I love to travel— always have and I believe I always will. I love learning about new cultures. Being 16 years old and in high school, I unfortunately can’t just pick up and fly to foreign countries and new places I have never been, whenever I want. Rustic Pathways gave me the opportunity to travel to Thailand, a country I don’t know if I would ever again have the opportunity of experiencing. Last summer when I heard about friends from NY, PA, and CA traveling all over the world with Rustic Pathways and the fun adventures they had and how they all wanted to go again and explore new countries; I knew I wanted to try it too. There are so many different countries in the world that you can pick from to travel to with Rustic. You can build homes and schools or you can do adventurous things like island hopping and scuba diving if charity work isn't your thing. I had never been to Thailand and I love taking care of animals, so The Thai Elephant Conservation Project was on the top of my list.
On the way there
What I did not factor in during the excitement of planning, was the actual TRAVEL. The journey from LAX to the small airport in Chiang Mai, Thailand took over 52 hours from start to finish. Squished in middle seats in the back of the plane, a total of four different airplanes, countless hours in airports, and not having any friends or family traveling with me made me super apprehensive about what was yet to come. Tired, anxious, and lonely, I felt like booking a flight home. A few tears were shed, and hours and hours were spent on my iPhone snapping and talking to friends.
We finally arrived! I was assigned a roommate for our night at the hotel since I was traveling alone, and I fell right asleep. At breakfast in our hotel in Chiang Mai the next morning, I made my first friend on the trip! And it happened in a way that I would have only believed by experiencing it. The wifi stopped working and I panicked, but in my panic I started speaking to people, staff and kids. Leaving the wifi in the hotel and driving away to the jungle was when I realized that I was going to be okay. The further we drove away from contact with my phone and my life in America was the second I realized that the things that matter to many of us in the States don't matter to people in the rest of the world. Especially not in Thailand. As we arrived to the camp, I was amazed at all of the lushness that surrounded me. California is struggling for water and what I was seeing, I had only seen in movies. A world so foreign yet my mahout, Pun, is maybe the happiest man I have ever met. He dedicated his life to Tantawan, a female elephant 59 yrs old and also my elephant, without even a weekend off. He taught my partner and I everything about caring for her and what she needed to survive. We choose numbers that corresponded to what elephant we would end up with and the entire staff said that I was lucky that I had gotten Tantawan. She was patient and so gentle with me. Once, she heard a mother elephant going crazy and trying to stomp her newborn baby to death, so she ran to rescue the baby and fought the mother elephant until Pun came.
I fell in love with Tantawan and Pun both. What I really learned from Pun is that happiness is not anything other than loving and giving love with happiness and CHOOSING who you give love to by the depth of their goodness. He barely spoke English but watching him I learned more than what I learn from English speaking teachers. Pun lives with so little, materialistic things are not what we need to be happy. What truly made Pun happy was taking care of Tantawan, and singing. He was always singing, always.
With the return of my phone and the internet it was bittersweet. I was happy to speak to my family and friends but I knew they would never quite understand what I had experienced and that is part of the problem where I am from. Until we travel we are not fully able to see that there is so much more out there then what is in front of us on our phones and on the internet. I am thankful to have met the people and animals that I met. I am forever changed, for the better, because of them. I now know that there are places in the world that do not care about the dumb things some of us care about here.
I look forward to a new life changing adventure next summer.
Rustic Pathways works at the intersection of travel, education, and philanthropy. Their programs facilitate life-changing educational experiences for students and use travel and philanthropy as a means to achieve sustainable development in the places students visit.