I have a sister and a daughter who are sometimes more in tune with animals than with people. When they first visited Qatar they were so excited to ride a camel.
The first opportunity we had to ride was on the beach. I found my sister sitting on the side of a sand dune by the water’s edge, looking at a camel. I happily…obliviously…plunked down beside her and said “Are you going to ride?”
She said, “I’m having nothing to do with this.” I was shocked. Why not? “That is the saddest camel I’ve ever seen.” (She was a former employee of an animal nature reserve, so this wasn’t her first camel). She proceeded to tell me why she thought that. She had good reasons. She had seen happy camels on this trip but not these ones. My daughter appeared moments later and without us saying anything she said “I’m not riding these camels.” These girls just know. They have a sense that I don’t have, although I’ve learned some things from them and I try my best now to be more aware.
I really wished they were with us yesterday when we went to see the animals, in northern Thailand. I’d done a bit of research before we came but I’m not entirely sure how you can tell if animals are being well treated. I heard and read some horror stories. I could see that the elephants we were visiting weren’t badly treated. I couldn’t be sure they were well treated either. Are elephants happy painting pictures and playing soccer? Do they enjoy putting on a show for everyone? I can’t jump to a yes or no about that. I did see the area where the young elephants were learning to paint when we were river rafting. It looked like an outdoor kids class. Bottles of paint and an easel set up under a thatched umbrella. How could that not be happy?
At any rate, we also took a ride down the river on these big intelligent animals. It wasn’t far and they didn’t seem to complain. Thai people have been using domesticated elephants for labour for centuries. Now they have them working in the tourist industry. Still, I felt conflicted about the use of would-be wild animals for human entertainment.
On a side note – our driver was quite entertaining. After several questions about our family, he really felt that I needed a grandson and that he could help me out with that if I’d just let him have my “gorgeous daughter…so gorgeous….oh my Buddha, oh my Buddha.”
On our way back to the city we visited the ‘Long neck Karen’ tribe. Enter mixed feelings number 2. You may have seen a documentary about these people. The women from the age of 5 put rings around their necks. They add one a year for several years in an attempt to make their necks longer. Their reasoning varies from making them look ugly so men from other tribes won’t take them, to their long necks making them beautiful so they can attract a good husband. The reason is no longer the reason. The main reason is now tourism. Therein lies the conflict. The people are Burmese refugees and not Thai citizens so far (they’ve been here for 17 years). The men work in the fields and the women weave on their looms while the children play. There is a teacher who comes to the village every day at 5 and teaches them English. The village is clean. There were girls playing a game of checkers and giggling like schoolgirls. The children flirted with Honour (as usual). But it was weird. It’s strange to pay to go and see a tribe and take pictures of them. It’s also a way to give them money in exchange for something else and thereby support them when they’re stuck with no way to make money otherwise. The little girls with rings on their necks made me sad. There was at least one girl who didn’t have rings around her neck because she is being sent to a Thai school for a regular education. I hope that’s the start a good trend.
Dave didn’t go because he’d just taught a Social Studies unit on tourism, and ironically, this very issue came up in a discussion on ethics and tourism. Dave told his class he wouldn’t visit these tribes because it encourages them to continue to keep putting the rings on their little girls. He had to stay true to his word. Our tour guide said that this was the only way these refugees had of making a living. Honour really wanted to go because she watched a documentary about them and we were right here. Stuck in the middle and understanding both sides, I went with Honour.
I made a contribution to their little school and bought a little hand woven wallet. It made me feel like I was supporting the parts of their life that were healthy. Realistically speaking, we did have to pay to go there and part of that was picture taking and that’s the bad side of it all. Such a mixture of feelings.
Our world is full of these conflicts and choices and imperfect decisions. If we drive a car, or eat meat, or buy anything manufactured in China or Bangladesh or ….most any developing country…we take part in some form of unfairness in this world we live in. This conflicted, beautiful, messy, art/music filled, pain/joy filled, struggle/peace filled world.
Conflicted, but doing my best to walk with compassion.