Sunday, October 26, 2008

Thailand Journal – Entry 11 - A Great Spirit Approaches

Although it is the end of the rainy season here in Thailand, a storm can come out of nowhere. I was working on my computer today when I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a massive low-hanging cloud cutting across the valley. It was like a great spirit approaching, as if some massive dragon were hidden in the clouds. It looked quite menacing, but after the rain started to fall, there was nothing to be worried about. After all, rain is one of the most powerful life-giving forces on earth and is something to be thankful for more often than not. I'm one of the few who love rainy days...I can spend hours just relaxing and watching it fall.

Anyway, here is video to show you...

*The music is actually Japanese...I don't have any good Thai music on my computer, but I wanted to add some music for dramatic effect.

Shortly afterwards, the cloud disappeared as fast as it arrived, leaving rain-soaked trees and wind-swept mountains. A stillness fell upon the valley and I was left with a sense of peace.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Thailand Journal – Entry 10 - My Apartment

A less lengthy post this time and nothing too heavy either...

After moving out of my homestay, I started living in a nice apartment closer to school. I have internet access, am right in the trendy part of Chiang Mai and have a 24-7 grocery store and laundromat less than 1 minute away. Though I tried to get a higher floor (and thus, a better view of the nearby mountain, Doi Suthep) everything from the 4th floor up was occupied. I don't mind too much though, I'm paying less and I still get a pretty good view (Be sure to check out the video below - a stop-motion animation I took of the sun setting behind the mountain). Plus, the swimming pool is located on my floor!

The room is well furnished with a large bed, cable television, bathroom, balcony, desk, more cupboard space than I'll ever need, air conditioning and a fridge. With a little bit of decoration, I feel quite at home. I've never lived on my own before (I've had roommates and housemates) and being an independent person who likes their space, I was positively giddy moving in. It's a place to call my own. It's a sanctum. It's my tiger den. No worries though, I haven't turned into a hermit. I still hang out with other people from the program. One of my favourite regular activities is grabbing a Friday night burger at "Mike's", which is quite possibly the best hamburger I have ever had... of all places, in Thailand.

Photo time!

I took all the photos out of my photo album and stuck them on my wall with a poem and drawing someone did for me for inspiration. Most of the plushies you see were generously donated by WWF-Canada and hopefully the kids I give them to will like them. Tigers rule!

Yep...that's a sink.

A shower complete with electric water heater.


One of the many moods of the mountains.

Okay...well, we are back inside now. My bed is pretty much just a sheet and a pillow with a t-shirt for a cover. I was too stingey to actually buy a comforter so I just wrap the whole thing around myself. I don't have to use as much air conditioning so it works and if I somehow get cold I can put on a sweater. Yes, I know...I'm doing it wrong.

This has nothing to do with my apartment. I just think it looks cool. I took this on Chiang Mai University's campus.

This has nothing to do with my apartment either, but there is no denying this is the most persuasive lemonade salesmen you've ever seen. The lemonade was quite good.

I bought this just because of that photo. It's too awesome to resist. Judging by the look he is giving you, he has a passion for lemonade that borders on the psychotic.

...This was quite painstaking to say the least, but the result is a little cool.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Thailand Journal – Entry 9 - A Fork in the Road

In my short and uneventful career in tiger conservation so far, I haven’t been faced with very many tough decisions. I’ve only really been faced with one major decision and it was quite easy: help save tigers or not. Naturally, I chose the former and it was that decision that put me where I am today. I wouldn’t expect any decision after that to be terribly least not until I started making decisions that would directly affect wild tigers. For example, when I joined the Thailand Year Abroad program I had to choose what kind of placement I wanted. That was very easy as well...I wanted to get my hands dirty in tiger conservation and make a difference. However, it wasn’t that simple.

Before I left for Thailand, I wanted to figure out my field placement as soon as possible and talked to a personal hero of mine at World Wildlife Fund. She was the individual who invited me to be a member of the International Tiger Coalition, which is an organization that has some of the best and brightest tiger conservation has to offer. She welcomed me into the world of the greats and did everything she could to make me feel welcome and accepted. She also offered to help me get in touch with people who could arrange a field placement for me. I figured she would give me contacts at World Wildlife Fund – Thailand, but she pulled a fast one on me and mentioned the possibility of going to Sumatra to help out WWF-Indonesia.

Wait...what? Sumatra?

It came out of nowhere and took me off-guard.

I don’t take any opportunity in tiger conservation lightly so I started to consider both WWF-Indonesia and WWF-Thailand equally. I considered...and considered...and considered...

There were many things to think about. There is no doubt the benefits of staying in Thailand are many. I wouldn’t have to travel as far and I would already know the official language. From what I hear, there is a lot of experience and knowledge to be tapped in the Thailand program and I would also have the benefit of living in a country where the government is more apt to help the conservation cause (compared to other countries). Lastly, I would be in a more agreeable climate and there would probably be less things that could kill me in Thailand compared to Sumatra.

On the other side, going to Sumatra has its benefits too. In regards to conservation, Sumatra seems to be worse off and there could be a greater potential to have a greater impact. My contact at WWF is more familiar with the staff there and she listed a number of opportunities. The government is less responsive to conservation and big business and corruption is could be a challenge, but such a challenge might be what I need. Also, given the incredible species diversity there, any benefit I can achieve for tigers could help many others such as elephants, rhinos and orangutans...and increases in the well being of these species could potentially be linked with increases in local community standards of living too. I am already linked to WWF-Indonesia to some 2007 I started a petition to address illegal coffee being grown in a national park in Sumatra. The goal was to gain signatures to help WWF negotiate with the buyers of this coffee, which was threatening species like tigers, to implement better controls on purchases. Word must have gotten around because the contact I mentioned who works for WWF-International somehow knew about me from the petition when I first emailed her. Lastly, tigers in Sumatra seem to be in more desperate need for help...Indonesia has already lost two subspecies of tigers in the past half-century and it is believed the Sumatran tiger is well on its way out.

I struggled with deciding what I wanted to pursue for over a month – after all, the decision I make could have a profound effect on my career...and on tigers. I tried as much as possible to leave superficial elements out of the picture such as what is “easy”. What is easy isn’t necessarily what is right. Through difficulties, we can better ourselves. Some of the cons about going to Sumatra fail to matter when put up against the real issue: making a difference and truly getting the skills and experience I need. It doesn’t matter how expensive, how unpleasant, or how dangerous things are, what matters is the work I do.

I didn’t ask for opportunities in Sumatra, but they were offered. After the initial surprise of having Sumatra mentioned and I found myself evaluating Sumatra more than Thailand: trying to find out all the bad things and good things and using Thailand as a baseline. In this sense, I tended to have a bias. Perhaps the opportunity tempted me. Like a game could take the prize you’ve won or give it up and open door number two!

In the end, both are excellent choices and it inevitably comes down to instinct or intuition.

One night, I sat in bed thinking. At the time I was leaning slightly toward Sumatra, but had not been sure enough to make any sort of decision. There was no superior benefit to going there that inspired a confident decision and I felt no matter what I chose, it would benefit me greatly. I was in my bedroom, staring at the ceiling and looking for a sign... I was prompted to look at “animal cards” that were given to me one Christmas. Each card has a description of a certain animal and by drawing an animal card, you can get insight, lessons...a sign that could point you in the right direction. You see, those closest to nature, like indigenous populations, learn lessons from nature. The appearance of a wolf-pack can bring attention to social needs and a tiger is associated with power and independence. Usually one shuffles the cards, letting chance dictate what comes up. However, I didn’t have to shuffle...the tiger card was sitting on top. In my curiosity, I looked at the description on the back of the card. In the description, the author made several references to Sumatra. Of the possible 14 tiger range countries that could have been mentioned, it was Indonesia, and specifically, Sumatra that was used.

Okay... I was in bed looking for a sign and on a whim, got up to a deck of animal cards, looked at the tiger card which happened to be the first card I saw and saw Sumatra mentioned more than 3 times. It was too coincidental and I felt that was the final push. I shrugged and said to myself, “Sumatra it is!”

The course of my life as it pertains to tigers has been one of curious events and coincidences that have reinforced my belief that I am meant to be doing what I am doing. I don’t give up all my thinking to serendipity... I prefer the use of logic. Nevertheless, sometimes the signs are there and I am learning to embrace them as a complementary force to my own judgement.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Thailand Journal – Entry 8 – The Day that Never Comes

The reason I came to Thailand was to help tigers and when I had landed in Bangkok, I felt a surge of confidence. I wanted to get out there and help. However, over time, I found myself not being very much of a help at all.

I think it was foolish of me to get so worked up before getting here because I wouldn’t start my field placement (thus, having a more direct impact) until January. Rather, the first half of the year would be spent in the classroom and not necessarily anything that has direct relevance to tiger conservation. I came in on a high and quickly crashed down into the ground. At this stage, I wouldn’t be doing anything and that really bothered me. Ever since I knew I wanted to help tigers, I wanted to be in a tiger range country because that would allow me to help, but here I am and I’m not doing much of anything at all... school or not, I never saw it as much of an excuse. After all, Mark Twain tells us that we should not let schooling interfere with our education.

I decided to go out into the streets of Chiang Mai to see if I can find any products made from tigers and other endangered species. The plan was that anything I found I would report to the proper authorities and they would check it out. I took several trips to the Night Bazaar, perused the nooks and crannies of the city and found very little. What I did find was isolated and rather than reporting them to a police that likely wouldn't bother with small fish, I read them the riot act and informed them of the risks they were taking. I took a taxi ride far from home to “Chinatown”...well, actually, the driver didn’t know where it was so I got dropped off and walked the rest of the way. I thought that, considering violations could be found in the Chinatowns of Toronto, New York and Vancouver, I should have no trouble there. It turned out that “Chinatown” was more like a ghost town and though the buildings were not derelict, they were certainly unoccupied. “Coming soon”, perhaps...

I made long journeys home with blistered feet and a calloused spirit. The “glass-is-half-full” people would say, “Why are you upset if you aren’t finding these products?”. Well, the problem is that I know the illegal wildlife trade has a place in Chiang Mai...I know it is out there and if I am not finding it, that means I’m not doing a good enough job. Perhaps, I should have tried to look in is far more prevalent there and I probably could have been put to good use. Another place that could be checked out would be Thai-Burma border towns, but I would need advising from experts before I go there.

My frequent trips around town left me with a lingering frustration that turned into a small bout of depression. This wasn’t helped by the cold that I had been afflicted with; the medication I was taking had the unfortunate side-effect of frequent and persistent nose-bleeds. My pride was also hurt by the fact that no one seems to give a damn about tigers here, despite the fact that there used to be plenty. It is all about elephants here, which is a good thing, but I’m disappointed that the tiger isn’t more culturally prevalent.

Oh well...every experience, no matter how much of a failure it seems, is an opportunity to learn.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Thailand Journal – Entry 6 - Zoo Trek

During September, my school week consisted purely of the Thai oral language course, whereby I would be able to learn Thai and thus, fit in better with daily life. Class starts at 9:30am and runs until 3:30pm with a lunch break in between (I have found consistence in eating Chicken Fried Rice everyday for about USD $1). This occurs for most of the week excluding the weekend and, thankfully, Wednesday.

I took the opportunity one Wednesday to visit the Chiang Mai Zoo, which has since become a key part of local tourism after the introduction of two giant pandas. The two panda’s (and the zoo) enjoy great popularity in Chiang Mai and an extra charge was established at the zoo just to see them. Captive pandas are, like their wild cousins, rare and only a handful exist outside China. I saw this as an exciting bonus.

The first thing to be noted about the zoo is that it is built upon the side of a mountain. Anyone who is not a fan of the trek to the North American exhibit at the Toronto Zoo would likely elect to patronize the zoo’s monorail system. I chose to walk and although the heat was occasionally oppressive, I’ve done enough volunteering at Jungle Cat World to handle a bit of physical exertion in less than ideal environments.

I will make no qualms about it: I went straight to the big cats, which were conveniently located together in a large system of adjoining enclosures with mock-rock ridges dividing them. Though I came to see the Bengal tigers (a sub-species I have not seen since the summer of 2004), I was interested to see the other cats as well which included a jaguar with two cubs, three leopards (one melanistic or “black”), two white tigers (actually leucystic), a pair of African lions with a cub (a few months old) and a pair of white lions. The latter showed signs of inbreeding, which is what happens when a rare genetic trait in big cats meets overwhelming popularity. However, I was pleased to see that the information given at the white tiger enclosure noted that they are not a separate subspecies in need of special wild conservation plans (which is a far too common misconception exploited by some nefarious “zoo” operators). It seemed as though they were breeding them though, which is something I don’t really feel comfortable with given the problems arising from aforementioned inbreeding.

I found it interesting that for a good part of the day, a table was set up in front of the jaguar enclosure advertising the prospect of feeding them for a small fee. This entailed giving visitors a long stick with a piece of meat to wave around and give the cats through the fence. From what I saw, the zoo staff member was demonstrating that it is more interesting to let them work for their food. I’m not entirely sure whether there are limits to how much gets fed to the jaguars or if it really is such a good idea for joe public to have such close contact, but if funding goes back to the zoo to better the care of the animals and if the animals are enriched by having to work for their food, perhaps it is a good idea. It is an interesting enrichment idea, but I’d have to check with greater minds to see if this is a valid practice.

The African lion enclosure was very spacious , not to mention gorgeous and the male lion seemed active enough. He seemed to be wary of me, but his attention didn’t hold for long. The cub made great sport out of bothering his dad, which was quite fun to watch, although part of me worried the male would give a good swat. Fortunately, that didn’t happen and the big male simply got up in frustration and walked to another location to nap.

I spent most of the day at the Bengal tiger enclosure, which seemed not as generous with space as the lion enclosure and for want of enrichment, but respectable, compared to most zoos. I arrived to see a male (distinguished by his big boofy head) grooming himself near the back of the enclosure. He was soon prompted to get up and start patrolling the front of his enclosure, which has likely become routine with the number of guests that visit – he’s got to protect his mate after all. When the guests slowed to a trickle and I became part of the scenery, the male retired to the shade and began napping. I returned later and he eventually patrolling his enclosure again, but this time, the female joined him, who was naturally a bit smaller. I’m different from most people in that, I can go to a zoo and spent almost the entire time in front of the tiger enclosure, even when they are not active; this is why I will go to a zoo alone: people wouldn’t be able to put up with my stubbornness. I firmly believe that tigers are one of the most beautiful animals to ever live on this planet and their behaviour fascinates me to no end. If I’m not simply consumed by their presence, I will try to predict their behaviour and occasionally I throw out the occasional chuff to see if they would reply (it worked at the Toronto Zoo a few times, albeit in closer proximity). When they rest, I’ll think. If my fateful experience at that zoo in 2004 has taught me anything (aside from purpose), it is that for all the beautiful photos of tigers, they fail to compare with seeing one alive and in the flesh. I get drunk on the experience and it often inspires me for an extended period after I leave.

I did visit other areas of the zoo, include the pandas. I was quite amused by their behaviour, which seemed to match the characature that was engrained in my mind. One of them seemed quite content with a large bush of bamboo in front of it, sitting upright to inspect the best pieces and chomping away blissfully. It eventually climbed on to a log for a snooze.

I scaled parts of the mountain where no visitor seemed to want to go, but I was able to see some interesting ungulates like bantang (an endangered SE Asian bovid), and even Eld’s deer (one of the most endangered, if not the most endangered deer on the planet. The latter formed a large heard that completely surrounded me as I walked through them, watching me in silent unease. It was quite eerie, but at the same time amusing to have so many eyes following your every move. I couldn’t help but remind myself of a tiger strolling through a grassland occupied by deer.

While up on the mountain, I began to feel the trickle of rain. I whipped out the umbrella not a moment too soon as the trickle soon turned into a torrent. This seems to be usual for Thailand: rain will appear virtually from out of nowhere only to give way soon afterwards to a sunny sky. I assume this is especially true for mountainous areas as the topography means air pushed up their slopes cools, looses the ability to hold moisture and dumps the moisture as rain. However, this time, the rain continued to fall in large quantities for longer. I stayed at the tiger enclosure, which had a walkway shielded from the rain. The rain lasted for an hour or two (the lions didn’t seem to happy) and as it died down I decided to make the trip back home. A red-taxi ride through town showed me just how much rain had fallen. One street seemed to be flooded with about 6 inches of rain.

...and this was at the end of the rainy season.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Thailand Journal – Entry 6 - A Tiger Among Elephants

As part of my stay in Thailand, I was to move into the home of a Thai family for at least one month. Needless to say, I was a little nervous. I am usually very appreciative to the smallest of kind gestures made by strangers so knowing that people are allowing me to move in with them for a month is a bit hard to swallow. Naturally, I’d be giving them some monetary support, but that wouldn’t really compensate for the commitment.

I learned that my homestay family were a retired couple who have hosted over 8 other students in the past. “Good”...I thought... “they should be no problems communicating with them in English while I learn Thai”. Wrong.

Upon meeting the family, I learned that they spoke very little English. A bit surprising, but not unmanageable; moreover, it is my responsibility to learn to fit into to Thai culture rather than people fitting into what I am used to. The mother is kind, though that kindness and generosity is often masked by what seems to be a frown as well as a commanding body language which might be a relic of her days as a school teacher. The father is a fantastic chef who aims to please; I often catch him out of the corner of my eye watching me eat, perhaps looking for signs that I don’t like his cooking. He has a strong demeanor, which is softened by the flash of a smile.

Their house, I am told, is of a more traditional Thai architecture. It is mostly made of wood, standing upon stills, though there are some brick and concrete supports. The family lives upstairs, which has bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room and an indoor-outdoor central deck where laundry is hung. I live on the first floor, which features a spacious room, likely previously shared between at least 2 of their 4 children who have since moved on to Bangkok and PhDs. I also have a bathroom, which some westerners might be a little unnerved by. At night, turning on the light is almost like watching a scene from a horror movie; the light flickers on and off before staying lit, revealing water-stained concrete and the specters of creepy crawlies who infiltrate by night. The shower consists of a faucet, a Tupperware bin and a small bowl. It is no substitute for a nice hot shower, but it works (a nice splash of cold water in the morning wakes you up). In addition to a sink and a toilet, I also have a urinal. Not standard in private washrooms in the west, but I love it. It is great for those late night, semi-conscious bathroom trips where you concentrate just as much as standing as well as aiming. Having the urinal is like having the simplest of cameras: just point and shoot.

The fan in my room is a blessing. Even though my room seems to be naturally cooler due to not having direct sunlight stream in through the windows, it still gets fairly hot. A more unmanageable frustration is that the windows act better as curtains than actual windows (at least from the glass-sliding, noise reducing ones I am used to). They consist of tinted glass panels that slide together, but do little to block out sound. Every night and early morning, I am a restless audience member to the orchestra of dogs barking (both outside my window and throughout the neighborhood) and cock-a-doodle-doos of resident chickens. I was intrigued to hear from my host father as he excitedly explained that the neighborhood has chickens that crow in the morning to wake you up. I would have been less intrigued if I knew that they would be doing this at 5 AM. Ultimately, a sound sleep can be hard to come by.

Currently, I’ve reached the end of my homestay and have elected to move into an apartment closer to the school. In addition to lack of quality sleep another problem has been social awkwardness perpetuated by significant communication and generation gaps which, for all my efforts, have been difficult to bridge; moreover, in order to get to school, I must pay for rides by taxi drivers who I have to aggressively barter with for fair prices and sometimes even for the ride itself (they are easily dismayed by the distance I ask them to travel). I only hope that the homestay family doesn’t feel rejected or dismayed, which would be unfounded.

I’ll miss hearing that pathetic, off-key version of Auld Lang Syne every time I open the fridge.

Edit: Photos and video!