Love & Bananas

 

It’s not often that you get to see one of your true heroes in action, so having the chance to go to the London premier of a film based on the work of my only living hero was a day that I will hold in my heart forever.

You might remember my earlier articles about Lek Chailert and her tireless efforts to save the Asian elephant. Having devoted her life to the plight of abused elephants, she conceived, built and developed Asia’s most highly regarded wild animal rescue and sanctuary (Elephant Nature Park).  I volunteered at ENP for a week last year, and it changed me forever.  I recommend it to everyone I meet. It has brought me more joy than any single thing I’ve ever done in my life.

As the founder of ENP, Lek is now the focus of a new film that feels more like a nail-biting adventure  than a documentary. The movie debuted very recently —  In fact, it is hitting the United States right about now. (And the fact that Lek was at the private party with me before the premier — and actually remembered me, will keep my soul floating for weeks.). 

As I have said before on many occasions, “Once you have seen an elephant just being an elephant…you never want them to do anything else.” Well, there is finally a way for you to experience that beauty for yourself. There is finally a film that makes you feel like you are there with Lek…running a life-or-death rescue.

“Love & Bananas” focuses on one 70-year old, partially blind elephant named Noi Nah and on Lek’s relentless efforts to save her life. If they can get her safely to Elephant Nature Park, she’ll be able to live out the rest of her days without chains — in a place filled with love and sunshine.

I often refer to Lek Chailert as the “biggest” tiny person I ever met. At just under five feet tall and about 80 pounds, she has gone toe-to-toe with criminals, animal abusers, government bureaucracies and tourism conglomerates. She’s done all of this to defend wildlife in general — and Asian elephants in particular.

Despite so many arrests that she’s spent half her life in and out of court…despite almost constant death threats…despite the physical, financial and emotional harassment by those who make their money out of abusing elephants for tourist side shows and logging…

Despite all this, Lek Chailert has managed to rehabilitate hundreds of elephants. She has healed not only the broken bodies of these magnificent animals, but their spirits as well.  Hundreds of frightened and abused elephants have blossomed under her fierce determination and gentle care. Many of these elephants have been at the brink of death when they were rescued, some have killed humans in the past while attempting to escape their tortured existence. Lek has utterly changed them through her simple belief that love cures all ills.

The title of the film, “Love & Bananas” comes from Lek’s philosophy on elephant rehabilitation. It’s her belief that all elephants can be rehabilitated, no matter the mental issues, no matter the abuse and fear. All elephants can be rehabilitated through a combination of love…and bananas.

It is through Lek’s kindness and compassion for the abusers that she is able to change their behavior. She understands that the situation is complicated, that the abusers are doing what they feel they have to in order to feed their families. So she patiently educates them on other ways to make money from elephants without harming them.

Lek has seen things that can never be unseen, and she has witnessed them all without judgment or hatred. Rather than simply screaming in the dark, she is hoping to find a way to convince the abusers to show more compassion through painstaking education. In some cases, this education requires multiple visits over the course of several years — in the hope that eventually something will click, and the abusers will see a better way.

The thing that makes me love Lek with all my heart…love her to the point of weeping when I think about her, is that she makes these rescue trips over and over again, knowing the elephants that the abusers give up are the ones most likely to die. Still, she moves heaven and earth to rescue each one. She knows that she can’t change the plight of all animals everywhere, but for the one animal she’s rescuing or rehabilitating that day, she has changed one life forever…And for her, that’s all that matters.

This film will make you believe that anything is possible with just a little bit of love and compassion. It will send your spirit soaring. And who doesn’t need a little bit of that these days?

Please look for this documentary at an art house cinema near you. Take a friend…make a day of it. Look for it on Youtube or Netflix or Amazon…even public television. Do yourself a favor and go on an adventure vacation with Lek Chailert to rescue an elephant, and remember…Anything can be accomplished with love…and bananas.

 

NOTES: If you’d like to see a trailer from the film “Love & Bananas” please click here. https://youtu.be/IitDac8aUJo

If you’d like to learn more about Elephant Nature Park to see how you could help these magnificent creatures, please click here. https://www.elephantnaturepark.org

If you have 30 seconds to sign a petition to Save the Asian Elephant please go click here. https://stae.org

If you’d like to see why Elephant Nature Park is thought of as the Adventure Trip of a Lifetime, and given five stars by almost 10,000 people on TripAdvisor, please click here to read reviews.  https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g293917-d601884-Reviews-Elephant_Nature_Park-Chiang_Mai.html

 

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50 Years of Friendship

 

About 50 years ago I made a friend in elementary school. (I can’t believe I’m actually old enough to say that.)

Anyway, she was one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen — a California baby with golden hair that reflected the light and a baby face that made everyone’s heart skip a beat. Her name was Shelley, and she was my very best friend…the kind you only make when either very young or very old. 

It felt as if our hearts beat together with the same rhythm. We played together endlessly, loved each other unconditionally, cheered each other’s happiness and cried at all the same things.

One of my favorite memories from childhood is when Shelley and I were about 7 or 8 years old. We decided to break into the Guinness Book of World Records. I had a Teeter Totter in my back garden, so she and I made six or seven of the worst ham sandwiches imaginable, stuck them in an enormous grocery sack and carried them out to the swing set. 

We started swinging back and forth on that old Teeter Totter, wondering how many days we would be able to keep going with our sandwiches to carry us through. We even made up a theme song to the tune of The Carpenters “For All We Know,” “Teeter…look at the two of us. Totter…isn’t it fun?”   I think we lasted all of 20 minutes. Then we went inside to watch television. Thinking back on that day still makes me a little weepy…remembering how innocent and funny we were. Feeling like the entire world was ours for the taking.

Of course, life moves along. How can it not? Tragedies happened in my family and in hers. She drifted her way and I drifted mine. We became interested in different things, and by high school we were living in different circles. Shelley was the cheerleader that all the boys wanted to date. I was a foot taller than every boy in high school so dating no one there, and as a result, completely focused on theater, dance and drill team. 

About five years ago, we reconnected through Facebook. But, as I’ve been living in three other countries during that time, we’d only been able to get together for dinner with a small group of friends four or five times since we reconnected. Not much time to do anything but ask the basic “catch up” questions. “How are you?” “How are the kids?” “How is life these days?” “Where have you traveled lately?” Etc…

That is until about a month ago when Shelley messaged me and said, “I’m coming to visit you in London.” Of course I was thrilled, I’ve been asking her to come for years. But secretly I was a little worried. What if we didn’t have anything in common anymore? What if we had nothing to talk about? What if…What if…What if?   

Well, as it turns out, there was absolutely NO need to worry.

From the moment she walked in the door of my flat, we were those same two giggly little girls again, with our own secret language, not needing to finish our sentences because we knew the other person had already finished them in her head. We talked at the same time, laughed like school girls and even cried at all the same things again. It felt like our hearts were beating with the same rhythm within an hour of our time together. 

I’ve had more belly laughs in just this last week with her than I’ve had in the past 15 years. And since we both hate, hate, HATE saying goodbye, when she left we both just said “See ya.”  And then the minute she got in the taxi and drove off, I burst into tears.

I feel like I not only rediscovered an old friend, but a part of myself as well. I found that goofy, funny little girl who was all heart, all love and all innocence. I rediscovered that little girl is powerful and confident and incredibly fun. I rediscovered that the world is full of possibilities.

Best of all, I rediscovered that sometimes the best friends of your life are the ones whose hearts beat with the same rhythm as yours.  Shelley and I are like twins separated at birth. She’s a part of me and I’m a part of her. Before she left, we made plans for her to come back for another visit in December — maybe.   I’m praying she does…I miss her already.

I’ve been so blessed to have incredible women friends throughout my life. Leesy, Diane and Joy (and a few others) are like sisters to me, woven together into the fabric of my life. They know how much they are loved — how much they mean to me.  I’m writing this, though, because I’m just so grateful to have rediscovered my beautiful Shelley.

I love you, Teeter.  Come back soon.

Why Do We Do It?

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Rough day today.  I’m going through something that I know a lot of other women are dealing with as well. My self-esteem is at rock bottom. Weight is an enemy that I fight on a daily basis. I confess I’m tired of it. I’m tired of feeling fat — and worthless as a result.  I realize that this has been a chronic feeling for most of my life going back as early as I can remember. 

I know I’m not the only woman who has had these feelings haunt her. I’ve watched too many of my friends cry about it, crash diet through it, take pills over it, and feel defeated when those things fail. We learn to hate ourselves when we can’t get our weight down to some imaginary size that to us means we’re good enough.  I am furious on behalf of all of us who were conditioned from childhood to equate our value with our smallness as if that were the only thing that mattered…as if it mattered at all. 

I look over photos of myself all the way back to high school when my measurements were 36” 26” 36” and I remember feeling humiliated by my size even then.  I remember a story my mom used to tell about me from when I was 6 years old. I was worried because I thought my knees were fat. (My legs were so thin at that age, I suppose my knees looked big by comparison. Photo to follow.)

Why does our society do this to women? Why do we do this to our girls? Why don’t we instead speak to our girls of contribution and power, of strength and health instead of judging them for their size…instead of teaching them by our example to try to be less?  Why do we praise women for how small they have gotten —  or how much of themselves they lose? 

Right now I hate the thoughts running around inside my head. And I hate the realization that this tape has been playing for decades upon decades.

When will I grow up?   Will I ever?

If I could change anything about myself it would be that. I know this post is short and it’s not the most fun to read, but right now this is what I’m dealing with…and I’ll lay odds I’m not the only one.

(NOTE: I’m adding some photos to the bottom of this article that were taken at times I was sure I was fat — just to show how insidious and how insane this issue is.  The final photo was taken on my wedding day. When I went to a bridal boutique to pick out a wedding dress, the sales lady smirked and told me that I was FAR too big to fit in any of the store’s samples…I left in tears. Of course I eventually found a beautiful dress in another shop, but by then I felt horrible about myself. Looking back at this last photo taken on my wedding day, I wonder how I could have let that idiot make me feel so ugly  and so worthless just because she thought I was “huge.”    Each and every one of these photos reminds me of the old saying, “I wish I were as fat as the first time I thought I was fat.) 

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Soulmates

 

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You know that feeling you get when you’re able to spend time with someone you haven’t seen in years? Someone who genuinely loves you for exactly who you are? Lucky me…I got to do that yesterday! Leon and I spent an entire day with one of my favorite people in the world, Carlton D. Baker II, and his wonderful wife, Michele. I’ve known Carlton for about 35 years. We met at my sorority house at Southern Methodist University right after I pledged. (He was a little brother for the sorority, and one of the first people I met there…I’ve loved him ever since.)  Anyway, he and Michele were vacationing in Paris and took 14 hours away from that incredibly romantic city to spend a day just hanging out with us in London. We did all sorts of fun, touristy things that Leon and I don’t normally do. All in all, it was a simple, perfect day.

The weather was clear and sunny (wellsunny for London, anyway!) Since it wasn’t terribly cold, walking around the city was actually fun. We had a full schedule of things to do together, all of which allowed us to talk the entire time. Honestly, it doesn’t get any better than that.

We met Carlton and Michele’s train at St. Pancreas station. Then the four of us caught the tube over to Covent Garden where we poked around in antique shops, bookstores, and even art galleries. Michele bought herself a set of vintage “Alice in Wonderland” prints in a Lewis Carroll bookstore filled with dusty, old first editions.

We almost walked right past a tiny, old hat shop, lined floor to ceiling with fedoras in every color. Carlton is a total “hat guy” so we all went inside to play dress up. I tried on a teal-colored Trilby that made Leon stop dead in his tracks. He said it made me look just like Catherine Zeta-Jones in the movie “Red 2.” The next thing I knew, out came his credit card. (I’m guessing he has a secret thing for CZJ.)

One of the nicest parts of the day was getting to know Michele a little better. I’ve always loved her simply because of how happy she made Carlton, but this visit gave me the chance to get to know her better, and I saw first hand how cool she really is. She’s one of those great 1940s-style women, like a black & white film star who’s a true “broad” in the best sense of the word (picture Barbara Stanwick). Completely comfortable in her own skin, she’s down to earth and easy to be with. Michele is calm and smart and pulls no punches. Best of all, she’s a beautiful example of what confidence in a woman should look like. Needless to say, I liked her…a lot.

The four of us wandered around Covent Garden a while longer, ending up at B Bakery where we had reservations for High Tea. Every single bite was delicious: soft, buttery scones with clotted cream, bacon sandwiches, passion fruit & mango tarts, raspberry & chocolate macarons, butter cookies with cream cheese frosting, dark chocolate mini-cupcakes. (And I thought the French were the kings of pastry!)

After we were completely high on sugar, we walked to Windsor Pier so we could show Carlton and Michele Parliament and Elizabeth Tower. Then we all boarded a boat for the slow cruise down the Thames to Tower Pier which lets off right at Borough Market. We did a bit of the farmer’s market thing and then hugged goodbye at least three or four times before finally separating for the time being. We even made plans for them to come back sometime in the next year when they can actually stay with us for a few days! I can hardly wait.

This visit reminded me how important it is to cherish your soulmates, those few people throughout your life who always see your soul, rather than your looks — who always speak to the best part of who you are. Those are the people who make you feel like you are perfect just as God made you.

True soulmates can float into your life in a romantic way, of course. But they can also find you as family or even friends. The wonderful thing is that you can have more than one soulmate in your lifetime. I’ve had a few, and Carlton is definitely one of them. Every minute spent with him is something I treasure.

I have a question for you. Who have been your soulmates over the years? Take a moment out of your day to write or phone them. Take the time to tell them just how much they mean to you. If you’ve lost track of them completely, google them and try to reconnect that way.

Believe me…telling someone how much you love them will always make you feel grateful. And that…is a very good thing.

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Notes: If you’d like to know more about B Bakery, here’s a link to their website:   https://b-bakery.com

 

Crazy Travel Stories – The Maldives

 

 

Inspired by my friend, Marti Baker, who is also a world traveler, I decided to write down some of my crazier travel stories. Here’s the first.

On our New Year’s trip to the Maldives last year, our adorable pilots showed up in flip flops and shades. They flew the plane barefoot, texting on their iPhones the entire flight. (I found this charming rather than terrifying, probably because I knew at some point I would be writing about it.)

Then during the water landing, they basically “crashed” into the water — so hard  that I was thrown across the aisle and landed in the lap of the man next to me.

There I am, with my head IN his lap and I look up…eye to eye with his wife. All I could do was say “I’m just so sorry. So sorry.”

THAT…was a moment.

Elephant Nature Park

 

Left to right and top to bottom: One of the elephants munching on some greens, some shady spots and sprinklers for the elephants to play in, me -kissing my beautiful Kabu, me with Lek and her husband, Darren who run the park, Lek being hugged by one of her babies, Sri Prea, (Navann’s mum) flirting with me in the meadow one afternoon, me feeding Kabu while she was nursing a foot infection due to an injury she suffered in the logging industry, and finally, me getting ready to shovel truckloads full of elephant poo. (Trust me, it was a lot more fun than it sounds!)

FOREWORD
Question: How can you possibly communicate an utterly life-changing experience in a short web article?
Answer: You can’t. I’ve tried for months to write something that could communicate how profoundly my life was changed by the week I spent volunteering at Elephant Nature Park animal rescue, and I finally realized it’s impossible. All I can do is give you a glimpse of a sliver of the power of that place. So…that’s what I’m going to do.

If it will help, I can tell you that if you were to ask me the absolute best thing I’ve ever done in my life, I’d have to say it was traveling to the jungles of northern Thailand by myself — to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park for a week. It was, simply put, the most beautiful experience I’ve ever had in my life and it fed my soul to a breadth and depth that I didn’t know was possible.

Being a part of this special place, even for just a week, was so profound that it’s taken me months to be able to put my feelings into words. In fact, I haven’t written a single article since my visit there.  I was too intimidated to try to communicate the “perfectness” of that hauntingly beautiful, other-worldly place.  At the same time, I couldn’t make myself write about anywhere else until I had paid tribute to it.

Elephant Nature Park, is a true rescue, not just some tourist factory that markets itself as a sanctuary while still chaining up the animals and offering elephant rides. ENP is a tangible “heaven on earth” for rescue elephants, more than 72 of them, in fact. Not only that — they also house more than 530 rescue dogs and 80 water buffalo. In addition, they have a separate rescue in the mountains for the over 200 wild boar that would have been killed if not for the sanctuary’s intervention. The main park, however, is where the elephants and water buffalo roam freely through the grounds together with about twenty of the more senior, rescue dogs gleefully chasing each other through the grass. It is a magnificent sight to see all of these different animals (and people) nosing up to each other and spending their days lounging in the sun.

This “Garden of Eden” is the brainchild of a remarkable woman named Lek Chailert. A five foot tall, 95-pound powerhouse of a woman, she started fighting for the rights of working elephants years ago, and the culmination of her vision is Elephant Nature Park– a world-renown conservation project and preserve. When I call her “remarkable” I mean it quite literally. While I was there, I learned she had broken her hip months earlier but had absolutely refused to take time off to treat her injury. There was no way she was going to stop feeding, coaxing and tending to her elephants one-on-one, due to her deep and abiding belief that bonding with these beautiful animals is the best way to gift them with a new life, helping them to trust not only their environment, but humans again — after all the gross abuses they suffered in their lives before arriving at ENP. She was still in great pain and walking with a cane while I was there, but every day she still went out to “play” with her elephants, and every single one of them adores her. When they see her, they come running.

Lek makes sure that Elephant Nature Park has everything these magnificent animals need in order to recover and thrive. The first thing that happens when a new elephant arrives is that they get their own, private caregiver called a mahout, whose entire job is to follow his elephant around 24 hours a day, and simply be his buddy. But that’s only the beginning. The park itself is designed to cater to the elephant’s every need and desire. There are sprawling grasslands, concrete swimming pools, big, cooling mud baths, and many long, winding foot paths to walk. (Did you know that elephants will walk along a dirt path when there is one available in order to preserve the grasslands of their environment? Well, they do.)

The entire preserve is covered with bright green meadows, peppered with lush trees and dotted with watering holes, tire swings, and shady spots. There’s even a crystal clear river where the elephants bathe with the help of the volunteers. It is a breathtakingly beautiful home for these rescued elephants where they are given plenty of fresh food, medical care and best of all…freedom. Freedom they’ve never before experienced. These elephants have been exposed to untold horrors, but whatever their age or circumstance, here they’ll get to live out the rest of their days in freedom and security.
Elephants are not solitary creatures. When left alone in the wild, they live with their families their entire lives. But since this is a rescue, virtually every elephant here has been ripped from their family and forced into hard labor. One of the most important things that happens when these elephants arrive, is that they are encouraged to form new families with the other rescues, families from whom they will never be separated from again. They will roam around the grounds of this sanctuary together in peace — for the rest of their lives.

Here, the air is clear and the ground is soft. The food is plentiful: always clean, ripe and fresh. Truckload after truckload of pumpkins, melons, bananas and cucumbers are delivered every day. The staff at ENP even makes rice balls each day for the elephants who have lost their teeth as a result of either torture or neglect. The kitchen keeps the menu constantly changing so the animals don’t get bored. (Can you believe that?)

This park is a place where every animal feels peace, sometimes for the very first time in their lives. Here, they are safe and loved — respected and valued. When you volunteer here, you can’t believe the amount of love you feel pouring out of you. Just standing next to an elephant is pure joy. When you get really close to one, they always look you in the eye. You see a depth of understanding there — a recognition. They acknowledge that you’re sharing their space with them and they take the time to really see you, to feel who you are. It’s not like looking into the eyes of any other animal — they are truly with you while you are there, and they are in no hurry to leave you. If you pay attention to them in those moments, you’ll learn how beautiful it is to just be with someone…sharing space together.

Standing there, eye to eye with one of these huge, calm, compassionate creatures makes you feel connected not only to yourself and to them, but to God. It gives you a sense of your place in the world. It’s simply impossible to be unmoved by these beautiful animals — and the woman who gave them a chance to simply “be.” Once you’ve actually seen an elephant just be an elephant, you never want them to do anything else. The idea of their being forced to perform tricks or give rides…or even the thought of their being torn away from their families to make someone a few bucks makes you feel sick inside.

After you have shared even one genuine moment with an elephant, you will forever be on their side — praying for their happiness and grateful just to have been a witness to their easy, quiet strength. And you will be forever grateful for the work that Elephant Nature Park is doing. So…

As it turns out, heaven really IS a place on earth, at least for elephants. And it’s nestled among the northern mountains of Thailand, just about an hour and a half from Chiang Mai. 
 I thank God for the opportunity to have witnessed their lives there, even for just a moment. (If you ever want to shake up your life — or just feel like you’ve visited the Garden of Eden for a week or so, do yourself a favor and volunteer at Elephant Nature Park. You’ll never look at the world the same way again. I guarantee it.)

Notes:
To make a donation or volunteer at Elephant Nature Park, click on their link: ‪https://www.elephantnaturepark.org‬

Goodbye, India

 

 

For a year now, I’ve been living in a culture completely different from any I have ever experienced, and it has rattled me to my core. The past year has shown me how brutal and unfair life can be…but it has also shown me great beauty.  It is true that there is a casual disregard for suffering in India which is heartbreaking to witness. But there is also a calm acceptance of one’s situation at any given moment which in itself brings a deep sense of peace.

India is a remarkable country filled to the brim with contradictions. Yes, it is challenging. India is chaos, utterly and completely. Nothing about this country is logical — It is loud, crowded and difficult. But there is also a haunting, timeless beauty here, especially in the people who are, almost without exception, curious, open-hearted and completely accepting.

One thing I ams certain of…I am the better for having lived the adventure of her.

I will write more articles on my time here, but as my plane leaves in just a few hours, I wanted to say goodbye properly.   So…Here are a few of my favorite memories from our year in Asia.

 

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