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Mae Moo

December 3, 2020

“Can you spell ‘elephant’?”  I was about seven or eight, so no, probably not.  My grand-uncle loved to ask me if I could spell elephant.  He and my grand-aunt had been on safari in Africa.  They saw wild elephants.  I was fascinated by their adventures, but could not spell elephant.  And from the day that I could, he never asked me again.  Where would the fun in that be?  But elephants had taken hold in my imagination.  My grand-aunt collected them, figurines, statuettes, ornaments, carvings, sculptures.  Who would have guessed that forty-odd years later, I would find myself feeding and scrubbing and walking with these magnificent beings?  And you, gentle reader, can find that tale here.

My experience caring for Phoolkali and Maya and the others in India opened the door for conversation about asian elephants with a Thai friend.  She lives in the big city and was aware of elephant camps and “sanctuaries” in her country, but had no idea how they are treated in some, sadly most, of them.  The abuse and neglect in the name of entertainment and profit is heartbreaking.  Beaten into performing unnatural behaviors such as standing on their hind legs, giving rides under injurious saddle rigs, ‘playing soccer,’ and doing other tricks, the elephants are emotionally and psychologically broken, often malnourished and seldom receiving any medical care at all.  This is how they have always been used to fuel tourism.

But things are changing.  The shining star in the Thai elephant sanctuary movement is Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai.  Since the 1990s, they have been rescuing and rehabilitating asian elephants while being open to the public for observation and minimal interaction.

When the founder of Maesa Elephant Camp, also near Chiang Mai, transferred ownership to his daughter, she took the opportunity to make a drastic pivot in the operation.  After reaching out to Elephant Nature Park for guidance, the saddle rigs and bull hooks are gone.  There are no more chains and spikes, no more performances.  The resident elephants are allowed agency over their days.  They choose where they go, what they do, what they do not do.  They have a river and lush jungle to explore, plus shelter, feeding, and medical care from the humans committed to this new way.

My friend went to visit when they reopened after the closure for covid-19.  She helped prepare the elephants’ food and give it to them.  She watched them just being elephants.  Then she reported to me what she saw.  It’s a good place.  They are doing right by the previously enslaved pachyderms.

So, now I have one more ele-friend, through long-distance adoption, whom I will go meet in person at first opportunity.  They send new photos and videos of Mae Moo every month.  Her life is good now.  If you would like your own personal ele-friend, check out the website and adoption options. 


Here and There

April 18, 2020

Quarante, forty, the number of days suspected plague ships remained at anchor before passengers and crew were allowed to disembark and enter the city.  So, while not technically quarantine, having no reason to suspect illness amongst ourselves, today is our fortieth day of solid isolation.  We are required to remain indoors or on our personal property, aside from kitting up and going out to acquire provisions, which the two of us have done about once weekly each.

My friend who owns a lovely little shop of knick-knacks, souvenirs, and an assortment of small necessities has been required to remain open because she also sells lotto tickets and tobacco products, federally taxable items, one of the few sure fire ways to get taxes out of Italians.  She has shared some remarkable stories, from people buying every carton of a particular cigarette, leaving none for anyone else, to coming in every day to buy one pack as an excuse to be outside when, for their own good as well as the health of our vulnerable neighbors, we are all supposed to limit such excursions to only the very necessary.  The most jaw-dropping tale was of a woman who berated my friend for not wearing mask and gloves.  She stands safely behind a counter and handles money all day long; of course she washes her hands like a fiend.  The woman who felt so endangered by this unforgivable behavior was in the shop to buy her lottery ticket.

However, this lock-down has had such a minimal effect on my own life, it is hardly worth writing about.  We live in an apartment suitable for an Italian family of five, so with careful consideration, we have managed not to resort to violence… yet.  The heaviest impact we are feeling is having our usual travel schedule truncated.  We had already amended our plans for Japan when travel in Asia started looking dicey in February.  Two European sojourns this spring have now gone by the wayside as well.  Facebook keeps reminding me that three years ago we were in India, two years ago in Sri Lanka, one year ago was Thailand and Laos.  There is a story from Luang Prabang I have not yet told!  That is what you get today, dear reader, because aren’t we all just a little bit tired of the ‘unprecedented’ news coming every day, sounding very much the same as yesterday?  Maybe I am more so than some because news from the US is frightfully similar to news from Italy at least a month ago.  If the Powers That Be had listened to what we were hearing, paid attention to what we were seeing, taken the advice we were getting (yes, the internet had it all, and surely World Leaders have more robust connection than we do), maybe the news coming out of the US today wouldn’t be so tragic.  Did I mention that as of today we have been heavily isolated for forty days?  I do not know anyone who has covid-19.  But that is not what this post is about.

Rice! nice white rice.  Don’t you feel better already?  Breathe in the steamy air.  Smell the tropical scents.  Have some tea.  Luang Prabang, Laos has dozens of Buddhist temples, wats full of men, young and old, some doing their temporary novitiate and education, some lifelong monks.  The local residents support the wats and feed the monks.  Every morning, just before dawn, approximately two hundred saffron-robed, bare-footed monks file out of their temples into the street.  Each carries a lidded metal bowl in a wicker basket strapped over one shoulder.  Residents await them along the side of the road with freshly made rice.  The monks accept these offerings, sai bat, into their baskets, which will be the majority if not the entirety of their sustenance for the day.  It is a sacred ritual, these silent morning alms, between the faithful and their monks.

There are also tourists, mostly along the main road, sitting on little plastic stools, cameras at the ready, chattering amongst themselves.  Some have arrived by as large a conveyance as is allowed in this UNESCO World Heritage site.  There are tables set up, too, selling rice.  Not all the monks look as tranquil as westerners might think they should, not ‘zen’ enough.

Excited tourists scurry up to the monks to give the rice they just bought.  The monk might take it, he might not.  This person did not rise early to make the rice with devotion, to give honorably.  It was sold for profit to someone who doesn’t understand how offensive it would be, or possibly doesn’t care.  Around the corner, people too poor to make rice for alms-giving sit along the side of the road with plastic bags.  The monks who took the profane rice drop it into these bags.  It won’t go to the temple, but it won’t go to waste.  The groups of jabbering tourists do not see this.  They are already clambering back into their mini-vans, having ticked this must-do activity off their lists.

I did my best to stand back, to be quiet and still, and respect their custom even in my curiosity to see the beauty of it.  Just a few photos to remember this place, these people, and the warning of trying to participate in things which are not for you.

Who is Feeding the Sheep?

December 2, 2019

There is a very old church in London, a Cathedral, a fancy church where the Bishop hangs his mitre, a big stone House of God with flying buttresses and stained glass windows and ancient tombs.  One day, a hungry soul came to the door.  She was welcomed and fed.  Homeless, she was given refuge.  Alone, she was loved and accepted.  She is a cat.  Some may say “just a cat,”  but some will always just-ify their scorn for those who have or seem to be less than they.  However, if Doorkins Magnificat could find kindness and charity at the hands of God’s people, shouldn’t anyone?  This is the thought of the Dean, the Very Reverend Andrew Nunn. *

She has become the feline face of Southwark Cathedral, a symbol for many of our openness, our inclusiveness, our hospitality, and our humanity.

Yes, this is what it means to be the Church.  More than a building to host people in their Sunday best, more often only at Christmas and Easter, if then, the Church should be the family who take you in and love you no matter who you are or what you’ve done.  That is how Jesus met people, right there deep in their need.  He asked.  He listened.  He reached out to the very people society wouldn’t see:  the poor, the broken, the lost.  Every person who bears His name as a Christian is expected to feed His sheep.  It was one of His last recorded commands to us (John 21:17). 

Whatever you may see in the world, this is who Jesus is.  We, His followers, are a poor reflection at best.  But He said, Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. (Revelation 3:20)  He is still reaching out to us, in our poor, broken, lost world.  And we whom He has rescued from the darkness must be about His work, shining the light and feeding His sheep.  And His cats.

*In October of 2019, Doorkins Magnificat retired from her duties at the Cathedral and now resides with a staff member, in good health for her advanced age.  I should have written this last year, just after I found her sleeping above a radiator at the front of the sanctuary.  But then someone might have made the pilgrimage to see her, only to just miss her, which would have been a shame.  It was with great joy that I did find her there.

It Happened One Night

June 30, 2019

Some years ago, the man found a very small cactus, not much bigger than a walnut, in the middle of our street.  It had, apparently, fallen from a window box far above.  Perhaps it had tried to follow a fledgling into the sky.  Cacti cannot fly and, therefore, was doomed to be crushed under a tire.  But, very carefully, he carried it home, gave it a pot of dirt, and wished it well.  It lived, but that seemed to be the extent of its ambition until last summer.  We went away for a month and left all the plants in the tender care of a greener-thumbed friend.  It grew!  It thrived!  It doubled in size!  And has continued on a less dramatic curve since.  It was re-homed to a place of its own, no longer sharing accommodations with a succulent and the world’s smallest monolith.

Then, a month or more ago, small-but-not-as-small-as-it-was cactus sprouted a pup!  One day I noticed something that resembled nothing so much as a fuzzy little almond on one side.  Maybe it’s growing an arm, like the mighty saguaro of Arizona.  After some time, and very much all of a sudden, the pup shot out a stalk.  There was definitely a large bud at the end of the stalk, too.  Little rescue cactus was going to blossom!

I showed last summer’s foster gardener and she has one that quite recently did the same thing.  She warned that it may bloom for only one day, so we went on Flower Watch.  And googled.  It’s a Night Blooming Cereus, also known as Queen of the Night.  And, keeping with the job description,  on July 24th at sunset, she did indeed bloom.  Oh my goodness, how she bloomed!  Such concentrated effort little rescue cactus put into this one flower.  Such a big job!  Such a beautiful blossom!  Because it looked like a fuzzy trunk holding out a flower, the man has named her Snuffleupagus.  I concur.  It is a good name for a very good cactus.


As advertised, 36 hours later, the delicate petals were drooping, browning, shriveling.  The stalk is drying out as well.  We will wait to see if anything remains to grow or, perhaps if she is happy and healthy and feeling secure, will do it all over again next year.  I understand that there are those who throw Night Blooming Cereus watching parties.  Seems it would have to be a terribly impromptu affair, but we’ll do our best.  Isn’t she worth it?


At least the sun was shining

February 23, 2019

It began with a little green envelope in the post box, an envelope to strike fear in the hearts of law-abiding citizens and spasm in other organs of those less so: registered mail.  It could be anything from a camera trap speeding ticket to a denuncio from someone you’ve never met for doing something you couldn’t possibly have done.  Dealing with the former is enough to induce a nervous tick, but the latter could leave one fighting in court for years, paying lawyers and, inexplicably, witnesses to counter the bespoke witnesses for the plaintiff.

I called our landlord to ask if I should collect the registered item from the post office or pretend I never saw the notice.  This would be common Italian protocol as the post is notoriously “unreliable.” Packages are stolen by postal employees and units of daily mail are simply abandoned, items such as our electric bill.  But that is a story for another day.  I had seen a similar envelope in our shared box the week before, so there was a chance it was something innocuous from the city and our landlord had received one as well.  No, his was a failure to pay a parking garage fee.  No, he could not collect our registered mail. It must be the one to whom it is addressed.  Wait, that’s not my question.  I could go get it, but should I?  Dear landlord is above-board enough, despite years of having us on a black contract thus avoiding a pile of taxes on the rent, to not understand what I was asking.  Ok, thank you.  Yes, I’ll let you know how it goes.

It was, in fact, a traffic ticket… from over a year and a half ago.  I had encroached the line at a red light in front of a camera.  I may very well have done and with neither ability nor hope of fighting it, we paid the fine on the spot to the same BancoPosta teller who signed off on the registered letter.  But there was also a form to be filled out and returned.  Fair enough, as the auto registration is in the man’s name but the calendar confirms I was the infractor.  Interesting side note: the Italian system removes points from a driver’s license, whereas the US system adds them.  If this were the 1st World where governing bodies converse with one another (my English friend here registers his car at their address in Monaco because they don’t even answer the phone when Italy calls), could I drive like a maniac in the US then have Italy take those points off for whatever they eventually catch me at?  I digress.  This required form could be returned by 1. Fax; really? who has a fax machine?  2. Post; we’ve had this discussion or 3. in person to the address on the form in the town of infraction, Sarzana.

Googling up Sarzana municipal police department and subset office receiving such forms, they are open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from 9:00-12:00 and 15:00-16:30.  At the beginning of a day of errands, the man and I went over to Sarzana at 10:30.  I took the form to the police station.  Oh no, not here, that office is across the park under the portico.  In the office under the portico, I compared the name on the form with the label on the counter window.  Yes.  No, not this window.  Across the room.  But everyone is being pleasant and it was a nice sunny walk around town.  “I need a copy of your driver’s license, front and back.  But I can’t do it here.  Go to the corner shop behind the police station.” <twitch> Fine, the photocopier in a government office being on the fritz is par for the course, if indeed they could find it at all.  The office was a veritable archeological site of sliding piles of files, toppling stacks of notebooks, unopened office supplies, and of course reams of forms. 

The lady in the corner shop neatly made me a copy of both my US license and the Italian translation I carry, front and back, on one side of one sheet.  Deeply buried in the fine print of the notice and form was indication that such a copy would be required, but having not noticed it, I shudder to think what would have happened had I returned it in any other fashion.  A friend ended up with a €1000 fine for just such an occurrence.  As I recall, just under seven years prior, the by-then ex-wife had committed an infraction in the friend’s car.  The fine was paid, but the form went unfiled.  Maybe she saw the writing on the wall and took the opportunity to keep those points on her license.  I don’t know,  but by the skin of their teeth before the statute of limitations would have expired, they got him.  So, just as well that I drove over the hill, found a rare parking space on the road, and braved the bureaucracy face to face.

I walked back around the police station, through the park, and into the office under the portico behind the foreboding wall of mirrored glass.  The lady took the copy of my license, put a sticker on it with blanks which she filled in by hand, said we were done, handed me a crookedly restapled stack of papers, including “a copy of the form for your records.  Keep them for five years.  Good day.”


I smiled and said “Thank you,” not “You couldn’t have used the machine to copy my license while you were already using it to make this copy of the form?!”  I am freaking full of grace, see previous post.

And people wonder why I’m a hermit.