Episode 1 – Ezekiel and Elephants
On the morning of August 8th, Jacque and I woke up in Chiang Mai to discover an email announcing the birth of Ezekiel Reid Henak, my first nephew. He was born on August 7th, New York time. He’s a healthy baby – born at 8lb 11oz, he then gained 19oz in the first week. A fat newborn is a beautiful thing! He managed to look less scrawny and weirdly wrinkly than most babies: it was a photogenic start to life for the youngster. The best part of the announcement email, though, was the first shot of Corinne with Zeke in the hospital. She was giving the camera (I assume her husband Zachary was behind it) a classic Corinne look, one that I remember often from our childhood. It’s not mad, exactly, but more of a look that questions why she’s related to you in a playful way. Given that Zach was taking a picture shortly after labor, I can understand. It was a perfect first picture of her with her son.
That day, we headed to the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) outside Chiang Mai. Somehow it seemed fitting to visit the elephants, particularly the few babies at the park, on the day he was born. Maybe that’s because kids usually love elephants or elephants remind of us of kids? We had a fantastic time interacting with these soulful creatures. The opportunity to feed, bathe, and touch the chang (elephants) was incredible. Looking an elephant in the eye is an experience that’s hard to forget; “the eyes are the windows to the soul,” as the proverb says, and there is incredible depth in an elephant’s eyes. The Park doesn’t allow riding of the elephants like most places in Thailand, as it promotes the cruel pajaan to break the elephant to a human rider. There were also several babies in the Park, planned for eventual release into the wild. Although visitors are allowed near the babies, human contact is discouraged to ensure they don’t get accustomed to human interaction.
We learned quite a bit about elephants during the day; they have intricate family structures as complicated as a big fat Greek wedding. For example, when a young elephant is pregnant for the first time, she will choose an older female elephant as the nanny for her new baby. The nanny will stay with the mother, helping her raise and protect the baby until it’s weaned. Since the elephants are encouraged to choose their own family groups at ENP, there are a handful of distinct family groups. In the wild, elephants are born into a family group, but the adult elephants here are all rescued from a working life in logging or tourism. Often, working elephants have been severely abused: many of them were blind due to abuse, crippled from logging accidents, or scarred from a cruel mahout (trainer). All of them, without exception, had been subjected to the practice called pajaan. Pajaan essentially involves locking a just-weaned baby elephant into a tiny corral-like cage and beating it for a few days straight to break its spirit.
In a poignant way, the elephants remind us of our own humanity: they have pain in their past that can be seen in their soulful eyes, and they support and protect their family. From the happy news when we first woke up to the last melon given to a 70-year-old elephant, it was a life-affirming day for Jacque and me. We ended the day with a view to the sunset over Doi Suthep and a Chang beer in hand to celebrate.
Episode 2 – How to get lost in the jungle (without the inconvenience of actually being lost)
In Chiang Mai, it’s very popular to go trekking. Most treks involve riding on an elephant (potentially cruel to the elephant, as we learned at the Elephant Nature Park), almost all of them involve a guide, and a few intrepid/stupid souls decide to trek by simply wandering into the jungle. Guess which we were this time?
Wander into the woods near Doi Suthep National Park, a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. Start near a tall Golden Buddha, following a trail found on the ever-reliable internet. Find A) a hidden waterfall and B) an old heli-pad with a view over all of Chiang Mai on a big loop. Take some awesome pictures of neat jungle things. Celebrate our intelligence at saving lots of money on useless guides.
How the plan lined up with reality:
Problem 1. No trailhead sign at the base of Doi Suthep near the Golden Buddha. Neither Jacque nor I are sure we actually found the right trail, based on the trail description.
Problem 2. The .gpx track I downloaded to my iPhone’s GPS app was made useless by the fact that the good-for-nothing iPhone wouldn’t find our freakin’ location. I knew where I thought we entered the jungle and I knew where the trail was on the map, but I had no idea if we were on the trail. We proceeded assuming we were on the right trail.
Problem 3. Fork in the path. No mention in the trail description. No fork in the .gpx track or on the map. With my dad’s voice in my head, we decided to “just go up!” since the waterfall and heli-pad were definitely above us somewhere. The left-hand trail led up and eventually to a viewpoint that seemed similar to the heli-pad. Success! Kind of. No actual heli-pad in sight. Since it was a loop, we kept on walking in quest of the waterfall.
Problem 4. We discovered that we were way off the intended loop, having gone past the turn to the waterfall. How, you might ask, did you know where you were with no GPS? Well, it turns out that the iPhone’s GPS only works when Airplane mode is off (even though we don’t have cell service, it will talk to the towers to get a location fix). I discovered this after an hour of sweaty, steep, spider-web-infested climbing in the wrong direction. The good news was that we now knew where the cutoff to the waterfall should be. We backtracked toward it.
Problem 5. The trail to the waterfall doesn’t exist. At least, it doesn’t exist in real life. It only exists on a map, which doesn’t do us much good at this point. Solution: make our own trail by bushwhacking, based on the GPS coordinates of the waterfall and its creek. It was only 200m away!
Problem 6. Overgrown jungle is basically impassable. After hacking and clawing our way down a steep slope, gathering small cuts and spider webs all over us, we reached a small creek.
Problem 7. No trail near the creek, as there should have been. No waterfall that we could see (though we could hear it…we think). Just an overgrown, impassable creek. We (smartly) decided just to head back to the trail we knew would take us off the mountain after 4 hours of hiking. On the way back up, I put my head through another spider web – no problem, it happened constantly during the day – until I saw its occupant scramble away:
Problem 8. As in, eight legs. She must’ve thought I wanted to kiss her, but she got away just in time. The golden silk orb weaver isn’t overly poisonous, but the adrenaline surge just about killed me.
We got back to the trail and walked out without much fuss. We found the actual heli-pad on the way out, but never found the waterfall. I recommend bringing a machete with you for this kind of trek. Mostly, it will be useful for vines, but it might also be useful for some of the larger 8-legged occupants of the jungle.
Episode 3 – scuba diving in Koh Tao
Our first two dives for our scuba certification were in Denver, swimming around like two fish in the small “dinner” aquarium with a depth of 18 feet near the Downtown Aquarium’s restaurant. Small children were fascinated, but we were, frankly, incredibly bored. The next two dives, although less contained, were no more exiting: Koh Rong, Cambodia has decent diving when the visibility is good, with a depth of 23 feet. Unfortunately, we could barely see beyond our own hands, so it was not decent diving.
Then we went to 95ft depth at Chumphon Pinnacle near Koh Tao. What a dive! With near-perfect visibility – we could see all the way from top to bottom, about 100 feet – Jacque and I felt as though we were finally diving, not just snorkeling with more air. It was much different than our first four dives, so much so that I sucked down all of my air in record time. (This made the one other member of our group upset, but he was a prima donna anyway.) There were small corals and shrimp, huge schools of barracuda, and colorful reef fish.
We spent the next three days doing nothing but diving, taking a total of seven dives. For me, the biggest challenge and skill to learn was how to conserve air. (Jacque, of course, is a natural at this at half my size.) Conserving air makes for longer, more relaxing dives. By our last dive, I wasn’t the fastest one to run out of air. Hooray, not last place! On our fourth Koh Tao dive, I had my first run-in with aggressive marine life. A trigger fish apparently thought I looked at him the wrong way – they’re about the size of a small dog, very territorial, and bite hard with sharp teeth if they get a hold of you – and came after me. As we were taught, I put my fins toward him and swam backwards; he let off the attack quickly without even biting my fins. I must have used half my tank hyperventilating before I calmed down again.
During our time on Koh Tao, we dove with two different operators. Scuba Shack (http://www.scubashackkohtao.com/) is a new, small operator with just a few instructors and divemasters. Stephen, the owner, will help you find accommodation for cheap near the scuba shop. They like to be the first at a dive site in the morning, and for good reason: there are 120-plus dive operators on the island! They generally depart at 5:45am for you early birds. We also dove with Sairee Cottages (http://www.saireecottagediving.com/), which offers cheap accommodation on-site with a pool if you’re taking a class or diving package with them. They are a larger, more polished outfit with a big, comfortable boat. Less-experienced divers might be happier with the gloss on Sairee’s operation, but I recommend both as we enjoyed our dives with each. Note that Sairee’s afternoon dives will go to less-challenging (and less-exciting) locations since they usually take beginner divers in the afternoon. The pricing was similar in both places, at around 1000 baht for individual dives or 800 per dive in a package of six.