Monthly Archives: May 2015

Elephant Tears – learning why elephants cry

A melancholy brown eye stares at you from the grey, wrinkled face, fringed with luscious eyelashes. A tear stain reaches down the trunk of the poor, sad creature and you feel compelled to reach out and help.

A familiar image? It’s certainly one that has been used to generate much needed support for the dwindling elephant community on this earth. But is it the truth?

In my lifetime, in the last forty years, elephant numbers in Thailand have almost halved. That, in itself, is a travesty. What’s worse is that those that are left are often ill treated, broken, and abused in order to entertain tourists and the like. Anthropomorphically, they certainly have a reason to cry.

Elephants are complex, social creatures that need space, and variety in their diets and routines, not a concrete box and three shows a day. And that’s where Patara Elephant Camp is different. It is not a visitor center, a circus, or a place to watch elephants play football. It is a safe haven for rescued elephants, run by a Thai family who have taken in these poor creatures and supported their recovery. They are not ‘Conservationists’. (I use the capitalisation and inverted commas deliberately here because there’s conservation and ‘Conservation’ and Patara do not wish to be associated with the media circus surrounding elephants.) Neither are they activists, they are not trying to fight the good fight. They simply see elephants as part of their global family and have chosen to dedicate their lives to enabling these creatures to become happy and healthy through rehabilitation. They also have a reproduction programme that has successfully supported several offspring, with five more due by the end of 2015.

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My day with this elephant family started with a meet and greet by two mothers and their offspring. We were encouraged to stroke and pat them as they consumed sugar cane, cut up for them by their handlers. This wasn’t part of our day but a bonus while we waited for other people to arrive. In spite of our gushing interference, the elephants and their babies continued to eat and drink steadily, barely pausing between trunk-fulls of food.

Soon, we were called together for ‘the talk’ where the philosophy of Patara was presented to us and we started to learn about elephant care and how to make friends with the elephants we were to look after that day. Initially I thought it was a bit late for that lesson, having been let loose on the group earlier, but as the host explained I realised what an amazing job Patara do in rehabilitating these creatures to the extent that strangers can approach them and touch them without cause for concern.

Elephants are wild animals, but, like humans they show their emotions through body language. An angry elephant would have held its ears wide, away from its head, whilst happy elephants, like the ones we met, flap their ears every so often and flick their tails every once in a while. The best way to ensure an elephant stays happy, and becomes your friend, is to feed it.

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Elephants eat all the time. Wouldn’t you if you had to heave tons of body weight around with you for eighteen hours a day? This is the average time an elephant is on its feet. Even when they are meant to be resting they only sleep for forty-five minutes then get up, eat and play before settling down again. Interestingly, elephants lie down to sleep. A test to check that they are healthy is to check that both sides of their body are muddy. If they’re not then something is wrong with the clean side. If they sleep standing up it is because they are scared to lie down because they won’t get up again, so they rest against a tree, and that means something is really wrong.

So I fed my companion for the day, fourteen year old Manoi, and met her two year old, Passar. Manoi was also pregnant with baby number two. Elephants gestate for up to twenty-four months. Through observation, the camp has learnt that babies can arrive any time between nineteen and twenty-four months. They’ve also learnt that if they arrive between nineteen and twenty-two months they’re likely to be female, with the males being a little slower to appear! Manoi was only five months pregnant, poor thing. She still has a long way to go.

Feeding an elephant was a little like putting my hand into a gooey vice. I had to say ‘Bon, Manoi’ to ask her to raise her trunk and open her mouth, then I placed the small banana or sugar cane in as far as I could. Elephants have no front teeth and barely any lips therefore if I withdrew my hand too fast the food would drop from her mouth and I ran the risk of appearing to tease her with it, SOMETHING YOU SHOULD NEVER DO TO AN ELEPHANT, so I ended up having my hand repeatedly clamped in her soft but strong jaw and had to tug to release it! Every time I got my hand back I patted her trunk and said ‘De De Manoi’ which means ‘good girl.’

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Manoi and I made friends quite fast; at least, I think we did. The basket of food disappeared very quickly and if I stood in the wrong place her ears would dust me when she flapped them. Passar preferred to stay with her Dad and pose for photos with other members of the group, only choosing to join us later.

Another test of their health is the state of their dung. In true Gillian McKeith style we inspected the poo of our elephants. Size, consistency, and water retention are all considered. You can tell an elephant’s age by the fibrous structure as older elephants chew less so their poo is more straw like than a youngster’s, and you can also tell if they have drunk enough water by squeezing the dung to see if water comes out. If it’s dry then the elephant hasn’t drunk enough, which is another sign that something’s wrong. Elephants drink gallons as well as eating all the time and as a result they poo and wee almost every hour, if they’re healthy. Believe me when I tell you, ours were VERY healthy!

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A further test of their drinking habits is to check that they are sweating. Gross? Well no, not when you learn that elephant’s sweat glands are in their feet so they only sweat around their toenails. A nice sweat stain around each nail is all you need to look for to check if an elephant is fit and well.

Both Manoi and Passar were quite healthy. In fact, as we learnt the signs, it was increasingly clear that all our elephants were happy and healthy. For a small camp like Patara, who have sixty elephants and approximately 150 acres of land, that is a credit to them as many of the older elephants came to them after less salubrious starts to life.

With the feeding and health checks successfully completed, the next part of the day was the trek, a bit like taking your dog for a walk, only the elephants took us. I have ridden an elephant before, on Koh Samui, where I used a chair on its back and rode bareback on its neck. A seat can cause all sorts of problems for an elephant. I hadn’t known this when I did it and I certainly wouldn’t do it again now I do. The correct, most comfortable, place to ride an elephant is right up against the back of their heads on their necks, with your knees tucked up on the top of their ears and your feet dangling behind them. When I say comfortable, I mean comfortable for the elephant, because I suffered from acute cramp in my hips and knees after a while! It is quite secure though, as long as you trust the elephant and counterbalance yourself as they move so that you don’t fall off. Manoi had a rope around her shoulders to hold onto if I felt worried, and when descending steep slopes on a tall elephant I did feel worried.

Passar is too young to ride. She simply walked with her Mum. Or rather, rushed off into the undergrowth, bulldozed every tree she saw then ricocheted back onto the track on her knees right under her mum’s feet! Apparently, this is ‘play’ and the sign of a happy elephant. I was inclined to call her a liability, like a bulldozer with no driver and no brakes is a liability, and she caused many hair raising moments for us all, whilst also being the most adorable thing I have ever seen!

After about an hour, we came to a waterfall, where our elephants were to have their bath. Elephant’s skin is very thick and hairy, and of course, they get dusty every day, so they must be kept clean on a daily basis, just like us. We all had lunch first, and then it was bath time. Let me tell you that cleaning an elephant is not all about splashing and laughing and having your photo taken. There is an element of that of course, but actually, it’s bloody hard work! While Pon, her handler, used a wicker bowl to splash Manoi as she lay down in the pool I was handed a scrubbing brush and told to scrub. I clambered onto her back and worked over her head, back and shoulders, then slipped into the water as she rose so that I could do her flanks, scrubbing hard for a good fifteen minutes to ensure all her skin was clean. Then I had to keep throwing water at her to rinse her down. I actually bathed an elephant, and it was amazing!

Eventually, we had to return to the camp. I was exhausted, but jubilant. The trek through the forest had been brilliant, the weather overcast but not raining and not too hot, the insects had whined but not bitten and the hills had worn cloud caps that created an otherworldly feel. It was probably one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. Patara do a great job of caring for their elephants and their guests. Their philosophy, that we are one global family and we should treat everyone and everything as such, is born of Buddhism and a lesson we should all remember.

So, why do elephants cry? It is not, as is sometimes suggested by charitable campaigns, because they are sad. In fact, if the tears stop, you should start to worry. An elephant has no tear ducts so continuously weeps to keep the eye healthy. Equal tear stains on an elephant’s face indicate that all is well rather than misery or mistreatment. So next time you see an elephant in Thailand, or anywhere, check the signs: flapping ears and tail, dusty sides, tearstained eyes and sweaty toenails (I’ll let you off inspecting the dung). It sounds disgusting to us but it means nirvana for elephants.

Thankyou for your cooperation Japan

“Everything will go smoothly. You are a lucky lady.” I was told, not for the last time, by my fortune telling friend. The Japanese are very interested in fate and fortune so it was no surprise that I had my fortune told at the Tokyo National Museum on my first afternoon in Japan.

I used to be very into that sort of thing: palm reading on Blackpool Pier, horoscopes and the like, but of late I have come to understand that I make my own luck. My fate is still my fate, but I can influence it in one way or another. Still, the sentiment could do me no harm on the eve of my very big adventure around Japan.

My good fortune had begun the minute I stepped off the plane. I was collected from the airport by an English-speaking driver who took me the ‘long way’ to the hotel, giving me a quick guided tour (for free) that helped me orientate myself in that vast city. The following day I met a guide who became a friend, who showed me around the city in all its glory. I got into the cat café just before they got full and started turning people away. I saw two traditional wedding parties at the Meiji-Jingu shrine, which is rare. I managed to get a ticket to watch an act of Kabuki that evening, which was very lucky considering it was Golden Week, a very busy holiday in Japan. I even successfully navigated the chaotic looking transport system with surprising ease; I tended to arrive just in time for the next train and I didn’t get lost!

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My greatest difficulty was finding somewhere to eat in the evenings but after a few attempts, I’d just walk into a place and eat whatever was on offer. In this way, I got to meet some very interesting characters, like the waiter who credited Sarah Jessica Parker as his English teacher, and ate some very delicious food, even if I did have very little idea what it was I was eating. Lucky really!

My use of the Shinkansen also went well. Advanced bookings were made with ease; all the stations were clearly signposted and the trains were on time, clean and comfortable. My only problem was motion sickness from the smoothness of the ride and my tendency to gaze out of the window at the passing landscapes. Luckily, I found my old sea bands in one of the pockets of my rucksack, forgotten since Peru I think, and used them for the other journeys with great success.

My exploration of Kyoto sometimes revolved around my tendency towards accidental tourism. I hadn’t really researched it properly so I would just pick a name from the guides I had with me and go. That way I got to see the 1001 kannons at Sanjusangendo, an amazing building containing 1001 (obviously) carved statues of kannon; 11 headed, 1000 armed, thousand eyed bodhisattva, that I hadn’t even known existed 30 minutes before. I tended to arrive at temples or gardens just in time to view them before they shut and even if I got to places early, before the hordes, I often discovered amazing treasures I hadn’t anticipated, like the cloud dragon on the ceiling of part of the Tenryu-ji Temple in Arashiyama, which watches you wherever you are in the room.

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Places rarely disappointed me. In fact, the things I knew nothing about were often better than the sights I wanted to see. A case in point was the iconic Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. I got there early, just before the hordes, and was able to experience some of its otherworldliness; something that was quickly lost with the mass arrival of coach tours. Instead, I felt the true magic of the place at Gio-ji Shrine, a moss-strewn haven of Buddhist/Shintoist tranquility that made me believe Rivendell could be a real place. It’s not an easy place to find, but sharp eyes, a good sense of direction and competent map reading skills ensured I found it. Or maybe I just got lucky!

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I certainly felt like I had something on my side in Hakone. Glorious weather and a happy afternoon playing in the Hakone Open Air Museum (I tend to become very childish when surrounded by art in nature) had made me count my blessings the day before. Free cheesecake for visiting Woody’s, the café next door to it, a gloriously kitsch café decorated with Toy Story memorabilia and playing the Frozen soundtrack in Japanese in the back ground, twice in one day, was certainly a lucky moment. I wasn’t sure my luck was holding though.

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The following day my unplanned wanderings met some roadblocks. All I wanted to do was see Mt. Fuji. The ropeway (what we could consider a cable car) route to a classic scenic view of Mt. Fuji was closed due to level 2 (out of 5) volcanic activity so I had to retrace my steps and battle with the rather confusing transport system until I reached Moto-Hakone. Convinced I had missed the only possible view of Fuji I walked along the Old Tokaido road and discovered a lovely tea house that served a tasty amazake rice drink instead. Then I caught the bus back to Moto-Hakone to try and find the second scenic viewpoint on the map. Having wasted my morning going in the wrong direction and sitting in traffic jams, I didn’t hold out much hope that I’d see the iconic mountain. So, I stopped for a street snack of corn on the cob and wandered moodily beside Lake Ashi. Then, low and behold, I rounded a corner and there was Mt. Fuji, peeking out at me from behind a fluffy wrap of clouds. As I watched, she emerged more fully and from then on, wherever I looked from, there she was, getting clearer and clearer as the afternoon progressed. I spent a long time just sitting and staring at the view, marveling at the famous shape and snowy streaks I had previously seen in paintings and drawings. Now, I was seeing them for myself. Truly a fortunate moment.

Ironically, my best view of Fuji-san came on my final train journey back to Tokyo. I managed to look up from my book at the perfect moment to see her, in almost cloudless glory, right there next to me. I glanced around the cabin to realise that no one else had noticed, I had her all to myself, and I truly considered myself blessed at that moment.

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In Hiroshima I discovered my hotel was right next to the Peace Park. I simply walked a short way along the river to visit the museum and visit the A-Bomb Dome. That evening I found a great little place to eat okonomiyaki, a Hiroshima specialty that is essentially a noodle pancake with layers of cabbage and seafood, and even better, got a seat at the bar where they were cooked right before me, so I could watch the chefs at work. Brilliant!

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My visit to Mimojima also went well. My journey to the Island was simplified by a brilliant visual breakdown provided by my hotel (lucky I asked), I walked a lovely mountain trail and saw great views of the Inland Sea before the rain came, and as I got to the bottom of the mountain the tide started to come in so I could get a clearer sense of the floating Torii Gate it is so famous for. When I’d arrived that morning the tide was out, so it, and my luck, turned while I was on the mountain. Or it may have had something to do with the lucky white cat offering I purchased at the shrine at the top of Mt. Misen!

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Even when my luck seemed to run out with the heavy rain in Osaka, I did manage to see the more Bladerunner style aspects of the town that I’d actually been disappointed not to find in Tokyo. Blazing neon, narrow streets and oily reflections on the stones evoked the futuristic feel I’d imagined before I visited, and thought I wouldn’t see as I got to know the real Japan.

By the time I returned to Tokyo I think I had exhausted my run of good fortune, and while nothing went wrong I had stopped finding surprises around every corner, or maybe I’d just become more used to them. But before you roll your eyes, I will say I don’t believe I actually got around Japan simply on luck. I had the support of a very good tour company whose arrangements for a self-guided tour suited me down to the ground. I also believe that the Japanese culture has evolved to enable anyone with a bit of common sense to take advantage of its fluent, organized and logical society and participate in its efficient way of life. Signs may be small and rarely translated but most of them rely on symbols that anyone can interpret. Measurements are given in time and distance so you can estimate how far you have to go. Things are logical and consistent if you think about them. I also know that travelling solo allows me to do things my way but allows me to stop, watch and learn and then go with the flow when things occur unexpectedly, so I never feel like I’ve missed out but that, actually, my adventures are bonuses instead.

So, thank you for your co-operation Japan, I came to love your quiet, well-mannered ways and found everything I wanted and more during my trip. I might not believe in luck but I do consider myself a very lucky lady.

Ryokans and Onsen – traditional Japanese spas

I sat, crossed legged, on a thin cotton cushion in shades of green that echoed the trees on the mountain outside; on a tatami rush floor; writing my blog at a low wooden table, with a Japanese tea set to my left. My walls were wood and paper; all my doors and windows were sliding, and my bed, when I made it, was a futon on the floor. I was wrapped in an enormous cotton yukata (an informal kimono) which reminded me of beech bark and blossom. All I could hear was the rush of the stream directly outside my window.

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Staying in one of the oldest spa ryokans in Hakone was a relaxing experience. Ichinoyu Honkan was founded in 1630 in the Edo period when Tokugawa Shoguns ruled Japan. The Hakone area was a popular resting post for warriors, where they could relax in natural spring waters to recuperate after battle. This particular ryokan has its own onsen hot springs to relax in, which were great after a day exploring the Hakone National Park.

The Japanese onsen experience is very relaxing when you know what you’re doing but for a first timer it is fraught with potential dangers. The etiquette of communal bathing is a minefield of offence for the uninitiated, although I find it’s ritualistic nature quite soothing.

Traditional onsen are communal. Years of playing hockey and going to the gym have made me immune to any embarrassment about nakedness in communal facilities. In fact, as a child I was nicknamed ‘the nutty nudist’ because I’d take my swimming costume off to go paddling at the beach! While I was aware of sideways glances, I like to think the locals were evaluating my mismatched tan lines rather than judging my muffin roll!

The correct way to then use these facilities is to rinse yourself off with warm water away from the main spa, as it is only polite, and hygienic, to rinse yourself off before entering the pure waters. Then, you can soak in the spring-fed tub for as long as you like (the water is hot and only bearable for a relatively short time) soothing way the day’s stresses and strains. Don’t ‘wash’ in the spring though. Save that for your return to the washing area, where you can avail yourself of the soaps and shampoos provided and scrub yourself down while sitting on a low wooden stool, being careful not to splash others in the process. Then, you can return to the spa tub for a further soak. (In the second ryokan I stayed in they had an outdoor tub that I made very good use of!) When you have had enough relaxation, gazing at the mountain scenery or listening to the hypnotic flow of the spring water, remove yourself from the spa area, wipe yourself down so you do not reenter the changing area sopping wet, and you’re done!

I think I got it right! The best way to learn is to do what the locals do but in an onsen I can’t sit and watch without considerable discomfort to all! Side glances in windows and carefull listening whilst averting ones eyes allowed me a sense of what to do, and often, I’d have the place to myself so I could just relax and enjoy it without causing offence.

The almost ritualistic nature of the experience means that, if you do it properly, it is quite time consuming and hypnotic. I find the same can be said when tackling traditional Japanese meals. Some of the best food I ate was made at the ryokan I stayed in. And I can safely say that I have never been so full on what appears (at first) to be such small servings of food. Often I would spend a full 30 minutes steadily grazing from the ever increasing range of tiny dishes placed before me, forcing myself to think about what I was eating and therefore enjoy it all the more. It almost became a meditation that brought me great satisfaction.

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A traditional Japanese meal is a bit like tapas, in that there are lots of tasty morsels on lots of different plates, spread out across the meal. The difference is that a lot of it is raw, steamed or lightly fried, it can all be eaten with rice and at least one dish is cooked in a small pot on the table, simmering away until the tea light beneath it goes out and steam is rising from the lid.

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I enjoyed Hida beef cooked in this manner; fish head soup (with the head and eye of a large fish staring at me while I ate it); a kind of Japanese bacon omelette; fish tempura; sashimi; bean salads; Kyoto pickles (I love pickles!) and homemade tofu. I’ve never really understood the point of tofu, and it’s incredibly difficult to eat with chopsticks as it disintegrates so easily, but the homemade variety made using local spring water was some of the creamiest and tastiest I tried. I was even given dessert, although I rarely managed the green tea mousse or sorbet that I was offered. Of course, all of this is washed down with lashings of tea. (You thought I was going to say ginger beer didn’t you? Oddly enough the Japanese love ginger beer, it’s on practically every menu, but it’s not a traditional beverage!)

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As a methodical eater with no sense of smell and a limited palette I normally eat one thing at a time without adding anything so that I can appreciate the texture and what little taste I can identify. But I couldn’t do that in Japan, as morsels that should be enjoyed hot would be cold by the time I got to them, if I tried to eat all the raw delicacies first (as I would normally do). So I found myself switching between pickles, exquisitely fresh, tiny squid, tofu and miso covered rice, using soy and wasabi (but not much, it’s too strong for me!) and mixing it all up together with some surprisingly tasty results. Again, I watched the other customers carefully and took cues from them, learning, along the way, that I prefer light soy and miso to dark, that bamboo and pickles and seaweed comes in many delicious forms and that raw is definitely the way to go!

By the end of each meal I was ready to sleep and would fall onto my soft, warm futon in a happy food haze. Listening to the nearby river rushing past, it didn’t take me long to pass out into a deep, dreamless sleep.

My ryokan and onsen experiences were two of my greatest pleasures in Japan; pleasures I would love to repeat.