Atalwin Pilon on being a tourist and being oneself.
This article by Atalwin Pilon was previously published on the Basic Goodness Blog, and is reprinted here with permission.
Chiang Mai, Thailand.
I feel lost, down and disappointed. And I feel stupid because I know it will change during the process of writing. I almost come to a point where I say to myself “why write if you know where you will end up?” But this would be deluding myself, creating an excuse not to write and thus not to move on.
Question to myself: “what is bothering me?” Yesterday I took a day tour; I went to Patara Elephant Farm. The day before I went rock climbing. How did I come up with these activities? I just looked on TripAdvisor for the main attractions of Chiang Mai and signed up for #1 and #2. I wanted to push myself into doing something out of my box and taking on my role as tourist certainly makes me feel uncomfortable.
The rock climbing was amazing. I never climbed before because I thought my body is too heavy and not flexible enough for climbing. Probably also because it is a sport that we Dutch people have to make an effort to learn: we don’t have any mountains, not even one rock, so we have to practice indoors on a climbing wall. But I totally changed my mind: climbing is great. It is challenging, physically demanding and peaceful (because of nature surrounding you). You need concentration, creativity and trust. You climb solo but you need a buddy to watch over your safety. And although it is very safe it still asks for courage and pumps your adrenaline (it did mine). I loved it. I will definitely do it again. And I learned that the ideas I had of climbing and the sport being ‘not for me’ were untrue and can go out of the window.
The next day I went to the #1 attraction according to TripAdvisor: I participated in the Elephant Caretaker for a Day program. We were picked up and brought to the elephant farm. Elephants surrounded us immediately. They behave somewhat like horses: not afraid careful of humans and ok with being petted but mainly interested in food. After a short introduction by the owner, which emphasized how different this park was from the other parks, how well the elephants were taken care of and how limited the amount of daily visitors was (thus justifying an entrance fee 10 times higher than the ‘commercial’ parks). In this park no abuse, no elephants performing silly tricks for tourists: this place was strictly educational.
The caretakers choose the elephant that fits your personality carefully, like they are elephant whisperers. My ego was pleased that I was chosen to take care of Bul, the 28-year-old huge elephant prize bull, father of 28 sons and daughters. I had to become friends with Bul by feeding him bananas and after that was done I had to bathe him.
It was fun to bathe the elephants and I can imagine the elephants enjoy it too. Of course every elephant had his official caretaker always close by. He would instruct us what to do when. Like brush the head of the elephant when the photographer was close, or stand on the elephant when the photographer was close, or pose in front of the elephants for a group picture and the elephant would spray us with water. Best moment was when one or two of the elephants continued spraying us even when the caretakers had told them to stop. I believe they enjoyed the prank.
The lunch table looked gorgeous: lost of fruit, exotic looking rice thingies, everything packed in banana leaf. When we started eating we found out that everything was sweet. Basically we were offered a big rice based dessert and fruit for lunch with a few pieces of chicken. After lunch we found out why: the elephants came to clean the table, including the banana leaf tablecloth itself. To make this possible everything on the table was suitable for elephants.
Minute by minute I feel myself getting more disappointed. It doesn’t feel like an educational trip, it feels like a trip marketed as an educational trip to make more money. The elephants don’t do circus tricks but they do different tricks. The goal is not to teach the guests a lot but to produce a dvd with ‘highlights of the day’ so that everybody has their pictures of him or her bathing his or her elephant.
For some reason it gets to me. I feel taken advantage of and I find it hard to get over it. So what if they have found a clever niche? So what if they produce a carefully designed commerce driven consumer experience? The elephants are happy and the tourists, the entrepreneur and the staff are happy too. But for some reason I find it difficult that everything is a lie. I don’t want to be sold a lie. I feel betrayed: I was tricked into believing that this company offered something authentic and honest. It makes me feel angry and sad. Also, I doubt myself because the others guests all seem to have a great time. Am I the only one who is bothered by this? I mean: this is the #1 attraction according to TripAdvisor with 810 people giving it 5 stars.
The lie is everywhere. Everybody wants to give me a massage, every woman wants to be my girlfriend, all the women find me ‘very sexy man’. And the white hordes move from one consumption opportunity to the other. I don’t feel connected to them. I feel lonely and I want to flee.
Maybe that’s why I like the food here. The food is still quite honest in most places, not contaminated and not compromised.
What should I do? Be with the feeling, embrace it. Allow the whole experience to flow through the body. Be aware, be present, be open. Learn to love the consumer and the liar. And learn to love to coward too, while you are busy. Ah, maybe that is my fear: to become like ‘them’. Let me see how it feels when I say it: I am a consumer, I am a coward and I am a liar. It feels vulnerable and liberating. But I am afraid of the numbness.
Enough for today, I have to pack my bags and go to Chiangrai, to see if I can find the abbot Phra Khru Bah. I don’t feel confident about that move either but we will see what happens.
Read more by Atalwin Pilon.