(potential trigger warning: a mention of the systematic abuse of animals in tourism practices)
several years ago, i went to thailand with a close friend. i planned to travel for a chunk of time with hopes of mining some deeper sense of purpose for myself … soulful excavation.
at the airport, i remember affectionately calling my trip the ‘shaking of my snow globe’ … a destabilizing of all the particles that were making me ‘me’.
i knew it was not going to be an easy trip. thailand was going through incredible social unrest. this was during the 2013–2014 thai political crisis and there were frequent government mobilizations and increasing public pushback protests in bangkok. the canadian embassy was advising against the travel but something in my gut insisted i journey there. so, i set off to visit a country that was deeply wounded …
needless to say, a lot happened while i was there. on the day we arrived in bangkok, the government had issued a dismantling of all protest sites. we were caught in the panicked crowds, gunshots flaring, the sound of bombs heard in the near distance.
things eventually tempered. we carefully maneuvered our way out of the city and were met by the most absurd contrast. clear skies. calm hearts. extraordinary food. we soaked up the breathtaking country. this struck me. how things move on. how life continues forward somehow.
we eventually landed in chiang mai, a mountainous city in the northern tip of thailand. my lovely pal and i were seduced into taking a guided tour. i’m not the tour package kinda human. i rarely do them. i find them lame, uninspiring and frankly, myopic. this one intrigued me, however. it was going to be an elephant-themed tour and, well, i have always been a big fan of elephants. i was excited about it. the dread i had been carting with me since bangkok slowly slid off my being.
in the hot beaming sun, we were driven to the location where ‘our’ elephants were waiting for us. two magnificent creatures. positively massive.
‘my’ elephant was walked over to me. she swiftly steered her head toward me and looked me straight on. the dread came back. her eyes looked dull. there was a certain agitation vibrating deep within her.
there is so much to say about this moment. how i, nonetheless, climbed onto her back even when everything in my belly told me this was wrong. how no one else seemed to notice … or cared to notice … how wrong this felt. everyone caught up in the exotic adventure of it all. none of us had ever been this close to a wild animal before. seemed to overshadow everything. i recognize this now as the cloaked markings of white supremacy. very soul-wrenching.
we were mounted three humans to a saddle. the handler insisted we buy bananas to feed ‘our’ elephants along the way.
we rode off toward the big mountain, clutching the tiny seat beneath us. i found myself trembling with apprehension. the elephant’s unpredictable nature was palpable. she was randy. and whipped snot at us often. when we had climbed at least 100 feet on the narrow mountain path, she began to buckle and spit, attempting vehemently to throw us off her back. i feared for my life. her handler ran over from behind. to my horror he began to poke at her with a long metal prod, persuading her into temporary submission. we gasped out loud. we were bizarrely informed to feed her more bananas. to calm her down. and we did … anything to relieve her from her handler’s threat.
i felt compelled to gently lay hands on her back, thinking i might try to communicate with her telepathically … to let her know … how very sorry i was … how wrong this was … that i should have known. i should have known better. my companions followed suit. not sure if she heard me. was probably the least of her priorities.
i was shaking when i dismounted her. I looked at her whole self and noticed that she had a twisted foot. it was wounded and badly healing. “when did this happen,” i demanded? “she should not have been taking rides.” i was told she was born that way. then I looked around the site and noticed the chains. these elephants were tethered when they weren’t working.
the tremendous guilt and shame it stirred up in me was unshakable.
i had blindly contributed to life as commodity. heart as property. my soul wept.
a few days later, i had an interesting visitation in one of my morning meditations. it was the elephant.
the elephant spoke to me. she said,
“alix, there are 3 things here that i ask you to consider:
“firstly, it happened. it’s done. it can’t be undone. release your attachment to it because it cannot be undone.
“secondly, ok, … if you can’t do that, then be productive about it. talk to others about your experience. educate. let them in on how unethical these practices are. and if they insist that they are merely curious about wildlife and want to have some sort of contact, they can consider heading to a conservation area ... where enslaved animals are gathered for rehabilitation…. where people can actually build relationships with these animals and begin the process of making amends.
“but lastly, and most importantly, don’t be a hypocrite.”
this surprised me.
“you’re making this all about me,” she said, “… how i was abused and tethered and not treated well ... enslaved … your outrage, your shame. but first, ask yourself ... how do you think this came to be?
“ask … how do you abuse and tether yourself, alix? how do you enslave yourself? what are your wounds, your narratives, your fears that keep you tethered and tied? how do you ‘other’ yourself? then these are your habits … cruelty, loathing, disregard. the only reason this happens to me is because you do this to yourself.
“so, answer this question for yourself first before you make it about me. you’re being a hypocrite. start at home.”
and that kinda blew me away.
the patterns, the wounds that house my reactivity, my perception. if i may add to the elephant’s observation, i am also the result of dominant structures and opinion, patriarchal strongholds, media coercion. my tethers have weaved their way, era upon era, contributing to my familial/social influences, fears, my wounds and imprints, my narratives, the inner braiding of ancestral memory, how i ‘other’ myself. in judgement. in cruel self-talk or behaviour.. and then, in return, how i ‘other’ others. because the unconscious habit of othering runs surreptitiously deep.
so, a tremendous responsibility, then. to my ‘self’. to humanity. to the survival of our planet. doing the work. healing myself is part of the global work.
committing to love. committing to loving big.
open to the weaving. leaning into our interconnectivity. In essence, healing as a kickass, subversive act.
note: some elephant rescue and rehabilitation sanctuaries in Thailand: https://matadornetwork.com/change/3-reputable-elephant-sanctuaries-in-thailand/