The Thai Elephant Conservation Project was my first program that I had done with Rustic. To be honest, I was very nervous because a few weeks prior to my Rustic program, I had done a different service program with a different company. It was not a good experience to say the least. I won't get into it, but because of my experience with that company, I was very nervous. I was also nervous, because I would be traveling across the world with a group of people that I've never met before. The only other time that I had gone to Asia, I was with my school for an exchange program and had my sister and my friends with me the whole time. Lastly, since I'm deathly allergic to nuts, I was worried that I would have an allergic reaction. But, I was really worried about nothing, because Rustic was so amazing and I had a life-changing experience.
Right when I got to the airport, our flight leader made sure that everyone knew each other's names and played a lot of ice breaker games. I don't know how, but I became friends with the people on my program before we even stepped foot in Thailand. So, my worry about going to the other side of the world with strangers disappeared, because it was like I had known all the students for the longest time.
Rustic was also so helpful and accommodating with my nut allergy. My program leaders already knew that I was allergic to nuts and there was not a single nut in any of the food options. In addition, the program leaders carried med kits with them at all times and there was an epi-pen in the med kits just in case. It was amazing that Rustic went out of their way to make sure that I wouldn't get an allergic reaction and feel safe eating anything.
With my actual time at the elephant sanctuary, it felt like I was in a dream. I was doing things that I never dreamed of doing. Ever got assigned a partner randomly and an elephant with their respective mahouts (elephant handlers). Within the first 10 minutes of meeting our mahouts, they were already joking around with us and teaching us everything about elephants. We got to ride elephants, bathe them in the river twice a day, feed them sugar cane, corn, and potatoes, and, of course, clean up their poop. It was one of the coolest experiences in my life. I will never forget how amazing it was getting up on Red Moon, my elephant, for the first time and seeing the world from so high up.
One of my favorite days was when everyone rode their elephants into the jungle. On the way there, my partner, my mahout, and I were singing at the top of out lungs and having the time of our lives. We got to the jungle and everything was so peaceful. We hiked to a waterfall and swam. We collected bamboo to make cups and plates. We had a huge bonfire where we danced, sang, and played games around the fire. Lastly, we slept under the stars with elephants all around us. I don't think many people can say that and it just shows how in every Rustic program, the students do once in a lifetime experiences.
In addition to just riding the elephants, we got to make paper out of elephant poop. We went to the night markets and mall. Mostly though, we did a lot of conservation work. There were group discussions about the poaching and logging industries and how we can work to end them. We planted grass and sugarcane for the elephants to eat in the future, and spent an afternoon in the elephant hospital to see how the people at the conservation center take care of the elephants and help them if they need it. I loved how we didn't just ride the elephants all day, we did an array of conservation work to make a lasting effect of our time in Thailand.
By the end of the 11 day program, I was an certified amateur mahout, I made some amazing friends that I still keep in touch with to this day, I learned what mahouts dedicate their lives to caring for elephants, and I got to have a connection and bond with an animal I thought I would never have. I could not have asked for a better trip and Rustic has forever changed my life. I would not be where I am as a person without Rustic. I was a leader, a change maker, a person that was heard. I am forever grateful for the opportunity and experience that Rustic gave me.