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A massive THANK YOU for joining us in this beautiful country next summer. We know it’s not always easy to find the time and raise the funds. Please enjoy reading about last summer’s achievements as this will give a complete picture of the vast amount of assistance you will be giving to the local community through your generosity! The work is ongoing with our Australian and New Zealand volunteers and then will recommence in April of this year when our first group of North American and British volunteers arrive to carry on with these vital projects.
The ECC is constantly evolving and developing new ways to further integrate the elephants into a familial herd which can potentially be released into the wild.
We had a volunteer on program named Atina. She was an instant hit at the ECC, school and just about everywhere we went. Her parents were both born in Laos and she has been dying to explore her family roots and she did exactly that. She immersed herself in the culture entirely and finished every day with a huge smile on her face. It happened to be her 21st birthday during program so we bought her a traditional Laos skirt as this experience meant so much more to her and she absolutely loved it to the point of tears. It was amazing to see how important this trip was for her and to see her embrace every bit of it.
This season we’ve built another water tank at a different point in the plantation to carry on the progress of the irrigation system that was started earlier in the year. The tank was be the main ECC construction project for the season along with planting more fields of food for the elephants and planting through the forest.
The first group of the season really impressed us with their work ethic, especially coming straight from Canada’s climate. We got the frame for the tank all dug out in just four days despite the heat and the hike to the site. It was nice to be back in planting season again and start a couple of new gardens around the centre.
The plantation, a year round project, focuses on banana plants (where we are laying the irrigation system) then bana grass (not banana grass) a grass that is fed to level out the stomachs of the elephants after lots of sugar from bananas and sugar cane. Sugar cane is the other plant grown in bulk at the plantation. All of these things are grown to help with the positive re-enforcement training of the elephants.
Just as they had done so on occasion last season, the women and men from the nearby village accompanied us again for mixing cement this program, except this time there was at least double the amount of people! Laughing and working as a team, it was phenomenal to see the volunteers have the chance to experience the richness of teamwork that makes this culture so lovely. With their help, we doubled our cementing progress that day which allows us to begin laying the floor as soon as next week!
All the locals, Mr. Ken especially, and the staff at the ECC have been extremely friendly, supportive, and knowledgeable. The volunteers were all excited and hardworking as well.
One particular volunteer stood out to me. Ivanna received an unfortunate phone call in regards to the health of a family member back home. She told me that being surrounded by such amazing locals and new friends at the ECC really helped her overcome the emotional situation at home. She worked extremely hard during the week and was an inspiration to me and many others.
We had a girl on program who was born with some sort of hip problem where she walks with much difficulty. She came with her lovely boyfriend who took his time with her on every activity. She continued to push herself to be a part of the group and be able to do all the activities just like anyone else. She was quite worried about the bike ride as we all are (lol) but with the motivation of her boyfriend (now fiance) she made it the entire 15km without one single complaint whereas the rest of the volunteers we’re dropping all around her! It was so nice to see the smile on her face
She was a true inspiration to everyone, that no matter the obstacle, just push yourself a little further and you can achieve success!
This group we almost completed moving the entire load of sand and stone to star missing the concrete for the tank. It was hard work and probably not the most exciting job but I think they all seen the fun side of it. We’re way ahead of last season now, partially because of the site being a lot more accessible but still solid work from both groups. The rain prevented us from digging but we have a tarp up now that should keep the rain off for the next group.
We have now planted a great deal of bana grass and cassava tree throughout the jungle. Again I was impressed with the volunteers efforts in getting to the areas to plant carrying all the cuttings, it’s a very slippery, uneven walk but there where little complaints.
This group it was fantastic to see the ecstatic expressions on the faces of the volunteers when they played a role in finishing the cement floor. For most of them this group it was the first time many of them had worked with cement, and with the heat and the mugginess they still overcame it all with a positive attitude and finished off two seasons worth of work in stride!
It really was a great reminder how not only is this project about completing necessary work here, but it’s just as much about the personal growth and sense of accomplishment & comradely amongst those who endeavour to join us.
Throughout this program I had the pleasure of getting to know a student named Mook. She is an intelligent and kind-hearted 9 year old. Right away Mook was eager to learn as much English as she could. She would point to something (e.g a tree, a crayon, the grass, etc.) and ask for the English word while I asked her for the Lao translation. Mook would stay at school during lunch to continue to develop her English vocabulary and practise her new phrases. Mook would often help her peers learn new English words and would sometimes even correct Ken’s pronunciation. Mook’s ambition and passion towards learning English is something that I will always remember and cherish. I hope to get to know her more during the rest of the season.
We had 2 girls who were at their second stop of their world tour. They had previously been in Africa, stopping at the cheetah conservation that VESA goes to, without knowledge of this prior to arriving.
They plan to travel to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bali, Australia, New Zealand and stopping in Fiji to do their 2nd VESA trip in 1 summer. They are both awesome girls who have truly embraced the entire experience and they plan to sign up for the Ecuador program in the near future:)
We managed to get a lot of bricks through to the site and are now are almost ready to start making the floor for the tank. We have all the materials in place and will bring in the builders at the end of the week to start making the frames to lay the concrete posts.
In planting we planted three buckets of bana grass and cassava trees, we normally plant six but we wanted to focus more of maintaining the things planted in previous groups. The grass grows so fast now its rainy season walking past the first groups patch you could barely see where we had planted, I think next week we will focus more on making sure all the things we have planted are healthy.
This program we had the very fortunate opportunity to experience a big part of culture in the Sayaboury province. The third day of the volunteer week landed on National Day, a very lovely day in Lao culture where people spend time celebrating together with beer Lao, music, traditional dancing, and most interestingly planting trees all along the roadsides.
People of all levels of society come together, entire villages set out with small tree saplings, some wood and nails, and plant a handful of trees including a wooden frame around it for protection. A day where people demonstrate such a widespread care for the environment in a developing country that has mounting environmental concerns of its own was such a beautiful thing to be a part of with the volunteers at the school.
The teachers were as happy as can be to help us decide where to plant the trees, and the students were so elated to help us dig out the holes and plant the trees inside.
During this program the volunteers and I had the opportunity of celebrating National Day with the community at the school. The holiday was celebrated by planting trees along the roadside. When we arrived at the school teachers, parents, students, and many government officials greeted us and welcomed us to watch some younger students perform traditional dances. They asked us to join them for lunch and generously provided us with lots of food and BeerLao. The teachers were eager to teach us Laos dance moves and encouraged everyone to dance together. It was an amazing experience for myself and the volunteers. What an amazing day! 4. Please indicate any areas you feel that the program might be improved including the performance of fellow tour leaders etc:
At the ECC the mahouts have started a sort of challenge amongst each other, trying to sell the most machetes. The volunteers love them and this group in particular they almost bought out the entire supply.
We noticed one of the local’s sons was no longer coming around. After some concern as to where he was and speaking to his father we found out that because the number of machetes the volunteers bought, it more than doubled their monthly salary so they were actually able to send him to a better school in hopes of s brighter future.
Absolutely amazing to be a part of.
This week saw us bending all the iron to make the rebar for the water tank we are building. Down by the mahout school was our base and we had a couple of stations set up working on different things. One team bending thinner metal into squares to tie to the thicker rebar to keep the shape. Some people bending the ‘feet’ of the 6 posts to make the pillars at each corner of the tank (plus two through the middle). The rest attached the squares to the rebar.
We finished it all just in time ready to take up to the site next week and start mixing the cement. Hopefully the rain stays off otherwise we may have problems completing the tank. This is my only worry about the next few weeks, it’s very hard to predict the weather for more than the next couple of hours. I guess we’ll try our best and pray to Buddha.
Not much planting done this week in order to complete the rebar job apart from some small maintenance on the things already planted to keep the super-fast growing weeds away from them.
Before we set off on the kayaking trip in Veng Vieng, both the group and us 4 tour leaders noticed a big surplus of plastic bottles riddling the shoreline of the Nam Song river. Normally it would be something most people look at as an unfortunate result of being in a developing country and doing nothing about it, however in the name of being as eco conscious as we can on the ground, we encouraged everyone do help us remove the bottles and place them in our VESA tuk tuks. Soon after people started picking the trash up, they got so involved, it was great to see them suddenly become conscious of the fact that all it takes is ten minutes to save some of the environment from suffering even on a small scale.
During this program we had the opportunity to take part in a Laos wedding at the school. The couple were using the school as a venue for the wedding and they all invited us to join them after lunch. The volunteers were asked to sit at one of the head tables and take pictures with the bride and groom. We were offered an abundance of traditional Laos food and lots of BeerLao. The volunteers learned how to dance “Laos style”. It was such a great day and the volunteers loved taking part in an authentic Laos tradition!
During the adventure week after the Bike ride, we finish at the Luang Prabang elephant camp, known as “the best elephant camp in Laos”. Watching the uneducated tourists ride on top these gorgeous creatures across a river that was so deep, the elephants were almost completely underwater, including their trunk. As they approached our group, you could see massive growths, missing toe nails, cuts and scars all over the animals bodies which were clearly infected and causing them to lose weight (which I notice every time I see them).
It was actually a rewarding experience watching our volunteers, who had just spent a week learning of the importance of preserving these majestic creatures, come to tears after seeing the terrible condition these beauties are in. It goes to show the big effect the ECC has on its guests and how a little education can go a long way to the point, the entire group is donating to help save our elephants at the ECC!
This week we made quite decent progress on the tank considering the weather. The rain, of course, was a problem and stopped us working three of six days but the days we did work where very productive. We laid concrete to hold the rebar frame in place, which meant a lot of carrying wood through to the site, as well as bricks and cement.
During the rainy days we heading through the jungle to an opening to plough a patch of land for a little test I wanted to do to see how feasible planting the bana grass in the jungle is. After seeing the last few patches we planted not blossom too well due to surrounding weeds overgrowing I wanted to measure how fast the grass grows in comparison to the weeds around it. We stuck a few pieces of bamboo in the ground as measuring sticks so when I get back hopefully I’ll have some answers. I personally don’t think it’s worth the amount of maintenance it would take to keep the weeds away, you would need people there at least every 2-3 days to keep it clean of the weeds I reckon, but we’ll see, hopefully I’m wrong!
This group we used the new incinerator for the very first time, and it was such a beautiful thing to see! The teachers had the children go around with them and pick up trash from around the schoolyard, the many small plastic bags and candy wrappers that they just throw on the ground at will every day. The education ministry paid us a visit during the week as well, and proudly announces to us that it is the first incinerator that any school in Sayaboury has, and that the teachers would like to start separating their garbage from papers to plastics!
This was my first programme working with volunteers from the UK. What I found really interesting and little challenging was teaching English to the students with so many different accents in the room. It was really cute listening to the students imitating Irish and/or Scottish accents and the volunteers had fun trying to speak with an “American” accent when we introduced new vocabulary. The students also didn’t know where Ireland, Scotland, or England was so it was great being able to take out the maps I had and showed them where all the volunteers were from.
During the volunteer week, Anabel talked briefly about the importance of conservation not only while at the ECC (trying to reduce the amount of plastic consumed, i.e. plastic straws, plastic bags, etc.) but also at home to help create a more ecofriendly world. I think we could dedicate a whole evening during the volunteer week discussing this issue and coming up with different ways we can continue conservation at home during our day-to-day.
When I first arrived to the ECC I didn’t think I would get attached. Having spent the last 3.5 months seeing those beautiful elephant, the kitchen staff, the mahouts, etc. every day was always incredible despite the massive language barrier. It was amazing to be able to have almost zero conversation with these people but become so close to them, they felt like family. I fell in love with everything to do with the volunteers, the ECC and am so sad to be parting ways. I learnt so much working side by side with Anabel, teaching me little things that can go a long way in the preservation of our planet. She has encouraged me to make major changes in my everyday life that i will gladly take home with me and teach others.
This week was a very hard week work wise and everyone put in a great effort even in the most tedious tasks. We actually finished an impressive amount for the time we had. Shame we didn’t get it finished on time but I guess the weather just wasn’t on our side the last few weeks. The tank is almost complete, with myself and the two workers heading back to the centre to finish it up. Just the floor and roof to add and then pipes to lay. Should only take us a week to lay the floor and roof I’d say, but again let’s see if the rain will let us.
No planting done this week to concentrate on the tank, but the bana grass I planted in the patch I mentioned in the previous evaluation is doing well. Find out more when I head back next season.
This group we were fortunate enough to have the baci celebration to celebrate the end of our work at kilometre 18 school. I always love experiencing this beautiful ceremony, one in which the villagers present a beautiful structure made of banana leaves, ropes of white silk, and offerings to attract good spirits into the room. A chant is performed to bring these good spirits back to us, and the white silk rope is then tied around everyone’s wrists to bring the spirits back into our bodies and wish us good fortune as we move forward in life. It was truly amazing to be a part of that with the entire village that we supported through our work at Lac Sip Et school.
Celebrating the completion of the school with a Baci ceremony was one of the most memorable experiences of the whole season. It was an incredibly emotional day saying goodbye to all the students and teachers. We could not stop hugging and crying for most of the day and I felt so unbelievably proud and overwhelmed with happiness that the kids had learned so much in such a short amount of time. The community was so grateful for all the work that was done at the school and it was amazing to see the progress of construction from the beginning to the end of the season. By the end I was no longer teaching in an open space, but in an actual classroom with walls, finished floors, and a door. I love teaching for the simple fact that you are able to develop such a close relationship with the students and are able to see them learn and grow as individuals. I feel so humble to have been a part of this experience.
The last night of the volunteer week, Anabel and all us tour leaders led a conversation about the importance of conservation. The volunteers were asked to share different thoughts and ideas about promoting responsible tourism and reducing our carbon foot print at home. It was a great discussion about educating others and researching the products we buy (finding out where they come from and how they are made), reducing the use of plastic, buying fruits/vegetables from local markets and fair trade shops, and developing the critical thinking skills necessary to make conscious decisions to help save animals and the environment we live in. I hope that these conversations can continue with the next season because I really feel that the volunteers were able to appreciate and understand why they are here on a larger scale.