Here’s my final tip on how to drop tourism and really travel:
Tip 6: Give Something Back The single most important thing you can do to distinguish yourself as a traveler and not a tourist is to give something of yourself. I had been a lifestyle traveler for more than a decade before I discovered a little traveler’s secret called volunteer tourism. You can offer your time, energy and manual labor to all sorts of short- to long-term projects run by locals benefiting their wildlife, environment and communities. And please note that volunteering for a preexisting local organization is very different than bringing your (foreign) organization’s objectives and volunteering to force them on another culture. I recommend searching the Global Vision International website for wildlife, environmental and cultural volunteer opportunities in the region of the world you are planning to visit.
I have volunteered at Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park, working hands-on with an endangered species, the Asian elephant. I worked my little ass off in the fields, building fences and planting corn. I got heat exhaustion, dysentery and was bitten by every flying insect known to man. But it was all worth it to get the chance each day to bathe Medo the elephant, for whom I developed a great fondness and respect. I saw her eyes laugh as I scrubbed her pachyderm skin with a wire brush. I enjoyed watching as she dunked her whole head underwater, breathing through her trunk like a snorkel.
When I sat at the feet of the village shaman who welcomed us volunteers through a Thai calling-back-the-spirit ceremony, I knew that I could never sit in a chlorinated deep-end again and think I had actually traveled. It was as if I was the Grinch Who Stole Christmas all my life before my volunteer tourism began. I knew my Grinch heart had just grown three sizes larger and I would have to grow to accommodate its new size after I retired beneath my mosquito net in a bamboo room built by the hands of other volunteers just like me, was woken up by the infantile squeaks of an endangered baby Asian elephant—probably comically scared of a mouse scurrying by her giant feet—and then smoked a hand-rolled cigarette with the Burmese refugee turned elephant mahout, garnering him pride, pay and (at least temporary) safety from his country’s genocide.
These are the reasons we travel. These are the experiences that develop more than a good photo—they develop character. If I had children, these are the moments I would wish to provide their upbringing. Because when I respect my world this way, I return home and appreciate the diversity, the landscape, the local transportation, the fresh fruits and the rich culture of my own community all the more.
Ultimately, everywhere on this Earth and in life itself, I am but a traveler, just passing through. I will not separate myself from the world, but immerse myself in it. I am not a tourist of life, but a connoisseur—well-traveled and well-trained to drink every sweet drop of goodness it has to offer… with the ravenous, generous traveler’s open mind… leaving footprints so light that, wherever I go, they are washed away by the next tide pulling out.
Now is my time.
It was the night of the Winter Solstice and it was my watch over the hatchery. Usually they erupt like a petite volcano, somewhere in the middle of a distant sea undiscovered by human consciousness. Safely silent and unnoticed, thirty, seventy – maybe more – decide by some ancient wisdom that their soft shell is suddenly too cramped for their consciousness, that the weight of 24 inches of packed dirt is too heavy for their freedom, that they long to open lungs, open eyes, open arms and know independent life. Silently, as one, they use each other to slowly push, wiggle, fight upward through packed sand, their birth canal. All together erupting with newborn blindness, exhaustion and awkwardness in one amoebic heap.
But not she. This miniature sea turtle made the journey alone. I will never know how she knew it was Her Time. Perhaps there is one Plankton Angel for each sea turtle egg whispering “stillness” “grow shell” “absorb placenta” and finally a gentle “go” in each embryonic ear. Perhaps there is some genetic consciousness that can read the oceans tide, the moon’s phase, the weather’s proclivity, the survival economics. Perhaps it’s a roll of the Chaotic dice at the evolutionary craps table by the God of Time drunk on water-turned-wine by the Prophet of Profit in his casino room’s jacuzzi bath the night prior. Somehow, she did it alone.
Grateful for the darkness we both, I lifted her from the hatchery nest and with soundless respect, tip toed just-her to the wild, uninhabited playa and set her newly opened, still crying eyes into the sand facing a barbaric ocean ready to work or drown any weakling effort to indulge it’s waters. Lazy baby; she laid still, gaining strength to move her limbs and then suddenly, the enormous orange moon emerged as her only mentor, warning lovingly: fight-or-die. She flopped. She flailed. She pushed her miniature aquatic body across a forever distance of 4m of sand to be hit and rolled time and time again by wicked waters. Still pressing forward: survival code.
The undertow took pity and finally carried her away into 10f waves of pounding black sea. She’d not eat for days or weeks as she continues her newborn struggle to avoid predator eyes – bite sized appetizer she appears, to avoid commercial fishery drift nets killing everything – endangered species like her included, and beat the odds by persisting at least 14 years before she returns to cumbersome land for only the second time in her life to lay 100 eggs of which likely none, but perhaps one – will survive.
May it be you tonight, Winter Solstice child. Now is your time.
In episode 9 of The Eco Tourist, my very home-shot/edited series documenting a 3 week volunteer conservation trip to Thailand where my travel partner and I work with the endangered Asian elephant, we check out what other conservation initiatives, besides endangered species rescue, the Elephant Nature Park takes to protect the environment, culture and species. Told from the perspective of two Hollywood-based high raw vegans working in the film/television industry, please enjoy my self-produced web series, The Eco Tourist, episode 9.
Read about some of the other rescues at the Elephant Nature Park, Thailand here.
My travel partner and I do partner yoga standing bow posture on the Winter Solstice Sun rise at the Elephant Nature Park, Thailand.
City standing bow here.
Episode 10 of The Eco Tourist, my web series documenting a 3 week volunteer conservation trip to Thailand where my travel partner and I work with the endangered Asian elephant.
Told from the perspective of two Hollywood-based high raw vegans working in the film/television industry, in this tenth episode, you’ll see some very healthy and hilarious behaviors of Asian elephants. If the zoo, circus, sanctuary or trekking camp you are considering attending does not provide the opportunity for their elephants to exhibit these natural instincts, then find another. Find a true sanctuary where the elephants are free to:
1. scratch all day! 2. rumble, trumpet, squawk and communicate with other elephants 3. dust themselves with loose dirt 4. forage for wild plant food 5. roll in mud pits! 6. touch constantly and socialize with other elephants continually 7. raise the youngsters with familial discipline 8. be free from poking, stabbing and beating with the bull hook
These elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand (a real elephant sanctuary) are free to exhibit all these natural behaviors and are obviously healthy elephants. Just take a look:
Read about the difference between most circus, zoo and trekking elephants vs. HEALTHY elephants in sanctuaries in my award-winning column, Clean and Green Every Day, in EcoHearth online magazine here: Circus Elephants Life and Exposing Cole Bros Circus Elephant Cover Up.
I thought I had happily escaped the holiday madness by visiting a Buddhist country during the season in question. Little did I suspect the Elephant Nature Park had a very unexpected event planned for the park volunteers:
Read why I try to get away from the US during the holidays here: “Christmas Is Trying To Kill Me“
See more photos from this volunteer trip to Elephant Nature Park, Thailand.
Episode 6 of The Eco Tourist web series is LIVE! I never thought I’d be called to protest – I mean; rally – in Thailand, but as I mentioned in episode 5, to save an endangered species, you have to address the social, cultural, environmental AND political issues as well. We’ll here’s my chance to walk my talk!
This rally at the Governor’s Mansion in Chiang Mai, Thailand was a quite unexpected opportunity that presented itself during my volunteer position at the Elephant Nature Park. With support from international protesters, this video is in multiple languages, including Dutch, Israeli, Mandarine, French, Thai, Finnish and Scottish (which SOUNDS like another language, that’s for sure!). Enjoy episode 6 of The Eco Tourist:
In episode 5 of The Eco Tourist, my travel partner and I shovel dung, scoop the mud pit and harvest corn – all volunteer chores at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand.
View episode 5 of The Eco Tourist here:
Read how I kept the rain forest mosquitos away naturally – without chemicals – while working at the Elephant Nature Park in my award-winning column in EcoHearth magazine: Natural Inset Repellant.
In episode 4 of The Eco Tourist, my travel partner and I arrive at The Elephant Nature Park, where we will volunteer with this endangered species. But on our arrival day, a special treat – we get close to a baby elephant.
The Eco Tourist, episode 3 is LIVE! In this episode, I lose my Steripen virginity. UV water sterilization made this trip the FIRST ever wherein I did NOT suffer the digestive repercussions of traveling a developing country. Thank you, Steripen!
Read about other ways I approach being a vaccine-free traveler in my award-winning column in EcoHearth online magazine.
And some other thoughts on clean water.