Tuesday, April 28, 2009

laos karaoke dream

As is frequently the fate of visitors in Thailand, I had to leave the country this week to replace my expiring visa. The most economical option for me was to travel to Vientiane, Laos, a ten-hour bus ride away. While the Cambodian border is closer (as is the Burmese border, but I’m not that crazy), the usually-pricy Thai visas are currently being handed out for free in Laos to encourage tourism to Thailand, which is hurting economically since the political strife has scared away its customers. Rather than navigate the fragmented transportation and the incomprehensible and ‘expensive’ bureaucracy on my own, I signed up with one of the companies specifically formed to guide and ease the visa border run. It was well worth it, as they not only drove me and my fellow visa-needers directly the whole way, but also negotiated the seemingly-endless queues and forms such that we could usually waltz right through as a group with a mere hour’s wait in comfort rather than the day or so in line in the sun required by most. Judging by a repeated facial resemblance, I suspect this was achieved through strategic nepotism, for which I am personally grateful.

One stage of the process did require us to stay overnight in the astoundingly boring Vientiane, so while all of the Europeans and Americans went out to get drunk, I found myself on my own and in the surprising position of living out a secret life-long dream. Let me tell you: The hostel in which we stayed had a relaxed karaoke bar on the ground floor. The delightful Filipinos in our group had hijacked control of the machine, and were bravely belting out the most saccharine English-language hits of the past 20 years accompanied by strange pirated music videos seemingly compiled from New Zealand travel ads and scenes from The Bridges of Madison County. When I walked in, “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith was on (with footage of fish), and the current singer was cheerfully struggling with the lyrics. Seeing that I was American and therefore probably could deal with the words on the screen, she thrust the mike at me, and I obliged with my best Steve Tyler.

They loved me. The delighted crowd insisted that I sing all the English-language songs that they chose, about 40 all told, though I only made it through about 15 before my voice started to hurt (I blame the successful but damaging escalating modulations of “My Heart Will Go On” at around song ten, along with being generally out of practice). Despite not having the stamina they wished and being culturally-appropriately-self-depreciating at the time, I was secretly really proud of my performance, peaking with a soulful and inspired “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” which was especially well-received by the crowd. While I’m a fine singer, I know a lot of what they loved was just the ingrained American confidence and humour for which I can take no credit, as well as my almost sickening familiarity of the songs’ original melodic inflections, for which I similarly claim no responsibility. (For those of you who don’t know my musical tastes, they run more toward the complexly rhythmic and musically complex, like Radiohead and Arabic house, and usually run desperately away from anything smacking of pop or the insipid, so all my knowledge of these songs comes from the forced pop-culture soundtrack of grocery stores and malls. Ok, and maybe mix tape or two from circa 1994. Just maybe.) But for whatever reason, for one night, in the most unlikely of venues and with the last songs I’d ever have chosen, I got to be a star.


Elephants are rather hard to avoid here in Thailand. Bangkok alone, the least hospitable and likely of elephant stomping-grounds, hosts dozens of the giants who with their owners beg on the streets at night, literal tail lights swinging as they flick away the flies. And as for depictions of elephants, you can’t go half a block before seeing one: the municipal seal, showing Indra seated on the back of an elephant. The Buddha astride a three-headed elephant. Sequined elephant images on tourist purses. Stone elephants standing guard like the NYC lions outside the gates of the rich. Elephants cavorting or charging, painted onto the walls of the most revered temples of the 1400s. Elephant topiary.

The Thai people have good reason to so commemorate the noble elephant: they were the war steeds and tanks that secured the land, kept off invading forces, and kept the established social ranks in line (setting aside any anti-imperial socialist or anarchic qualms as to the desirability of this). They were also the workhorses, ploughs, and backhoes of the vast terraforming that sculpted the river basin into rice fields and the forests into beautiful homes (again, setting aside environmentalist concerns).

In addition to their reverence for their labour capacities, Thai people also worship elephants. As with much of Thai Buddhist worship, significant aspects of Indian Hinduism and pre-Khmer animism have been imported and reinterpreted (more on that soon in an upcoming post), so it is commonplace to have the elephant-headed god Ganesha standing protectorate over the Buddha and roped in marigold garlands, or to have platoons of ‘toy’ wooden elephants given up onto the altar of a local place-spirit, with incense and homage offered to the tiny beasts. Even the aforementioned proliferate ‘secular’ depictions of elephants are revered, with everything from the bridge decorations to the topiary offered flowers and foodstuffs daily, and bowed to when passing. If it looks like an elephant, it gets presents and respect.

It’s a literal shame that this respect does not extend to the remaining elephants themselves. The wild elephants have very little habitat left, leading to starvation and violent conflicts with farmers. Since logging was banned to preserve what little forest remains, most domesticated elephants have been out of work. The elephants who do work, especially those participating in the ongoing now-illegal logging trade, are often subjected to horrible conditions. I met one elephant who had been prodded in her eyes so often she went blind; another who was forced to keep working even after stepping on a land mine; another who was addicted to amphetamines. Those begging in Bangkok have to breathe exhaust, drink dirty water, walk over broken concrete, try not to get hit by cars, as well as find what limited forage is available. Only ten years ago Thailand still had 4000 elephants. Nowadays only 2500 remain in this country, with fewer than 30,000 worldwide.

In order to support the small amount of healthy work available for elephants, as well as to get to safely see them in closer proximity, we ventured out on an elephant-riding trek one of our days in Chiang Mai. The elephants take a stroll through a valley with tiny us on their backs, and get rewarded by us with handfuls of snacks and the tasty forage along the path as they go. It was so cool to ride an elephant: the one we rode is named Noi, which means “Little”; she is the same age as me (and about the same place in her lifespan, as they live to be about 85 and mature as slowly as humans); she lives with her father, whom she adores but with whom she is very competitive; she’s especially stubborn, but will grudgingly do almost anything for a banana. She would lumber along, her gait so long that we’d almost forget another step was coming until we’d shift suddenly to the other side. Then she’d get a gleam in her eye and race up to walk in front of her dad, then slow down so much he’d have to pass her. I liked her style. The setup at this and similar ventures isn’t ideal, since they still keep the elephants chained up when they’re not being ridden, and they still have to live for the pleasure of people, but it’s a fair site better than oppressive logging or the elephant circuses where they are forced through literally torturous training to paint pictures or play soccer.

We so enjoyed the peaceful time with the personable and mischievous moving mountains, and were so taken by their brethren’s plight, that we ventured out again the next day to the Elephant Nature Park. The park is a heart-warmingly perfect preserve a few hours’ drive north of the city where rescued elephants can recover, roam free, and lead their own autonomous elephant lives with plentiful food, baths, elephant friendships, and lots of human love on hand any time they want. The whole place is set up for the elephants, with the desires of humans coming a far second. Throughout the day we got to feed, observe, pet, talk and walk with, and wash the elephants, but if they got bored they were allowed to just wander off: they were in charge. Washing was especially fun, as it involved getting into the river with the elephants and scrubbing them down with a brush and bucket while they rolled around and splashed and sprayed water.

It was heartbreaking to see the disabilities of the various elephants, some of whom could barely walk due to the injuries inflicted by their previous owners. But it brought happy tears to my eyes to see how they lived in community: an elephant missing a foot and the blind elephant were best friends, helping one another side by side all day; one of the old-lady elephants is the nanny to the babies, allowing the moms to go stretch their legs and gossip; a young teenaged elephant flirted with the girl-elephant he has a crush on, though the old ladies sternly informed him that she is too young for him, and suggested he talk with the nice young lady-elephant his age. Their body language and social interactions were so human sometimes it was hilarious, and I was glad to learn that in fact this is not anthropomorphization, but that they are indeed just as intelligent and communicative and complexly social as they seemed. Which makes the harm done to them all the more difficult to bear.

The woman who runs the park, Lek, is quite savvy: though she is one of the only people in the country lobbying and working on behalf of the elephants, she does so very effectively, starting at the root of people’s conceptions of elephants through education and by modeling a different system, and then working up the chain of health services, owner-training, etc., all the way to political representation. It was inspiring not only to see the elephants having such a good protector and advocate in this tiny woman, but also to see an organization so well-run, so focused in its goals, and so efficient in its projects, and all the more surprising to find this in a third-world country and in an organization with no Western leadership.

Elephants may now be my favourite animal. (Why can’t I like guppies or something?)