Deeba Hudda January 2010
OK so in terms of the actual project, your day usually starts early. You get to work with one elephant and its mahout (keeper) during your time at MEF. This is really incredible as you get to build a bond with both. Although biased, I think I lucked out with my pair and I absolutely adore both Madhu my adolescent elephant and the cheeky mahout Sanjeeva (although I will deny all knowledge to his face!!). You start off by cleaning the elephant’s bed – yes this does mean picking up elephant poo I’m afraid. It is not as bad as you think and it is almost like an exercise routine as you energetically hurl these ginormous elephant turds as if they were shot puts.
Next is washing the elephant in the river using coconut husks. There is a science to this as some of the mahouts tried to explain to me, although I’m not sure I quite grasped it. After a vigorous scrubbing you’ve now achieved the toning part of your workout – goodbye bingo wings!! The final part of the morning is preparing the elephant’s vitamins and hiding them in a doughy treat. You then get to feed it to your elephant and brush their feet.
There are very few people in this world who can claim such a wonderful start to their day. Afternoons are much less structured which allows volunteers to participate in a range of tasks and even get involved in areas that particularly interest them. During my time I helped paint a temple, look for stray dogs and teach local children. The only activity that was timetabled in the afternoon was gardening. This was hard work in the midday sun but I have fond memories of Bandera (the assistant gardener) who seemed to relish handing me (and noone else) a massive shovel every day and smiled cheekily at me as I tried in my girl-like fashion to hack and plough the soil.
All in all my experience at MEF was phenomenal because I got hands on experience in a number of areas but even more so because of the warmth, generosity and humour of ALL the people I met there from Mo and Sam, to the mahouts, to my fellow volunteers and the wonderful staff at the restaurant. No day passed without laughter and I shall treasure my memories at MEF forever.
I decided to celebrate my approaching 60th birthday by doing something completely different so I signed up as a volunteer at MEF for 8 weeks. I had no idea what to expect other than what the website told me and so came with few expectations. Those I had were soon shattered!!
On arrival at MEF I was allocated an elephant and her mahout (keeper) with whom I would work for the entire time I was here. I was very fortunate to have been allocated Lakshmi and Jaya – Lakshmi could be said to be the matriarch of the herd as she is in her late forties and is the mother of another of MEF’s elephants (Pooja – the first domesticated elephant to be born in captivity in Sri Lanka). Jaya is maybe not as cheeky as the other mahouts but that is because he takes his position as head mahout very seriously. My first day was spent being shown around the site, meeting the other volunteers and generally learning about what goes on.
Work started in earnest on Day 2 when I met Jaya at Lakshmi’s bed area and was confronted by a pile of elephant poo balls, all of which had to be hurled (no other word for it) onto a poo pile behind her bed area. As elephants are herbivores, their poo does not smell but their pee – WOW! – that’s something else! After the s**t-shifting, it was time to follow Lakshmi down to the river where she was being given her morning bath. Taking a piece of coconut husk and using it in the nature of an exfoliation, Lakshmi is scrubbed clean and all the dust and dirt from her night’s rest washed away. This is an excellent exercise for those less-than-firm biceps on those of us not in the first flush of youth! Plus, an excellent appetite-builder and so to breakfast – VERY good, generally fried eggs, loads of good, fresh bread, jam, fruit (papaya, bananas or water melon) and tea (after all, we ARE in the home of the tea plantations).
After breakfast it was time to make the vitamin dough balls which every elephant has every morning. A selection of vitamins and minerals are put inside a dough ball and fed to the elephant. First, however, we have to brush their feet to check for foot rot or any other nasties that they may have picked up. The rest of the morning was spent in the garden on various tasks – weeding, raking, planting new plants etc. This can be very rewarding or very boring (I was completely on my own for a week and weeding by oneself is distinctly dull!).
I chose not to eat lunch ‘on site’ but rather buy a coconut rothi, egg hopper or dahl ball (wadi) from the little kade across the street. A rothi is made of rice flour, coconut milk and spices and is delicious. An egg hopper is like a bowl-shaped pancake with an egg broken into it and then cooked until the egg is completely integrated – simply scrumptious!
After lunch we had projects on which to concentrate. During my time at MEF these ranged from researching howdahs and the terrible damage that they do to elephants, up-dating the info boards in MEF’s museum, grass cutting for the elephants’ enrichment area and keeping the social media on the website up-to-date. My given project was teaching co-ordinator which meant I had to formulate lesson plans, keep a teaching record and write an article for the MEF newsletter about my teaching experience. This was because three days a week, the volunteers go to a local school where there is an after-school club of around 14 children who want to improve their English. They ranged in age from 7 to 16 years old and I cannot tell you how much I LOVED this!!! The children are so appreciative, so keen to learn and were always happy and smiling. I don’t have a teaching background and, as any of my friends will tell you, have little patience with small children so I surprised even myself by the level of commitment I felt for this class and I shall miss them dreadfully when I return to the UK.
The day’s work finishes at 5 p.m. and between then and supper at 7 p.m., it’s time to catch up on emails, reading, writing postcards or just relaxing. After supper – usually rice & curry – we might sit on the porch and gossip or just have an early night, ready for more of the same the next day.
And then on the last day, the highlight of every volunteer’s time here – a ride on your elephant! This was great, first I climbed on Lakshmi’s back when she was in the river in order to be sprayed with water and then we set off for a little tour of the grounds. It’s simply incredible to be bareback on top of an elephant – you can feel every ripple of muscle and every move of her legs. Fabulous!
I spent my free time at weekends by travelling around this wonderful country. There is so much to see and so many beautiful places to visit that I feel I should stay another two months to see it all.
So…..……8 weeks on and how do I feel about it? It has certainly been an experience that I shall remember for many years to come. There have obviously been some wonderful highs and some not so great lows but then that’s the nature of life. I certainly would not have missed it for anything.
Having a cold shower outside in glorious sunshine is invigorating to say the least, eating rice and curry virtually every day for 8 weeks made me long for lamb chops and every journey taking at least 3 hours is just something to live with. Sri Lanka time is different to Western time.
There is so much that I shall be sorry to leave when I go home – the amazing openness and friendliness of the Sri Lankans, the call of the mahouts as they talk to their elephants, the bread van’s early morning arrival playing Fur Elise just like an ice cream van, the other volunteers, some of whom have become good friends, crowded buses where children smile at you when you catch their eye, the sunshine (!) and last but certainly not least, the children at the school.
Would I do it again? Definitely but personally I think that I would go to an orphanage or children-based charity as I feel that what I would want to do is to be of more direct and immediate benefit.
Would I recommend it? An unqualified YES! It has been a fantastic experience – working at close quarters with such large, wonderful animals definitely counts up there in my top ten but don’t come expecting any home comforts.
Finally, my personal top ten tips to make your stay here comfortable:
Bring your own pillow
Crocs – they are comfortable and protect your feet from the mucky bed area
Hardly any clothes – you live in the same stuff and everything is so cheap to buy here
The best torch you can find
Lots of good insect repellent
Tea Tree Oil- for when insect repellent just isn’t good enough
A nail brush- hard to find here but needed to keep those nails poo free!
A secret stash of goodies- chocolate isn’t great as it melts
An ipod/ laptop etc as its fun to have some entertainment in the evenings
Last of all a good sense of humour and an open attitude to new adventures!
Rikke- January 2012
I volunteered at MEF in January/February 2012. I got to stay at MEF in the bungalow with the other volunteers. It was great.I had the privilege to work with mahout Nuan and Pooja the elephant. A great pair, the two of them.
Pooja is very charming and she does love her bananas. Nuan is kind and helpful and always ready to let me help.
Waking up early to the sound of a gecko, I met up with Nuan at 7.30 to go and do the poop scoop. After that I went to the river to help bathe Pooja and give her a good scrub.
We also helped make vitamin balls and feed them to the elephants. I always brought a banana for Pooja and she knew she would get one too
Other than work with the mahouts and elephants we did some gardening, had school work with Sri Lankan children and project work.
Enrichment was a special time as well. Cutting grass and hiding it for the elephants to find. Filling the new food bags and to see Bandara be patient at first and then just ripping it up to get the the grass.
It was amazing to see how the mahouts cares for the elephants. I was surprised how close a relationship they have and had a very special experience when Nuan one morning started singing for Pooja and gave her a kiss and she put her trunk around him.
All the people at MEF are amazing too. Everybody is so helpful and friendly. They are happy to help arrange trips on your days off, I got to go to the Colombo Perahera. It was absolutely amazing to see all the dancers, drummers and elephants. Seetha and Kappila were in the perahera and had a good laugh when all the volunteers waved at him.
On my last day I had the opportunity to get a ride on Pooja and after that an elephant shower. It was great! It was great to try and when I had my shower I got soaked. Pooja just kept the water coming. It was so much fun.
I miss MEF so much, especially Nuan and Pooja. We got along great and I hope to go back and visit soon. Everybody at MEF are so special and they really love the elephants and want to give them the best life possible.
I can only recommend going to volunteer or even just to go for a visit.
Read Co-ordinators Wayne and Halina’s blog- Love, Life & elephant Tales.