Chapter 1: A guy named Bill, a radical observer

Sometimes in life you meet people who change the course of your life drastically and for the better.  I’ve luckily had the chance to meet a few of these people in my life already.

Bill has been one of those people for me.

I met Bill in late 2016 when I was attending a course he was offering.  I LOVED this course.  I loved it for a number of reasons, though one of the main ones was because this guy simply exuded JOY for his work.  He was smart – really smart – and had been running his business for multiple decades.

He helps people improve their sales outcomes, primarily through radical self awareness (yes, the word radical is going to be a theme here).  He was challenging all of our notions about sales – how we engaged with our pipeline, how we approached calls, and how self-aware we were during this process.  I took every chance to talk to him after the course each day – I remember thinking to myself, ‘I want to BE this guy’.  Not literally of course (!).

At one point during a role play with a neighbouring student, I made a comment and he looked directly at me for a moment.  It was one of those looks where you know the person has SEEN you, exactly as you are – every strength and every limiting belief.  One of those ‘looking into your soul’ looks that few people are capable of. He then made one comment to me and one comment to my neighbour – giving us each something to consider about ourselves – and then continued on completely un-phased to the next part of the course.

Holy mo-ly.

That one comment taught me so much about myself.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days. Actually, it was more like weeks.  I realized it was one of my limiting beliefs and I saw its threads running through a few areas of my life.  It also reinforced how much of what we unconsciously reveal about ourselves through the language we choose.  This was really the kicker for me – it was something I had known subconsciously and was completely crystallized for me in that moment.  Realizing how much of our beliefs we portray through the words we choose also helped me a lot in all of my sales calls. Win-win, my most favourite situation.

I left that course totally energized. It set me up for 2017.

My new gig wasn’t playing itself out quite the way I had hoped.  It’s a long story that most importantly, left me questioning a lot of things.  For a while now I’ve treated my career as my business, even when working for someone else.  It hasn’t been perfect, though it’s been pretty great and has lead me to lots of places, to meet so many amazing people and have a lot of challenges that continuously encourage me to grow.

This particular challenge had me zooming out to think about my long-term goals. Was I on the path that I wanted to be on? Was I working for myself? I wasn’t quite sure any more, though I wanted to make sure I was.  My first move in 2017 was to hire a professional coach – Bruce, a deeply skilled, positive guy that I had worked with briefly the year before.  His questions and reframings have been invaluable in helping me get clarity and steering me where I wanted to go. A skilled professional coach is an investment.

Bruce has been the other major influencer this past year for me.  One of my fears in leaving a position early was – similar to many people’s fears – what people would say.  Like many others, I value others perspectives – while also recognizing that it doesn’t have to define me.  I worried that people might look at me as a job hopper or that I was taking the easy way out.  Neither of those were true for me.  I knew I wasn’t a job hopper – since leaving an organization where I worked for 5 years, I had spent about 2 years working primarily on a contract basis.  This of course means short-term gigs.  Walk into an organization, tackle the challenge you were hired for alongside others and then help manage the next step of change as you leave.  It has been fun and has taught me A TON. I also knew I wasn’t looking for the easy way out – and that definitely proved true, things were about to get a whole lot more difficult before they got easier.  I had luckily read Seth Godin’s The Dip (yes, I’m a superfan), which helped me frame what was going on.  [Blog post on the dip here, though I definitely also recommend the book, which is a super quick read].

When I took this new gig, I knew I wanted to focus on sales skills. I saw it as the next step in my ‘field learning’.  I’ve always tried to take jobs, projects or volunteering that would help me develop a skill set I wanted to develop while working for organizations whose missions or values were aligned with mine.

Sales was the next step for me. I had done a fair bit of fundraising and wanted the chance to refine my sales skills – it was part of my long-term plan.  That’s what lead me to sitting in Bill’s course.

Bill is a radical observer.  Like just so far ahead of the curve it’s unbelievable.  He has the ability to see you (like really see you) through asking you a few questions and listening to the way you respond.  He is a master at reading people and more importantly, based on those observations, of providing real value to you or your organization.

[I’ve been liking this word ‘radical’ lately.  Cheryl Strayed introduced me to radical empathy in ‘Tiny, beautiful things‘.  Ray Dalio’s ‘Principles‘ are a deep dive in radical transparency and open-mindedness.  While I think ‘radical’ is on its way to becoming an overused buzzword, I’m going to embrace it here as a simple word that, when paired with another, can convey a lot of deep meaning].

Bill gave me the gift of helping me see me how others might see me, just a little more, and helping me see a limiting belief – the gift of what Ray Dalio would call radical transparency.  Delivered with firm gentleness that challenged me to grow.

As I thought about this limiting belief in the early part of the year, along with my 2017 intention of not rushing, and I realized I had some time to set myself up for what I wanted.  I hadn’t quite strayed from the long-term goal I was working towards, but I was about to.  It was time to get back on track.  I started reaching out to chat with some people, and worked closely with my coach to hatch 3 shorter-term goals:

  1. Start working for myself again (which I could do within the organization I was already at by radically owning my workflow).  I would constantly remind myself of where I was going and why, and how this experience could be a living lab for me.  That changed everything.
  2. Get ready to liquidate my assets to increase my flexibility, and
  3. Travel for a few months before diving more fully into my next thing.

I decided on purpose to not attach a strict timeline to these.  Maybe I would get these all done in 2017, and maybe it would take me longer than that.  I wanted to remain open to opportunities and I had a few other things I needed to work on at the same time.  By nature I’m a planner.  I love planning, I have lists, I have spreadsheets, inbox zero gives me a dopamine hit.  But I’ve been a planner long enough to know that nothing goes quite according to plan, so it’s best to always focus on the goal and remember that there are multiple pathways there.

Coming up tomorrow, chapter 2: Getting ready or getting ready to get ready? A skydiving preflight checklist.

A year in 3 chapters

Some years have themes, some have chapters.  Some have goals and some have major influencers.

2017 was a landmark year for me. Looking back, there were 3 distinct chapters with 2 major influencers.

My intention for 2017 was not to rush – to realize that there was time.  Yes, I know – I might die tomorrow, but quite frankly, I find that to be a bit of an exhausting mindset.

This pretty successful dude has been known for saying, ‘most people overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in 10 years’.  That dude is Bill Gates.  I’ve definitely fallen into this trap before.

2017 was a balance of moving towards my long-term goals while recognizing the steps I was making towards them now might seem small at the time, but they would add up.

I’m sharing my reflections on the year for 2 main reasons:

1. I discovered a number of years ago that I think through writing.  It helps me get my thinking straight.  This crystallized for me when I read Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking’.  Thinking through writing is a pretty common introvert trait.  If you’re curious, her TED talk is a great 20-minute summary of the book.

2. Perhaps my reflections may lead someone else to some self-insight.  My story is of course only my own, though I know I get a lot from reading other people’s perspectives.  I’ve always mostly kept my writing private, though one of my goals for this year was to begin to get it out there more. Some of it’s been a lot better than others, though it’s been fun working on it more. I audio-booked Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic‘ and I think she captured this desire to get your stuff out there perfectly with the sentiment: the ‘arrogance of belonging‘.  Summary here.  The arrogance of belonging – it’s kind of a jarring phrase, but I gotta say, I like it.

The 3 chapters of my 2017 are:

  1. A guy named Bill, a radical observer
  2. Getting ready or getting ready to get ready? A skydiving preflight checklist
  3. Street fighter (Hadouken)

They’re coming up.

Thanks for taking a bit of your time to read this. I hope you’ll take a bit more time to check out my chapters of 2017, and let me know what, if any of it, resonated with you.

Some things I’ve learned while traveling

I don’t need much. But what I do have / need, I want organized.

Travelling light means more laundry but is worth its ‘weight’ in not carrying extra stuff around.

No matter where they are from, people have both pride of place and are really familiar with its downsides.

Just because someone travels doesn’t mean they’re open minded.

English is everywhere.

History and leadership directly impact living conditions.

Culture – beliefs that influence behaviour – impact history and leadership.

Well-managed taxation can be a game changer.

I miss my dog. It’s true there’s a special bond between humans and canines.

Human rights pave the way for animals rights. I hope we continue moving faster towards both of these.

Hostels reminded me I’m not interested in partying much anymore. But I am interested in having time to really talk to people.

There’s hostels and hotels for every kind of traveller. Thank you, Agoda and Hostelworld.

Word-of-mouth marketing and user reviews are truly effective.

Balancing planning and flexibility is hard. I’m getting better at it. They each have a cost. Figuring out when and where to pull them out is key.

Sex tourism is alive and well.

Creating space for myself opens up new ways of thinking.

It’s hard to raise yourself out of poverty on a few dollars a day.

It’s amazing that the world can turn a blind eye to genocide. Maybe it’s because we think it’s too complex? It’s not our business? There’s nothing we can do about it? Movements always start with a few people. Whether good or bad. Some people have a lot more power than others. Understanding the differences is key to growth and change.

People are just so damn beautiful, complex and ugly – all at the same time. All of us.

We have more in common than we know, though we can learn a lot from our differences.

Open mindedness is a beautiful thing.

Believing and then doing

Sometimes things get hard. They get hard for different reasons.

Sometimes it’s because it’s out of your control and you have to learn a new perspective.

Sometimes it’s because you’re in the middle of the dip and you have to persevere through it.

Sometimes it’s because you’re not following what you know is right for you.

I learned a lot this year. Mostly I learned I wasn’t on the path that I wanted to be on. I knew I needed to get on it.

Steering myself on to it was hard. It felt like a street fight at times. But I’m on it now.

Marie Forleo is right, everything IS figureoutable.

In the last 2 months:

I left for Southeast Asia and have visited 3 countries so far – heading to a 4th tomorrow.

I found loving homes for my dog and cat while I was away – though my oh my, I miss them.

I found a remote project management gig with a great little organization and am learning a ton.

I truly and experientially learned the difference between validation and affirmation.

I sold my property.

I created space.

It’s been an important lesson to not wait until I have it all figured out.

Sometimes you gotta stop to relish it all – look back on what you accomplished to give fuel to the next steps. That’s right now’s step.

Celebrating with my favourite meal of the week. Sunday Brunch.

Sell me (translation: help me buy)

One of the things that I’ve noticed about being away is that everyone seems to be selling something here. It’s a big contrast to home where I’ll often go into a store and feel like I’m ignored.

On this trip to date, we’ve visited Thailand and Cambodia – where we’re constantly solicited for tuk-tuk rides (small modified-scooter taxis), tailored suits, massages, tours and to come into restaurants. I like everyone’s hustle here. At the same time, I’m not going to lie – it gets a little tiring to be asked if I need a tuk-tuk every 20 steps.

There’s a distinct difference between buying and being sold. Being sold feels a lot like being solicited for a tuk-tuk ride every 5 metres – you don’t necessarily want it, and you’re mostly just tired of hearing it.

Buying can be an entirely different experience. If you’re buying, you know you want (or need) something. If you’re ignored or belittled in the buying experience, you’re likely to go somewhere else – especially when there are lots of other options.

Earlier this year, I finally bought myself the exact headboard I’ve been wanting for years. It was the final step in making my place feel like a home.

I knew exactly what I wanted. I searched the internet for prices and designs, but I wanted to buy it locally. I wanted to see it and touch it – a headboard was one of those things I want to buy once and keep it for a long time, so I wanted to make sure I got it right.

I went to a few local furniture stores where they basically ignored me. I then went into Hotchkiss Home Furnishings where a young woman greeted me when I walked in, asked if she could help me with anything, and I told her I was ‘just looking around’ – typical shopper speak for: I want to check things out a bit and decide if this is the place for me before I ask questions. That’s my personal preference, while many others want to ask their questions right away – a good salesperson can spot the difference in what the person is looking for right away.

She did just that.

‘Sounds good, I’ll be just around the corner if you need anything’.

She kept an eye on me, and when she knew I was looking for her, came over and helped with my questions. She took me to the discount section to compare prices and quality. I finally settled on the exact one I had been looking for – or maybe it was exactly what I was looking for because I had such a positive buying experience. She wasn’t forceful, though willing to answer my many questions, look over potential nightstands to match and ensure my expectations were met. I’m sure she made a commission from it, and I was happy about that – she helped me find exactly what I was looking for and this headboard continues to make my morning every morning that I’m home when I sit in bed, drink a coffee and read.

This was the part I loved about selling (helping people buy) thermal analysis equipment. The awesomely diverse people I spoke with were, for various reasons, needing to analyze thermal properties. The first call – known as the ‘qualification’ call – was to determine whether I could help them or not. If I couldn’t, no problem – thanks for your time and best wishes finding what you need. If I could help them, it was exciting to help determine if our instrument would be the best fit for their complex needs. I loved winning sales because it meant I helped researchers in various fields further their research objectives. I always thought of my job as helping people buy.

Here’s to a day when sales is no longer a dirty word!

Planning then executing OR planning and executing?

There’s a subtle difference here that I’d like to explore.

In working with a professional coach this past year – one of the top 5 investments I’ve ever made in my myself – I realized that I’m a pragmatist. This is one of my key strengths. My coach also helped me realize that when we overdo our strengths, that strength can become our weakness – something Ray Dalio emphasizes in ‘Principles’. He encourages that learning to balance your strengths ensures they don’t become your weakness.

As a pragmatist, I love planning. Planning has helped me in a lot of ways, especially professionally. Though I sometimes overdo it.

I once planned a trip to drive across Canada – complete with a spreadsheet containing a packing list, approximated driving times and most embarrassingly, places to sleep every night. Some of those nights were stays with friends – I like to give as much notice as I can to build my plan ensuring we can spend time connecting.

The other nights were…. a reminder that yes, you can most certainly overplan. Sometimes there was rain and I had planned camping. There was the drive home that routed through the US with hailstorms and the ‘nice’ hotel in a rather dodgy small town in North Dakota. The first thing I noticed about this place after checking in was that the key card had extended safety instructions.

“Is this normal?”

I racked my memory to see if I could recall any other hotel where this was the case, and I couldn’t think of any (!). Once I got to the room, the binder that usually has menus and welcome ads had a full page of safety instructions – including not to open the door if someone knocked on it in the middle of the night (!). I pulled out the bear spray from camping in Jasper the week prior. Was I going to use it? I sure hoped not. I woke up to the dogs barking at the door at 3AM. Ugh.

Confirmed – there is such a thing as overplanning.

I definitely get some dopamine hits from planning and then executing. I love both of these steps, though this experience along with some others had me thinking there might be a better way.

I’m currently doing some extended travel for a couple of months through Southeast Asia. I had to fight myself on more than one occasion to not plan a full month at a time. And I’m glad I did. I planned the flight in, booked somewhere to sleep for a few nights to get our bearings, and then had a general outline for the rest that was flexible to things as they came up.

It led us to Northern Thailand – where I got recommendations for an awesome cooking school. We decided to stay a little longer in Chiang Rai than planned. I got in to the top-rated elephant sanctuary because my dates were flexible.

We then flew to southern Thailand where the rainy season has been hanging on a little longer than usual. We decided to head out to Cambodia in the morning where the weather looks amazing. I’ve been watching the flight prices, but I only booked less than 24 hours before it left. That’s a first for me.

I realized the difference is that I’m now planning and executing at the same time. They’re no longer separate phases. This slight difference lets me adapt to changing circumstances rather than being hostage to the plans I hatched for ideal conditions.

A slight, though critical difference.

That slight difference led me to reading and swimming on this beautiful beach all day today.

And that’s okay with me.

Tigers, elephants, monkeys – oh my!

Ethical tourism is a hot topic. How do you experience other cultures and perspectives without negatively affecting them? How do you experience the natural environment in a way that minimizes your impact?  How do your everyday decisions impact the world around you?

One of the typical tourist attractions outside of Chiang Mai is Tiger Kingdom.  It’s a place where you can go into an enclosure with tigers and pet them, touch them, hug them.  The online world of reviews is rife with disagreement about the ethics of this place – are the tigers drugged?  Are they willing?  Are they abused?

There’s two questions worth exploring here for me: would tigers act this way in their natural habitat?  What’s driving our very human desire to see and touch large animals like these?

After visiting the New England Aquarium in Boston a few years back, I promised myself I would never visit another zoo or aquarium again.  I had loosely made this commitment to myself many years before that, but had heard good things about this aquarium and I wanted to form my own opinion.  I found it to be a very depressing place.  Walking in, the penguin enclosure reeked of urine.  Each species had a very small pool, didn’t interact with any other species of anything, it was dark and dank and had no visual interest. I realize that these animals live in a place without trees and differing amounts of sunlight than Boston – it just felt very unnatural.  The rest of it wasn’t much better.

I left with a new resolve.

We decided we would not visit the Tiger Kingdom because it seemed absurd that tigers would welcome a life of being petted by humans.  And there was still the outstanding and unanswered question of how the tigers came to accept this style of life?  Drugs or abuse?  Or perhaps something else?

Indochinese tigers are critically endangered – WWF reports that there’s thought to be less than 350 living in their natural habitat.  Zoo-based breeding programs have notoriously poor results.  Though in a turn of good news, news agencies like the BBC are reporting these tigers breeding in the wild.

The situation for Asian elephants isn’t much better.  WWF reports them as endangered. I visited an elephant sanctuary where they were purchased out of trades like teak logging and various tourism activities (trekking, riding, performing) to live out their lives in relative peace.  There are lots of options for visiting sanctuaries – I visited one of the first to have been established, though many others followed suit once they realized that profit incentives had switched.  A case of someone making the bold decision to lead and paving the way for others to join.

I’ve been following a lot of discussion on these elephant sanctuaries in various Thailand travel groups online.  It’s a hot debate.  Some people elect out of the whole thing, some want assurances that these elephants have been given a new life and that the staff are also treated well, and some people don’t really seem to care either way.

I fall in the second group – I wanted assurances that the elephants and staff were treated well.  I wanted to support people buying elephants out of these abusive trades to give them a new life.  Maybe these elephants would never be able to live in their natural habitat again, though this seemed like the best possible solution to a large-scale and very complex issue.

Last week, I visited a monkey cave outside of Chiang Rai – that was an interesting experience.  It was a stop on a tour we booked to see the local temples, as well as the Golden Triangle. It was suggested that you pick up a stick when exiting the van in case a monkey got too aggressive with you.  Some of the visitors were teasing the monkeys with nuts you could purchase to feed them with.  Others were more interested in getting their photo taken with them than treating them well.

The telling moment for me was when we were standing in a group talking and one of the monkeys, who hadn’t yet seen us, was calmly eating some nuts on the edge of a fountain – all of sudden he noticed us, looked over and flinched when he saw the stick.  It was a moment of surprise and brief fear that flickered over his face until he settled back in to eating when he realized we were just standing around.

This one was taking a break from us up in a tree.

What’s the human desire that brings us to these places?  The desire that leads us to exploiting these creatures?  Especially in the light of incredible works of art like Planet Earth, where zoos no longer seem necessary.

I think the desire can be a very positive one – a drive of our natural curiosity, of awe for the natural world, a sense of adventure.  Like all of our desires, it comes with a potential negative side if we don’t ask ourselves what impact we’re having.

How will augmented reality change this even more?

We each have to ask ourselves how we spend our money, how do we balance development and consumption with the natural world?

My home town of Fredericton is struggling with this type of question – how do we balance development with nature – in a slightly different way.  The city wants to develop the trail system for competitive skiing and mountain biking.  The people that I know engaging in these activities are primarily those who love and respect nature.  They’re really trying to balance development with respecting the natural world.  But there’s lots of debate – lots of people saying that we shouldn’t develop any further.  I don’t have the right answer, though I’m happy to see the city reaching out to those of us who live there to have a conversation, to not make the decision without us.

We have to ask ourselves the same questions about human culture – what impact do our small, every day decisions make?  We know the internet is leveling the playing field – it’s easier than ever for our small decisions to have great impact.  It’s the reason why Uber’s CEO was replaced, why Harvey Weinstein was let go, and why CBC let go of Jian Ghomeshi.

I loved this video making its rounds of Meghan Markle, writing letters at the age of 11, to make it known that she thought it was unacceptable that P&G have a commercial stating that women were struggling with grease in the kitchen – they finally responded with changing women to people.  What a victory!

Consumers, the every day person, have more power than ever.  As ol’ Spidey (or Voltaire) would say, ‘with great power, comes great responsibility’.

Where are there less tourists?

I’m participating in a lot of online social media groups about traveling through southeast Asia and the thing I’ve found most interesting is how many people post that they are looking for somewhere with no / fewer tourists.  I find it funny because we are tourists – and we’re chatting in groups explicitly designed for touring / traveling.

That question though – ‘where can I go where there are less tourists?’ – got me thinking.  What’s the real question they are asking here?  Does it mean they are looking to live more like the locals, or for cities that aren’t busy, or to have room to breathe, or just to ensure that they aren’t the target of tourist scams – of which there are MANY any where that tourists tend to congregate!

The people in these groups are lucky – we have the freedom, resources and sense of adventure to pick up and leave our homes for a period of time to see another part of the world.  But we’re all different, even in this group.

As I thought about this question, this popped into my head.

Image result for the bell curveThe bell curve is the typical representation of a distribution of perspectives.  Some people want to be the first to try something, to see things that others haven’t.  Some people don’t care if they ever see it.  And most people fall somewhere in the middle.

I’m in Thailand right now and it’s why Phuket is super busy while Chiang Rai is less so.

When I visited Peru a few years ago, we were following what the locals called the ‘Gringo trail‘ – the journey that most tourists make through the mountains of Peru.  I’m glad I followed it too – it was beautiful and we met some lovely people.  It made sense for us because we had a short period of time and a few major things that we wanted to see.

I’m not sure exactly sure where I fall on this bell curve – I’m certainly not on the far right, though I’m also not on the very far left either.  I picked up and headed out for a while but also have my life to come back to in a couple of months.  I’ve stayed in cities and done the tourist things like seeing the Royal Palace in Bangkok, though we’ve also rented scooters and planned our own itineraries.  I like this mix.

On this journey, I’ve met lots of different people, all looking for very different things.  Everyone I’ve spoken to has had a very different story – unique to them, and what they’ve shared with me was only the tip of their iceberg.  I’ve met the people looking to share experiences with other tourists, to take tours, to see the beaten path – and I’ve met people who are looking for the exact opposite.  I’ve liked them all for different reasons.

It’s an interesting question to ask in many areas of our lives – are you looking for the places where the tourists are already congregating, or to build your own path?

Winning the lottery

Travel is a reminder of how lucky I am to have been born somewhere where I learned to speak English. I know that English is commonly used in business and tourism throughout the world, though it’s still always a bit of a surprise to arrive somewhere so far from home and find it so readily.

I certainly don’t think the language is superior to any others. It’s more like firsthand experiencing the history of the British Empire.

That bloody legacy means speaking English today is kind of like winning the lottery – a chance of fate that can change your fortunes.

The Elephant Nature Park program I participated in was run in English – the other people alongside me were from Argentina, Spain, Germany and the United States. Our common language was English. The Argentinian and I spoke French together. The Spanish and Argentinian spoke Spanish, and the tour guide and the mahouts spoke in Thai despite it being both of their second languages – the guide was from a hill tribe in Thailand, and the mahouts were from Myanmar.

Sharing of many languages is such a rich experience.

The guide told me a bit of his story – not in a consistent narrative, though this is what I managed to put together from the tidbits. He grew up in a tribe in the jungle and his parents decided to split up. He didn’t tell me why, though indicated that it significantly affected his life. As the eldest, he took his siblings to the city (Chiang Mai) so that he could learn English and earn money to send his sister to school. He had studied as Buddhist monk to learn English, Muay Thai boxed competitively, worked as a trekking guide, and had found his way to the Elephant Nature Park 3 months ago to work there as a guide. He said that his grandfather had used elephants in teak logging and he thought that the practice was cruel – he wanted to make amends for the history of his family.

This very young man (23) had found every way to learn English so that he could take care of his family. He had no access to resources, didn’t own a phone, and had no formal education, though had many life skills – and most importantly, resilience and the belief that he could figure it out. I really admired this young man’s tenacity. It just goes to show what you can accomplish when you set your mind to it. His goal was send his sister to school, study English overseas for a year and then head back to his tribe, where he said ‘you don’t need money to survive’.

Yes, just skills. Many skills.

This experience reminded me of two things:

1. Everything is figureoutable.

2. Diversity and language are so important. I hope my home province of New Brunswick becomes ever more accepting of French as our official second language. It’s a beautiful thing to travel the world and communicate in more than 1 language, and I’m able to do that based on where I was born and the decisions my parents made.

While I may never win an actual lottery (mostly because I never buy tickets), it’s been a great reminder not to waste the lottery I already won.

A little dash of magic

Elephant Nature Park is the most recommended of the elephant sanctuaries in Northern Thailand and I can see why.

Yesterday, I had the chance to hang out with 3 elephants that the park purchased from various trades – teak logging, being ridden by tourists, forced breeding and performing in circuses or night markets. The program I participated in was designed to help recently arrived elephants acclimate and learn to trust that humans didn’t have to be the source of pain and suffering. The 3 we hung out with were all around 40 and had been purchased for around 1 million THB (around $40,000 CAD) by the park in 2014 to lead a gentler life.

These 3 beauties – 2 females and a male – all had physical scars. In asking our guide how the park could tell what type of activities the elephants had been involved in, he pointed out some signs. They all had scars on their legs from teak logging, one had scars on her head made by hooks from being ridden, and two of the ones we saw later while walking through the park were blinds from the lights of performing for many years in night markets and shows. The male elephant had his tusks almost completely broken from teak logging. (I made a vow to myself that I will never buy anything teak)

I heard a lot of people say things about elephant sanctuaries before I went like “oh well, they’re just branding it as a sanctuary so that tourists go”, or “is it really any better”?

Intention matters a lot in these questions. It’s easy to be cynical – to assume that no one could possibly have good intentions or that there’s no point in pushing for better because bad will always be there. For me, that’s kind of like saying there’s no need to shower because at some point I’m going to get dirty again. It’s not going to get you any where except somewhere you probably don’t want to go.

The majority of the elephants in the park (around 70) were stolen as babies, tied in the forest and tortured until their ‘spirits were broken’ – until they learned to obey a human master. I don’t know about you but even thinking about this for me is such a difficult thought. (Google this for yourself, though be aware that it’s difficult to watch)

The elephants had mahouts – one man per elephant or per group of elephants in some cases. I wanted that to not be necessary, though I understand that these animals had spent most of their life in such an arrangement and were learning how to transition to another way of life. The mahouts were mostly gentle, though firm in their tone and ensured that we moved out of the way if one of the elephants were moving quickly (they could definitely easily run us over without even necessarily seeing us – definitely had to pay attention!). The mahouts for the two females hung back and relaxed, and the one for the male was a bit more involved and they asked us not touch him.

The founder of the park, Lek Chailert (bio from their site here), wanted to make change. Making change is hard and it’s never perfect. The park has to buy these elephants and help them transition to a different life. To do that, they invite tourists in to volunteer with them. I’m okay with paying for this experience because my money will go towards their facilities, food for the elephants, hiring guides and mahouts. I’m okay with paying a small amount to give these beautiful animals a different life.

The park is an example of what can happen when one person says, okay, I’ll take the risk – I’ll take the risk to start this and hope that others will want to help. And it’s working – we saw 2 baby elephants whose ‘spirits had not been broken’ – who were loved and cared for by a group of older female elephants purchased by the park.

The one you see to the left was partially blind and kept her trunk out regularly making sure the baby was close by. And that baby looked like he was having quite a lot of fun.

This is one of 2 males that were in an enclosure we couldn’t enter. They also never had their spirits broken, so the goal is to help them learn how to survive before they are released into the wild.

I’m hoping for a time when places like this are no longer needed. But for today, they are needed and I’m truly grateful to have spent a day here. I‘m hoping that we continue to move toward a time when markets are more ethical, when we truly take into consideration the full cost of what we are consuming. As one of my favourites would say, ‘the struggle to create experiences that are worth paying for, that’s just the beginning’.

Elephant Nature Park was sprinkled with a little bit of magic. If you ever have a chance, GO.

On the left is a blind female elephant, I think somewhere in her 30s (we’re around the same age) who had been blinded by performing at night markets, and her friend to the right who had her leg severely broken during teak logging and was quite ill (in her 50s). They got to hang out together every day and the elephant on the right helped the blind one in finding her way around. The man in the middle was the mahout who worked with them.

And if you’re looking for a dog, they have over 400 looking for a forever home.