How elephants in Thailand (and Nora Ephron) helped me feel strong as hell


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Photo: Getty Images/woothisak-nirongboot

When packing to hang out with elephants in Thailand, I immediately thought to bring Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, hiking boots, and a straw hat given to me in happier times. I packed the second two items for my last-minute trip to Southeast Asia in anticipation of region’s rainy season and steamy temps. But the first item was just my literary comfort food for a journey I was hoping would turn around what was shaping up to be my worst year yet. Even though I had every intention for it to be the life-affirming stuff of Eat Pray Love rather than the treacherous cautionary tale of Into the Wild, I wasn’t confident about how it would turn out. So I clutched Ephron’s cathartic, darkly funny, inspiring, and nearly autobiographical story about her husband upending her world by cheating on her during her pregnancy with their second child—because if she can handle that, I can make it out of 2019 alive.

And, not to be hyperbolic, but this year has been an isolating doozy for me. My friend died. My roommate of four years moved out. And, most recently, my long-term relationship ended. Repeatedly, change and loss—my two least favorite things—have been thrust upon me. But when Airbnb Animal Experiences—a new expansion of the company’s Experiences offerings—invited me to visit the Mahouts Elephant Foundation for a three-day adventure in Chiang Mai, I said yes. This change to my daily routine would be different, I told myself; it would be good.

Airbnb Animal Experiences focuses on creating authentic, unique connections with animals, underpinned by an animal-welfare policy backed by World Animal Protection. So, whether you’re flying with a flock of geese or having afternoon tea with sheep, the animals are being respected and protected. The same was true for my hike with elephants in Thailand, which is decidedly not what I do on an average Saturday. But, my life in New York City’s concrete jungle wasn’t filling me with joy, so I sought out to make some new friends in the animal kingdom to give me perspective and, at the very least, pass the time.

After all, the only way through a rough patch is through it.

Obstacle 1: Hiking mountains in Thailand despite never having hiked before

It quickly became clear that my book, boots, and hat weren’t enough to prepare me to a comfortable degree. Before departing for our hike to see the elephants in their natural habitat, I was given a bamboo walking stick to act as my third leg. My first thought was that it completed my look for the day. (In reality, though, my thought should have been—yikes, why do I need a third leg for this hike?) I stared out into the hazy mountains ahead, and congratulated myself before we even started: The kind of hero’s voyage that makes you a stronger person,” I mused.

Within an hour, though, I had sweat through my entire ensemble, and my boots were caked in mud. The thing about the mountains of Thailand is that they are, um, mountains, complete with slippery slopes, steep inclines, and ledges that make you feel like you’re staring over the edge of the Earth.

As my group completed hour three deep in the forest having spotted zero elephants, I began to panic that we’d never find them and I’d never survive this day. Staring over the tree-covered mountains, endless and unforgiving, I felt hopeless and I started praying to Nora Ephron.

“Please, Nora, get me through this so I can see the elephants. Please guide me, so I can get home and have a bacon, egg, and cheese,” I whispered inaudibly. And somewhere in my mind, a little voice replied, “You want to give up and go back to your rituals and routines, your coffee and bagels, your Simpsons marathons, your musicians, your happy hours, your $25 consignment store dresses.”

“YES,” I mentally screamed back. Then, after a pause. “But I owe it to myself to be brave and see the elephants—I just feel about a million miles away from home.”

“I think the problem is,” the voice said. “that you’re a million miles from the life you had.”

Learning from elephants in Thailand

There’s a reason we really had to journey to see the elephants, by the way. The Mahout Elephant Foundation operates differently than many elephant sanctuary experiences. Here, the animals are free to roam the forests, only tethered at night for the safety of the villagers nearby. It’s great in that they’re mobile in their natural environment, and that they don’t cater to us, but we cater to them by finding them amid the green vastness of it all. The hitch? The whole thing can take quite some time.

Getting through the proverbial jungle can be a source of strength, regardless of whether you emerge unscathed.

But Ephron answered my prayers pretty expeditiously; soon after my internal tantrum, my group found the elephant matriarch Thong Kam and her 3-year-old calf Sunti. I was mesmerized: Elephants, I quickly learned, are strong (they can knock down tree branches with a single swing of their trunk) and simultaneously gentle and playful. They’re also, I noticed as my heart melted, very cute. Asian elephants are dusty brown with low, leaned-back ears.

We observed them from a healthy distance (for similar reasons as to why they’re allowed to roam on their own) and that was fine by me. Sometimes, the only way to respect something magical is to give it space. What mattered is that I had made it.

Obstacle 2: Going home the same, but different

I did, after a journey back that had me panting and clutching my walking stick like my life depended on it, sleep for 12 hours. While the experience was rewarding, nothing about it was easy. But overcoming challenges is the only way I know how to grow. It’s why I love how Ephron doesn’t try to conceal the pain and defeat her protagonists—often herself—feel. It’s honest, authentic, and decidedly human to work hard to bounce back from troubles.

Which is to say, I still have aches. I’m not contending that overcoming loss is possible by way of escaping to an exotic locale. What I am saying is that getting through the proverbial jungle can be a source of strength, regardless of whether you emerge unscathed.

That’s what I did—with the help of Ephron. Spoiler alert: In Heartburn, the autobiographical character leaves her husband for good. Her heart is still scorched, but she does the hard thing and returns to New York. So did I. I returned with the things you can’t pack: with proof in the form of a passport stamp that I’m so much stronger than many—including myself—give me credit for being; with evidence that the world is wide and beautiful; with knowledge that I can be disciplined, I can be solo, I can live through this. I can live through anything.

Hanging out with elephants in Thailand isn’t the only way to have a life-improving adventure abroad. For others, check out how scuba-diving in the Caribbean can be surprisingly meditative, and how a spontaneous motorcycle trip through Chile can be helpful for moving on from a breakup.

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