Sunday, March 2, 2014

Hand to Paw


Venomous cobras, water buffalo, elephants, geckos, pink dolphins, goats, and dogs--those of you who read this blog regularly know that I write often about my experiences with animals in Asia. And for quite some time, I've been thinking about how to connect animals and humans in a way that is almost unknown here.

Therapy and service dog programs are in their infancy in Chiang Mai, Thailand (and I suspect in most of the rest of Asia). In fact, I have lived in Asia for almost four years and haven't spotted a "seeing eye" dog yet. 

The calming benefits of therapy animals and the usefulness of service dogs are taken for granted in the West. There are a lot of people in Asia, as in the West, with disabilities who would benefit from therapy and service animals. They are much needed in this part of the world.

I've been a counselor for a long time but it doesn't take counseling experience to recognize the calming effect animals can have on humans in a variety of settings. My first exposure to this effect was back in college when as a docent for the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, I took parrots and ferrets into a children's hospital. Although the ferret was a tad cranky and the parrot had talons that required respect, the kids were delighted when we showed up. 

A second exposure was on a flight I took years ago on a small commercial airplane that ran into a lot of turbulence due to a thunderstorm between Erie, Pa and my Detroit destination. Fortunately, one man on the plane had a therapy dog. As the plane rocked and dived, all of the passengers strained to observe what the dog was doing. When we saw that he was stretched out on a seat soundly asleep, the humans collectively breathed a sigh of relief. If the dog was chilled out, things couldn't be that bad because animals have instincts about impending disaster, right? Every time the plane shuddered or swooped, all eyes turned to the dog. He remained asleep. As it turned out, things were pretty bad. The plane experienced numerous malfunctions and the thunder storm was so violent it forced us to land in Cleveland instead of in Detroit. But the dog was relaxed through it all and therefore, so were we.





During the years since that flight, I have seen therapy and service dogs in action in America at facilities for Alzheimers patients, at schools, and in nursing homes. The animals' effect on  humans in these settings is always the same. People relax. Animals' unconditional affection is powerful.





I now work at an international school in Chiang Mai that has a 60 hour community service requirement for high school graduation and as a counselor wanted to help students find community service placements. But more to the point, I wanted to create interest in establishing a community service project  at the school whereby students could interact with and assist animals. A service minded parent who loves dogs organized a community service fair with some help from me. The fair was held at the school last October.






Seventeen local service organizations including the Chiang Mai Care for Dogs Foundation sent representatives to the fair to recruit student volunteers. Care for Dogs provides dog rescue, sterilization, vaccination, adoption, and outreach programs designed to help the large stray dog population in Chiang Mai. Since many Thais bring soi (stray) and other unwanted dogs to the Buddhist temples throughout the city, Care for Dogs has organized a temple outreach program called Hand to Paw. The program connects middle and high school students (with school assistance) to temples so that kids can help monks keep temple dogs healthy and not reproduce.




The Hand to Paw outreach coordinator is happily passionate about dogs and her work. Appropriately, her name is Joy. She represented Hand to Paw at the service fair and brought a charismatic therapy dog who was the most popular guest there. Later she met with an interested teacher and me to discuss the ground work that needed to be done to establish a student chapter at the school. She also met with the head monk at the temple (or wat) next door to my school and investigated the size and health of the temple’s dog population as well as the monks’ receptivity to student helpers. Joy learned that there were 8 dogs residing at the temple and that the monks would welcome help from the students. While we are still working on establishing a school chapter, eventually, the dogs, monks, and kids will connect for the benefit of all.



In preparation for starting a Hand to Paw chapter, I recently took an on-line Animal Assisted Therapy class through Pet Partners (formerly The Delta Society). Lots of American occupational therapists, counselors, nurses, and social workers took the class as well. One fellow student, Karen Donnick, shared the following powerful story which has made me even more determined to give animal assisted therapy a jump start in Chiang Mai.

"On our visit to the Naval Hospital, while visiting in patients' hospital rooms, a doctor came to us and asked us to visit a young family in the intensive care unit. Not being sure what to expect I took the time to wipe my dog down with Nature's Miracle Pet Wipes from head to tail, including paws. He had been bathed prior to visiting, but I wanted to remove anything that he may have picked up visiting in the patients rooms. The doctor escorted us into one of the cubicles in intensive care where three small children were huddled together in a chair. Their mother across from them was in the hospital bed connected to an IV and all sorts of monitors. The children's father was in the Navy, deployed, and their mother was alone with their children and seriously ill. The hospital staff was waiting for a family friend to come and collect the children. These three children had been at the hospital traveling with their mother from the emergency room to being admitted into intensive care, and they were beyond control. The eldest was 5 years old."

"The staff was at their wits end how to control these children, as they ministered to their very ill mother. They had exhausted their supply of peanut butter crackers, candy and cookies. We visited in the intensive care with the children until the family friend arrived about thirty minutes later to collect them. As I started to leave with a very sticky and exhausted golden retriever, the mother beckoned for me to come closer. I hadn't paid much attention to her the entire time we were entertaining the children and I was thinking about returning home and bathing the dog. I was amazed by her appearance when I approached her. Her skin was yellow and she looked gravely ill. "Thank you" she said, "I haven't allowed myself to be sick until today. You and your dog are angels, for the first time in months I could concentrate on me and not the children. " Then she hugged my dog and started to cry. "I am terrified that I am going to die." She hugged my sticky dog and cried for about three minutes. Then we quietly left. As I was driving home I wondered who was most moved by that experience. Sometimes the patients inspire the therapy team. It is experiences like this that keep me coming back with my special dog."

For more information about animal assisted therapy and Pet Partners, please visit  www.petpartners.org
For more information about The Care for Dogs Foundation and its work in Chiang Mai, please visit www.carefordogs.org


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Winning and the Luck of Being Invited Back




Nat Hix has luck that borders on the supernatural. When I told an acquaintance that Nat always wins, he scoffed, "I'll bet he cheats". What this person didn't know is that with Nat's luck, cheating is completely unnecessary.

Even though he can't spell, Nat invariably wins at Scrabble. He also beats everybody at Monopoly, Backgammon, and Parcheesi. All board games as a matter of fact. How about electric games, you ask? What about Wii bowling, Xbox 360 tennis, or Zuma? Or anything else that involves a monitor?

Don't even think about it.

When you watch football games with him, don't be tempted to bet for the team he opposes. At the last minute, despite the fact that his team is impossibly behind, it will win with several hail Marys.

Our friend Steve hosts an annual Academy Award party. The gathering is black tie, has great food, and features a contest that involves selecting the winners in each of the Oscar categories. The person who guesses the most Oscar recipients wins. Steve warned me that he's always the champion of the contest. "I don't want to burst your bubble," I said, "but since you invited Nat and me, this is not your year. Don't take it personally. No one in his family will play any games with Nat with the exception of his son, a relentlessly optimistic young man who harbors the competitive hope that he will someday beat his dad at something."

Portrait of a lucky man

"Actually, I'm the one who always wins. I'm a pretty lucky guy," Steve smiled, clearly skeptical.
His optimism was short lived. A few days later at the party, as it became clear that Nat was going to win in all categories even though he hadn't seen most of the nominated movies, our normally upbeat and chatty friend grew quiet. When the party ended and we took our leave, all Steve could say was, "I used to be that guy."

Since Nat never loses, he does not understand the agony of defeat. Nor does he understand why people no longer ask him to join in any reindeer games. Surely people want to play a competitor who will give them a good game, says he. Yes, say I, but they also want to believe that they can win. Once they play you a few times, they realize they have no chance. It's no fun playing when you know before you start that you are going to lose.

Not convinced by my argument, Nat was later shocked to learn that a group of his buddies in Hong Kong had stopped inviting him to their regular poker games. Sure, he was still welcome to join them for drinks and dinner but poker? Cards ceased to be a topic of conversation when he was around. Shortly before we moved from Hong Kong to Thailand, he jokingly asked one of his buddies,
"Don't you guys play cards together anymore?"

"Sure," his friend shot back. "We just got tired of you taking all our money."

Nat couldn't believe his ears. "Connie," he said later, "I can't
believe they don't want the challenge of playing someone who will give them a good game." All I could do was roll my eyes.

Upon moving to Chiang Mai, Thailand, Nat made friends with a group of guys, both Thai and farang--that's Thai for foreign-- who invited him to play poker. This time, however, he asked me what
his strategy should be. It seemed he wanted to be invited back.

Ganesha: the god of luck


"Let them win once in a while."

"Oh, I can't do that. It's just not who I am."

"Well, after you win a few, excuse yourself and go to the
bathroom."

"I can't do that either. Guys want a chance to win their money back. And they don't like it when you disrupt the flow of the game."

"But you and I both know there's no chance they're going to get their money back."

"Yeah, but they don't know that."

I rolled my eyes.

Off he went that night to the poker game. But he returned uncharacteristically
early.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Well, I decided to play the usual way and as usual, I was winning.That's when the guys decided it was time to take a break and get some drinks at the corner bar. Apparently, it's Thai custom that
the oldest person pays when groups go out. I was the oldest. Everyone started ordering drinks. Guys who hadn't even been at the game showed up. And there was this special "buy two beers get
one free" deal so everyone was ordering two beers."

"Did you ever get back to the game?"

"No. I left while I still had money for the taxi. I paid a lot more for drinks than I won at cards."

"Sounds like they got their money back and then some," I said, somehow without rolling my eyes.

"Yeah, but you know the good news?"

"There's good news?"

"I'll definitely be invited back."


(This is a repost of an entry published about a year ago. It is an advisory to all of Nat's football loving/can't wait for Super Bowl XLVIII friends in America and elsewhere.)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Why I Live in Thailand: The Prequel


This month's blog is a little different: it's an excerpt from a novel I'm writing called Brighton Park. It's a fiction/nonfiction blend like all novels-- not autobiographical in many respects-- yet it describes the foundation for why I live in Asia.... 





Filled with rows of identical brown brick bungalows, Brighton Park brimmed with families who had had their lives upended by war and who now wanted what her parents called The American Dream, whatever that was. Near as Kate could tell, the dream meant living in the United States, which her parents said, was the best country on earth. In America, we have freedom, they told her.

While the adults went freely about their lives inside the windowless factories where they worked long shifts, packs of kids played kickball and Horse and hide and seek in the streets and alleys behind the factories. Daiva and she had met during games in these streets. If there had been a time when they weren't friends, she did not remember it.

Brighton Park was a neighborhood on Chicago's south side. Kate thought it was a dumb name. It was anything but bright. By noon every day, haze from nearby factories fogged the air and blocked the sun. And there weren't any parks.


A better name would have been Lithuania Town since more than half her neighbors had come to Brighton Park directly from the Old Country.

Her parents called the Lithuanians DPs. When she was a little kid, Kate didn't know what a DP was but she could tell by the way they said it that it wasn't a good thing. Wafting from DP houses was the foreign odor of beet soup and cabbage instead of the American smell of Hamburger Helper and instant mashed potatoes. The women tied brightly colored babushkas on their heads. They didn't shave their legs. The men wore socks with sandals and their pants never quite matched the color of their shirts. But worst of all was that they spoke Lithuanian in the shops, and on the streets and buses. This was America for God's sake, her parents said. People who come here should speak English.

The Lithuanians did not agree.

Daiva's and her own parents were in agreement about one thing though: the Brighton Park Public School was no place to send a kid. The giant stone fortress with gated windows and steel plate doors a few blocks from their houses looked like a prison. Neighborhood gossip said the teachers were terrible and that students were treated like inmates. Daiva's parents were Catholic so they sent her to all girls Immaculate Conception Elementary School where the students wore blue plaid uniforms with pleated skirts that they rolled up very short when the nuns weren't looking. The girls were required to attend mass each morning and school often dismissed early in the afternoon so the students could sell candy door to door to raise money. When they weren't in church or doing fundraisers for the school, Daiva said the older girls smoked in the bathroom and talked about things they did with boys.

Although Kate did not have to wear a uniform at her own Missouri Synod Lutheran school, she could not imagine students being allowed to hang out in the bathrooms, leave school early to sell candy, or talk about things they did with boys. Misbehavior was dealt with swiftly and publicly by teachers who were not shy about using a large wooden paddle they called “the Board of Education” for things like late homework, skirts that were too short, or overdue library books. Classes were disciplined, orderly, and quiet.

Daiva's school sounded like a lot more fun. Kate wondered secretly how she could become Catholic and go to Daiva's school without her parents knowing.

On a warm May Saturday morning, the girls sat on Daiva's porch. Mr. Petersonaitis, Daiva's dad was fixing the family's ancient push mower on the small square of crabgrass that constituted the family's front lawn. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbows. Kate noticed what looked like numbers tattooed onto his left forearm.

“Why does your dad have that?” Kate asked. “Have what?” Daiva flipped the long brown braids that reached down to her waist. “Those numbers?” “From the camps,” Daiva said, still more interested in her braids than in Kate's question. “What kind of camp puts numbers on people?' Mr. Petersonaitis suddenly looked up from the mower and quickly rolled down his sleeves. Kate realized that she had been staring at his arm. He disappeared into the backyard. “Papa doesn't like to talk about it much. All I know is that there was a guy who put a lot of people into camps because they weren't Russian.” My parents had to work hard there. That's why they left the Old Country. Wanna a popsicle?”

Kate did not want a Popsicle. She wanted to know about camps in the Old Country where people who weren’t Russian were tattooed and forced to work hard. Were there a lot of camps like that, she wondered? Were they still open? Was the Old Country the only place where there were such camps? Kate wasn’t Russian. If she went to the Old Country, would she be tattooed and put into a camp? If so, this seemed like a good reason not to go to the Old Country. And yet Daiva and her parents often spoke of returning to Lithuania. It was confusing. As usual, she had a million questions and few answers.

She followed Daiva to the corner mom and pop store where they sold cigarettes, milk, Wonder bread, bagels, candy, and popsicles. Kate got a red/white/blue Rocket Blaster. The Popsicle was so cold it stung her tongue as she bit off a chunk of blue ice. Daiva licked her Dreamsicle and talked incessantly about the reward a priest at her parish had promised she was going to get when she cut off her braids after she graduated in two years from eighth grade. Kate thought the whole thing was weird. Why would a priest make Daiva promise not to cut off her braids until she was in eighth grade and give her a reward because she then did? Kate had tried to get an answer from Daiva about this. Daiva said it was something someone who wasn’t Lithuanian wouldn’t be able to understand. Kate said, “Try me. What’s the reward?” “That’s what I mean,” Daiva said. “You don’t understand.” But Kate did understand. She was an outsider.

The wind shifted and the air began to smell like a feedlot. For years her mom had explained the stink by saying they lived near The Back of the Yards. Chicago after all was the hog butcher to the world. But by grade 6, Kate knew the slaughterhouses had closed years ago. This smell actually came from the Darling Fertilizer Plant. Darling and dozens of other factories that hedged Brighton Park on all sides spewed fumes day and night but Darling's mix of ammonia and manure pierced the nose and clung to clothing in ways the others did not.

Besides Darling and the Lithuanians' food concoctions, the other prominent olfactory feature of Brighton Park was the smell of the many of dimly lit taverns that occupied the corners of most blocks. When the doors of these establishments swung open, the reek of stale beer, cigarettes, and urine wafted out. Most of the taverns had some patrons who parked themselves on the tattered vinyl stools when the bars opened at 9 am and who drank and smoked uninterrupted for hours. These devoted drinkers could not be troubled to stop long enough to get up to use the toilet. Yellow puddles pooled beneath their seats. Daiva's parents did not go into the bars. Both of Kate's parents did.

In fact, they were frequent visitors to Ona's and Baly's Tap just across the alley next to their bungalow. Adjacent to the bar was an 8 x 10 patch of dirt surrounded by a chain linked padlocked fence. A large black Doberman named Prince paced the pen all day and well into the night. Baly said he was a guard dog although he never seemed to be allowed outside the pen.

Every morning on her walk to school, Kate studied the fence to see if there might be a way to help the dog escape.

That evening at the supper table, Kate asked her parents about the camps and numbers she had seen on Mr. Petersonaitis’ arm. “Stalin was the man who put the DPs in labor camps after the war,” her dad said while opening the fifth of many bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer he would have that night. “Had the right idea, too. Those DPs helped the Nazis. If you ask me, we should get the balls in this country to put troublemakers into camps like Stalin did. Round ‘em all up and make ‘em work. I bet that nigger King never worked an honest day in his life. And he’s coming here to lead marches and stir up the jungle bunnies? Go back to Africa.”

Kate doubted that her dad could find Africa on a map.

“Oh, Bob, you don’t mean that,” her mom said quietly. She had only had two bottles of beer.

“Who are you to tell me what I mean?” He slammed his fist on the table causing a plate to clatter and break upon the stained linoleum floor. Not for the first time, Kate studied her parents and thought the two of them made quite a pair. Although he was only in his early thirties, her dad was almost bald and looked twice his age. With his big beer belly hanging over his belt, he reminded Kate of Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners, but with less hair. Like Jackie, he was powerfully built. Her mom on the other hand had all her hair but was rail thin. Full of nervous energy, she waved her hands when she spoke and often flitted about whatever room she was in. Kate secretly called her Bird Woman. Physically, Bird Woman was no match for Jackie Gleason. And Kate knew from experience that what was about to happen was going to get physical.

She excused herself from the table and went for a walk. It was best not to be in the house during her parents’ arguments. By the time she got back, the fight would be over, her parents would be at the bar, the house would be quiet, and she could go to bed.


Kate knew that a black man named Martin Luther King was supposed to lead a march for something called open housing in nearby Marquette Park. Lots of Lithuanians lived in that neighborhood, too. And just like Brighton Park, there were no black people there. The only time Kate saw blacks—her Uncle Wally called them “the colored”-- was when he took her on the Archer Avenue CTA bus downtown to visit the Art Institute, Adler Planetarium, or The Shedd Aquarium. Once downtown, she would see many black people on the sidewalks, in the museums, and on buses. Her uncle under his breath often pointed out how thick colored people’s lips were and how curly their hair was. Kate didn’t think these things needed pointing out since she could see for herself but she didn’t say anything. Her uncle was probably going to buy her lunch in a restaurant which was a rare treat. No good could come of starting an argument. But after lunch when she pulled a stick of Juicy Fruit from her pocket, her uncle grabbed the pack away and told her it was jungle bunny gum. She said it tasted good and demanded it back. He refused and called her a jungle bunny. She put her hands above her head in imitation of rabbit ears and began to hop out of the restaurant. People stared. He returned the packet of Juicy Fruit.

They had a silent ride home on the CTA bus. Uncle Wally never took her on another Saturday expedition downtown. But by that time, Kate had an allowance and knew how to take the bus to the museums by herself. She continued the Saturday expeditions alone. This was preferable to going with Uncle Wally although she could not afford to treat herself to lunch even though museum admission was free. But now that her uncle was no longer with her she could spend hours studying the exhibits in detail and return to her favorite museum again and again. Kate spent the next year of Saturdays in the Art Institute of Chicago puzzling over Impressionism and Asian antiquities.

The Art Institute had many galleries of Impressionistic art. Most of the paintings were by French guys named Renoir, Cezanne, Monet, Manet, Matisse, and Degas.  But there were also other paintings by people like Sisley and Cassatt who weren’t French but had gone to France to paint. From what she could tell from Impressionism, the light in France was very different from that on the south side of Chicago. It was much more beautiful. French light shimmered. Someday she would go there and see it for herself.




Kate liked Renoir’s art the best because it glowed with the most color and joy. She found herself especially drawn to his painting of two young sisters sitting on a terrace by a lake. The girls had rosy cheeks and radiated health and youth. Both wore big hats. The older sister’s was red which was Kate’s favorite color. What fun it would be to sit on a shimmering lake terrace wearing a red hat in a happy glowing world. But for no reason at all, tears sometimes came to Kate’s eyes when she stood in front of the picture of the sisters. The tears always surprised her and she quickly blinked them away. Crying, she was pretty sure, wasn’t going to help her see the beautiful world the Impressionists saw.



The museum’s Asian galleries were even bigger than the Impressionism ones. Uncle Wally had taken her to see the Asian collection once to show her examples of “Jap” art. He was an ex-Marine who had fought in the Pacific during the most recent worldwide war. Bird Woman told her that Uncle Wally's wife divorced him while he in Japan. Now he lived alone in a rooming house near 47th and Archer. He held the Japanese responsible for this.  Referring to some sculptures of the Buddha, he hissed, “Japs pray to these statues. Didn't help them win the war though, the bastards.” Her uncle apparently had not noticed that museum signs said the art was from many places in Asia, not just Japan. Or maybe he thought all of Asia was just one big version of Japan?



“When I was in Japan right after the war ended", Uncle Wally said,  "a family gave me a meal. It tasted good but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I asked the cook to tell me. He pretended he couldn’t speak English. But his English had been OK up to that point. I said he better tell me. ‘Rat’, the Jap said. I went around back and threw up. Then I thought about shooting him. A buddy who was with me told me it wasn’t worth risking a court martial for." Uncle Wally chuckled.

Kate wondered if the cook had actually played a trick on her uncle because Americans won the war. But what if rats were the only kind of meat the Japanese had left when the war ended? Or maybe, the Japanese actually ate rats on a regular basis just like Americans ate hotdogs? Had her uncle ever asked an American cook what was in a hotdog? If he got an answer he didn’t like, would he consider shooting the cook?

Knowing that her uncle would not appreciate these questions, Kate didn't ask them. They left the museum shortly thereafter and then went to lunch. It was at that lunch that the Juicy Fruit incident occurred.

On her post Juicy Fruit trips to the Art Institute sans uncle, Kate noted the Japanese woodblock prints and Chinese jade carvings with interest but was especially attracted to the hundreds of sculptures of the Buddha from various parts of Southeast Asia. Kate didn’t know much about Buddhism but she liked the fact that all the Buddhas looked pretty relaxed and were smiling. Their eyes were half closed like they were watching some inner movie. Were they smiling because they saw the same shining world the Impressionists did?





Kate wanted to see what the Buddhas saw. Even if they did eat rats.

Daiva said she thought how Kate spent her Saturdays was weird. “You mean your parents let you get on the bus and go downtown by yourself?” “Yeah. They're usually too hung over in the morning to ask a lot of questions. They think I’m going to the library.”

“All day?” “Yeah, I tell them I have a lot of homework.” 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Elephants Heal

Linda is down by the river laughing and bathing elephants. We're in northern Thailand at an elephant conservation park an hour outside of Chiang Mai. The valley here looks like it's right out of southern Wisconsin (except for the elephants.) It's hilly country covered with green forest. There's also a river that is brown and swift because it's the rainy season.




I'm sitting on a covered skywalk enjoying watching Linda enjoy herself. Linda and I are both widows. She is in her second year of grief and I am in my sixth. We are both our usual edgy selves. But all told, we seem OK. Maybe we are--especially here in this sanctuary.

It's cloudy. The mist has lingered all day-rising and then falling around the tops of the hills. There have been brief periods of rain. I've been here before in a different season when the sun beat down relentlessly and penetrated me like an x-ray. The clouds and rain feel better.

Our guide told us that there are now 34 rescued elephants and two babies who were born here. One is about a month old. There are also 450 dogs rescued in Bangkok from the gruesome dog meat trade. Plus a hundred water buffalo. There are lots of cats who have a their own place to live separate from elephants, dogs, and water buffalo. Cats come and go as they please and and so their numbers are hard to come by. I don't really need to know how many cats there are. It's just pleasant to see them.










A group of very sour smelling tourists have just surrounded me. They are speaking a European sounding language I don't recognize. Some of them are eyeing me. Or rather, hungrily viewing the comfortable wicker chair on which I'm sitting. Such acquisitive eyes!

Linda and I will be spending the night here in a hut. After most of the visitors leave when it grows dark, maybe we will hear the elephants snoring. The elephant sounds I have heard so far include trumpet, growl, roar, gurgle, and squeak. I'm a sound junky and want to hear more. And like elephants, I have poor eyesight, but keen hearing and a good sense of smell. Plus, I never forget. At least, I never forget when it comes to voices. Some people remember faces. Not me. Faces come and go. But voices. Those stick. And the voices of elephants are especially memorable.

I'm listening to those voices as well as the sound of splashing, gurgling, and laughing as people are filling buckets in the river and throwing the water on the elephants to bathe them and each other.

The elephants come here in various states of abuse but a tiny woman with a large heart named Lek Chailert rescued them and started a foundation/park to save elephants in Thailand and nearby Myanmar. In addition to saving elephants, this park supports the local economy by providing a consumer for locally grown produce (elephants are vegetarians and eat a lot every day) and giving jobs to unemployed mahouts (elephant handlers) who also mostly happen to be refugees from Myanmar.

Linda and friend

All the elephants have stories. Linda and I have been able to walk around and meet and touch and communicate with the animals who are highly social and tend to live in families or with female companions. All the elephant females (our guide calls them ladies) have friends and the babies are protected by mommies and nannies. If there is any potential threat to a baby, there is much trumpeting and jostling as the females form a protective circle around the little one.
Mommy, nanny, baby

The three rescued males are kept chained because they are so aggressive they hurt the females. But the female led families visit the males and keep them company so they don't get too lonely.

One lady we met on one of our walks was Mae Tee who was born between 1945-50. Her name is the Myanmar Karen ethnic group's name for river. She was forced into logging in Myanmar and was made to take amphetamines so she would not stop working. This overwork has left her with stiff wrist joints and deteriorated ankle joints. As a result, Mae Tee is unable to lay down so she only sleeps a couple of hours every day while standing and putting her head in a wooden headrest the mahouts have constructed. She goes to the onsite elephant clinic twice a day to get treatment for her injuries. Mae Tee's best friend and companion was an elephant named Mae Kham Geao who died a year ago and is buried on the facility. Mae Tee visits the grave each day and doesn't tend to roam too far away from it. I now foster Mae Tee in memory of my mom who died a few years ago.

Mae Tee


Another lady we met was Mae Jokia who was blinded in both of her eyes by her logging mahout. Born around 1960, she suffered a miscarriage while pulling a log uphill. She wasn't allowed to stop working to see if her calf was dead or alive so she sat down and refused to get up. And that was when her handler blinded her by hurling rocks into her eyes.

Mae Jokia


There are many more stories about the elephants who are now in this place where they are loved and cared for. And being healed. Linda and I fit right in with the rescued creatures here for in fact, we are being healed as well.

Share and support goodness. Learn more. Donate. Spread the news. Foster an elephant. Visit.
www.elephantnaturefoundation.org

Number of elephants left in the world

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Piggy Bank




Lots of people spend spring break on a beach in Thailand. Not me. Last spring break, I went to a Thai garbage dump. It’s not that garbage dumps are my thing. Quite the contrary. But a group of people in Chiang Mai, where I live, invited me to join them on a service trip to a medical clinic for Burmese refugees run by a remarkable woman named Dr. Cynthia, sometimes called the Mother Teresa of Thailand. I was eager to see her clinic and to meet her.

The clinic is located in the city of Mae Sot on the Thai/Burmese border. The trip to the garbage dump was a last minute add-on. One of the women in our group said she had heard there was a community of Burmese refugees, including many children, working and living in the Mae Sot municipal dump. She had been told the community was very poor and in need of everything.



We bought a bunch of children’s’ clothes and went to the dump. And that was where I met a little girl named Suu. Suu and her mom, along with 500,000 other Burmese, have fled their country to escape the war that has been waging there for sixty years. Suu and her mom had learned that there was work and a safe (compared to Burma) place to live in Mae Sot. The place was the Mae Sot municipal garbage dump. They decided it was better to live with trash than to be treated like trash in their native country. So they moved to the dump, constructed a shack to shelter from the rain, and now sift through the trash to make money from recycling bits of plastic.



Hundreds of other Burmese refugees also live at the dump even though there are no toilets, food is scarce, and the water is polluted. Often people get sick. The recycler does not pay much so everyone, including Suu and the other children, work long into the night. Despite working hard, people go hungry. Suu and her mom get by as best they can.

Suu and her mom invited me into their “house” and offered me-- by the way they handled it-- a precious cup of soda pop. We couldn’t speak the same language but we communicated anyway. I was touched by their generosity.



Many of the people who flee Burma have little but the clothes on their backs. They labor as illegal immigrants in Thailand and elsewhere and live as unwelcome guests wherever they can. They do the backbreaking labor no one else wants to do. The situation in Burma is changing but it is still not safe for many refugees, like Suu, to return home due to continued military action against them there.
Many people visit the dump when they come to Mae Sot. They take a lot of pictures as though they are in a zoo. “How can people live like this?” they ask with disgust. “Why don’t they go back to their own country?” Suu and her mom and the others at the dump are friendly to all the visitors even though they do not ask permission to take photos or understand why the refugees live at a dump. 

What I learned from Suu and her mom is that no one wants to live in a garbage dump, but it is safer and offers more opportunity to work than Burma. At the dump, Suu and her mom and the others can live with less fear. At the dump, they have community.

But what they do not have is clean water, sanitation, or much food.
The stench and flies overwhelmed the group of visitors I was with. In addition to the squalor, the fact that the people living at the dump were refugees made the situation seem too complicated to do anything long term to help. The group also knew that many well-meaning people in the past had seen this poverty and tried to assist but had failed.

Unfortunately, the well intentioned projects the people brought were not discussed with those who lived at the dump. Not being of or rooted in the community, the projects did not gain ground and withered.

After meeting Suu, her mom, and the others, it was impossible for me to walk away without trying to do something that would be effective and not repeat past mistakes. Through a process of trial and error and a lot of research, I met an expat here in Chiang Mai who had international development experience and an approach that made sense to me. It’s an approach that is deceptively simple: in order to do effective development in a community, it’s important to communicate with the people who live there. It’s vital to find out what kind of help the community thinks will be effective and then to partner with it to bring about change.



Raising pigs at the dump for extra income to help alleviate hunger is the community’s idea and goal. Pigletsforprogress.org is a grassroots group of progress minded people including Christina, the community leaders at the dump, and others like me who want to help the community reach its goal.
I think of pigletsforprogress.org  as a piggybank for Suu. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Same Same But Different

Customer service operates differently in Thailand than in other places I have lived. This is not necessarily a bad thing.


“Come get money,” the female voice on the phone insisted. It's not often that I get such messages. Usually, I’m being asked for money when someone I don't know calls. 

“This Centahl in Kad Suan Gaew. You buy watah bottah Satooday. Leave cawd.”

I checked my wallet. My credit card was nestled in its usual spot. Remembering that I had shown my Central Department Store discount card at the time of the purchase, I checked for that. It was next to my credit card.

The voice continued. “You leave change. Come get. Bling passplawt.”

 So that's where all my money had gone. I hadn't picked up my change when I bought a cheapo water bottle. 

"Where I go?” I asked. Kad Suan Gaew is a big place.

“Custoomah Soovie.  Second flah.”

“OK. OK.” Since moving to Chiang Mai over a year ago, I have taken to saying many English words twice like the Thais do. This provides a certain rhythmic comfort--kind of like a small child gets from rocking back and forth-- and gives me the illusion of fitting in. 

I have also learned to speak English Thai style because my Midwestern American is often incomprehensible to Thais. This involves dropping verbs from sentences whenever possible and using the present tense when I keep them. In the Thai language, verbs aren't conjugated. The present tense is always used. Time is revealed through contextual words like leuw, (already), ja (will), and gamlang, (doing now). 

 I get refund already; I will get refund; I am get refund now.

Northern Thai style English--Chiang Mai where I live is in northern Thailand-- also means substituting the letter “l” in the place of “r” in many English words. “Rice” is “lice”; "fried" is "flied". 

Yes, it felt odd the first time I ordered "flied lice" at a restaurant. But no complaints. It’s been easier to adapt my English than to learn Thai. 

Eager to reclaim my money, I allived at the Central Department Store, housed in Kad Suan Gaew, a mazelike and moldy mall in Chiang Mai. Kad Suan Gaew translates as crystal garden market but it's actually a dark and ponderous structure built out of brown bricks in the Lanna Thai way. 





Kad Suan Gaew houses a lot of shops that sell plastic knickknacks, designer knock offs, pirated dvds,  and cheap phones.







It also has a dank movie theater and a bowling alley that has seen much better days.




Many of Kad Suan Gaew's corridors lead nowhere. There are entire wings that house nothing. Before entering Kad Suan Gaew, it's important to know where you are going because it’s easy to get lost there.







I walked around the second floor of the Central Department Store. No customer service.

"Yuu tiinye (where iscustomer service?" I asked a clerk behind the jewelry counter who was looking at photos on her phone. She smiled at me and pointed up. "Third floor?" I asked. She nodded and returned to her phone. 

Sure enough, on the third floor there was a long customer service counter. Miming a conversation on the phone, I showed my passport to a tall older woman behind the counter and said "Refund." Three young female clerks immediately appeared. In Chiang Mai, when a job needs to be done--any job--it is done by groups of employees. I was told by the tall woman to go to the far end of the counter and to take a seat. She and the three other clerks followed, smiled at me, and spoke Thai to each other on the other side of the counter. After a few minutes of this, the tall clerk, who spoke pretty good English, asked me for my passport.

There were the usual multiple copies made. I was required to sign them. Then the tall clerk disappeared. I waited. In Thailand, you either get used to waiting or you flee the country. (Please note: you won't be able to flee quickly because you'll have to wait and sign a lot of forms.)

But no worries. Those customers who are waiting--basically all customers--are offered seats by banks, government offices, cable and utility companies, hardware shops, furniture malls, department stores, and so forth. Frequently, beverages are offered, too. 

The tall clerk returned with five more copies of my passport. These required my signature. Then she left. An officious woman vested with the authority to carry refunds marched over to me with an envelope. And forms. These also required my signature. Then the refund bearer slowly counted the money. Based upon the amount I was about to receive, I had given a 1000 Thai Baht note ($30 USD) to make a 100 Thai Baht ($3 USD) purchase but had not realized it at the time and left without my change. 

Since I had used my discount card, the store had a procedure to look up my telephone number and contact me to return the money.

But Thais haven't quite worked out the procedural glitches for many other things like on-line bill paying, internet banking, applying for visas, connecting subscribers to cable, and using credit cards. Thai ways are not efficient by Western standards. Many Western expats consider Thai ways to be dysfunctional.

But Thais value relationships more than efficiency. They are so social that it is impossible to be anonymous here in the manner that is common in the West. I suspect that Thais would consider a society where people can be anonymous to be dysfunctional.

Thais in Chiang Mai like to do business face to face. It's unusual to resolve problems by phone or email here. Conducting all business face to face is time consuming and often frustrating for Westerners, especially for type A driven Westerners like me.

But then something happens like a department store calling to return forgotten change. Or a cafe owner chasing after me to return my left behind umbrella. The cable company asking that I come into its office to give me a refund because it has calculated an overcharge. A computer shop owner carrying my broken printer to another shop because she cannot fix it.

And all of this is done cheerfully.


"Same same but different" is something Thais often say. It means that whatever is said or done is true. And the opposite is true also. It's a way to maintain harmony and equilibrium. Everyone is right. No one is wrong. Perhaps this mentality is why Thais are known for their tolerance. 

So the Thais cheerfully and patiently tolerate farangs' (foreigners) need for efficiency while conducting business in their own highly social style. 
                                         Sometimes efficiency discussions get heated in Thailand