, all the places I have taken my children, they learn to love travel as much as I do.

Jackfruit - King of the fruits

A Macqua  stealing the bike

Baby Wild Boars - little watermelons

The blessing of the Coconut

Xena has nothing on me

Pygmy Elephant

Orang Utans are becoming extinct too

First time for ear candling

Learning about the Borneo Rainforest

Friday, 1 June 2012

Fly Like An Eagle

First time I laid eyes on him in 4 months
Like most expats, when a loved one leaves after a visit, you are left with a feeling like someone kicked you in the stomach. That was exactly how I felt when my son Lucas left after a month-long visit. When the realization of an empty condo and a lonely guitar stood in the corner, I fell into total despair, missing my children so much it was an effort to get out of bed. I wondered how my two beautiful babies grew into such amazing adults so quickly.  My son is pursuing Engineering at the University of British Columbia and my daughter is returning to school in Alberta to pursue Business. It never occurred to me my parents may have experienced this feeling when I told them I was following R2 halfway around the world.

This view lifted my spirits
Luckily I have a husband that is in tune with my feelings. He knew Luc's departure was going to send me into a tailspin so he took charge to help me get over my homesick desperation. Nothing says "Happiness" like a weekend at a gorgeous beach resort, filled with relaxing massages, walks on the beaches and watching the sun set.

I flew to Langkawi, Malaysia where I was met by a man holding a sign with "Miss Layna". I love those guys. No taxis for me, R2 was sending me in style to the Four Seasons Resort.  When I got into the Mercedes, I thought, "Lucas who?"

Where the eagles soared
Langkawi means eagle in Malay and there are no shortage of them in the sky. It is a breathtaking site to look up and see eagles soaring above your head. I have been to the island before but I forgot how much we enjoyed watching these majestic birds and oddly shaped hornbills.

When I got to the Four Seasons, I knew this was not going to be any ordinary weekend excursion. The hotel was not running at full capacity so the royal pampering began from the moment I stepped into the Moroccan designed lobby.  When I got to our pavilion, it was the bathtub that made me swoon.  You could safely put six people in the sunken tub and still have room for a few koi.

Olympic sized Quiet pool
It took me all of thirty seconds to don my swimming suit and sprint to the beach. Finally the beach in Asia I have been searching for. Stunning white sand as far as the eye could see, shady trees and the Andaman sea, with Thailand in the distance. The property is over 1.5 km long and believe me, I covered every square centimeter so I didn't miss a thing.

R2 flew in later than I did and when he finally found me basking in the adult swimming pool (yes, no diapers to deal with), he told me he had just spotted monkeys and did I want to come and see them. It turns out, our pavilion was close to where the monkeys reside, near the rainforest. When I saw them, they were fighting over a can of potato chips they had stolen from some oblivious guest. The larger monkey was busy whacking the smaller one over the head.

We kept our distance because we didn't want to get walloped. The monkeys are aggressive and will try to steal anything they can get their hands on. One of the staffers told me the guests must be careful to close their patio doors because the naughty alpha males have been known to enter the rooms, go to the mini bar, and crack open a beer, after they have eaten everything in the room. Hhmm, sounds like a couple of guys I worked with.

Cooking up satay and curried shrimp
We had several suggestions of local tours to enjoy. There are mangrove trees and 450 M year old limestone caves, kayaking, snorkelling and diving tours but frankly, we savoured the tranquility of the resort so much we couldn't bare to leave. We took in yoga and Thai massage, a Malay cooking class and we marvelled at how all the staff of the hotel greeted us by name and seemed to know our every desire before we requested it.

Dinner on the beach - I always wanted to do that
The one event that will stand out in our minds was on a leisurely afternoon. After a late start from doing nothing, we wandered down to the Quiet pool. To walk to the pool takes 15 minutes due to the size of the resort.
Many take buggies or ride the gratis mountain bikes but we wanted to enjoy the air. No sooner than we laid down in our private cabana when I heard the pool man say on the phone, "Yes, I will put up the red flags immediately." As he hustled to the beach to change the green flag to red, a frightening storm blew in. We ran for shelter but I knew it wasn't enough and we had to find something more solid.  Just as we left the protection of the towel hut, two huge umbrellas came flying down where we were standing. We scrambled as tree branches and coconuts came crashing down, to the safety of! Not a bad place to be holed up during a storm. We watched Mother Nature wreak havoc on the beach, bending palms, sandblasting debris against the buildings and the staff dashing to rescue cushions and beach loungers.

The calm after the storm
While waiting out the storm, we played pool and the staff magically appeared, calm as a cucumber to serve us Teh Tarik (the local tea), biscuits and little snacks. Just another day in paradise for them. They went on about their business, telling me this happens frequently. No sooner than the storm blew in, it was over.

A beautiful dinner on the beach

It was hard to leave paradise to the concrete jungle of Kuala Lumpur and a serviced apartment that had roaches but the weekend was just what the doctor ordered. I had my Mojo back and I am ready for the next Asian adventure and our next guest.

Like the storm, sadness can engulf and drench you when you are far away from your loved ones. Thanks to R2's love and support, I have learned there is nothing you can do to change the sadness, you just wait it out and eventually the black clouds lift and it will be business as usual.

(Follow Layna in Asia on Mexico on My Mind site for her perspective of travels in Mexico)