Overnight at Elephant Nature Park: experiences, ethics, and, of course, elephants!

As you travel around Thailand on your scooter, one thing that is for certain is that you will see elephants along the roadside. On the edge of town, halfway up a mountain, just outside a temple, elephants, sometimes even baby elephants. But after your brain’s initial excitement (ELEPHANTS!!) the logical side of your mind will catch up to your childlike wonder and you’ll notice a sign advertising elephant rides, how thin and malnourished the animals look, chains or ropes around their ankles, scars indicating phajaan, or breaking the spirit. It’s hard to see and worse to notice the throngs of tourists eager to sit atop these majestic creatures without a care for their well-being. Equally as bad are the number of elephant parks that advertise themselves as “sanctuaries” to capitalise on another type of tourist’s desire for a more ethical experience, when their parks’ methods are no different than the abusive ones in the roadside attractions.

Still, I was hopeful that I could have a genuinely ethical trip to a real elephant sanctuary in Thailand, and so we went to the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai. As we went on the weekend of my birthday, Steve treated me to the overnight trip, two days and one night staying at the park, visiting the elephants, walking some of the hundreds of rescue dogs they also care for, and learning about Thailand’s animal tourism industry.

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Planes and Pandemics: Moving Internationally During Covid-19

The plan was this: Finish our Southeast Asia adventure on March 25, spend two weeks visiting friends in Seattle and Vancouver, arrive in Philadelphia on April 6, and fly to Ireland on May 8. Obviously, that didn’t happen. But we cut our trip short, headed straight to my parents’ in Philly, and spent three months hanging out, going for walks in the park, and catching up on Netflix, Steve’s 90-day visa-free allowance in the States was up so he headed back to Ireland.

I was meant to stay an extra month, see my sister, and then join him, but rumours began to fly that the EU would implement a ban on travellers from high-risk countries. Although I would qualify for an exemption that should have allowed me entry, I didn’t want to chance it and end up stuck for the foreseeable future, so on the 24th of June I booked my flight from JFK to Dublin for just a few days later, and on the 28th I was off. This is what it was like to fly internationally during the pandemic.

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A better world is possible

It looks like a suburb.

I’m not sure five words have ever given me such a radical mindset shift. Like so many of us, the ongoing murders of Black people at the hands of the police, and the police response to peaceful protesting in the wake of yet another unjust death, has cemented the idea that we cannot just put our faith in law enforcement to do the right thing and uphold justice and fairness in our country. This is something that I’ve already known, but do to my privilege, I’ve never had to sit down and think about how that would look.

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Where we are now

On March 15 I was in a hotel in Hanoi, full of nervous energy and the fear that a staff member or another guest would exhibit symptoms of Coronavirus and the Vietnamese government would lock down the hotel until they could figure out the scope of the virus there, and Steve and I would miss our urgently-rescheduled flight back to the United States.

Of course, we had been monitoring the situation throughout our travels in Southeast Asia. The first cases of the virus had been reported in China shortly after we arrived in Indonesia, but it seemed unlikely to affect us. Apart from seeing a lot of locals wearing masks in Singapore and Thailand, something which is common practice in Asia anyway after the SARS outbreak, it was business as usual. We even went to a Lunar New Year in Bangkok’s Chinatown, and any fears of the virus were outnumbered by excitement for the holiday from both locals and tourists.

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Heartbeats, holidays, hopefulness, helplessness

When I was in grad school in Ireland, my friends and I made an agreement that if one of us should find ourselves with an unwanted pregnancy, we would rearrange our schedules for an immediate “girls’ holiday” to the UK—cocktails, spa visits, shopping, all that fun, female stuff. And an abortion.

It’s something that I had never had to think about in the United States. Roe v. Wade had been settled by the Supreme Court almost two decades before I was born, and while another Supreme Court ruling from my own home state, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, allowed for more restrictions and guidelines, abortion would have been generally accessible to me had I needed it.

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Kia kaha, Christchurch

It is a privilege to feel safe in the places you call home. It shouldn’t be, because what is home if it is not a place that is known and that is safe, but again and again we see places that should be known made unsafe by hate. Like the rest of the world, I was shocked and saddened to hear the news of the mass murder of Muslims at a mosque in Christchurch. New Zealand is the safest and most peaceful country I have ever been to or lived in, and yet a group of people decided that shouldn’t be the case for their victims.

New Zealanders haven’t had to grapple with a tragedy like this, whereas in America we are nearly desensitized to news of yet another mass shooting. Politicians send their thoughts and prayers, outraged is silenced with cries of “too soon,” The Onion reposts that too-accurate headline, and nothing changes. I was surprised and gladdened to hear that the New Zealand government’s immediate response was to promise a ban on semi-automatic weapons; imagine if our politicians had ever acted so quickly and decisively? How many schoolchildren, churchgoers, and others would still be with us?

The outpouring of support for the Muslim community in the wake of the tragedy is also heartening. Flowers cover mosques around the country. Vigil attendances number in the thousands. A givealittle page (New Zealand’s answer to Go Fund Me) for victim support has topped $5 million in donations. Kiwis and the world are coming together to echo Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s words about the victims: “They are us.”

At the same time, although for many New Zealand seemed like a utopia between its stunning natural beauty and its peaceful, unified society, the sad truth is that New Zealand is not immune from the influence of intolerance, white supremacy, and an environment where “casual” discrimination is given a blind eye rather than spotlighted and called out (and what does “casual” discrimination even mean? Is it a hobby? A side-hustle? Part-time racism?). Where alt-righters like Stefan Molyneux, Jordan Peterson, and Lauren Southern have eager audiences. Where stereotypes about Maori and other islanders flourish as “jokes.”

I am certainly not writing this as a sanctimonious outsider pointing out the flaws of another country; I, too, am certainly often guilty of not doing enough to call out intolerance when I see it. It’s particularly tragic to think that the murderers were likely inspired by the political climate of my own nation. And New Zealand is certainly a lot more welcoming than the United States (or Australia, by the way; wow, there is a lot of racism here, and not just from the Senator who made that awful statement after the mosque shooting, although you should enjoy this video of him getting egged by a teenager).

However, it is tempting to dismiss the murderers’ terrible actions as unrelated to anything else in New Zealand society, to identify solely with the victims. But without changing our own actions and stepping up every time to speak out against racism, discrimination, Islamophobia, intolerance, we are dishonouring the victims by allowing the murderers and those who think like them to find something to identify with in us (please read this powerful comic by Spinoff journalist Toby Morris for more).

It is important to carry the feelings of love and solidarity for the Muslim community, the immigrant community, the community as a whole, that are strongest and most present now in wake of this tragedy, and let them be a guideline going forward. We must cultivate an environment in which seeds of hate can not plant roots. And that means asking ourselves difficult questions, and being willing to ask difficult questions to others. Kia kaha, New Zealand. Stay strong and show your strength by protecting your whānau—Maori, pakeha, Muslim, and everyone else who is lucky enough to live in such a kind and beautiful country. Come together in love and action to ensure that everyone is safe in the places they call home.